Postbop and Early Fusion

This paper will summarize the musical development and output of Miles Davis during the mid 1960s through early 1970. It will focus on the development of postbop and fusion and the various musical, personnel, business and cultural issues that led to the music’s development and reception. Live recordings will be discussed, however the primary musical documents will be drawn from the studio recordings during this period. 



Miles Davis’ output in the mid nineteen sixties represents the development of two associated yet distinct forms of music: postbop—the music of his second great quintet—and jazz-rock fusion. These two styles developed from the fall of 1964 through early 1970. This paper will chronicle the development of these two styles and discuss musical, personnel, and business issues pertaining to the music. 

It is important to note that there was no switch thrown to signal the transition from postbop to jazz-fusion. Instead, these two styles coexisted in Davis’ studio experiments from late 1967 through mid 1968. This gradual shift in concept represents a period of experimentation and exploration on behalf of Davis and his band. 

For the purpose of clarity however, this paper will address post bop jazz and fusion separately in order to adequately describe the nature and development of both styles of music. I do this with full knowledge that some material recorded between December of 1967 and 1968 such as Miles in the Sky and Filles de Killimanjaro can be considered from both postbop and fusion perspectives. 


The Davis’ quintet from 1965 through 1968 is often regarded as the “Second Great Quintet”. This group was formed when Wayne Shorter joined Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis in the fall of 1964. The group is credited with forging a new style of jazz, mixing hard bop and avant guard styles. The chief musical documents from this group are E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1967), Miles in the Sky (1968), and Filles de Killimanjaro (1968). Other documents such as Live at the Plugged Nickel (1966) and various live audio and video recordings also provide an essential perspective on the differences in performance practice and repertoire between Davis’ live and studio sessions. 

Barry Kernfield describes the music of the second quintet as a tonally ambiguous bop style (Kernfield 2001). This ambiguity was created through a number of ways (1) a non-functional approach to jazz harmony, (2) a unique approach to musical structure and composition, (3) new procedures for improvisation and accompaniment, (4) the incorporation of the avant garde into bop oriented styles. 

Harmony in the compositions of second quintet was not always functional. Harmonic objects—chords—were often times avoided or diffused harmonic function. They relied on the strength of chord succession rather than on the strength of tonal resolution (Waters 2011). 

For example on Wayne Shorter’s “Limbo” from Sorcerer the harmony on the rhythm section introduction is: 

Eb-9  | Db-9  | C7b5 | F13sus | Bb13sus | D | Abo | Bb13 | 

While there are elements here that hint at function, such as the move from C7b5 to F13sus and F13sus to Bb13sus, the primary element that could be heard as functional is the root movement. The chord qualities obscure function (Waters 2011, 204). 

Davis was not interested in recording music that was not new. Harmony was one aspect that his band was revolutionary, composition is another. Davis encouraged the quintet to push the boundaries of the music. This led to all members of the band—but specifically Wayne Shorter—to devise new approaches to form. 

For example on the Wayne Shorter composition “Iris”, Shorter's lead sheet deposit with the library of congress is much different from what the quintet would ultimately record (Waters 2011, 84). Shorter's lead sheet is in 4/4 but the recording is in 3/4. With the move to 3/4 Shorter's melody is transformed from a ten to sixteen measure statement. As if that were not enough, the solo form is an alteration of that, a twenty five bar form made up of a 16 bar statement of the melodic form followed by an eight bar phrase of the form at double the harmonic rhythm, a single bar is added to the end of this for good measure. 

While Shorter’s original harmony is not exactly functional, it is by no means as sophisticated as that on the final recording. Shorter’s original shows a series of unaltered major and minor seventh chords. The recorded version consists of eleventh and thirteenth chords all of which are altered in some way. In addition measures eighteen and nineteen and twenty-two, twenty-three and twenty-four feature a syncopated harmonic rhythm on the dotted quarter note. 

In many cases, the collaborative approach to composition and arranging evidenced by “Iris” is transparent to modern day listeners. Many of the studio tapes show not only the gradual evolution of pieces such as the quintet’s version of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance”, but they also contain the conversations between takes that led to the final arrangement of these tunes. As we can hear in “Iris”, this kind of collaboration led to some inspirational music that was tailor made for the group. 

As the group developed it’s own voice, it also developed new procedures for improvising and accompaniment. Much has been made of the “time no changes” concept first heard on Miles Smiles. This technique abandons harmony and harmonic rhythm, and in some cases hypermeter and meter as well. The absence of harmony forces the improviser to focus more on motivic development and interaction rather than relying on harmonic motion to create unity. 

