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For rock legend Jimi Hendrix to have spoken these prophetic words may come as a surprise to some. He was at the height of his career; he was wanted by women worldwide; he was living a rags-to-riches fairytale. Yet Jimi’s dying wish was to jam with the cool cats of the jazz world.
One has to wonder whether Jimi recognized the impact that he, in turn, would have on the greatest musicians of all time. While he was a demi-god to the public, he also earned the respect of those whom he most admired. His peers viewed him as a prodigy, almost as a savant; his lack of training was no match for the innovation and the raw talent that launched him to superstardom. Yes, many musicians were perplexed by Jimi’s abilities. While they may not have known how he did what he did, his influence on numerous styles of music, on the role of the guitar, and on pop-culture is undeniable. In the realm of jazz-rock fusion, Jimi’s presence can be seen across the board. From Miles Davis to John McLaughlin, everyone wanted to pick Hendrix’s brain.
Jimi’s life story is driven by one element: his passion for music. He was born in 1942 to a callous military father a neglectful young mother, who passed away shortly after having lost custody of her children. Jimi’s fate as a rock legend was sealed when, as a child, he developed an attachment to a broom; he carried it around with him everywhere, pretending as though it were a guitar. After teaching himself to play by ear on a second-hand, one-stringed ukulele, Jimi graduated to an acoustic guitar as a teenager and was finally rewarded with an electric guitar of his own by his father. Soon, the talented young musician was playing sweet gigs in clubs. After he won first place in the famed Apollo Talent Show, Jimi started recording and building his reputation. Before he knew it, Jimi was on his way to superstardom, particularly in Britain, where the great English rockers and their fans began to take notice of Jimi’s guitar chops and magnetic stage presence.
Jimi grew up on a steady diet of blues, rock, and folk, which can be heard in his gritty, passionate playing. Circa 1967, Jimi’s record collection was an eclectic mix of Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, and Ravi Shankar.1 He was similarly in awe of the complexity and uninhibited improvisation of jazz, and he surely incorporated these elements into unique style. He was said to have “idolized”1 the multi-instrumental jazz virtuoso Roland Kirk, who was known for playing his instruments simultaneously. When they jammed together at a club in early 1967 after having met on a plane, Jimi was star-struck. Yet despite young Jimi’s fear of failing his mentor, when they started playing, Jimi’s rock and Kirk’s jazz backgrounds fit together perfectly. Why? They both were rooted in the blues; Jimi was onto something.
As such, abundant jazz influence can be heard in Jimi’s solo and group endeavors. His tunes may be rock-based, but his lines swing. A swung beat worked its way into The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Observe Mitch Mitchell’s polished 6/8 timekeeping on “Manic Depression” and his jazzy ride cymbal on the middle section of “Third Stone from the Sun,” (Are You Experienced?). Jimi’s hallmark album, Electric Ladyland, was produced as a series of extended, improvised jams. In this manner, the album pays tribute to jazz. The extended bluesy, smoky improvisational jam on “Rainy Day Dream Away” evokes more of a jazz lounge vibe than it does a driving rock tune. Similarly, Hendrix ‘s “Voodoo Chile” is one of the classic “great primeval jazz-rock jams”2. Likes Miles, Hendrix simply dictated the mood of the track and let the band improvise. He created these sounds from what he felt and heard; Jimi didn’t read a note of music. This intuitive sense for sound astonished many jazz greats, including Miles Davis.
By 1968, Miles was listening heavily to Jimi’s music. Miles actually took a cue from Jimi when he produced the album In a Silent Way: Miles’ meticulously planned recordings gave way to a more informal jam setting. Then, after the session, the best cuts were stitched into an album. Hendrix also deserves credit for his use of rapidly-advancing studio effects and technology. His 1967 album Axis: Bold as Love was lauded for its finely-produced four-track recording. Miles, too, took advantage of these budding techniques to get the most organic sound from his band and to weave it into a polished, marketable product. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s clear that Miles had a great respect for Hendrix. When asked what he thought of Jimi Hendrix’s music, Miles replied, in his characteristic rasp: “It’s that goddamned motherfucking ‘Machine Gun,’”3 referring to the eerie, violent, unpredictable groove and the screaming, virtuosic guitar solo of the Band of Gypsys song. Miles watched Hendrix perform live at the Fillmore in 1969 and reportedly kept repeating to himself, “What the fuck is he doing?,” which, in Miles-speak, is surely a sign of great respect. Some critics dismissed Hendrix as “noisy;” however, Miles recognized Jimi’s revolutionary ideas and shrewdly applied them to his own music and production.
