Pioneering Jazz Funk Musicians & Albums

​​As part of our dive into the different styles of jazz, we take a look at one of the later off-shoots of the genre known as jazz funk.

From the mid sixties onwards, jazz started to evolve at an alarming rate. 

Previously there had been an advancement in the music or stylistic shift roughly every decade, with early jazz in the 1920s, swing in the 1930s, bebop in the 1940s, and hard bop in the 1950s.

However, the most divisive and controversial among jazz aficionados was the 1960s that first saw the advent of free jazz and, towards the end of the decade, experiments fusing jazz improvisation with rock music.

This new form of the genre had hardly seemed to get a foothold when sub-genres were branching off taking their cues from the popular music of the day and the increasing use and development of electric instruments. 

Electric guitars and bass guitars, keyboards and synthesizers were all incorporated along with back beats and groove to form what became known as jazz funk.

This style mixed improvisation, soul and R’n’B with an emphasis on catchy melodic hooks, strong bass lines and in-the-pocket beats from the drummer.  

Jazz funk reached its height of popularity in the 1970s in America, but its influence would find its way across the pond having a profound effect on the UK club circuit too.

Often looked down upon by jazz purists, the music has continued to evolve.

Often regarded as crossover genre which has a more general appeal than jazz, it perhaps resonates more closely with the pop audiences than those of more straight-ahead jazz. 

Close to Soul jazz, fusion and even Smooth jazz, it nonetheless occupies its own unique space in the music and can often be heard sampled by modern DJs and hip hop artists.

Whilst the music continues to become more and more fractured, we’ve rounded up some of the early pioneers of jazz funk and their most influential albums…

Miles Davis

The trumpeter seems synonymous with any new development of jazz, not just as a participant but more often than not as an innovator. 

No sooner than he had established the template for jazz rock, he was off again searching for new sounds and means of musical expression.

Davis had always kept his ears open to the current music scene. He was an avid fan of Jimi Hendrix, and had always expressed his liking for James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. 

It should therefore come as no surprise that Miles would wish to explore the music being produced by these innovative young musicians, and dip his toe into the world of funk.

Recommended Listening: Miles Davis – On The Corner (1974)

Misunderstood at the time, On The Corner stands up remarkably well nearly fifty years after its release. 

The music is ever-changing with a cast of musicians that come and go from one track to the next. 

Some of the tunes are quite dark, and the use of electric sitar as well as Fender Rhodes and bass guitar created a totally new soundscape.

The underlying funk influence is clearly audible and the failure to attract a young black audience to this music was perhaps only down to the way it was marketed by Columbia – who frankly did not know what to make of Davis’s music of this period.

Herbie Hancock

One of the most famous products of Miles Davis’ great quintets, pianist Herbie Hancock dived deep into the world of electronics, with more than fifty detailed on his website

With hit songs like “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man” he was perhaps the most recognisable personality in the development of what we now call jazz funk. 

Recommended Listening: Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters (1973)

Much more accessible that his former boss’s attempts at breaking into the jazz funk arena, Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album stands as milestone recording in the genre. Although, as with On The Corner, the tracks were quite long, this is what the audience of the day wanted.

Tight grooves that were not drowned out or disguised by the other instruments, good catchy melodies and rock solid bass line. In a memorable album every track is a classic of the genre from the synthesized bass intro of ‘Chameleon’ and the slow groove and tight arrangement of ‘Sly’ that also features some inspired solos.

Check out review of the album Head Hunters here.

Stanley Clarke

One of the first electric bassists to stand out as a solo artist in the world of jazz, Stanley Clarke started out on double bass playing straight ahead with Stan Getz and Curtis Fuller among others. 

It was in the fusion band Return To Forever with Chick Corea, though, that Clarke started to bring the electric bass guitar to prominence.

As a complete virtuoso musician and improviser, he was able to demonstrate how the instrument could be a flexible and melodic lead voice.

Recommended Listening:  Stanley Clarke – School Days (1976)

With Schooldays, his fourth solo album, Stanley Clarke laid down one of the most definitive funk bass lines in the tune that he would indelibly be associated with. 

Schooldays’ has that instantly memorable bass riff and melody that sticks in the mind.

It is also features Clarke’s signature sound on the instrument made for him by Alembic in 1973 and which he continues to use to this day. 

If it’s the title track that is most well known, one should not forget ‘The Dancer’ which has another of those infectious bass lines and grooves and ‘Hot Fun’ which takes funky to the next level.

Billy Cobham

One of the pioneering fusion drummers of the 1970s, Billy Cobham has gone on to inspire successive generations of drummers. 

Famous for his use of a double bass drum-fronted set up with racks of tom toms and cymbals, the Panama-born drummer was a powerhouse performer who drove relentlessly (yet with extreme good taste and technique) any group that he found himself in.

Cobham played a key role in the music of Miles Davis, playing on Bitches Brew and A Tribute To Jack Johnson. He was also present for John McLaughlin’s first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra

As a solo artist, Cobham released his first album Spectrum (1973) to huge critical acclaim, and continued to make striking fusion albums throughout the seventies.

Recommended Listening:  Billy Cobham – A Funky Thide of Sings (1975)

The most overtly attempt at a jazz funk album, critics were dismissive of this offering from Cobham, but listening again there is some much fine music to be found in the drummer’s fifth solo album. 

‘Thinking of You’ has everything that the genre demands with a strong melody, in-the-pocket drumming and a bass line to match.

The horn arrangements are difficult to fault and produce some fine solos. 