For example, in Davis’ solo on “Orbits” he uses the melody as a motivic cell to develop his solo. Davis begins with long bop phrases, but returns briefly to the melody at 0:47. Davis commits to the melodic cell at 1:09 and develops it at the end of his solo at 1:30. This is an idea that Shorter picks up and continues throughout his solo. 

In addition to improvisation techniques, the second quintet reimagined the role of the rhythm section. It would not be uncommon for Hancock to avoid comping throughout an entire solo or indeed an entire composition, as is the case on “Orbits”. In these instances Hancock functioned more as a third horn player, playing single note solos with little or no chords. 

Tony Williams would also bring a new approach to the accompaniment and interaction in this group. Williams would sometimes play “around” the rhythm rather than directly with it. Williams general strategy was to maintain his ride cymbal pattern so he could interact more freely with the rest of the drumset (Smith 2001). This can be heard in abundance on compositions such as “Hand Jive” or “Tout de Suite”. 

Davis would also challenge the role of horn players. For example, on “Nefirtiti”, Davis and Shorter do not improvise; instead they play the melody throughout the piece becoming accompanists for Hancock, Carter, and Williams. 

But perhaps what the second quintet was known for was the incorporation of avant garde music into hard bop. Keith Waters considers the avant garde not as “free jazz” or “not free jazz”, but rather existing on a spectrum from free to conservative. Waters identifies meter, hypermeter, pulse, harmonic progression, and harmonic rhythm, as elements that can be preserved or abandoned to create a more conservative or a more free texture. For example a tune like “Prince of Darkness” the texture is fairly conservative (for the second quintet). Here the band preserves the hypermeter, meter, pulse, harmonic progression and harmonic rhythm. (These elements can seem diffused, particularly with Hancock’s minimal comping strategy and William’s rambunctious drumming). In contrast, are compositions like “Hand Jive” where after the head, the rhythm section abandons Hypermeter, Meter Pulse, Harmonic progression and harmonic rhythm (Waters 2010). 


To an outside observer, it would seem that the quintet led double lives. In the studio they would record music that represented the bleeding edge of contemporary jazz. Yet in live performances the quintet still played Davis’ same repertoire of the past decade. With the exception of a few tunes such as “Masquelero”, “Agitation”, and “Footprints”, the quintet performed the mix of standards and hard bop tunes Davis had become famous for. Compositions such as “I Fall in Love Too Easily”, “Walkin’”, and “If I Were a bell” were featured on virtually every live performance. This would remain the case until early 1968 when Davis would begin to include more elements of jazz fusion into live performances. 

Despite Davis’ conservative approach to repertoire selection, the way the quintet performed these tunes was anything but conservative. As can be heard on the “Live at the Plugged Nickel”, the quintet did indeed play a conservative repertoire when compared to what they had recorded a year earlier, but the approach to the old repertoire was the same as those used to record new material in the studio. In this way Davis is able to use new techniques to signify—show a different perspective—on his standard repertoire. 


True to his nature, Davis did not ruminate long on the aesthetic of the second quintet. Indeed, the six records the quintet released between 1965 and 1968 show a constant development of concept and technique. For example, Davis’ final two quintet records, Miles in the Sky and Filles de Killimanjaro show Davis’ restlessness. While there is still plenty belonging to the second quintet’s aesthetic, the use of electronic instruments, collaboration with artists such as George Benson, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, and Chick Corea, and above all tracks such as “Stuff”, and “Tout de Suite” foreshadow his new musical focus. 


Miles Davis’ fusion experiments can be said to begin in late 1967 with the addition of Joe Beck to the quintet. From 1967-1969 Davis would experiment in the studio with electronic music and what would ultimately become jazz-rock fusion. This music highlighted several important changes in Davis’ musical concept: (1) the expansion of his working band with electric and other instruments, (2) the extended use of vamps, drones, static harmony, and pedal points, (3) ground rhythms based on rock and the music of the 1960’s counterculture, (4) the use of the recording studio as a compositional tool, (5) the prioritization of melody, groove and mood over improvised solos. These changes were foreshadowed to varying degrees on Miles in the Sky—particularly on Davis’ composition “Stuff”—and to varying degrees on Filles de Killimanjaro. But to the listening public these changes must have been gradual and subtle. The transformation Davis went through in concept from 1967-69 would not be evident to the public until the release of “In a Silent Way” and would then be solidified by “Bitches Brew”. 


