When most people think about Jazz, the famous pioneers of the bebop era usually come to mind: if not Thelonious Monk or Bill Evans, then certainly Miles Davis and John Coltrane. In other words, Jazz is generally considered a cultural artifact of an older time in American history, a crucial genre that was much more relevant in the past than it is now. To the majority of the American (and Wesleyan) populace, Jazz, and the culture surrounding it, is dead.
Bennie Maupin, whose trio will be playing at Crowell Concert Hall at 8 p.m. this Saturday, implicitly argues against this generalization through his continuous experimentation, his insistence on expanding the boundaries of what is generally understood to be Jazz music. His compositions emphasize long, shifting sections of an “out” improvisation, a style that speaks to the ways in which many Jazz artists have crafted a modern style in response to the changing landscape of music over the past few decades. Maupin and his contemporaries continue to develop the idiom of Jazz music, drawing from other music genres without losing sight of Jazz’s deep roots in the music and culture of the early 20th century.
Maupin himself was present at a critical moment in the genre’s history: the birth of Jazz Fusion. Jazz Fusion was a response to the increasing sophistication of rock music and the growing frustration of Jazz musicians who struggled to craft a sound that broke from the bebop sound that had been dominant since the 1940s. The genre blended Jazz with Rock in order to create a distinctly modern style and maintain the cultural relevance of Jazz music. The record that is considered by most critics to encapsulate this movement is Miles Davis’ 1970 album “Bitches Brew,” on which Maupin played.
Davis’s record was revolutionary, but it was also extremely polarizing at the time. Some condemned it as completely antithetical to the elements that had made Jazz so rich in the first place, in effect bastardizing it through the introduction of sounds and styles from rock. Others felt that these additions were brilliant and would herald in a new cultural renaissance that would reinvigorate Jazz music, making it as relevant for the American populace as it had been during the 1940s and earlier.
The album was the genre’s manifesto, a demonstration of the ways in which it could positively impact Jazz music as well as the ways in which it could potentially undermine it through its own revolutionary techniques. Further, the various Jazz Fusion bands formed by the artists who played on “Bitches Brew,” such as Weather Report and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters (a band Bennie Maupin played with), demonstrated the complex consequences of the inception of Jazz Fusion. While most everyone has heard Hancock and Maupin’s “Chameleon,” very few would immediately think of it as a Jazz song. The best Jazz Fusion tracks keep Jazz alive through catchy melodies and intoxicating rhythms while subtly masking the tracks’ jazzy underpinnings. As Jazz Fusion became more and more, well, fused, the legacy of Jazz lived on through the genre’s success while becoming relegated to the rhythmic and melodic shadows, recognized only by the most ardent music aficionados.
That is why, after just a few decades, most people seem to have forgotten how crucial Jazz really is, simply because its position as a cultural fixture was weakened by the very movement that ensured its continuation into the later half of the 20th century. This is also why Bennie Maupin is so important, and why anyone on this campus passionate about Jazz, curious about its modern manifestations, or even doubtful of whether it is still relevant at all, must attend his concert. As a representative figure in the historical development of modern Jazz, Maupin will demonstrate why Jazz really is still alive, and provide a window into a small, yet vibrant musical culture that still influences musicians to this day.