The most well known track is the opening ‘Panhandler’, that takes its cue from Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album with the added horn section for good measure.

Yusef Lateef

Primarily a tenor saxophonist and flautist, Yusef Lateef also played bassoon and oboe along with a variety of ethnic flutes. 

He would bring all of these instruments to the fore in a straight ahead jazz setting, coming to prominence in the latter half of the 1950s. 

A decade later, Lateef would be incorporating other influences into his music, including soul and gospel music as well as the blues and funk.

Recommended Listening: Yusef Lateef’s Detroit: Latitude 42° 30′ Longitude 83° (1969)

An early attempt to incorporate a funk element into his music, Lateef returned to Detroit where he grew up to record this album. 

Introducing percussion, a string trio as well as electric bass and horn section, Detroit: Latitude 42° 30′ Longitude 83° brings together all these disparate sounds into a coherent group sound. 

The record features some excellent jazz solos from the leader, all the while underpinning the music with a firm rhythmic foundation.

Overlooked and under-appreciated at the time, there are some excellent arrangements and Lateef plays some fine tenor and flute throughout. 

Donald Byrd

Another hard bop player who made his reputation in the fifties, like many of his contemporaries he could not resist the temptation to explore the musical avenues being opened up by technology and the pop music of the day.

His pedigree as a jazz musician is impeccable, having been a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and playing with Pepper Adams, Gigi Gryce, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy and Herbie Hancock.

Recommended Listening: Donald Byrd – Street Lady (1974)

By the early seventies, Byrd was also attracted to broadening the appeal of his music, and the sounds of gospel, soul and funk that were becoming popular. 

Listening once more to Street Lady one is struck by the production. 

Clean and bright, the trumpeter sounds strong in this setting, despite the fact that the music is often rather saccharine with nothing outstanding.

It’s very much on the smoother end of jazz funk music, and often the best moments come from Byrd’s trumpet solos which are peppered throughout the album.

Buddy Rich

Often described as one of the best jazz drummers of all time, Buddy Rich’s ability to drive a big band has never been in doubt. 

He was also a fine drummer for small groups and was remarkably adaptable and seemingly able to fit in with any style of jazz, as his flirtations with jazz funk showed.

Recommended Listening: Buddy Rich – The Roar of ’74 (1974)

In a surprising yet logical move, Buddy Rich presented his Big Band performing a set of arrangements that prominently displayed the pervading influence of funk that was creeping into jazz.

Employing the services of arrangers Manny Albam, Ernie Wilkins and Don Menza among others, and deploying his star soloist, Pat La Barbara on tenor and soprano saxophones, Buddy Rich unleased The Roar Of ‘74. 

Perhaps what is most remarkable is to hear the drummer holding down the groove on ‘Big Mac’ that features some dynamic laying from La Barbara and guitarist, Joe Beck.

Weather Report

Another group to come out of Miles Davis’s first jazz rock bands, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboard maestro Joe Zawinul both played with the trumpeter on some of his seminal albums prior to forming the fusion band Weather Report along with bassist Miroslav Vitouš.

The band went through various incarnations over its 16-year lifespan from 1970 to 1986, constantly evolving over time, and increasingly becoming a vehicle for Zawinul’s compositions.

Recommended Listening: Weather Report – Sweetnighter (1973)

This album catches Weather Report in a transitional state from the collective and collaborative nature of the first two albums. 

This third recording would ultimately result in the departure of founding member Vitous and Zawinul’s increasing influence over the direction of the group.

This first foray into a funkier approach to the music is spellbinding. The epic ‘Boogie Woogie Waltz’ would become a staple component in the bands live performances for some years, as would the equally compelling ‘125th Street Congress’.

Lonnie Liston Smith

Initially making his reputation as jazz pianist of some repute, Lonnie Liston Smith played with Betty Carter and Rahsaan Roland Kirk in the early sixties, as well as a stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

He would go onto perform with Miles Davis, and also recorded on three of Pharoah Sanders most influential albums. On one of these – Thembi – the pianist first played the Fender Rhodes electric piano; an introduction to the instrument that would help define his sound and playing thereafter.

Recommended Listening: Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes – Cosmic Funk (1974)

Forming his own band in the 1970s, the Cosmic Echoes would continue to be the keyboard players’ primary mode of expression for twelve years, resulting in 14 albums with the band. 

Cosmic Funk was their second outing and is a bit of a mixed bag, featuring Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’ alongside some of Smith’s more funk-driven jazz fusion. Some of the music comes across more astral than funky, but the title track is the real deal.

Thanks for reading this brief history of the beginnings of jazz funk. 

As the various sub-genres become more and more fractured, it’s a great idea to do your own listening research and we hope this piece will provide a springboard to that discovery! 

Looking for some connected topics? Check out our in-depth guide to Jazz Fusion albums or the music of Weather Report.

1 thought on “Pioneering Jazz Funk Musicians & Albums”

  1. Great article Matt,
    You provide a go to listing of artists to get an essence of the jazz funk genre!
    I’ve been a subscriber to your website for approximately a year as a way of becoming a more knowledgeable jazz listener. Some artists, using Miles Davis an an example, have more attractive arrangements in the hard bop era then when he delved into free jazz expression.
    What I would like to see in a future article is a side by side listing of straight ahead jazz artists and jazz funk artists, and a comparison of their styles/musical structure so I can make purchases that are more meaningful to my growing interest.
    Thanks for this site and your work!!!!! Mark Mrsa


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