Miles would soon meet the young, quiet genius behind the music he so admired. He was introduced to Jimi and his music by his funky, feminist musician wife, Betty Mabry. One day, he was called up by Jimi’s manager, who wanted Miles to help Jimi incorporate more jazz elements into his music. Jimi was eager to learn; he even made mention of going back to school to learn to read and compose music. Jimi appreciated Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” and Miles’ similar usage of the trumpet to create a sonic effect. So, the two started meeting together to talk music. Although Jimi didn’t read music, Miles thought highly of his talent:
Jimi was just great, a natural musician, self-taught. He would pick up things from whoever he was around, and he picked up things quick…he had a natural ear for playing music. So I’d play different shit for him, show him that way…Then he started incorporating things I told him into his albums. It was great. He influenced me, and I influenced him, and that’s the way great music is always made.4
Jimi’s singer friend Terry Reid was in the Hendrix house during one of these lessons that likely launched the birth of Miles’ new sound. He recalls it fondly: “It was beautiful. It was tasteful playing, nothing showy, or over the top. In the jazz context, Jimi was still pushing the limits, and all those jazz guys respected him like they respected no one else in rock.”3
When Jimi expressed interest in a more formal session with Miles in a recording studio, he didn’t think about logistics. Miles, frustrated that his salary was but a fraction of that of the mighty Hendrix (Miles was often in debt to Columbia for the heavy advances they fined), demanded $50,000 upfront for the session from Jimi’s manager, Mike Jeffrey. When drummer Tony Williams got wind of this, he made demands, as well. Jeffrey refused the request and the session never happened. Hendrix, on the other hand, had loftier ideas. He was already trying to get Paul McCartney on board. He sent this telegram to the Beatles bassist in October, 1969: “We are recording and LP together this weekend in NewYork. How about coming in to play bass stop call Alvan Douglas 212-5812212. Peace Jimi Hendrix Miles Davis Tony Williams.”5 Shortly before his death, Jimi had even planned to meet Gil Evans (of Sketches of Spain fame) to discuss making a live album—Jimi was to be the soloist in a Carnegie Hall concert of Gil’s orchestral arrangements of his well-known guitar pieces. (In a tragic yet touching gesture of respect, Gil Evans presented the concert as a posthumous tribute to Jimi). Jimi was growing tired of the pressure to compose and perform for popular tastes; he wanted to experiment. Jimi was a collaborative musician, eager to scout out the best mentors and colleagues to improve his craft.
So, too, did Miles begin to seek to emulate the sound of his new pal Jimi; he even tried to transpose Jimi’s guitar playing for the trumpet. Gil Evans, also a fan of Jimi’s sound, reworked “The Wind Cries Mary” in to “Mademoiselle Mabry”—listen for the laid-back rock groove and the well-known stepwise motive throughout both pieces. Later, Miles would pay homage to Hendrix using little touches of sound, such as the bass line from “Fire” in “Inamorata;” he also turned “Message to Love” from Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys days into “What I Say” (Live—Evil)6. When seeking the young, black audience that flocked to the likes of Sly Stone and James Brown, Miles sought the soulful raunchiness of Jimi: “From the time that Jimi and I had gotten tight, I had wanted that kind of African groove because the guitar can take you deep into the blues.”5 Miles set out to create a new, accessible music, black music, based in the groove and in guitar: the music that would give birth to jazz-rock fusion. He began to hire guitarists that adopted a very Hendrix-like style. One such player is Pete Cosey. His playing is erratic, untrained, and even nonsensical at times. But his spontaneity and intuitive sense of color and rhythm rounded out Miles’ new 70s sound.
