Ken Burns’ JAZZ—The Fusion Transcripts

This week I watched the final episode of JAZZ, the Ken Burns documentary. I was aware that the Weather Report tune “Birdland” is included in the companion CD set. I was also aware that Burns had squashed the last thirty years of jazz into the final episode. I was curious to get his take on the past three decades, wondering if Weather Report would receive at least a passing nod as a noteworthy development in the music. But as those of you who watched know, there was no mention of Weather Report, and little mention of fusion excepting Miles Davis’ supposed sell-out in making Bitches Brew. In fact, the thing that sticks in my mind is Branford Marsalis’ summation of jazz in the seventies: “Jazz just kind of died. It just kind of went away for a while.”

Nevertheless, I discovered some interesting material at the PBS JAZZ website; in particular, transcripts from Burns’ interviews with the various on-camera personalities. Aside from providing insight into Burns’ techniques, these transcripts demonstrate that Burns was fishing around for thoughts on the worthiness and significance of fusion. (UPDATE: As of the spring of 2016, the transcripts are no longer online at the PBS website.)

Just what did Wynton, Giddins and the rest of the gang have to say to Burns about Weather Report in particular, and fusion in general, had Burns deemed it worthy of inclusion in the film? Without fanfare, Zawinul Online presents the following excerpts that didn’t make it into Episode 10 of JAZZ. (The comments in square brackets are mine.)


Burns: Great. Weather Report, talking about fusion?

Giddins: I’m the wrong guy on fusion.


I really dislike…

That’s fine — we want to hear that.

I’ll try it, but I’m not guaranteeing anything.

That’s alright. “Birdland.” Is that jazz?

The question about whether “Birdland” is jazz should be changed to, “Is it music?”


I’m not sure if, whether Bird’s [sic] “Birdland” is jazz or even if it’s music. I think that it’s a pleasant enough melody and it made the pop charts and it pleased a number of people and it probably brought some people into the jazz audience. But it doesn’t have the spontaneity, it doesn’t have the invention, it doesn’t have the vigor that jazz ought to have. And I think the problem with a lot of the fusion music is that it’s extremely predictable, it’s a rock rhythm and the solos all play, the soloists all play the same stuff and they play it over and over again and there’s a certain musical virtuosity involved in it. I mean I can understand why some of these drummers and base [sic] players become cult figures with all of their equipment and the incredible amount of technique they have. But there’s very little that I think satisfies you intellectually or emotionally.


Burns: Weather Report. You like Weather Report?

Redman: I love Weather Report.


Because Weather Report is a true fusion band in the best sense of what fusion should be. I mean Weather Report truly did fuse jazz traditions with rock traditions, with some rhythm and blues with world music, but you never got the sense with Weather Report that the fusion was artificial or scientific. It was always incredibly organic and natural. And also, unlike a lot of other fusion bands, with Weather Report, they always managed to preserve that jazz depth and the jazz spontaneity in their music. Weather Report’s music always sounds raw and on the edge and real. And I think that isn’t true of a lot of other fusion musics, especially some of the fusion that came later.

Miles’ early fusion bands.

Yeah, I mean Miles, Miles created fusion in the sense or, I mean, no one artist creates any music but Miles was at the vanguard of the fusion movement. All the major fusion groups of the early and mid seventies came out of what Miles was doing. I mean, Jose Allino [Joe Zawinul] played with Miles and Wayne Shorter played with Miles and they formed Weather Report. Herbie Hancock played with Miles and he formed Head Hunters. Chick Corea formed, Chick Corea played with Miles and he formed Return to Forever. Tony Williams played with Miles and he formed Lifetime.

Wynton told us that Miles sold out, just wanted to make more money, just wanted to sell more records.

Do I agree with that? I don’t believe that Miles sold out but I’m not in a position to say whether Miles sold out or not. I don’t think anyone but Miles is in a position to say whether he sold out because to say that an artist sells out means that an artist is making a conscious choice to compromise his music. To to weaken his music for the sake of commercial gain. In a sense, to say an artist sells out is to say that artist is not playing the music that he or she really wants to play. That artist is making, allowing economic considerations to influence his or her musical choices. No one can know that except Miles. All I know is that I like pretty much everything Miles did and has done, you know. So, so I like everything that Miles did before fusion and after fusion. I like everything Miles did up through “TuTu and Amandla.” So, I enjoy that music. Whether he sold out or not isn’t important to me. What’s important to me is that I think the music speaks and the music has life and emotion from beginning to end. Whether, whether an artist sells out or not is something only the artist can can tell you and only the artist should, should be concerned with.