The primary musical documents of early fusion include session recordings and albums from 1967-1970. These include “Circle in the Round” (1967), “Water on the Pond” (1967), Miles in the Sky (1968), Filles de Killimanjaro (1968), In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1969). 

In December of 1967 Davis and his second quintet would record twice with guitarist Joe Beck. These recordings such as “Circle in the Round” and “Water on the Pond” show Davis early experiments with the music. Davis was ultimately unhappy with Beck (Chambers 1981, 145) and possibly as a result, these recordings would spend years in the Columbia vaults before being released on various compilation albums. 

While these tracks are interesting from an archeological point of view, it is also hard to fault Davis’ decision to keep them unreleased. The original 1968 edit of “Circle in the Round” is a thirty-three minute long track born on the editing room floor. According to Enrico Merlin’s sessionography, it took over fifty edit points to splice Davis’ rehearsal takes into the track that was released in 1979 (Tingen 2001, 304-305). Some of these edits are quite obvious such as the one at 4:47 and disrupt the overall vibe of the piece. In short, it sounds like Davis and company tried many different sounds in rehearsal and later used studio editing to splice these sounds together in some kind of unified way. 

“Circle in the Round” follows a D phrygian vamp orchestrated in Beck’s electric guitar. The electric guitar is heard throughout the track outlining a 12/8 time feel and giving Ron Carter the rare opportunity to solo at 23:49. While this is not enough by itself to distance the band much from other music happening at the time, the electric guitar sound is so different from the textures previously used on Nefertiti and other recent records that it is still a departure in texture from the quintet aesthetic. 
The “Circle in the Round” session puts Hancock on celeste. This texture change from piano to celeste is representative of the greater aesthetic shift in Davis’ music. While this doesn’t conform to the electric aspect of fusion that he would take up a few months later with the electric piano, it further distances the track from the textures recorded on previous second quintet material. 
“Water in the Pond” by contrast, feels much more organic. “Water on the Pond” was recorded several weeks later and it gives the impression that Davis’ electric concept went through several refinements in the intervening time. 

The structure here is more traditional with an intro and matching tag and an ambiguous head-solos head structure. The one edit point at 2:14 is not nearly as disruptive as those heard on “Circle in the Round”. This recording marks Hancock’s first time playing electric piano and while he might sound timid when compared to later recordings it is far from disappointing. The rhythm is straight eighth note and is infused with rock elements (Williams plays a “George of the Jungle” style riff at the top of the tune), but it also has a fair amount of the second quintet’s identity in it, particularly during in the interaction between Williams, Carter, Hancock, and Shorter at 6:15. To me, this track sounds infinitely more successful as a musical entity than “Circle in the Round”, but it also sounds much closer to the soul jazz that had been in vogue for most of the 1960s. That could be one reason why this track was not released until years after it was recorded. 

Davis’ fusion experiments would continue through 1968. Beck would be replaced by George Benson on Miles in the Sky. From our perspective in the twenty first century it is easy to hear the fusion influence on the second quintet’s remaining two albums. “Stuff” from Miles in the Sky and “Tout de Suite” from Filles de Killimanjaro are all but declarations of intent on behalf of Davis. They contain all of the elements of fusion, rock rhythms, electric instruments, and several edit points (Tingen 2001, 308). But for the most part the fusion elements on these records is more subtle, most being seen primarily in instrumentation, personnel and occasional rhythms rather. 

During this period, Davis would begin to take over as the primary composer of the group. Previously Shorter had been the most prolific composer in Davis’ group. On Miles in the Sky, this began to change, with Davis contributing the bulk of the material for the record. By the time the band recorded Filles de Killimanjaro Davis was the sole contributor. Davis would remain the primary contributor on future projects as well (Tingen 2001, 302-316). 
The Filles de Kilimanjaro session in June of 1968 represented the end of the second quintet. During this session Davis brought in Chick Corea and Dave Holland to help finish the session. Some attribute the breakup of the quintet to Carters’ unenthusiastic approach to the electric Bass. More likely is that Carter, Williams, Hancock and Shorter all desired to play with new people as leaders or members of new projects (Davis 1991, 294)(Tingen 2001, 47). Corea and Holland along with Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlan and Jack DeJonnette would help form the core of Davis’ new group. 

