70s Jazz in the Contemporary Classroom: A View from New York City

In the major narratives of jazz history, the 1970s seem to hold little of value.

This is hardly an original observation. In a seminal article from 1991, Scott DeVeaux showed how critics and historians mistakenly came to present the first several decades of jazz as a “coherent whole,” which in the 70s saw a splintering-off into contentiously divided camps: stuffy neo-classicists, incomprehensible avant-gardists, and “sellout” fusion artists, of whom a young Wynton Marsalis complained “imitated people that were supposed to be imitating them.”

In preserving, more-or-less, this “different camps” approach, contemporary textbooks—like Mark Gridley’s Concise Guide to Jazz that I am assigned to give my classes at City College of New York—continue to give a similar narrative.[1] And while they sometimes note the continued existence of these niches, they rarely give much of a sense of the importance of 1970s jazz to today’s broader musical landscape. Ken Burns’s Jazz gave even less of a sense that the 70s made much of an impact. The documentary’s last episode highlights Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington’s deaths and Lester Young’s return from Europe as the only notable events of the decade.

Yet, a quick look at the contemporary scene reveals multiple the echoes of 1970s jazz. Brad Mehldau—whose acoustic Art of the Trio albums were a highlight of the late 90s and early 00s—has recently turned towards a more electro/fusion sensibility in his collaboration with drummer Mark Guiliana, Mehliana. Their sound evokes the layered synthesizers of early Bob James and the loose rock energy of The Tony Williams Lifetime album Emergency. As we saw in last month’s post by Tamar Sella, Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” has become a centerpiece in the repertoire of artists like Robert Glasper and Gretchen Parlato.

It is Glasper’s work more than anything that has led me to rethink the importance of the 70s, and I’ve had the good fortune of doing so while teaching Introduction to Jazz at City College. While thinking through the narratives that I can use to convey the importance of this era to my students, what has struck me is not its divisiveness, but instead, a coherence of thought and practice among a wide range of artists.

In this post, I focus on two developments—out of many possibilities—taking place within the jazz idiom in the 1970s: (1) an “explosion of timbres,” and (2) an increasingly explicit orientation towards self-organization and urban activism among musicians. The argument that I trace through these two developments is threefold: first, although a broadening timbral spectrum and an orientation towards self-organization and activism occurred throughout many genres, jazz artists were central to their proliferation in the 1970s; second, timbre and activist orientations towards music both render the music affectively powerful through their political significance; third, it is largely through these developments that we can understand the legacy of 1970s jazz on the broader contemporary landscape.


Turn down whatever you might be listening to and try to conjure up a mental aural-image of a jazz group. Chances are that the image that comes to mind involves one of a dozen or so instruments that have dominated jazz practice over the decades: bass, piano, trumpet, saxophone, maybe clarinet, if you’re thinking of early jazz.

Now listen carefully to the opening moments of Bob James’s “Nautilus”:

In the opening seconds, the sustained notes of the Rhodes and soft string background are joined by the sounds of rattles, a chime, then a second layer of synthesizer, then drums, then electric bass and guitar, ambient high pitched percussion, and synthesizer splashes. This sound illustrates what I call the “explosion of timbres” that characterizes much 70s jazz. James (an avant-garde musician in the 60s who became a smooth jazz artist) and many other jazz musicians of his generation clearly distinguished themselves from their predecessors (and subsequent generations) through their eagerness to think beyond the timbral constraints of the standard acoustic group. This is not to say that acoustic instruments weren’t similarly involved in this increasing timbral richness. Take, for example, Stanley Cowell’s use of mbira on The Heath Brothers’ “Smilin’ Billy Suite Part II”:

Jazz musicians had long pioneered new timbral possibilities in music. In 1956, Sun Ra incorporated the electric Wurlitzer (which had come out in 1954) into his Super-Sonic Jazz, an early example out of many of his evocations of space travel. In 1965, James used tape music from avant-garde composers Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley on his album Explosions. In the 1970s, this experimentation increased exponentially. In addition to the new guitar sounds—like those used by John McLaughlin—and new keyboard sounds—like those used by Herbie Hancock—Afro-centrism and pan-Africanism brought an increased use of African instruments, from The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s use of the Mande balafon to Bill Summers’ famous imitation of the BaBenzélé Pygmy hindewhu voice–whistle style on Hancock’s iconic Head Hunters version of “Watermelon Man.”