Burns: Was fusion a dead end?

Cuscuna: Fusion was very much a dead end and that doesn’t denigrate the music at all, because some of the musicians that got into fusion, especially the Tony Williams Lifetime with Larry Young and John McLaughlin, were astonishing. I mean, the music they made was at a brilliant level and it was wonderful. But what happened was that it created a drought for young musicians to come up in pure jazz and by grafting different musical elements together, I think a lot of these great groups hit creative dead ends. All the great groups of that time, Weather Report, Chick Corea’s bands, Herbie Hancock’s bands, Tony Williams’ band – they, they all hit dead ends in that incandescent period of their greatest creativity. And then looked to other forms.


Burns: Miles’s fusion band?

Early: What Miles Davis did with the, with, you know, when he started going into “Bitches Brew” and all those things and those various fusion bands he had from ‘70, from ‘69 to ‘75, Miles, Miles was, Miles had decided he was going to be the ultimate Walt Whitman. He was going to absorb everything, I mean, so he put in all these instruments. I mean, he had, you know, sitars and tabla drums and electric guitars and all this kind of stuff and he had, you know, 2, 3 key-boardists, all this kind of stuff, I mean, he just drew in all the elements – free jazz. Jazz rock. Everything became thrown into this thing. And, and what happened, I think, was that the very elements that made Miles such a great band leader in the earlier bands when he was playing acoustic music, when he was able to bring out everybody’s individuality within the framework of his own vision, fell apart with the, with the fusion bands, ‘cause it was too much going on, and too much of people not listening to each other. So, instead of being the kind of challenge that jazz normally is where people are listening to each other and trying to solo but complement at the same time, just became playing tennis without a net.

Weather Report.

The Weather Report band emerged from Miles Davis. Miles Davis at one point, I believe, he, he described himself as being pregnant and giving birth to all these different groups, fusion groups, which he did. Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. And Weather Report. Of those groups, Weather Report had quite a bit of success and for a time, they were quite interesting sort of a fusion band. Because for a long time, what Weather Report was trying to do, in a more structured way than what Miles Davis was doing, was to have a band where the ensemble was as powerful as the soloists and no one was really soloing. So, they were really picking up some ideas from Miles in the late 60’s. It tended to work to some degree, but as the albums went along, the idea kind of broke down some, but originally Weather Report was a band that was trying to get away from theme-solos-theme, and the idea that the solos would sort of be part of the ensemble and it would all be this sort of seamless thing; you really couldn’t tell the solos from the ensembles and so forth. And, at their best they were quite, I think they were among the, the better fusion bands.


Burns: Please talk a bit about the last 30 years. We’re having a hard time understanding where jazz is going. What do you see over the last couple of decades?

Marsalis: Well, it was, it was interesting that the music took a, a turn in the last couple of decades and the focal point is clearly is Miles Davis. Miles Davis was sort of a, a hero to a lot of people and to the people that he wasn’t a hero to, to the people who didn’t play jazz, Miles Davis represented jazz to them. And when Miles decided he wanted to be a rock star and like started wearing high heel shoes and sunshades and all that other stuff, it doesn’t matter to me. I still have those records, and I like those records. But, it, it suddenly brought forth a change where every 10 years, you could see a new crop of kids, kids coming up. There’s a new crop of cats that came in every 10 years and they would come in and they would like mark, you know, earmark a new change in the music or new growth. And then when the 70s rolled around, those kids didn’t play jazz. You know, Chick Corea, Herby [sic] Hancock, Billy Carvan [Cobham], Lorrato [Narada] Michael Walden, John McLaughlin, they stopped playing jazz. They started doing something else and I can’t sit here and criticize that music ‘cause that is the music I listened to when I was growing up. And I’m not ashamed of that.

So, if it wasn’t jazz, what happened to jazz?

Jazz just kind of died. It just kind of went a…, went away for a while. It was falling asleep; there were still people playing. There were still people playing, but to be honest, with the exception of a few like Kenny Barron or Ron Carter or Sir Roland Hanna, who really just stayed with it, you know, a lot of the, the, the more talented younger generation that was supposed to come up, did something else. And that had never happened before.

