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Jimi Hendrix - A Major Architect of Jazz Fusion

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This article is dedicated to the family and friends of Alan Douglas (7/20/31- 6/7/14) R.I.P.

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Jimi Hendrix is globally known as one of the world’s most gifted and influential musicians of any genre. He has changed the way people hear music, and in the process, even changed the way people define music. Hendrix’s musical alchemy fused common blues, soul, r&b, rock, and jazz to create a fusion sound that paved the way for artists to defy genres. With that being said, Jimi Hendrix did not read music. He was an untrained musician from a theoretical standpoint. He played with raw passion and emotion. Does that mean that Jimi Hendrix’s influence on jazz fusion was minimal at best? Or, can Jimi Hendrix take his place among the architects of jazz fusion?

The electric guitar in jazz has always taken a back seat to the more prominent instruments of the wind, percussion, and brass section. Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery were the first jazz artists to bring the electric guitar to the forefront, in a meaningful way. Christian’s guitar solos in the late 30’s to the early 40’s were not only influential to the development of bebop, but also rock and roll, of which he was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 1990. Following in the footsteps of Christian was Wes Montgomery, whom many consider to be the epitome of jazz guitar. As great as these guitarists were, the sounds of electric guitar in jazz fusion drew heavily on rock music for its influence. (Note: Django Reinhardt was not mentioned because the focus is on electric guitar. If you had to list the big three of jazz guitar, Reinhardt would be listed alongside Christian and Montgomery.)

The album Duster, finished in April of 1967 by the Gary Burton Quartet, is considered by many to be a seminal jazz fusion record. The lineup consisted of Gary Burton on vibraphone, Larry Coryell on electric guitar, Steve Swallow on double bass, and the legendary Roy Haynes on drums. In fact, 1967-1970 was seen as a period of explosion for jazz artists, who opened up to electric instruments and grooves normally reserved for rock and r&b artists. The musical cross pollination was at an all-time high, as rock/r&b artists were digging what jazz artists were doing, and vice versa. An artist that constantly gets overlooked in the annals of jazz fusion history is Jimi Hendrix. His debut album, Are you Experienced?, (October 23, 1966 – April 4, 1967) was actually recorded before Duster. Did Hendrix’s lack of formal training and rock/blues affiliation exclude him from being an architect of jazz fusion? Or more importantly, did the music of Hendrix even qualify for inclusion in jazz fusion?

Jimi Hendrix burst on to the scene with his debut album Are You Experienced? in 1967 and forever changed the vocabulary of music. Although his music was mainly marketed to the psychedelic rock crowd, those with an acute ear for music recognized a little bit of everything in there. The strong elements of jazz drumming were heard right away, with the Elvin Jones and Max Roach approach of Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell. Manic Depression, with its 6/8 time, and Third Stone From The Sun, are two of the jazziest tunes from Hendrix’s debut album. The latter part of 67’ saw The Jimi Hendrix Experience follow up their debut album with an even more developed fusion sound. The sophomore LP, axis: bold as love, contained the songs: Up From The Skies, If 6 Was 9, Castles Made Of Sand, and One Rainy Wish, which all pushed the envelope of fusion drumming.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience only flirted with the fusion sound on its first two LP’s. With the issuance of Electric Ladyland in 1968, Hendrix drew heavily from jazz greats Christian and Montgomery, as he offered the two songs Rainy Day, Dream Away and Still Raining, Still Dreaming for public consumption. Saxophone, organ, bass and guitar combine to give listeners a glimpse into the future of jazz fusion.

By 1968, Jimi had soaked in the musical scene of jazz, and even jammed with the legendary Rahsaan Roland Kirk in England. Jimi even drew upon Kirk’s multiple and simultaneous instrumentation to create his own “sheet of sound” with his guitars in the studio. With the development of multi-tracking, Hendrix could lay down layers of melodies. Even without the studio overdubs, Hendrix’s unique live ability to play rhythm and lead guitar parts at the same time was deeply connected to a type of avant-garde of the rock world.