The political significance of African instruments in this era is clear: it expressed valuation of African culture and African roots that had been denied to previous generations as well as a pan-African sonic solidarity, explicitly linked to a political solidarity in albums like Max Roach’s Freedom Now!.[2] Although the use of electronic instruments may not outwardly seem political, Mark Dery argues in his seminal article “Black to the Future” that Black science fiction counterposes the redemptive possibilities of technology against its everyday experience as a tool for suppression used against Black populations. This point is well illustrated in the opening of Sun Ra’s Space is the Place. “The music is different here…” Sun Ra states, “not like planet earth. Planet earth sound of guns, anger, frustration… We set up a colony for Black people here. See what they could do on a planet all their own, without any White people here.” Redemptive technology—the ability to start a new colony in outer space, Sun Ra’s music—is here pitted against the sound of guns that pervades the planet Earth:

In today’s landscape, the timbral richness of 70s jazz can also be considered political in that it provides a counter-narrative to a classicized idea of “timelessness” in jazz music. Insofar as the music is thought to transcend the historical moment in which it is made, it is also rendered apolitical; if a piano trio presents jazz as an art form to be appreciated for its autonomous aesthetic beauty, a proliferation of timbral indices as heard in 1970s jazz can have the opposite effect: it enmeshes the music in a sonic world full of historical and political relations—Afro-futurist, Afro-centrist, pan-Africanist, or otherwise.

Many of my students, whether they realize it or not, are familiar with the timbral palette of 70s jazz. This is because 70s jazz largely constitutes the instrumental basis for the hip-hop that came a generation later, as Aja Burrell Wood explored recently on this blog. Hip-hop producers from Rick Rubin to Q-Tip to J Dilla and scores of others have found inspiration in the sound of 70s jazz records. Grandmaster Flash transformed Bob James’s record “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” into “rocking the bells,” a centerpiece of early DJing displays. James’s “Nautilus” became one of the most sampled songs of all time.[3] Cowell’s mbira on “Smilin’ Billy Suite Part II” became the basis for Nas’s “One Love.” The list goes on and on.

For many of today’s jazz musicians, hip-hop provides a bridge from jazz of the 1970s to today and for this generation, broad timbral palettes are returning as a central feature of the music. This is illustrated in Robert Glasper’s collaboration with rapper and producer Pete Rock in a series of tribute concerts to Roy Ayers. Pete Rock had famously sampled Ayers’s “Searching” in his 1994 song of the same name. The 2011 rendition with Glasper and his Experiment band showcases Casey Benjamin’s digitally altered voice along with Glasper on piano and Fender Rhodes and Pete Rock providing extra sound effects, as well as Stefon Harris’s vibes, Chris Dave’s drums and Derrick Hodge’s bass. As in the 1970s, an eagerness to explore the possibilities of timbre prevails:

Self-Organization and Community Involvement

In Blues People, first published in 1963, Amiri Baraka made the argument that black music reveals African American dispositions towards America, from slavery to contemporary demands for full citizenship.[4] With much help from Baraka’s own involvement in politically-oriented artistic movements, this concern with race and American life became explicit in the 1970s. Many artists who had aligned themselves closely with the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, began, in the 1970s, organizing themselves into collectivities promoting goals of empowering African American communities and gaining independence from the profit-driven music industry.

As the visibility of Civil Rights era groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) gave way to the more militant Black Panther Party (BPP), demands for policy-directed reforms became coupled with demands for better urban living conditions and greater powers of self-determination for African American communities. Many of the BPP’s demands remain central to discussions of urban reform: “the power to determine the destiny of our Black Community”; “decent housing”; “an immediate ending to police brutality and murder of Black people”; “freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails,” and others.

Self-determination, community organization, and demands for urban reform were widespread among jazz musicians. Once again, Sun Ra was a pioneer in this aspect of musical life. His Arkestra gave an early model for increased musical and social autonomy, establishing communal residences first in New York, starting 1961, then in Philadelphia, starting in 1968, where musicians studied Ra’s philosophy and rehearsed constantly. Community involvement was typified by organizations like the Black Artists’ Group (BAG) in Saint Louis and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, who established themselves as institutions centered around artistic experimentation and youth education. Other artists like Stanley Cowell and Charles Tolliver took the music industry’s weakening interest in jazz as an opportunity, establishing the artist-controlled label Strata-East.