Let’s talk briefly about… Miles was said to have sold out, he just wanted to make money, he didn’t care about music… Do you think he was really sincerely trying to create something or just following the bucks?

Man, Miles always wanted to be famous. Miles liked being famous and I think the reason he stopped playing that music, playing jazz music was because it was no longer the music of the bad boys. There was a new game in town. But whether or not it was selling out is really ridiculous because I’m a f…, I’m a fan of pop music and if you put on “Jack Johnson” or you put on “Agartha” or you put on “Bitch’s Brew”, ain’t nobody going to buy that shit. No one’s going to buy those records. You know, you got the choice of, you know, well, who do you like? Oh, I like, you know, The Beatles, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Miles? Those records don’t sound anything like the popular music of the times. They still have this strange jazz sensibility, and he hired all these jazz musicians who would have been the young generation of jazz musicians and got them to start playing this stuff. So, when you put on a record like, like, like “Bitch’s Brew”, you know, Miles runs the voodoo down, man, that’s popular. Maybe more acceptable to a bunch of kids who are listening to all kinds of music and are looking for an alternative to the stuff that’s out there, but certainly not popular. I’m pretty sure that you’re notgoing to find that in the record collection of the average American. So, it’s absolutely an absurd notion to say that he was going for the bucks. I mean, it’s ridiculous. Because if he was going for the bucks, he would’ve started trying to sing, or got a singer in his band, you know, or, or done that stuff but he was intrigued by popular music and he was more intrigued by the lifestyle. But in the end, he still had to be Miles about it, so he hired musicians who played that stuff with a jazz edge to it. You know, I mean, when you think about it, I mean, Joe Zawinul was in that band, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter was in that band, John McLaughlin was in that band. Billy Cobb, man, [Billy Cobham] was in that band. Jack DeJohnette was in that band. These weren’t pop musicians. These are like really great musicians and if you’re going to play in, in that, like the pop style, you don’t hire those guys, you hire pop guys. So, I mean, of course, that’s a convenient thing to say that they were going for the bucks, I mean, there were no bucks in that, and I, I mean that’s an easy one, that’s a no-brainer. There were no bucks in the stuff that Miles was doing. He, but he definitely was enamored with that new lifestyle. And he wanted to be at the forefront of something. He couldn’t be at the forefront of pop music. He couldn’t be. So, he was at the forefront of what they call fusion. So when you say fusion, they always say ‘Miles.’ Forget the fact that Tony Williams actually had the first fusion band. Lifetime was the first fusion band. When Miles did it, when Miles made sure to say that he was the one who thought of it, he was the one who invented it, and everybody accepted it as dogma.


Let’s just talk about fusion in general. Because I think that you said that jazz fused because it could fuse, and you said it was also important to not make judgments good or bad with fusion.

Marsalis: [Marsalis offers up a long, rambling reply. I won’t reproduce it in its entirity, instead picking it up somewhere in the middle.] …Now with the exception of the two or three good bands like John McLaughlin, Maha Vishnu [sic], Herbie Hancock, Headhunters, Chick Corea, mainly piano players or guitar players who were playing with Miles Davis. The objectives of these musicians were not to fuse jazz with anything. It was to try to figure out how to get a more commercial audience. And Weather Report, which the most popular fusion band amongst the musicians started off, their music was mainly written by Wayne Shorter who was Miles Davis’s saxophone player in the 60s and I’m going a long, long route for you right? And Joe Saveneau [sic–I guess Zawinul is a tough name when you’re not familiar with it] who also played piano with Miles, they were trying to play, their vision was actually to combine many different styles and come up with a jazz fusion. But as the 70s progressed, they abandoned that and they started to go more and more in the direction of commercial music and of pop music. And the way that you can distinguish that is what the bass and the drums play. What’s on top of it is not the identity of the music. The identity is the bass and drums … So if the bass and the drums are going bum te bap, bu bum bum bat, a bum bum te bum de bum, that’s a funk groove. Now the fact that you doo doo deedle dee doo de dup, on top of it is not going to make it jazz. When they start to play clavé, that’s Hispanic, Afro, Latin rhythms. If a majority of the time your rhythm section is playing that, it’s not jazz. It’s Afro-Hispanic music.