Hendrix was no stranger to mixing it up with jazz cats. Juma Sultan, who was a member of Hendrix’s Gypsy Sun and Rainbows group at Woodstock, was deeply connected to the re-bop scene in Greenwich Village in N.Y.C. Juma recalls:
“I was into folk music in Haight-Ashbury, but got into jazz through Ray Brown. Back then, a lot of us were into Sonny Simmons. We used to call him “The Light”, because he played Charlie Parker twice as fast. Those of us in the avant-garde movement were studying Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns by Nicolas Slonimsky. People like Sonny Simmons, Dewey Redman, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman were creating a new sound within the parameters of standard jazz. In the same way, Jimi Hendrix was coming out of the envelope of blues and rock and expanding the sound.”

Click here to hear full interview with Juma Sultan

Juma met Hendrix before he became famous and later hooked up with Hendrix at the legendary Woodstock festival. By then, Hendrix had expanded his band to include an additional guitar, Latin percussion, and African drumming. Juma relates, “Jimi was trying to get a broader sound. He was hearing orchestrations in his head. At that time, Jimi was doing jazz fusion with a heavy R&B influence. All the jazz cats like Archie Shepp, Miles Davis, Tony Williams, and Larry Young respected Jimi.”

In the twilight of his career, Hendrix hooked up with jazz producer Alan Douglas to collaborate with Larry Young, who was a pivotal figure in the fusion movement with his smooth organ playing. Larry Young would go on to play with Lifetime and on the classic Miles Davis album, Bitches Brew. These recordings wouldn’t be released until after the death of Hendrix and Young. Another pivotal fusion artist that Hendrix jammed with was John McLaughlin, who many said took Hendrix’s place on Bitches Brew. After the death of Hendrix, McLaughlin became the preeminent electric jazz guitarist, recording with Davis, Tony Williams, Carlos Santana, and his own band the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Hendrix was certainly well known and respected by all of the major players of the fusion movement.

Alan Douglas was Hendrix’s link to the who’s who of jazz. When one thinks of the megastars of jazz during the experimental days of fusion from 69-70, the name that shoots to the top of the list is Miles Davis. Davis was thoroughly impressed with the supreme improvisational skills of Hendrix. It was Hendrix’s Magnus Opus Machine Gun that really caught Davis’ ears. Davis and Hendrix began to hang out, jam and collaborate on a personal and professional level. Even before Bitches Brew was conceived, Hendrix, Miles and Tony Williams were to be produced by Alan Douglas.

To understand how pioneering this session would have been, one would have to understand the popularity of Jimi Hendrix. From 1969-70, Hendrix was the highest paid rock star at the time. He was the highest paid performer at Woodstock. He could easily command upwards of 100,000 dollars for a single performance. Never before had an artist of Hendrix’s stature been involved in such a jazz fusion project. Hendrix’s manager, Mike Jeffery, did not want Hendrix wasting his time with jazz artists because of the little amount of money involved. Clearly, Hendrix was interested in the musical implications of working with the best that jazz had to offer.

Sadly, this session never happened because of, what else, money. As was mentioned earlier, Jimi was a walking moneymaker, and Davis and Williams wanted in on the action. According to Alan Douglas, both Davis and Williams wanted 50,000 dollars to even get into the studio. Although this session never happened, the music to come from Davis and Williams would be considered the crème de la crème of jazz fusion. Within a matter of months, Miles Davis would go on to record In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, and other profitable jazz fusion albums. Tony Williams would go on to head up his own fusion group, The Tony Williams Lifeline, which featured the power trio of Tony Williams on drums, John McLaughlin on electric guitar, and Larry Young on electric organ. Their debut album, Emergency!, would be considered one of the most significant albums in jazz fusion history. It was actually Tony Williams that introduced Miles Davis to McLaughlin. The jazz fusion movement went on to enhance the career of jazz greats like: Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Ron Carter, and Herbie Hancock. When connecting the dots and playing the jazz fusion version of Six Degrees of Separation, the name of Jimi Hendrix is sure to be an easy choice.

Establishing Hendrix as being in the mix of the jazz fusion movement is an easy task. However, convincing “straight ahead” jazz purists that Hendrix knew the language of jazz is a more precipitous task. Jimy Bleu, who hosts an eclectic radio show on WFDU in the tri-state area (NY/NJ/Conn), explained to me the “language of jazz”:
Jazz is a highly intellectualized form of music. You have to know the specifics of theory. Although Jimi was playing a few jazz chords, he mainly played blues riffs. Jimi knew he had to learn the language; that’s why he surrounded himself with so many brilliant jazz players like Larry Coryell. You can hear some of the jazz chords that Jimi picked up from Coryell at Woodstock. Jimi Hendrix was a constant studier. In fact, he was taking a correspondence course from The Berklee College of Music shortly before his death.

