Don't gonna play that kling-kling jazz:
a prehistory of jazz-rock

By Geoff Wills

When rock and roll emerged in the mid 1950s, many jazz musicians were witheringly scornful about this supposedly moronic music. Their attitude is perhaps typified by Stan Freberg’s 1956 spoof on The Platters’ recording ‘The Great Pretender’. When asked to play a simple riff, the hipster pianist hired for the session says,” I don’t wanna play that lick no more, man. I come from a different school, like Shearing, Erroll Garner, dig man, oobi-oobi-a … don’t bug me man, don’t gonna play that kling-kling jazz”.

And yet one has only to look a little closer to see that the links between jazz, on the one hand, and rock and pop on the other, have always been symbiotic. In the 1950s Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Ahmad Jamal, Stan Kenton, Andre Previn and George Shearing all had top 20 LPs in the US top 40 album charts. From the 1950s onwards, jazz often filtered through into the world of popular music in a subtle way, wielding a subliminal influence that laid the foundations for jazz-rock.

Wailing Saxes

Illinois Jacquet

Jazz had an immediate influence on rock and roll via the saxophone. Arguably, the trigger for this was the work of tenorist Illinois Jacquet with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra in the 1940s. His extravert honking solo on "Flying Home" made him famous and became the prototype for future rock saxophone solos. Other influential tenorists, employing a similar sound but coming more directly from a rhythm and blues background, included Big Jay McNeely, Sil Austin and Lee Allen. Altoist Earl Bostic was also influential with records like his hit version of "Flamingo" (1951). A hint of the Bostic sound can be detected in the alto playing of John Zorn, for instance on his Naked City album (1990).

Moonlighting Jazzers

Boots Brown

As early as 1952 Shorty Rogers, whose music was the epitome of West Coast cool, was masquerading as Boots Brown on an album entitled Rock That Beat with a band called The Blockbusters, in whose ranks lurked Bud Shank, Gerry Mulligan and Shelly Manne. Jimmy Giuffre, later known for his intimate clarinet style, produced an extroverted solo on the tune “Blockbuster” that ranks with Illinois Jacquet’s work. A later Boots Brown release, “Cerveza,” featured Bud Shank, Jimmy Rowles and Mel Lewis in the band—and the recording reached number 23 in the US charts in 1958.

Also in 1958, veteran jazz drummer Cozy Cole had a surprise hit with “Topsy,” parts I and II. This undoubtedly laid the foundations for other drum-oriented instrumentals such as those by Sandy Nelson. 1958 was the year that another jazz musician, the Canadian Moe Koffman, had a hit with “The Swingin’ Shepherd Blues.” Other hit singles by jazz musicians that set precedents for jazz-rock in a variety of ways included “One Mint Julep” by Ray Charles (1960), “Desafinado” by Stan Getz, “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” by Vince Guaraldi and “Walk On The Wild Side” by Jimmy Smith, all in 1962.

The Wrecking Crew

In his book Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story, Tony Scherman states that

The original rock and rollers—Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly and their ragtag backup groups—were amateurs, inspired tinkerers: folk musicians, really. By the late fifties, rock was too lucrative to be entrusted to untrained labor. The manufacture of hit records required a new worker, hip enough to understand the music, disciplined enough to crank out an album a day. Talented musicians streamed into late-fifties L.A. . . . The best of the new hired guns. . . became rock and roll’s Wizards of Oz, unsung, and essential in the evolution of the music.

The core of this group of musicians came to be known as the Wrecking Crew, because the older, more conservative, blue-blazered group of L.A. session musicians thought they were wrecking the session scene until their musicianship was grudgingly acknowledged. Many of these younger musicians—including Rene Hall, Plas Johnson, Earl Palmer, Ernest McLean, Harold Battiste and Mac Rebennack—came from New Orleans, and the majority had a background in jazz. Others included drummer Hal Blaine, guitarists Tommy Tedesco, Barney Kessel and Howard Roberts, bassists Carol Kaye, Red Callender, Lyle Ritz and Jimmy Bond, and pianists Don Randi, Larry Knechtel and Michael Melvoin.

