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Identify How Miles Davis Influenced Jazz-Rock Fusion of the 1970s, Both in Terms of Musical Style as Well as Musicians He Hired Who Eventually Went on to Develop Careers of Their Own

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If an individual were to scan the radio dial from top to bottom, they may not find a single radio station devoted to jazz or instrumental music (no vocalist(s) on the track) for that matter. But if you did, it would very likely have elements that remind the listener of R&B or pop music. It would probably be at a medium-paced tempo (not too slow, not too fast), with very little deviation (if any) from that tempo, and would probably conjure up descriptions of "relaxing," "easy listening" or even "smooth." Others might draw comparisons to the Muzak-style music we often hear inside of elevators and shopping centers.

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Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is an album that's virtually synonymous with jazz, widely heralded as one of the greatest records the genre has ever produced, if not the greatest. But the album's creator never sat still for long, and the man's entire five-decade body of work is a towering achievement that not only defined the progression of jazz but also influenced rock, funk, soul and more. Many critics consider such records as the monumental double-album Bitches Brew to be just as significant in altering the course of music as Davis' earlier work. In addition to being a standalone masterpiece in its own right, Bitches Brew is in fact the pivot point between two of the most fascinating periods of Davis' career: his late-'60s swerve into jazz fusion and the truly out-there territory explored by his early '70s output. The first phase of Miles' fusion transformation involves the development of his second great quintet. Miles' second great quintet, like many of the ensembles he worked with over the year, contained a number of performers who would go on to become jazz stars in their own right, like pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Live and in the studio, the quintet slowly jettisoned traditional chord-based jazz improvisation for a modal approach, and on albums like 1968's Filles de Killamanjaro, the band plugged in, incorporating electric bass, guitar and keys into their sound. Davis then largely took over composing duties, and he welcomed other musicians into the sessions for 1969's masterful In a Silent Way

The ground was set for the focus on innovation that would define the next six years of his career. On Bitches Brew, recorded in 1969 and released in April 1970, Miles' electric style blossomed into a startlingly vivid new sound that crosshatched modal improvisation with the forefront of rock's own experimentation, finding affinity with the ferocious psych-rock of Jimi Hendrix and the kaleidoscopic rock/pop/funk stew forged by Sly & the Family Stone. Iconic fusion epics like "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" are even more remarkable given that their free-flowing grooves were not played all at once but pieced together by Miles' brilliant longtime producer Teo Macero from hours of recorded jams.

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“Was fusion jazz the ‘path of the sellout’ or a shining new direction in jazz history?” Steven Pond’s question gets to the heart of the debate around the critical reception of the polystylism found in 1970s jazz. Groups associated with fusion or jazz-rock (e.g. Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock Head Hunters, Tony Williams’ Lifetime) drew from multiple genres to further their practices, and such techniques often expanded and diversified their audiences (Leonard Feather, 1971). Criticism of fusion has been well-documented, from Amiri Baraka’s description of “dollar sign music,” to Leonard Feather’s comment that 1970 was the “Year of the Whores,” to Stanley Crouch’s description of Miles Davis in this era as a “licker of monied boots.” For these jazz critics, the use of electronic instruments seemed to betray some acoustic sanctity in jazz

Electrification, amplification, and virtuosity in jazz fusion was compared to similar features in progressive rock, with its associations with whiteness, excess and a soulless complexity for complexity’s sake. Stuart Nicholson goes as far as to suggest that the fuzing jazz with what he calls “pomp rock” led to the fall of jazz-rock altogether: of the album Romantic Warrior by Return to Forever he wrote that it combined “the worst of two worlds: a fusion of jazz’s populist urges and rock’s elitist ambitions.” Despite the sonic similarities between Return to Forever and progressive rock groups like Yes and Gentle Giant, they were treated separately in a largely race-based genre system while not necessarily accepted by critics of either camp. Nicholson’s quote, which borrows liberally from sentiments expressed twenty years earlier by Robert Christgau, became my starting point for an investigation of the relationship between what the critics heard and what a polystylistic analysis could reveal (Nicholson).

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As shown above, many important questions remain regarding such issues as jazz’s reaction to later waves of African independence, the connections between African allusions and Black Nationalist politics in the 1970s and more recent political movements, and jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock’s use of Afrofuturism. Engaging more contemporary jazz music and its creators in this light will not only illuminate both continuities and original techniques of imagining Africa, but may also newly recognize musicians who have sought to offer an African quality to their music; no doubt have other jazz artists sought to continue learning and expressing, to use Miles Davis’s words, that deep African thing.

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Amiri Baraka and Amina Baraka, The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (New York City: William Morrow and Co., 1987), 177.

Leonard Feather, “A Year of Selling Out,” in Down Beat 16th Annual Yearbook: Music ’71 (Chicago, Maher, 1971), 10. He continues, “Never before, no matter how grievous the economic woes of jazz musicians … at any prior point in jazz time, did so many do so little in an attempt to earn so much.” Also quoted in Fellezs, 68–69.

Stanley Crouch, Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (New York City: Basic Civitas Books, 2006), 240, 256, originally published as “Play the Right Thing: Miles Davis, the Most Brilliant Sellout in the History of Jazz,” The New Republic, February 12, 1990.

Nicholson, Jazz-Rock, 229. More specific criticism of Chick Corea’s electric periods and of Return to Forever include that the group was a “disappointing band,” an “idle quartet of virtuosos” that had “turned to profitable bombast in the 1970s.”

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