Prior to 1967, Davis’ live performances consisted of relatively the same repertoire he had been playing for over ten years with the exception of a handful of second quintet tunes.  By late 1967, Davis had begun to incorporate more of his studio material into live performance (Tingen 2001, 112). By the fall of 1969 just after the release of “In a Silent Way”, Davis’ repertoire was a heady mélange of music including tunes from his hard bop repertoire such as “Walkin’”, “’Round Midnight” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily” as well as second quintet tunes such as “Nefirtiti”, “Footprints” and “Masquellero”. In addition to these, his band was also playing his new material such as “Bitches Brew” (CITATION). 
Like his live performances with the second quintet, the choice to play his old music was not a conservative one.  As the Miles Davis Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2 videos show, Davis and company use the application of his new sound to older music. These performances show that Davis’ new interpretation of his older repertoire was not an abandonment of old technique, but instead was a broadening of palate that included his hardbop aesthetic, the sensibilities of the second quintet as well as the incorporation of fusion. 

Bitches Brew was recorded in August of 1969.  If In a Silent Way can be considered Davis’ first fusion album, Bitches Brew realizes the direction of In a Silent Way and indeed that of his previous fusion experiments. Ted Gioa describes Bitches Brew as “a signal event”, meaning that Davis had drawn a line in the sand and all improvising musicians had to choose wheather to hold on to the traditions of bebop, hardbop, and swing or go with the new electric movement  (Gioia 2011, 326). 
At its heart Bitches Brew succeeds because of four things: (1) the overt use of rock rhythms, (2) the use of post bop and avant guard improvising technique, (3) collaboration at the highest level, (4) sophisticated studio editing. 

In “Pharaoh’s Dance” the rhythm is entirely derived from rock and popular dance music. This in fact is a development continued from In a Silent Way, however it is still distinct from Davis’ early fusion experiments such as “Water on the Pond” or the soul jazz influenced tracks of the second quintet such as “Frelon Brun”. Both tracks include elements of ground pop rhythm, but also include Tony Williams hyper aggressive interaction with the soloist. Bitches Brew avoids that texture. Instead Jack DeJohnette and Lenny White maintain the rock groove throughout the record with little solo interaction. 

While the rhythm from Bitches Brew remains firmly in the pop-rock sphere, the improvisation technique avoids pop-rock aesthetic. For instance, Wayne Shorter’s solo on “Bitches Brew” relies much more on traditionally jazz oriented material. Shorter’s sixteenth note passages at 12:28 still sound like his playing in the second quintet. While diffused, Shorter’s development of motifs—-an ascending six note sixteenth note passage transposed in half steps—is much more based in post bop than rock. This can be heard in both Shorter and Davis’ solos to varying degrees. This may not seem significant, yet when compared with John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters” where rock and pop technique drives all elements of the tune, the significance of the jazz approach becomes apparent. 

Since his early work with Joe Beck in 1967 Davis had been more or less constantly collaborating with new musicians in his fusion and rock experiments. Here, his expansion of the group to 12, (14 if you count Airto Moreira and Billy Cobham who only played on the Jan 28th 1970 session of “Feio”.) is the largest group he had led. Davis brought in players who had already been experimenting with jazz-rock and psychedelic jazz fusion such as Jack DeJohnette and John McLaughlan. The use of commercial musicians such Bob Dylan’s Harvey Brooks also added a sort of literal fusion of styles to the group. 
The expanded forces of the group was an important addition to the fusion concept. While Davis abandoned the multitextured aesthetic of the second quintet, he added more forces to create a different kind of texture. The use of two electric pianists mixed in left and right channels with two drummers mixed in left in right channels not only created a new musical color, but it also created a new way to perceive this group on record. 


There are many explanations for this change. Davis himself claims that he wanted his music to be more rooted in the music of Africa (Tingen 2001, 42). This can be heard through the gradual switch from music focused on chords or modes to music focused on rhythm and groove. 

Standard historical narratives paint a less flattering picture of Davis’ motivations for going electric. Davis’ move to fusion is described as his fall from grace—capitulating to market demands, or worse intentionally selling out in order to maintain a certain level of prestige (Crouch 1990 33), (Brown 1992, 20). 

These claims are easy to make as (1) so many jazz musicians were struggling in the 1960s (Tingen 33), and (2) fusion proved to be among the most monetarily lucrative of Davis projects. 
But these models seem too reductive to represent the whole story. More compelling are the arguments recently made by authors such as Steven Pond and Jeremy Smith. Pond argues that most discussions of fusion either focus soley on the commercial aspect of the music or ignore it completely. Both perspectives end up missing the point: that fusion musicians such as Hancock, Shorter, and Davis had a specific musical and social agenda and the record companies had another. Too often are the actions and intentions of record companies equated to those of the musicians (Pond 2005, 27). 