Carol Kaye, in an article in Downbeat, provided insights into this scene when she said:

Rock and roll was a dirty word among L.A. bebop musicians in the late 1950s. . . . But if it hadn’t been for the huge hidden jazz influence in the 1960s hits, that musical era might never have happened. . . . Producers asked us to improvise lines, patterns and spontaneous arrangements featuring key changes, breaks, montuno lines, riff lines, fills. . . . These arrangements came directly from jazz improvisation, the things we’d do in our jazz playing and the arranging spontaneity that took place every night in the jazz clubs.

These musicians played on scores of hit records, contributing their jazz sensibilities. As Carol Kaye said: “We made good money, earned a lot of respect and made the music groove.”

Plas Johnson

 The Pink Panther

John “Plas” Johnson (born 1931) has been ubiquitous in the world of rock/pop and session music and he has played on thousands of recordings. The instantly recognizable sound of his rich, rasping tenor sax has appeared on records like ‘Moovin’n’Groovin’ and ‘Ramrod’ by Duane Eddy, the original hit version of “The Peter Gunn Theme” by Ray Anthony, ‘Cerveza’ by Boots Brown (Shorty Rogers) and “The Pink Panther Theme” by Henry Mancini. Yet Johnson is a tenorist (and altoist and flautist) who is equally convincing in both rock and jazz, as witness, for instance, his album The Blues (1975). As a jazz musician he is a full-toned soloist in the Hawkins/Webster/Byas tradition, and in having his feet in many camps he has been a highly influential forerunner of jazz-rock musicians like Michael Brecker and Tom Scott.

Les Baxter and Exotica

 Les Baxter

Les Baxter was a pianist, tenor saxophonist and singer who worked with Artie Shaw and Mel Torme. After working as an arranger for the Bob Hope radio show he arranged sessions at Capitol Records, and from 1950 he released some twenty albums under his own name on the label. These albums established the characteristics of the style that came to be known as exotica. Rebecca Leydon (1999) gives a vivid description of Baxter’s music:

… Baxter depicts ghostly abandoned cities, cities in ruins, the once bustling metropolis engulfed by encroaching natural forces, as in the ephemeral ‘Sunken City’ from Jewels of the Sea (1960) and ‘Lost City’ from African Jazz (1958). By far Baxter’s most frequently recurring pictorial theme is the jungle. The hugely influential Ritual of the Savage of 1951 marks the definitive inauguration of American post-war exotica.

Within the ranks of his orchestra Baxter used jazz musicians like vibist Larry Bunker and Plas Johnson, who contributed sensuous solos on the albums Jungle Jazz and African Jazz. It is not hard to recognize echoes of exotica in much jazz-rock: the influence becomes apparent if, after listening to “Amazon Falls” from Jungle Jazz one turns to, for instance, Don Sebesky’s “The Rape of El Morro” (1975), Weather Report’s “Black Market” (1976) or “Safari” by Steps Ahead (1984).


The Shadows

In the 1950s and early 1960s some rock musicians included the odd jazz number, however innocuous, on their albums. Duane Eddy recorded “Route Number 1” in 1959, while his colleague in the Rebel Rousers, guitarist Al Casey, recorded versions of “Tenderly,” “Laura” and “On Green Dolphin Street” in 1960 and 1961. In England, the premier pop-instrumental group The Shadows featured a jaunty tune entitled “Nivram” on their first album in 1961.

One recording of note from 1961 is “Image” by arranger Hank Levine. Beginning life as a radio station identity theme for Los Angeles KFWB, it was developed into a full-blown instrumental featuring the ever-present Plas Johnson on alto, pianist Gene Garf, vibist Emil Richards, and drummer Earl Palmer. It reached number 45 in the British charts and was later covered successfully by British organist Alan Haven. Probably influenced by Andre Previn’s “Like Young” (1959), “Image” featured a theme stated by alto sax that prefigured to some extent the work of David Sanborn, and funky piano against a background of strings.

