By bringing electric instruments, straight rhythms and simple harmonies to traditional jazz, musicians, led by Miles Davis, created an entirely new sub-genre of jazz in the 1960s and ’70s.

By Narendra Kusnur

The Beatles were a rage and Bob Dylan’s words were memorised while Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison of The Doors were the pin-up idols. Flash back to 1967, and the younger generation was swinging to rock music. The times they were a-changin’, and jazz was now heard only by the older lot who loved their John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk records with their scotch and cigars.

Worried that jazz would not find a place in the minds of youth, many artistes thought the best way out was to fuse the genre with rock. Quite simply, this hybrid form was called jazz fusion or jazz-rock fusion. Instead of scat vocals, raw saxophones and melodic grand piano tunes, some musicians now focused on electric guitars and bass, keyboards and amplifiers, which were generally used in rock music.

This background comes to mind on the eve of the performance by drummer Lenny White, one of the leading figures of the jazz fusion movement, at the Tata Theatre in July. He will be joined by bassist Buster Williams and pianist Cyrus Chestnut. Together, the musicians comprise the Legendary Trio. White was part of keyboardist Chick Corea’s pioneering 1970s group, Return to Forever, along with guitarist Al Di Meola and bassist Stanley Clarke, and fans remember them best for the 1976 album Romantic Warrior.

The beginnings

Jazz-rock fusion was made popular in the 1970s by artistes like the legendary Miles Davis, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and the groups Weather Report, Return to Forever and guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. Though Davis is often considered to be the musician who revolutionised the genre with his 1970 album Bitches Brew, the seeds had been sown a few years earlier.

Musicologists often describe guitarist Larry Coryell as the ‘godfather of jazz fusion’. The bespectacled maestro realised that musicians of his generation loved Davis, but also loved The Rolling Stones. In 1966, he formed the group The Free Spirits with drummer Bob Moses, releasing the album Out of Sight and Sound the following year. Later, he teamed up with vibraphonist Gary Burton on the album Duster.

Another artiste to latch on to the new style was saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who did a memorable set at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival in California, along with pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Others to experiment with the form were flautist Jeremy Steig and vibraphonist Mike Mainieri.

These were not the first instances when jazz was fused with other genres. Earlier, there had been a blend of jazz with the Brazilian form of bossa nova, most successful on the 1964 album Getz/ Gilberto, featuring saxophonist Stan Getz, guitarist-vocalist João Gilberto, vocalist Astrud Gilberto and pianist Antônio Carlos Jobim. But that had been a mellow style, which only gave jazz a Latin American flavour.

Jazz-rock fusion was a completely different ball game and was met with negative reactions among traditional audiences, who found the energy and volume disconcerting. Even among the younger generation, the response was lukewarm, as they preferred the established rock bands. It was also the psychedelic era of music, and jazz fusion did not go with the flower power lifestyle many young people fancied. Only someone of the stature of Davis could lure music lovers towards this genre.

The Miles Davis era

As trumpeter, composer and bandleader, Davis had been a leading figure in the jazz world of the 1950s and 1960s, releasing classics like Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. In 1968, he decided to experiment with sounds, including more electric elements on the album Filles de Kilimanjaro. Here, Corea and Herbie Hancock played electric piano, and Ron Carter played electric bass. The next album, In A Silent Way, is considered to be Davis’s first fusion recording, with a star line-up that comprised him on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone, McLaughlin on electric guitar, Corea and Hancock on piano, Josef Zawinul on organ, Dave Holland on double bass and Tony Williams on drums.

Davis added many more musicians, including drummer Lenny White, on his next album Bitches Brew. Released in 1970, it is considered to be the gamechanger in jazz-rock fusion, as Davis departed from traditional jazz rhythms in favour of loose, rock influenced arrangements based on improvisation. Along with Davis, even producer Teo Macero made a natural transition from acoustic to electric jazz. He worked on the follow-up album Jack Johnson, which also featured McLaughlin, Hancock and the dashing drummer Billy Cobham.

Different streams

The success of the Davis albums prompted his accompanists to try out their own sounds. Davis was himself going through a rough patch because of addiction issues. Drummer Williams formed The Tony Williams Lifetime with McLaughin and organist Larry Young. Later, McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, tasting success with the albums The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. Cobham became a star with this band. McLaughlin then formed the Indo-fusion band Shakti with violinist L. Shankar, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and ghatam exponent Vikku Vinayakram.

Another successful jazz-rock venture was the band Weather Report, primarily led by keyboardist Zawinul and saxophonist Shorter. The arrival of bassist Jaco Pastorius in 1976 gave the sound a new dimension, and he accompanied the group on six albums, including Black Market and Heavy Weather.

For his part, Corea formed Return to Forever, blending jazz with Hispanic music, rock and funk. He and his accompanists Di Meola, Clarke and White did side projects too. Corea teamed up with violinist Ponty and Clarke on My Spanish Heart. Di Meola did albums like Land of the Midnight Sun and Splendido Hotel. Clarke became the first fusion bassist to headline tours. In 1975, White released his solo album Venusian Summer with Di Meola and Coryell.

Musicians worked in different permutations and combinations, thus creating a wide spectrum of sounds. Ponty and trumpeter Ian Carr’s Nucleus were active in this movement. Besides fusing jazz with rock, they mixed other genres too. Hancock, for instance, added funk, disco and electronic music to jazz on his 1973 album Head Hunters. Acts like Spyro Gyra and pianist Joe Sample’s The Crusaders, flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione, pianists Bob James and Dave Grusin, and guitarists George Benson, Lee Ritenour, Pat Metheny and Larry Carlton, added different elements to jazz. In India, keyboardist Louiz Banks used a lot of fusion elements. Even rock bands like Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Santana and Frank Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention incorporated jazz harmony and improvisation.

Even in the beginning of the 1980s, musicians were getting into newer sounds. There was also a phase when fusion experiments were criticised for crass commercialisation and the worship of empty virtuosity. The pioneers of jazz-rock fusion continued to create new material but chose influences other than rock. Though bands like Yellowjackets and Snarky Puppy have carried forward the legacy, seasoned audiences keep going back to older classics. That era is still remembered for its innovation and instrumental genius. The concert on 20th July should prove that once again.

Ten essential jazz fusion albums

  1. Out of Sight and Sound by The Free Spirits feat. Larry Coryell (1967)
  2. Bitches Brew by Miles Davis (1970)
  3. The Inner Mounting Flame by Mahavishnu Orchestra feat. John McLaughlin (1971)
  4. Heavy Weather by Weather Report (1977)
  5. Romantic Warrior by Return to Forever (1976)
  6. Land of the Midnight Sun by Al Di Meola (1976)
  7. Venusian Summer by Lenny White feat. Al Di Meola and Larry Coryell (1975)
  8. Imaginary Voyage by Jean-Luc Ponty (1976)
  9. My Spanish Heart by Chick Corea (1976)
  10. In Flagranti Delicto by Ian Carr’s Nucleus (1977)


This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of the On Stage.