Jimy Bleu also went on to relate the segregation that can occur among musicians from the rock and jazz worlds: “I remember when I was at Performing Arts school in New York, the jazz cats would walk on one side of the hall and the rock cats would be on the other side.” This may explain why many in the jazz world refuse to give Jimi Hendrix credit for being an architect of jazz fusion. The pioneers of fusion even faced harsh criticism within jazz for abandoning the constructs of standard jazz to invite other genres in. History has proven these purists wrong, or should I say, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters have proven any naysayers to be everything that jazz was intended not to be-square and un-hip!

Click here to hear full interview with Jimy Bleu

Jimi Hendrix was a major and early architect of jazz fusion. He not only rubbed elbows with the legitimate jazz artists who went on to shape the genre of jazz fusion, but he also softened the ears of the listening public to accept the fusion sounds to come. With the inclusion of jazzy drummer Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix was making fusion music as early as 1967. He continued to push the boundaries of music to include more jazz, all the up to the day of his death. According to Jimy Bleu, Hendrix’s fame, ear for music, and creativity, made him the perfect bridge between the worlds of funk, soul, pop, r&b, rock, and jazz. Not only is Jimi Hendrix one of the most diverse, eclectic and creative artists that the world has ever known, but he was also one of the most daring. He saw the writing on the wall and the direction of music. He knew that one day, all musical styles would mesh. He wanted to be in on a groundbreaking genre of music called jazz fusion. He not only saw the blueprints of jazz fusion, he helped draw them. That is why Jimi Hendrix has to be considered as one of the architects of jazz fusion.

For the Record: I also spoke to Darryl Dogan and EV9 for this article.

Here's what Darryl had to say:about Hendrix's connection to jazz:

"First of all., as you know, the late Miles Davis was a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix. He especially enjoyed Machine Gun by the Band Of Gypsys. The late Frank Zappa also admired Jimi's style, and unbeknownst to many, the members of Zappa's bands were jazz players. There was to have been a collaboration between Davis and Hendrix along the lines of what eventually materialized as Bitches' Brew, but for some reason (probably dollars, according to rumor, but probably management as well), it never happened, although each professed to have been very excited about working with the other. Part of the appeal of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience was that Mitch Mitchell's drumwork introduced a "jazz" element to their sound that somehow meshed quite well with Hendrix's blues feel and bassist Noel Redding's rock sensibilities. Examples of Hendrix dabbling in the jazz fusion realm: Strato-Strut (bootleg), Rainy Day Shuffle (bootleg culled from the Electric Ladyland sessions) as well as Rainy Day, Dream Away, and Tax Free."

"A major part of jazz fusion was free-form improvision, which would define just about every Hendrix guitar solo. You could hear the influence of Wes Montgomery in Jimi's playing, and Jimi himself has influenced such fusion/jazz guitarists as John McLaughlin, John Scofield (both of whom played electric guitar for Miles after the Hendrix deal fell through) and Hiram Bullock. Jimi's work has been covered by jazz artists as diverse as Gil Evans, Lenny White, Marcus Miller and George Duke."

I also got a chance to get the thoughts of artist EV9, who has a Jimi Hendrix/Miles Davis project called "Brew Doo", where he combines the elements of both legendary artists. Here is what he had to say:

"Hendrix saw Roland Kirk live in 1967, and even jammed with him that same year in London. He was said to have"altered" his playing style [to jazz chords] to blend in with how Kirk played. Kirk's mastery of playing three horns at once influenced Jimi to apply this same technique in the studio. Hendrix would blend three or four guitar overdubs on tracks throughout an entire piece, as opposed to "typical" rhythm/lead. Miles Davis recorded a song Mademoiselle Mabry,which is based on The Wind Cries Mary. Theres a heavy jazz compositional influence on Are you Experienced?: Manic Depression,The Wind Cries Mary, and 3rd Stone from The Sun. Hendrix's playing ability had also been compared to John Coltrane."

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