Spelunking Jazz Caverns

I never collected baseball cards, played Cops & Robbers, or was a Boy Scout. From the moment I heard the opening guitar riff of Blondie's "One Way or Another," at age 6, it was clear that music would be central to everything I was going to do. It was my first important big thing, and my last.

Soon I was exposed to heavy metal, during its golden era. I devoured it with the voraciousness of one of the demons on those album covers. Money I made from chores went right into the cash registers of my town's record stores. But unlike my friends, I wasn't satisfied with the big, obvious bands; I read whatever books and magazines I could find to discover new groups and new music. When my parents went on business trips overseas, I would have them bring back albums I couldn't find at home.

Wanting to investigate the punk and hardcore scenes but not having enough money for a deep dive, I made a list of the cassettes I wanted to sell and circulated it among my classmates. My school's guidance counselor thought I was having trouble at home and didn't get that I just needed money to buy Black Flag and Dead Kennedys albums.

One way I came across new music was the 99-cent cassette section at Sam Goody—big, round bins whose depth defied my short arms. These were filled, pell-mell, with the usual Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, and Steely Dan, but also sometimes Ozzy Osbourne or Dio. One expedition to the bins changed my life. Rifling through hundreds of cassettes, I came across a double-cassette package. I had never seen a cassette tape that opened both ways, with A, B, C, and D sides—and still 99 cents! Twice the music for the same price!

It was Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. I had no idea what a Miles Davis was; my parents didn't listen to jazz, I had no siblings, and certainly none of my peers were that hip. But the title sounded vaguely heavy metal to me, and the psychedelic artwork had the same epic quality. I got home and, as per ritual, sat in front of my boombox.

For whatever auspicious reason, I put on the second cassette first. If I had heard Joe Zawinul's "Pharaoh's Dance" first, with its light cymbals and swirling keyboards, I might have stopped after a few minutes and gone to dental school. Instead, the first track I heard was "Spanish Key." The beat from drummers Lenny White and Jack DeJohnette was heavy and chugging like Black Sabbath, and John McLaughlin's guitar was spiky and raw. There was an eerie, mesmerizing presence I later would learn was Bennie Maupin's bass clarinet.

The piece is more than 17 minutes long; I was used to long songs via Iron Maiden and Helloween, but this was overwhelming. It wasn't heavy metal, to be sure, but I was transfixed. I rewound the cassette and played it over and over, trying to understand what I was hearing. The more I listened, the less I comprehended as my small frame of reference fell short.

I kept at it. After a week, I was brave enough to listen to the next song on the side, the four-minute "John McLaughlin," a feature for its dedicatee. Even coming out of heavy metal, where guitar is god, I was perplexed by what McLaughlin was playing and why he was playing it. He seemed to be pushing against his bandmates in a way I'd never heard before.

It took me about a month to absorb the two cassettes. I did my usual reading and found out I was listening to something called jazz but that this particular form—fusion, also called jazz-rock—was as divisive and repellent to some as my beloved heavy metal. That just made it more interesting.

In contrast to heavy metal, where bands are the discrete entities, learning about jazz meant learning about individual musicians. I started with McLaughlin. Anything I could find, I got. This led me in three directions: The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti, and McLaughlin's debut as leader, Extrapolation. The first introduced me to fusion; I learned that many of my favorite metal players had been influenced by that genre. The second opened me up to Indian classical music, something I had not known existed. And the third took me across the Atlantic, to the British jazz scene, from whence McLaughlin originated. That led me on to British collaborations with Germans, Dutch, Italians, French, and so on. I had read that jazz was American music, but I soon learned that its reach was international.

I spelunked assiduously with every musician on Bitches Brew. Through DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, the latter another vantage point of the British jazz scene, I came to another soon-to-be-favorite guitarist: John Abercrombie. Keyboard player Chick Corea pointed the way to reed player Anthony Braxton, and, by extension, the fertile Chicago jazz sphere, centered on the seminal Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Maupin, that wizard of the bass clarinet, was my calling card to his illustrious forebear, Eric Dolphy, and Dolphy led to bassist Charles Mingus. Each player on Bitches Brew was a piece to a brand-new puzzle to solve.

That one chance encounter led to a career as a jazz critic. And even though I should already have entered my jaded years, there are still moments when I put on an album by a musician completely new to me and, as unfamiliar sounds waft out of my speakers, I find I'm that kid again, in front of the boombox, spellbound and eager to learn.

Footnote: Andrey Henkin is a new contributing editor for Stereophile and editorial director for the New York City Jazz Record.

joe149's picture

I also have had a journey that started with Britches Brew - for me it started in college, not understanding the music one iota, but listening enough to finally get it, and to begin to explore all those wonderful musicians, in particular Miles himself, who evolved so incredibly (Picasso-like) in his music and always surrounded himself with musicians worth pursuing for their own great music. Welcome to Stereophile, Andrey!

JoeE SP9's picture

Wow! Bitches Brew as an introduction to jazz. For me it was Charles Lloyd, Dreamweaver and Ramsey Lewis, The In Crowd.

Miles Runs The Voodoo Down is still one of my favorite tunes.

Looking forward to more reviews.

jtshaw's picture

I was eleven years old when my older brother came home after a job fell through and he needed a place to land before starting over. He returned with a small but wide-ranging LP collection and a nice early-70's Marantz stereo. I think the turntable was a Girrard.

Lucky me! He did not mind his kid brother playing his records, and my ears and life opened to new worlds. I had no clue what to make of Bitches Brew, other than the guitarist seemed otherworldly. But I practically wore out his copy of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and I got my introduction to The Grateful Dead and their compatriots like New Riders of the Purple Sage.

To this day I remain always grateful. His good taste started me down my own path, which now largely lies in the vineyards of jazz with occasional forays into rock. I might have a tale or two to tell about a life-altering detour after R.E.M. emerged in 1981-1983. But that's another story and I won't hijack this thread.

Thanks for this article about Bitches Brew. It's a welcome reminder of how a chance encounter early can send us down a wonderful path.

Glotz's picture

And I cannot WAIT until the MoFi re-release comes out this year. I neeeeeed this one. Silent Way also hit again, and I was lucky to hit that along with Jack Johnson and Milesstones.

C'mon MoFi! Don't make us wait!

And yes, JTSHAW, REM was my 80's 'Bitches Brew' as well.

ejlif's picture

I had a similar introduction to jazz. I knew I was channeling it somehow and liked sounds put in places they weren't obvious. An older friend I made that I met in a recording studio class made me a tape and put Miles Davis In a Silent way (shhh peaceful most notably) on it. This is was exactly what I had been dreaming up in my head and changed my musical taste more than any other single bit of music I ever heard.