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Free Jazz and Fusion




1. All styles of jazz from Dixieland to contemporary are still being performed and recorded today. All style dates given are approximations of when each respective style came to the forefront of jazz and experienced its most concentrated development; of course, styles and dates overlap.

II. Fusion

A. The Music


Fusion was at the forefront of jazz and went through its most concentrated growth and development from 1969 – 1990.1  

B. Jazz + Rock = Fusion


Fusion is the blending of jazz and rock (hence, the term “fusion,” as in “fusing” together the musical elements of jazz and rock).

  1. From jazz, fusion got its sophistication and complexity: sophisticated improvisations and complex interplay among the musicians.
  2. From rock, fusion got its power, rhythm, and simplicity: electronic instruments (i.e., electric guitars, basses, and keyboard synthesizers), rock rhythms (i.e., straight -- not swung -- eighth notes), and simple harmony (i.e., often just long one or two chord vamps). 

C. Reaction to the Music


Fusion, at least in part, came about because jazz musicians wanted to capitalize on the popular appeal of rock music.

  1. To a degree, it worked; many rock fans who were not into “regular” jazz (hard bop) did support fusion artists (buying records and attending concerts).
  2. It was more likely for rock fans to support fusion than jazz fans.
  3. Many jazz musicians and fans did not consider fusion real jazz.
  4. But, like free jazz, if you approach fusion without any preconceived notions of what jazz is "supposed" to be, you will most likely find it very artistic and able to express emotions that “straight ahead” (mainstream) jazz does not. 

D. Important Figures


As with hard bop, cool, and modal jazz, Miles Davis was at the forefront of the fusion movement. Other important fusion artists include:

  1. Weather Report
  2. Chick Corea
  3. Herbie Hancock
  4. The Yellowjackets

E. Smooth Jazz


Smooth jazz is also known as Pop/Contemporary jazz.

  1. Smooth jazz -- a simpler, easy-to-listen-to, and more commercial form of fusion -- became popular in the mid 1970s and 1980s and is still quite popular today.
  2. Important smooth jazz artists include:
    1. saxophonist David Sanborn
    2. guitarist George Benson
    3. keyboardist Dave Grusin
    4. saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr.
    5. Spyro Gyra (a group that also fused Latin music into the mix)

F. Listening Examples


  1. Fusion: Weather Report’s “Birdland” and the Yellowjackets’ “The Spin” on The Instrumental History of Jazz; Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” (click below)
  2. Smooth Jazz: Spyro Gyra’s “Morning Dance,” George Benson’s “Breezin’,” Dave Grusin’s “Mountain Dance,” and Grover Washington’s “Mister Magic” on The Instrumental History of Jazz; David Sanborn’s “Change of Heart” (click below) 

Audio Snippets

speakerspacer Chameleon - Herbie Hancock
speakerspacer Change Of Heart - David Sanborn

G. Cultural Implications of Fusion


  1. Fusion came into being at the height of the "hippie movement" of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
  2. Fusion jazz musicians, like their rock brethren, often expressed their dissatisfaction with society (e.g. Vietnam War, lack of civil rights) through their music.
  3. Smooth jazz grew in popularity at a time when the major recording companies and the business community at large were particularly focused on mass product distribution, consumerism, and an emphasis on large profit margins. In this way, smooth jazz was able to capitalize on the social and economic trends and, as with the Swing Era, smooth jazz was able to reach a large segment of the population.

Video Clips

videospacer Bob James - Night on Bald Mountain
videospacer Grover Washington, Jr. - Mister Magic
videospacer Herbie Hancock - Chameleon
videospacer Herbie Hancock - Hang Up Your Hang Ups
videospacer Herbie Hancock - Rockit (Live Performance at GRAMMY Awards)
videospacer Miles Davis - Shhh
videospacer Mussorgsky - Night on Bald Mountain
videospacer Weather Report - Birdland
the Herbie Hancock institute of jazz
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