Acid Jazz Brought the Soul Back To The Dancefloor

If Miles and Teo Macero had treated the studio as an instrument starting back in 1968, an entire generation of music makers was following in their footsteps by the mid-‘80s. Across the Atlantic Ocean, in England, young DJs were under the spell of Acid House, a variation of the Chicago-based House music that had developed in the early ‘80s. Gilles Peterson, a Swiss-born Londoner, grew up listening to American soul music and was soon DJ-ing a weekly teen disco at a local church, hosting parties based around music and dancing, very much as techno-oriented kids in Detroit were doing.

He took up residency in a local wine bar, playing primarily jazz/funk artists such as Maze (the band that inspired Miles Davis’ tune of the same name) and Level 42. During the start of the Acid House scene, Peterson had the idea of mixing the crazy acid beat with the funky jazz he had been working with: “A friend of mine had just come back from Spain and had brought some acid house records with him which he announced were the latest thing. But the dancefloor stayed empty. Then it was my turn and I put on a few jazz pieces. The dancefloor was full. To take the piss out of him I called my music Acid Jazz.”i

Our ‘Acid/Jazz/Brining the Soul’ playlist features over 2 hours of great music

The story may be somewhat apocryphal, as others remember that Peterson was not the only person playing this type of groove-heavy music. Soon the term “acid jazz” was everywhere, and it didn’t take long before it referred to pretty much any electronic dance music overlaid with funky jazz music, primarily fusion and ‘rare groove’ stuff from the 1960s and 1970s. The fusion material was, of course, an outgrowth of Miles Davis’ initial forays into electronics, and the ‘70s work of many of his sidemen was used in acid jazz tracks. The 1960s rare groove material included things like the organ groups of Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery’s guitar workouts, music that was inspired by the hard bop movement that Davis had helped kick off with his recording of “Walkin’.”

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Acid jazz is also a term that has been used to refer to the original recordings by artists like Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd’s Blackbirds, and other rare groove artists. The term “rare groove” refers to the fact that the vinyl albums collected by DJs were rare and difficult to find. DJs often pasted blank labels over the record’s regular label to keep other DJs from finding out what records they were sampling. Using the turntable skills learned from years of development, beginning with disco and gay dance club DJs, up through the original hip-hop pioneers, eventually melded with the electronic music of Kraftwerk to create techno and house, acid jazz DJs and bands (the music could be created through sampling and turntablism, using live musicians, or both) created a heady combination of disco, funk, jazz, hip-hop, soul, and Latin music that was certainly what Miles Davis had been all about since his re-emergence in 1980.

In addition, the music has definite links to On the Corner. Though the sounds used in acid jazz were smoother and more pop-oriented than what Davis had been doing in 1972, the techniques and the fusion of so many elements of separate black music genres, along with exotic touches of world music sounds owes a debt of gratitude to Miles’ earlier electric period as well.

By 1988 Gilles Peterson declared that acid jazz was dead and that no one in the know would call themselves or their music acid jazz any longer, but his partner at the Acid Jazz Records label, Eddie Pillar, continued to work the groove on record and in clubs. In the United States, the term “acid jazz” was slow to catch on, probably because there was far more emphasis on actual bands and less on DJs, and these musicians considered what they were playing to be a natural extension of the funk/rock/jazz experiments that had been in progress more than a decade previous.

It took some time, but soon major jazz record labels with significant back catalogs of soul-jazz began to capitalize on the newfound interest in their artists by releasing collections of their work repackaged to appeal to the new generation of listeners. Prestige began the “Legends of Acid Jazz” series, which includes releases by Idris Muhammad, Bernard Purdie, Jack McDuff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Gene Ammons, and Red Holloway. Not to be outdone, Verve started its “Talkin’ Verve: The Roots Acid Jazz” series, with releases featuring Willie Bobo, Quincy Jones, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Astrud Gilberto, and others. In the words of Eddie Piller, co-founder of the Acid Jazz record label: “The only thing which held the whole thing together was a recognition of what it was not. It was not house, nor was it indie, and that was about it. If you could dance to it and it had sincerity, that was enough.”ii Acid jazz also had an impact on jam bands like Medeski, Martin & Wood.

Eventually, acid jazz stopped being seen as a cohesive movement, and the bands that continued to be interested in producing this kind of music existed as groove bands on their own terms. The James Taylor Quartet, for example, has been around since the initial acid jazz explosion in the UK, and have gone from a band highly influenced by Herbie Hancock and late-‘60s jazz-influenced soundtracks (their first single was a version of Hancock’s music for the film Blow Up) to an organ-based jazz/R&B outfit whose influences include Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, and Richard “Groove” Holmes. The hybrid of ‘60s/’70s soul, jazz, and Latin that acid jazz was based on represented the return of soul to jazz music after the hyperactive histrionics of bebop, and it was brought back largely by the work of Ramsey Lewis’ trio, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, the aforementioned organ masters, and a handful of grooving jazz guitarists and tenor sax players. Taylor’s later work combines these elements with the hard-driving funk workouts of the Meters, and it allows for much more improvisation, which is still at the heart of this music, whether it’s jazz, funk, rock, or whatever.

Bonus Tracks

  • This excellent article from The Guardian, written in 2012, looks at the Acid Jazz record label founded by Gilles Peterson and Eddie Pillar.

  • Bandcamp has created a spreadsheet listing over 1900 Black artists and Black-owned record labels with the help of volunteers. It was originally created as part of Bandcamp's no-fee day on June 5th, but it is an excellent resource in its own right. The spreadsheet lists black artists, producers, and labels as well as the address of their Bandcamp page and their location and musical genre. You can access the spreadsheet here.

  • According to this article from Digital Music News, a track from Richard Pryor's 1974 album That Nigger's Crazy is climbing Spotify's Viral 50 chart, along with "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" by Gil Scott-Heron (1971), "Fuck the Police by NWA (1989) and "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy (1989), 'Kapernick Effect" by JAG (2018), "16 Shots" by Vic Mensa (2016), "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" by James Brown,

  •  On the current Bulls Talk podcast, Laurence Holmes, Jason Goff, Chris Tannehill, and Jay ILLa talk about Michael Jordan's importance to hip hop even though he's not a big fan, why he's still the most referenced NBA player in rap and the importance of music in The Last Dance documentary.  Click here for Apple/iPhone **  Click here for Google Podcasts **  Click here for Spotify

  • Republic Records will no longer use the term 'urban' to define departments, employee job titles, and music genres. They have encouraged the music industry to follow suit, and I have to say that I agree. Urban has served as a code word for black music for far too long in an era where black artists come from many different backgrounds and participate in all styles of music. I've never been a fan of the 'genre-fication' of music into ever-smaller micro-genres that only serve as marketing tools and are, by their very nature, divisive. As Jesse Jackson said in his introduction to Isaac Hayes at Wattstax: “Today on this program you will hear gospel and rhythm and blues and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music.”

Leaving you today with the Donald Byrd track “Dominoes” from the 1975 album Places and Spaces

As always, thanks for reading this newsletter. Have a great day and we’ll see you next week.

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