However, it was the addition of John McLaughlin that would determine the direction of Miles’ next major innovation: Bitches Brew. He needed a smoking guitarist, and he found one in McLaughlin. When he was accused of hiring a “rock” guitarist, Miles replied, “I didn’t use John as a rock player…but for special effects. John’s no more a rock player than I am a rock trumpet player.”7 The guitar is largely what helped to create the psychedelic, chaotic, groundbreaking effects that set Bitches Brew apart. The thick, distorted, powerful chords and effects that dominated Purple Haze also add color to Miles’ soundscape. Miles is right when he says that McLaughlin was added for “color;” Hendrix himself was not only a “rock” guitarist, but a musician that communicated emotion with pure electronic noise:
Jimi’s actual accomplishment was to open the music to electronics. Electronics became his instrument, while the guitar served only as a control device. He was the first to explore the wide, unfathomable land of electronic sounds, the first to play “live electronics”—more than all of those who use this catch phrase today—and the first to transform electronics into music with the instinct of a genius, as if plucking the strings of an instrument made of waves, rays, and currents.7
McLaughlin, like many other guitarists, cites Hendrix as a huge influence in his artistic development. Many believe that without McLaughlin’s interest Hendrix’s pioneering, label-defying guitar stylings, his work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra would never have been the fusion powerhouse that it is. The dark, dense, distorted chords that dominate albums such as the guitar solos in The Inner Mounting Flame are so deeply rooted in Jimi’s innovation. As McLaughlin explains,
I was one of many guitarists who had already abandoned the “cool jazz guitar” tone by the end of the ’60s, thanks in large part to the influences brought about by Jimi. We adapted our jazz techniques to the more distorted tone. By the early ’70s, there were groups, including my own Mahavishnu Orchestra, who were using the distorted guitar sound in a much more complex musical environment, and we had great success. Unfortunately, however, by September 1970, Jimi had disappeared, and he never got to see and hear the fruits of which he was, in a substantial way, the originator.8
McLaughlin even reportedly had a jam session with Jimi Hendrix; supposedly, there are tapes in existence. However, McLaughlin has laid the rumors to rest. According to McLaughlin, Mitch Mitchell, a mutual friend, invited him to come jam down at the Record Plant studio. When he showed up, it was actually Buddy Miles at the drums, Dave Holland at the bass, and Jimi Hendrix himself. The four of them just jammed; there was nothing formal about it. McLaughlin recalls the ease with which the two guitars interacted:
Generally, Jimi was just a blues guitarist. I was into a completely different thing than he, though there was no conflict between our styles whatsoever. It’s not styles that clash; it’s people that clash. You can get the most completely opposite styles, but if people have harmony, it doesn’t matter because it’s all music. You can get Stravinsky to play with Miles Davis, because if they’re harmonious, they’re going to find something that’s above them both.9
There are rumored bootleg tapes of this impromptu jam session, but McLaughlin denies their existence. Even if the tapes do exist, he only feels it’s only right to release them if they positively affect Hendrix’s musical legacy. He makes the sad-but-true statement that a lot of people will slap Hendrix’s name on anything, just to make a buck. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Jimi’s music shows such displays of virtuosity, ingenuity, and passion that no matter what rumors may fly, Jimi has left an indelible mark on modern music.
Hendrix was a true revolutionary. He earned the respect and admiration not only of the public, but more importantly, of his fellow musicians. There is seems to be a consensus amongst the leading jazz musicians of his day that had he continued to pursue jazz, he would have become one of the greats.3 When Jimi died at a young and healthy twenty-seven, people lamented the loss of such great potential; they couldn’t help but wonder what else he would have come up with, or in which direction he would have steered his music. One thing is for certain, though: Jimi provided the spark of innovation that set music aflame. The effect was overarching. Rolling Stone said of Jimi’s music, “It’s part of a transcendental new music which flushes category away.”3 Jimi heralded in a new age not simply of “jazz-rock” fusion, but of a rising creative collective consciousness that spans all genres of music. In the end, Jimi didn’t just jam with the cool cats; he inspired them.
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