Things Weren’t What They Used to Be

In 1962,  many very talented, young jazz artists were beginning to make their voices heard on the scene. Consider the following, along with the age they turned that year:

  • Tony Williams, 17
  • Bobby Hutcherson, 21
  • Chick Corea, 21
  • Freddie Hubbard, 24
  • Lee Morgan, 24
  • McCoy Tyner, 24
  • Joe Henderson, 25

A staggering array of talent, but just a sample of the era’s best. When each of these men took up his instrument as a boy (in either the 1940s or 1950s), being a jazz musician was, if not necessarily a lucractive career option, a possible one. For elite players, there was generally enough work and public demand to eke out a living, however modest. But none of these players could have known what lay on the immediate horizon for him.

Even by 1962, the fortunes of jazz musicians had changed dramatically from what they had been just a generation earlier. Fewer clubs, declining jazz record sales, etc. To be sure, jazz was not considered a form of “popular” music in the early 60s. Nevertheless, by 1970, many players would surely come to see it as a comparative golden age, never to be revisited. Within 10 short years, jazz would be marginalized more than it ever had been.

The reasons for jazz’s decline and fall are not the issue here. In some ways, that is irrelevant, and has been covered elsewhere by many others. My point is that the musicians above, and those like them, were the first jazz men to have the rug pulled out from under them before turning 30.

Throughout the second half of the ’60s, jazz labels like Blue Note and Verve were increasingly pushing artists to make their records more palatable to the mainstream. Not that this was a new thing, as the many Latin-tinged records of the ’50s demonstrate, but it was probably becoming a more urgent thing.

That’s how we arrived at Wes Montgomery’s final series of records that were so watered down. Light on the jazz, heavy on the schmaltz.

Never in music history had record companies seen the kind of monstrous record sales that The Beatles and their pop/rock contemporaries were capable of generating. Naturally, jazz labels wanted some of the action, too. That’s how we arrived at Wes Montgomery’s final series of records that were so watered down. Light on the jazz, heavy on the schmaltz. Or the great Lou Donaldson, a man of such formidable bebop chops, resorting to recording simple tunes like “Alligator Bogaloo” and “Hot Dog.” Everyone is permitted to make a living, but I have to think that Lou was, ahem, “underchallenged” in those sessions. In their obsession to repeat  the surprising smash success Blue Note had with Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, the bean counters demanded hits.

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Not necessarily one of Wes Montgomery’s crowning achievements.

Now, some of the newcomers of the ’60s scene clearly embraced the advent of fusion with open ears and fashioned successful careers, all but abandoning the music that brought them attention in the first place. Chick Corea, Tony Williams, and Joe Zawinul spring to mind. But for others, the decade to come would be a test of their commitment, and, based on the relative simplicity of much the new music they played, probably their attention spans, as well.

Some major talents were of the if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em camp. Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, and Grant Green all released a string of records in the ’70s that were far removed from their ’60s discographies. Freddie Hubbard is on the record as saying he didn’t always like the simple fusion and light funk he was doing in the ’70s. I don’t know how Donald Byrd felt, but in the wonderful documentary, Jackie McLean on Mars, Jackie is pretty clear that he thinks his old buddy’s heart wasn’t in it when he was making commercial albums. Likewise with Lou Donaldson (see below). Ashes to ashes, as it were.

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Not one of Jackie Mac’s favorite titles.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Things Weren’t What They Used to Be

  1. Ironically, the funkier ’70s records get all the attention from hip hop producers and cratediggers. In a way I think that’s good though, as much as I love hip hop and hold it near and dear to my heart, I don’t really want hip hop producers chopping up my Horace Silver and Lee Morgan and Thelonious.

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    1. I agree, Rich. Oddly, even though I was a huge fusion kid in high school and college, the Blue Note ’70s stuff was totally off my radar at the time. I was soooo heavily into the louder stuff like Holdsworth, Di Meola, RTF, Jaco, Ponty, and Stanley Clarke, that I didn’t even know that there were other kinds of fusion!

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