Among the artistic developments championed by these collectivities, there is a definite move towards the mixing of media. Sun Ra starred in the 1974 movie Space is the Place; members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago donned face paint and gave their performances a highly dramatic flair; BAG produced myriad collaborations between musicians, dancers, painters and playwrights; recordings like Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and the Last Poets’ “This Is Madness” (reproduced and updated here with Pharoah Sanders) placed jazz and poetry together with highly politicized messages.

Like jazz’s timbral advancements, these projects continue to resound through the work of contemporary artists. The links are often direct and they are found in music that has been critically and commercially successful and is familiar to many of my students. Afro-futurist themes are ubiquitous in the work of singer Janelle Monáe. Sun Ra’s mirror-mask figures from Space is the Place reappear in her video for “Tightrope.” Elsewhere, she combines the dramatic aspect of jazz and other Afro-futurist music of the 1970s with a feminist critique:

Lyrics about the assault on the African American community at the center of the BPP’s demands have returned with a vengeance in several notable recent hip-hop tracks, from Kanye West’s “Who Will Survive in America” (sampling Gil Scott-Heron’s track of the same name), to Kendrick Lamar’s recent “The Blacker the Berry.”

The political similarities between today and the 1970s became extremely evident when my 2014 lecture on Saint Louis’s Black Artists’ Group happened to coincide with the eruption of violence in Ferguson, MO after the shooting of Michael Brown. Relatedly, students a semester before were concerned about the lack of spaces where they could voice their political demands, especially after the closing of the Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Student and Community Center in the building next door to ours. Discussing jazz in the 70s helped to demonstrate the importance of such spaces, the strategies of previous generations dealing with the same challenges, and ways the arts in particular were mobilized towards ends of community development.


By dealing with these two developments in 1970s jazz—selected somewhat arbitrarily out of a large group of possibilities—I hope that I have shown directions for presenting the decade other than as a moment of the division of a “cohesive whole” of jazz into three warring camps or as a period of transition from Armstrong, Ellington, and Young to a new generation led by Wynton Marsalis. Much more could be said about Afro-futurism, harmonic and rhythmic developments, or any number of other features that found significant traction among artists in the 1970s. The important thing about these developments is that they are not confined to a specific group, but widespread across the jazz landscape—and often beyond it. They connect jazz from the era with sounds and issues that are extremely familiar to today’s college students. Furthermore, they cause us to rethink jazz beyond its normative status as a “timeless” art (excluding its historical specificity), played on a small handful of acoustic instruments (excluding electronic and non-European ones), rooted in abstract sound (excluding its relations with film, poetry and other media), in which musical innovation is distinct from sociopolitical context.


[1] Elsewhere, Gridley vehemently rejects the correlation between jazz innovations and sociopolitical issues, thus displaying a sensibility that is still unfortunately widespread despite rich illustrations from critics and scholars from Amiri Baraka to Ingrid Monson.

[2] The recording, which features Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunje, has movements titled “Freedom Day,” “Tears for Johannesburg,” and “All Africa.”

[3] Notably, James has recently filed a lawsuit against one musician who sampled his recording: http://www.okayplayer.com/news/bob-james-is-suing-madlib-stones-throw-for-copyright-infringement.html.

[4] By “citizenship,” Baraka is not only talking about a legal status, but more so, equal enfranchisement in the political system.


Dery, Mark. 1994. “Black to the Future.” In Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, edited by Mark Dery, 179–222. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

DeVeaux, Scott. 1991. “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography.” Black American Literature Forum 25(3):525–560.

Gridley, Mark. 1992. Concise Guide to Jazz. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

---------. 2007. "Misconceptions in Linking Free Jazz with the Civil Rights Movement." College Music Symposium 47:139–155.

Brendan Kibbee is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Graduate Teaching Fellow at City College of New York, where he has taught Piano, Introduction to Jazz, and Introduction to World Music. He studied piano with Stanley Cowell for four years while earning a Bachelor in Music in Jazz Studies from Rutgers University. While keeping active with jazz projects, his current research focuses on music, politics, and urban life in Senegal, West Africa, and he is working on a dissertation titled "Counterpublics and Street Assemblies in Postcolonial Dakar."

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