So the difference between fusion and the natural tendency of jazz to borrow from all these strains; is that the essential bargain was corrupted by the adopting of another rhythm?

Right, the difference between jazz adopting elements from other musics and fusing with it which had gone on, like with Stan Getz and the bossanova and other things that had taken over, Miles Davis with “Sketches of Spain,” Duke Ellington with many of his albums, when we reach fusion, jazz is not trying to fuse anything into its sensibility, the jazz musician is trying to figure out how to fit into the sensibility of rock and roll so that it can make some money and get that audience. And it gets lost. And, and, and as fusion progresses, ‘cause the first fusion, we don’t know what’s going to happen. As fusion progresses, we see that the musicians desire is not to come up with a jazz sensibility and use things from rock and roll, but it’s to just become a glorified pop musician who can play instrumental music also. No, but it’s to become the, the musicians desire is not to become, it’s not to take rock and roll and bring it into the sensibility of jazz, but it’s to become a rock and roll musician and participate in all the benefits of that should be the money and the groupies and all that and play a jazz solo every now and then. And this comes, we get to see it in full, in full bloom when Miles Davis returns in the early 80s with a straight instrumental pop album that has no overtones of fusion at all. And we also see it with the demise of the great fusion bands as we progress into the 70s.

Did that movement towards fusion threaten jazz. I mean was jazz imperiled again?

Well, when the musicians started playing fusion, it really dealt death blows to jazz in, in several ways. First, fusion is not based on blues. Now if you were a musician that grew up playing blues, you always have that in your sound. But if you were a musician weaned on fusion, you don’t have that in your sound then. Then, that was the first music of jazz that was not horn-based. Or singing. That music was based on electronic instruments, the electric guitar is the main instrument, or a synthesizer in the fusion band. Then that’s a music that was not based on grooving in terms of all of the parts constantly interacting that music, with the exception of some of the early fusion bands, like, like Weather Report, their first attempts. That music was more about, what the funk music was about was maintaining a beat and a beat is static. A beat is when you freeze one moment of a groove. And the last thing jazz wants to be is frozen. An example is a beat is bum te bum a bum bat, a bum te bat ump te ump bat te bum bum bum, all night, just that, that’s a beat. A groove is dynamic, that’s what when you hear Elvin Jones play or Art Blakey, they’re always playing something different and the bass is always playing something different. It’s like, more like African music, it’s . . .

So a jazz beat is a dynamic changing rhythm.

A jazz beat, a jazz beat should be dynamic. And should be changing. Now the thing about jazz music is that it’s not a matter of any particular groove but it’s what you choose to do a majority of the time. There’s no hard fast rule, like you can’t play this beat. You can play that beat, but now if you’re playing that beat 95% of the time, well, it’s not jazz. It’s got to be another form of music which doesn’t’ mean that the music is not good. It just means that how can it be something when it has the identity of another thing. And it has the meaning and the feeling of another thing. All of these things got obscured in the 70s with full help from the critical establishment. I can’t stand the mother-fuckers. Shit.

One thought on “Ken Burns’ JAZZ—The Fusion Transcripts

  1. Gary Gomes

    I agree with Branford that a jazz tempo has to be fluid. But not all fusion bands kept that solid beat. As a matter of fact, the biggest offenders were the groups allegedly inspired by Mile Davis-Mahavishnu, Return to Forever, later Weather Report. Certain European :fusion bands and Larry Coryell maintained that rhythmic flexibility.
    Also, the popular fusion bands became formulaic-so did Miles to a certain extent!. They repeated themselves; but experimentation continued outside the “established” groups. I am also astonished to read the lack of blues was the reason fusion wasn’t jazz. Bebop was a radically expanded vocabulary from the blues.
    I thin the reason jazz closed down in the early 1980’s was because a lot of record companies were flabbergasted by people like Ornette Coleman and so many others who were introducing massive amounts of new music and they couldn’t figure out how to ties it to sales. Also, most critics were being bullied into reactionary positions by peole like Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, to name two, who really didn’t like anything new. The reason both free and fusion went down wasn’t artistic; it was commercial and political. The 1970s was one of the most creative periods in jazz–the academics didn’t like electronics and that horrible freedom; the business community couldn’t handle variations in creativity because they want to target market everything. It was a shame that this happened. We could be hearing some really exciting music now instead of the bland crap we are hearing now.


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