In the late 60’s, upheaval was the norm. The formerly complacent youth of America became activists, challenged the status quo, and began to experiment with new forms of music. Rock n’ roll and Motown began to take over the airwaves, energizing a whole generation that had begun to stray from the more formal sounds of the 50’s.
At the same time, jazz music was losing its hold on popular culture. Lots of jazz records were still being released, but few musicians were comfortable drifting from the traditional jazz aesthetic. Enter fusion: a handful of jazz musicians started to add elements of rock n’ roll, funk, and soul to their sound.
Miles Davis made an initial attempt at breaking away from the norm with his 1969 release In A Silent Way, that featured John McLaughlin on electric guitar and Herbie Hancock on keys, among others. With this record, Miles began to explore what was possible with electric piano, electric guitar, and an open mind.
Miles’ bold new vision launched an era regarded as one of the most innovative in jazz history.
Bitches Brew was more than just a continuation of the new sounds found on In A Silent Way. He took it a step forward by adding rock-inspired rhythms fused with the spontaneity of avant-garde jazz. Looking back in context, Bitches Brew was an atom bomb dropped into a very placid scene.
Miles would bring a loose song structure into the studio and encourage his band to improvise with it, encouraging them to guide his music into uncharted territory. Here, Miles was a prophet. His studio partners became his disciples, branching out and spreading the new gospel of fusion in his wake.
Some of these musicians—Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Stanley Clarke in particular—became the fathers of what we think of as fusion. They were soon to have disciples of their own, and they’ve all performed in Maymont as part of the Richmond Jazz and Music Festival.
Hancock (who performed at the RJMFest in 2016) embraced new technologies with Headhunters in 1973. He took fusion to a whole new realm using technology and uncommon sounds. Hancock brought his jazz piano skills to the synthesizer, while the rhythm section would lay down a groove. This combination hid the essence of jazz underneath a more modern sound, and his hit single "Chameleon" brought jazz back into the dance clubs alongside popular funk artists.
As former fusion artists came back toward classical jazz or easy-listening sounds, Hancock kept pushing the boundaries. Released in 1983, Future Shock was more than just a shock to the jazz community: it was a strike of lightning. In the early 80’s, hip-hop and synth pop had started to take hold in music, and Hancock embraced the two nascent styles. By adding funky breakbeats, scratching turn-tables, and synthesized keyboard sounds, Herbie Hancock brought jazz into the future.
Following in Hancock’s footsteps as Miles’s lead keyboardist, Chick Corea (who played the Festival in 2013) featured prominently on both In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Leading his own fusion group, Return To Forever, Corea melded traditional jazz with Latin and Brazilian music, adding healthy bits of samba and bossa nova sounds to a strong rhythm section.
Return to Forever shifted into a thicker, more powerful sound in the mid-70s, and Corea himself brought old and new disciples along, being accompanied by Stanley Clarke—gracing the stage at the 2019 Richmond Jazz and Music Festival—on bass and later John McLaughlin on guitar.
Before Stanley Clarke, jazz bass players had looked, acted, and played a certain way: conservatively. But Clarke had showmanship to go with his skill, developing an innovative, attention-grabbing slap-bass style of playing along with higher, more melodic sounds and chords from an instrument that typically fades into the background of a quartet or quintet.
After winning a Grammy with Return to Forever in 1975, he broke out on his own with his landmark album School Days in 1976. In the following years, he became both an icon in jazz and a crossover success, as “Sweet Baby” (from his collaboration with George Duke) cracked the top 20 on the pop charts in 1981.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, fusion started to make a sea change—becoming more radio-friendly and slowly mutating into what we think of as “smooth jazz.” Leading this wave were artists like George Benson—who headlined at Maymont in 2013—and Dave Koz, who played our festival in 2017.
Even after that era, though, certain artists were taking fusion in new and exciting directions.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones came to prominence in the ‘80s and ‘90s, creating a wild mix of jazz, funk, and bluegrass music based around the banjo stylings of Fleck and the incomparable bass playing of Victor Wooten. Continuing on Stanley Clarke’s breakthroughs, Wooten became the gold standard for bassists in any genre around the world.
And as hip-hop became more prominent in popular culture, jazz fans began to see more and more crossover with rappers, DJs, groups, and collectives.
Herbie Hancock’s massive hit “Rockit” gave audiences a taste of what that could sound like in 1983.
A Tribe Called Quest brought the two styles together to widespread acclaim with 1991’s The Low End Theory, which critics regard as one of hip-hop’s greatest albums.
Gang Starr’s frontman, Guru, helped meld jazz and hip-hop with his well-received Jazzmatazz series.
And with sampling eventually replacing backing bands, snippets of great jazz songs filled hip-hop and R&B albums alike.
Which brings us back to innovative forms of fusion.
And back to this year’s Richmond Jazz and Music Festival.
Black Violin, quite frankly, is the future of fusion.
This extremely talented duo — composed of violinist Kev Marcus and violaist Wil B — is at the intersection of classical music and hip-hop.
They defy what classically-trained string instrumentalists look like, dress like, and sound like.
And they wouldn't have it any other way.
See a founder and the future of fusion at the 2019 Richmond Jazz and Music Festival! Stanley Clarke plays on Sunday, August 11 and Black Violin plays on Saturday, August 10.