Bringin’ back the funk

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when Miles was in his Ferrari, jazz was the hip pop music of the day and all seemed right with the world. In the mid-’50s and early ’60s, jazz, washed, polished and packaged, had moved as far up the social scale as the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, that bastion of nose-thumbing excess and elitism. The music from the primordial muck of the Mississippi and the red-light district of New Orleans had risen to the level of being feted at festivals.

It drew madras- and khaki-clad crowds dancing in the aisles on the manicured lawns at Newport. Similar scenes played out against the backdrop of the ebb and flow of the Pacific. Dave Brubeck, who made the cover of Time — before Duke or Monk or Miles — had them rocking in college balconies from shore to shining shore. Though not seriously rattling the economic Richter scale, jazz was nevertheless in vogue.

This, while way down South in the heart of Dixie much ass was being kicked, as still-in-his-20s Martin Luther King Jr. had ’em marching in the streets to the cadences of Old Testament righteousness and the parables of morality preached in militant meters. Everyday people faced the billy clubs, canine snarls and snaps and fire hoses of the forces of injustice and conservatism, desperate to preserve the centuries-long tradition of American apartheid, under the banner of separate but equal. The gauntlet was thrown; the rumble was on. And jazz, respectable enough to amuse academics, Plaza-ites and the middle class, however hip it was, wouldn’t cut it as background sounds for what was going down on the mean streets of Montgomery.

Bebop had almost reached the legal age of manhood. Charlie Parker, one of its prime movers, had always played the blues, but at such an accelerated, modern pace, and over such fractured rhythms, some didn’t even recognize it as such — even doubted it could be danced to. The time was ripe for reassessments and re-evaluations regarding the blues and rhythms as the foundations of jazz.

Likewise, African-Americans knew that a change had to come if they were to truly sing their newly emerging aesthetic and political selves. The literal and figurative languages applied to them, as well as the images those languages evoked, had to be repossessed and redefined in order to turn negative notions around. And they were. Black became beautiful. Soul became the gold standard. Funk was no longer derogatory, but was the criterion for music that meant something to brothers and sisters marching and dancing with a new self-awareness and determination toward a demanded equality.

Jimmy Smith, Philadelphia piano-playing son of an organ-playing mother and tap-dancing daddy, bought himself a Hammond B-3 organ. He went into a few months of woodshedding seclusion and emerged having caught the essence of the new cultural and social wave, and turned jazz back into an emotional, common man-friendly experience, based on traditional blues. Aided by young jazz heads like Lee Morgan, Tina Brooks, Lou Donaldson, Kenny Burrell and Art Blakey, Smith unleashed a brand-new old groove (today labeled acid jazz) that one could slow grind or lean, glide and twirl to in roller rinks. Bombastic drummer Blakey laid off the thunderous blitz and off-accents and brought the Count Basie 4/4 shuffle beat back into it.

Tunes like “The Sermon,” with its series of secular preachments, “All Day Long,” exuding sweat and sensuality, and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,”a Civil War song, were turned into anthems and rallying civil rights themes. These serious soul brothers had rediscovered the potency in the down-home blues long lurking on a low back burner in juke joints below the Cotton Curtain, and in the ghetto nightclubs of the urban up-South.

In the mid-’50s, former clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Herbie Mann, trying to establish an individual voice and prove it wasn’t just a black thing, picked up a flute and a musical passport and set out on a rhythmic, globetrotting quest. With ears wide-open and a dedication to experimentation, he absorbed the harmonies and beats of the Third and non-Western worlds. He fused the musics of the African diaspora, India, Japan and the Middle East with his sense of American jazz. A parade of percussionists joined him as sidemen. Herbie Mann at the Village Gate showcased his brand-new groove and made him many bucks.

Into the 1960s, Mann’s use of rhythms became more and more complex and varied. A stint with Brazilian bossa nova — with composer-musicians Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim — was followed by explorations in American pop, rock, disco and reggae. On his continued junket toward pop-chart recognition and rhythmic diversity, Mann became a one-man repository of yet-to-be-named world music.

The Jazz Crusaders took off in 1961 like young rabbits, with speed, agility and attitude. Lots of tough Texas muscle was supplied by Wilton Felder on tenor sax and Wayne Henderson on trombone, fronting a hard-bopping, funk-flavored rhythm section of Stix Hooper, drums, Jimmy Bond, bass, and on piano, Joe Sample, who became a pop-jazz industry unto himself. Their first few early-’60s albums promised to rival the fast-moving aggressiveness of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, but by the ’70s the group, whose original intention was to “crusade for jazz,” had jettisoned the “Jazz” from their name and Henderson from their front line, and pursued simpler rhythmic, harmonic and melodic interests. Perhaps in the name of economic survival they followed a mostly eager-to-please, right-of-middle-of-the-road repertoire of rock and pop-funk that lacked an edge, but could be danced to in proper venues. With the original horns back and with a new rhythm section, the current group is back on a jazzier track.

The mid-’50s to early ’60s proved form could follow function and be politically and culturally radical, albeit fraught with major and minor cultural and political tensions. Malcolm X decried the consumption of pork, while jazz musicians sang soul food’s praises as declarations of war. Political rivals disparaged compromise, and insightful musicians proved that esthetically solid fusion music was possible between approximate equals.

Jimmy Smith with his reclamation of the blues, Herbie Mann with his adoption of world rhythms, and the Jazz Crusaders with their early excursions into funkdom demonstrated that popular jazz did not have to be simply churned-out, diluted sop aimed at the lowest and most common taste and mentality. It could, with effort and commitment, be concurrently popular and butt-kicking.

22nd Annual Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival
Aug. 31-Sept. 3, Hart Plaza, Detroit

The Jazz Crusaders
10:30 p.m., Friday, Aug. 31

Jimmy Smith
10:30 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 1

Herbie Mann & Dave Valentin, Two Amigos
10:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 2

Free, on the Ford Motor Company Amphitheatre Stage each night.

Poet and playwright Bill Harris investigates matters of body and soul for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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