It seems like every few weeks there's another album of jazz standards, classic songs dating as far back as the 1930s, sung by a pop musician. Recently, pop super freak Lady Gaga not only sang a duet with jazz vocalist and crazy-maker Tony Bennett, she stripped down and posed naked in his painting studio for the January issue of Vanity Fair! So where are the boundaries when it comes to music? Isn't jazz supposed to be played by uptight guys in expensive suits while rock 'n' roll is pounded out by hairy dudes in black leather or purple-haired sex kittens in fishnets? The following list of non-jazz artists heavily informed by jazz shows that great musicians, no matter how they may end up being branded by popular culture, enjoy and are inspired by all kinds of music. (Photo by Poiseon Bild & Text)
Concerned not only with how he would sound, but how he would look onstage, a teenaged David Bowie purchased as his first instrument an especially flashy saxophone, a Selmer cream-colored Bakelite acrylic alto saxophone with gold keys. Bowie then boldly phoned up jazz baritone saxophonist Ronnie Russ and asked him for music lessons. After just seven lessons with Russ, the 13-year-old Bowie quit, explaining that he was joining a band and would one day be famous. Years later, Bowie invited Russ to play on "Walk on the Wild Side," a song that would become a hit single from Lou Reed's Transformer album. Bowie has always called upon musicians from the worlds of jazz and the avant-garde to play his music, combining them into hybrid ensembles once unheard of in rock, inspiring Bowie's longtime pianist, the classically-trained improvising virtuoso Mike Garson, to call him "the Miles Davis of rock 'n' roll." Recently, many contemporary jazz musicians, including The Wee Trio and pianist Robert Glasper have begun recording creative interpretations of Bowie's repertoire.
Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts comes from the world of jazz, and brings that world's sense of swing to blues and rock 'n' roll. In his autobiography Life, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards describes Watts' languid "economical" drumming in great detail, explaining that while his hi-hat is always a bit ahead of the beat, it disappears on the two and the four to make way for the snare, which is always a bit behind. "Charlie's quintessentially a jazz drummer," Richards writes. "Which means the rest of the band is a jazz band in a way." Watts has drummed with his own big band for many years now, performing relatively straight ahead arrangements of jazz standards, and even occasionally playing with brushes!
A Tribe Called Quest's relentlessly funky 1991 album The Low End Theory is an innovative and successful blend of hip-hop and the laid-back rhythms of jazz, thanks in no small part to the contributions of jazz great Ron Carter on upright bass. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it as one of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and wrote that at the time of its release "people connected the dots between hip-hop and jazz, both were revolutionary forms of black music based in improvisation and flow, but A Tribe Called Quest's second album drew the entire picture."
Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jimi Hendrix loved jazz and jazz musicians loved him back. Although Hendrix was self-taught and couldn't read music, he was highly regarded by trained musicians from the world of jazz, including drummer Tony Williams whose band Lifetime was inspired in part by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And in fact, Hendrix was preparing to record an album with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis before his untimely passing. His swinging "Up From the Skies" from the album Axis: Bold As Love features a groove and brushwork that's straight out of modern jazz. Jazz arranger Gil Evans orchestrated and recorded a big band version of "…Skies" and many other Hendrix tunes, including "Voodoo Chile," which features a tuba taking on the role of an electric guitar!
From the very beginning, Joni Mitchell's music had a harmonic vocabulary and rhythmic approach that separated her from fellow folkies. On her sixth album Court and Spark (please note, this was back in the day when artists had careers that lasted more than a year and whose body of work included several albums), Mitchell employed musicians from the jazz fusion band L.A. Express, including Joe Sample on keyboards, Tom Scott on saxophone and flute, and Larry Carlton on guitar. The great fretless bassist Jaco Pastorius would become a frequent collaborator, and later, Mitchell would collaborate with the great bassist and composer Charles Mingus on a full-length very un-folk-like album that amazingly went to number 17 on the Billboard charts.
The influence of jazz on "outlaw country" music legend Willie Nelson can be heard in the utterly unique phrasing he employs when singing a song and in his collaborations with contemporary Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Nelson has always pushed the form of classic country music, while acknowledging and exploring its roots. Back in 1978, Nelson recorded Stardust, one of the earliest examples of an album of jazz standards sung by a non-jazz artist that, much to the surprise of his record company, went on to sell 5 million copies.
In 1959, when singer, songwriter, and guitarist Lou Reed first heard alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman playing free jazz, he thought: "What a great thing to do on electric guitar!" Reed would go on to form The Velvet Underground, one of the most influential and experimental rock bands ever, and later feature Coleman and free jazz cornet and pocket trumpeter Don Cherry on his solo recordings. Most recently, Reed performed a set of freely improvised music with saxophonist John Zorn and violinist and multimedia artist Laurie Anderson at the Montreal International Jazz Festival and, like Coleman and his fellow musicians years before, was roundly booed by the audience who were probably expecting a sing-along version of Reed's "Sweet Jane."
The talented and enigmatic Prince has said his father, the jazz pianist and composer John L. Nelson, inspired him to become a musician. After a long period of father-son estrangement, the two reconciled as Prince's career was skyrocketing, and co-composed a handful of songs, including "The Ladder" from Around the World in a Day and the haunting "Under the Cherry Moon" from Parade. In 1987, Prince embraced his jazz pedigree by collaborating with saxophonist Eric Leeds on two albums of instrumental jazz-funk titled Madhouse 8 and Madhouse 16. There are no musician credits on either album, possibly because Prince was concerned at how jazz critics would receive the music. Both albums, rare and treasured by musicians, including jazzers, are now acknowledged as predecessors to the so-called "acid-jazz" movement.
Did you know that Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich's father owned a jazz club back in the '50s and reviewed jazz for Copenhagen's newspapers? Ulrich's father, who also enjoyed the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, would play his son plenty of jazz records to try and get him excited about great drummers like Max Roach and Elvin Jones. Some of those early listening experiences would inform the rhythmic concepts and complex time signatures heard on albums like Metallica's classic Master of Puppets.