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Electronic Jazz Part 1: Before the Synthesizer

Jazz with Electronic Music on Tape

What is electronic jazz? It might consist of jazz with electronic sounds on tape, live jazz with an electronically modified jazz instrument, or the use of a synthesizer.

This is part 1 of a three-part series exploring the roots of electronic jazz.

Jazz that incorporates electronic music of some kind, although common today, had roots in the 1960s. The experiments closely followed the availability of technology for making electronic music. There were essentially three waves. The first experiments, covered in this episode, combined jazz with electronic music on tape. In future episodes, we’ll hear about the second and third waves of electronic jazz—that using electronically modified instruments and then the introduction of the synthesizer as a performance instrument.

With the exception of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, featured in this episode, the first wave was mostly practiced by white, Eurocentric artists. The second and third waves were led by African American and Afrocentric musicians and successfully embraced the practice of improvisation. This broke the color barrier in electronic jazz. Names like Eddie Harris, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock come to mind. I’ll feature them in future episodes on this topic.

For this episode, I have nine recordings lined-up that speak to this 1960’s experimentation with jazz and electronic music on tape. Personally, I am always surprised to discover another experiment like the ones I am sharing here. Each was an attempt to get to a new sound frontier. There were no precedents. These experiments, for that’s exactly what they were, were attempts by the artist to perform a new kind of sound playing out in their imagination.


1. André Hodeir: Jazz et Jazz. This French composer created this early experiment in the combination of jazz and tape music in 1960. Hodeir composed this short, three-minute work for jazz ensemble using tape effects combined with live playing to realize the end result you’ll hear. The result is what he called a “composite tape” in which you will hear a normal jazz ensemble plus the sounds of the band manipulated on tape. Listen for his use of tape manipulation techniques borrowed from musique concrète, such transformations as speed changes, tape reversal, filtering, and the playing of the tape upside down, plus chirping microphone taps, and other percussive effects.

2. Terry Riley and Chet Baker, Music for The Gift, part 1. Yes, Terry Riley and trumpeter Chet Baker actually collaborated on a work. This early experiment in tape delay took place in Paris in 1963. Riley was asked to contribute to a small stage production called The Gift which featured the Chet Baker jazz quartet. Riley devised a tape delay setup for this performance using two tape recorders and a long loop of tape tracking from the record head of the first to the playback head of the second. Using this setup, he recorded various passages of the Chet Baker group. The result was a set of looped phrases, blending and overlapping with a variable delay pattern, creating rhythm loops juxtaposed with the tempo of the recorded jazz tracks. The jazz group also played to these loops live, with Riley essentially remixing the material in real time. It makes you wonder what Chet Baker thought of this.

3. Walter De Maria, Cricket Music, 1964 (excerpt). Walter De Maria is best known for his works of environmental art. But he was also a jazz-rock drummer. When he came to New York, he decided to shift his energy from jazz to art. But De Maria continued to dabble with music. He created two astonishingly fresh works that combined field recordings with drumming. We will hear Cricket Music from 1964, an excerpt from this 24-minute private recording of drumming set to the sounds of crickets. De Maria carefully adjusted the mix of the field recordings and drumming so that each type of sound was at times dominant. These are great examples of a musician stretching the imagination of his music by using tape recordings.

4. Bob James, “Untitled Tracks” from Explosions, 1965. Keyboardist Bob James and his trio recorded the album Explosions in 1965 for the independent jazz label ESP Disk. This album combined improvisational jazz with electronic tape music by Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley, whom James knew from Ann Arbor. As to the process that was involved, Gordon Mumma told me, “The tapes we gave him were our compositions that he knew. I recall that his ideas included using them as something of a sound-canvas on which (or with which) his trio would paint their live acoustical sounds.” Explosions consisted of five tracks, three of which had electronic tape parts. The electronics were most prominent in the track Untitled Mixes, heard here, using a tape from Robert Ashley.