This would in fact seem to be the case. As early as 1967, Columbia executives began issuing internal memos brainstorming ideas to bolster Davis’ appeal. The result was advertising in rock publications as well as underground papers (Smith 2010, 11). The resulting ads equate Davis’ projects with disparate elements of rock and popular music such as B.B. King, Otis Redding, and rock concept albums (Smith 2010, 10). This was a gambit to attract a younger, primarily white audience that may not have been exposed to Davis prior to the late 1960s (Smith 2010, 12). 

These ads did not begin with In a Silent Way or specifically target fusion. The Columbia attempt to “Aim Miles at a rock audience” was underway as Nefertiti hit the market (Smith 2010, 16). 

This approach grated with Davis. His new conception of fusion was in part a return to Afrocentric music. Marketing his music specifically towards white audiences defeated a large part of his social agenda. In the late 1960s and early 1970’s Davis began to identify more and more with the political nature of “blackness”. Davis preferred to think of his music not as jazz or rock—these were Uncle Tom Words according to Davis—and instead thought of his music as Black music. This identified him more with the black power movement than with jazz communities of the previous decade (Smith 2010, 22-23). 

This perspective can be seen in the way Davis’ fusion albums were presented. Album covers from Bitches Brew, Big Fun and On The Corner display depictions of black men and women. (It speaks to how entrenched racism is that had Davis chosen to put a white woman on the cover of one of these albums, no one would have batted an eye, but his choice to proudly display black people is worthy of note.) If this were not enough, his 1971 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson ends with the defiant Johnson quote “I’m Jack Johnson, Heavyweight Champion of the World. I’m Black”. 

This perspective paints the commercial success of fusion as a combination of factors, (1) a sophisticated yet appealing musical and physical product, (2) the result of a shift in marketing strategies on behalf of Columbia records. In effect the commercial success diffused Davis’ goal for this music: to reach out to young African American men and woman and effect social and racial change. 


Davis’ development throughout the mid to late nineteen sixties began with the move to postbop. From late 1964 through 1968, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams made new tonally ambiguous music. The six studio records they recorded over this time fused hardbop sensibilities with an avant garde aesthetic. The result were intricate and nuanced compositions that eschewed traditional concepts of form, and harmony. Davis’ group played these tunes with a new approach to accompaniment and improvisation, relying less on the vertical harmony of piano comping patterns and more on the horizontal harmony of improvised lines. 

By the end of 1967, Davis began to experiment with electric and popular music. The fruits of his early experiments with Joe Beck and George Benson are foreshadowed on the albums Miles in the Sky and Filles de Killimanjaro, but are not fully realized until 1968 when he recorded In a Silent Way. Filles de Killimanjaro signaled the end of the second quintet, it was also when he began collaborating with new musicians such as Chick Corea, Joe Zawvinul, and Dave Holland. During 1968 Davis retooled his band by embracing electric instruments, expanding his ensemble, and fully utilizing the use of the recording studio as a compositional tool. 

If In a Silent Way was Davis’ first fusion record, Bitches Brew was the realization of the potential of fusion. Not only was Bitches Brew more commercially popular, but it created what amounts to a through composed musical fantasy that only exists on record. Central to the success of Bitches Brew is Davis’ collaboration with jazz and rock musicians such as Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack Dejohnnette, Bennie Maupin, John McLaughlan and Joe Zawinul, as well as his old band mates Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. 

Clearly this was the direction Davis chose to go in. the cover of Filles de Killimanjaro, one of the records that foreshadowed fusion, bears the inscription “Directions in Music” meaning Miles Davis is the one who sets the direction. This has been overlooked by many critics and scholars. 

Critics such as Stanley Crouch were none too enthusiastic about fusion. Leonard Feather made more of an appologist’s defense of Davis when he said “When you have reached the musical mountaintop, the only way to go is down”. This represents the view of Davis as either a sellout, or a corporate stooge. 

In actuality, Davis endeavored to connect his music with its African roots as a way of helping to effect social change. This goal was often times at odds with the goals of Columbia records who wanted to market Davis to a younger, whiter audience. The result was a lucrative, yet shakey relationship between Davis and his partners at Columbia. 

Regardless of one’s opinion on the value of fusion or postbop, it is clear that during this period-1965-1970-Davis effected some of the most profound changes of his career. Within five years he established two forms of jazz that many musicians devote their lives to. 


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