5. The next track is from Rahsaan Roland Kirk, “Slippery, Hippery, Flippery,” from Rig, Rig, and Panic in 1965. Kirk was a remarkable multi-instrumentalist. He is best known for his skill at playing two and sometimes three woodwinds at the same time and occasionally added a droning nose flute to create two-, three-, and even four-part harmony with himself. Kirk was also one of the first well-established, full-time jazz musicians to integrate taped electronic sounds into his music. He was interested in musique concrète (moo-ZEE CON-cret), noting that Edgard Varèse was an influence on his music. In the early 1960s he began making tape collages of ambient sounds, conversations, and musical instruments and adding them to his music. The album on which he first included electronic music on tape was his twelfth: Rip, Rig, and Panic in 1965. Here we listen to the track “Slippery, Hippery, Flippery.”

6. Next we hear the track “JazzEx” from 1966 by French composer Bernard Parmegiani. Parmegiani was a veteran of musique concrete, having worked with Pierre Schaeffer at the GRM in Paris. He composed JazzEx in 1966 for electronic tape and jazz quartet. The idea was to see what would happen if the sounds created by a group of improvising jazz musicians were captured, given the musique concrete treatment, and then recombined with the original. This left much with which Parmegiani could experiment in terms of the innate structure of the jazz improvisations, combining them in new ways and adding his own electronic sounds. In June 1966, the work was premiered in front of a live audience at a French arts and music festival. With the quartet on stage, Parmegiani was in the wings mixing the sound and playing the tape part. For the live performance, the musicians in fact reacted to the distortions and permutations of their sound, creating a kind of dialog with the composer off-stage. The interaction of players and tape sounds was an honest approach to improvisation that compensated for the inflexibility of tape.

7. Roger Kellaway was a young American composer who found his calling later as a composer for television and sideman for pop singers. One of the recordings he made during his early life as a jazz artist was Spirit Feel in 1967, recorded live with his quartet at a Los Angeles club. What is generally overlooked about this album is that it also featured Paul Beaver, of Moog Synthesizer fame, playing the “Tape Recorder.” However, you will not hear a Moog on this album. Instead, Kellaway chose to use tape music much the same as Bob James had earlier. He worked with Beaver on two set pieces of electronic tape music used for the performance. We will hear the track “Spirit Feel.” The tape music is non-rhythmic, noise-based and loud and one senses a genuine collision of electronic sounds and the musicians.

8. Next we will hear Frank Zappa from his album Lumpy Gravy in 1968. An admirer of Edgard Varese, Zappa’s early work mixed elements of rock, polyrhythmic jazz, and musique concrète. I’m featuring a segment from about nine minutes into side 1 that is sporadically jazz-like, mixed with tape music. Of interest here are the concrète parts, only about 4 minutes of the total album.

9. We close with this fantastically original album by Barney Wilen, Auto Jazz: The Tragic Destiny of Lorenzo Bandini, part 2, from 1968. Barney Wilen was a noted French jazz alto saxophonist and composer. He was also a fan of Grand Prix auto racing and in May 1967, attended a race in Monaco equipped with three portable reel-to-reel tape recorders to capture the sound of the entire event for a film. Tragically, near the end of the race, Italian driver Lorenzo Bandini was killed when his axle snapped, and the car flipped over in a fiery crash. Saddened but inspired by the tragedy, Wilen used the audio tapes of the race as the basis for a tribute piece – his “total spectacle” of electronic tape and free jazz – called Auto Jazz. The work was divided into five parts corresponding to stages of the race and featured his free-jazz combo playing to the recorded sounds of the actual race. Wilen was careful to let the sounds be themselves, the music being continually jarred and buoyed by the roaring of passing race cars, crowd sounds, PA announcers, and pit crews. The work was performed live in Berlin in November 1968 along with a film of the race.

Working with electronic music on tape did not appeal to the majority of jazz musicians and improvisers. However, at the same time, other innovative jazz musicians were discovering the synthesizer, ring modulator, and a variety of related devices for electronically producing sounds in live performance. We’ll take a look at these trends in future podcasts.

Now for the Archive Mix in which I play two additional tracks at the same time to see what happens. Here are two additional tracks of electronic jazz and tape. They will be excerpts from:

1. Walter De Maria, Ocean Music, privately released, 1968 (excerpt).

2. Barney Wilen, Auto Jazz, part 1, 1968.

Read this important paper by George Lewis on improvisation and jazz origins: George E. Lewis, “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives,” Black Music Research Journal 16, no. 1 (1996): 93.

Also see my paper, Thom Holmes (2018): The Roots of Electronic Jazz, 1950–1970, in Jazz Perspectives

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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