However anodyne these musical examples may appear, they do seem to demonstrate that broad-minded musicians were prepared to blend influences from the mid-1950s onwards.

Movie Jazz, Henry Mancini and John Barry

 The Man With The Golden Arm

The casual fan or writer often associates jazz soundtracks with the classic films noirs of the 1940s, but it’s a mistake to do so. It was only when jazz attained a certain respectability in the 1950s that Hollywood was prepared to use it non-diagetically (i.e., not linked to a source of music on screen), to conjure up an atmosphere of post-World War II urban angst. The work of Alex North (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951) and Leonard Rosenman (Rebel Without A Cause, 1955) springs to mind, and this style of music is epitomized by Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), with its nod towards Stan Kenton pieces like ‘Minor Riff’, especially in the “Main Title” theme.

Indeed David Butler, in his book Jazz Noir (2002) argues convincingly that Kenton was the most influential musician in shaping jazz’s use in film during this period. As he states, “The neuroticism and aggression of Kenton’s concept of jazz … made it an appropriate musical model for the scores of 1950s film noir and social problem films.”

      Stan Kenton, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

The Kenton sound had a direct influence on what is arguably the first jazz-rock recording, the theme from the TV series Peter Gunn, composed by Henry Mancini. Taking a twangy rock riff inspired by musicians like Duane Eddy and the Ventures ( of course Eddy repaid the compliment with a recording of ‘Peter Gunn’), Mancini’s arrangement combined it with blaring big band jazz which featured a tenor sax solo by Plas Johnson (again!) on the original hit recording by Ray Anthony (1958). As David Butler says, the inspiration for the Peter Gunn music sprang directly from Mancini’s previous film score, for Orson Welles’s A Touch of Evil (1958), with its mixture of big band and rock. This, in turn, was inspired by the Stan Kenton album Cuban Fire (1956).

The Kenton influence continued in Britain in the music of John Barry, who had studied with Kenton arranger Bill Russo via a correspondence course entitled “Composition and Orchestration for the Jazz Orchestra.” Barry’s “Main Title” from the film Beat Girl (1959) might be subtitled Bill Russo meets Duane Eddy, and his recordings “Beat for Beatniks,” with its ominous and relentless ostinato, and “Big Fella” (both 1960), inspired by Elmer Bernstein’s Johnny Staccato theme, bear the unmistakable Kenton stamp. Barry continued the jazz influence in his 1962 Dave Brubeck-influenced recordings “Cutty Sark” and “Fancy Dance.”

The 2i’s and The Flamingo

2i's Coffee Bar

In 1956 the 2i's Coffee Bar opened in London’s Soho, and soon became the mecca for British skiffle and rock and roll. The venue acted as a magnet for Britain’s young rock musicians, who frequently started out as jazz fans. For instance, Brian Bennett, later to become the drummer with The Shadows, listened as a boy to Willis Conover’s jazz radio program on The Voice of America.

Two significant British musicians both had inauspicious beginnings in the town of Leigh, Lancashire. These were pianist Mike O’Neill and pianist/vocalist Clive Powell, later to become Georgie Fame, and their careers were destined to cross paths, as were members of their bands. In 1957 O’Neill arrived at the 2i’s, and had soon played with a number of rock groups before forming Nero and the Gladiators, whose personnel included guitarist Colin Green and bassist Boots Slade.

Meanwhile Clive Powell had arrived in London, had played in Billy Fury’s backing group and been renamed Georgie Fame by manager Larry Parnes. While out of work and staying at Mike O’Neill’s flat, Fame spent a lot of time listening to O’Neill’s record collection, which included albums by Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, King Pleasure, Chet Baker and Cannonball Adderley. These influences proved to be significant in Fame’s musical direction.

Pete Frame (1997) is correct when he says:

The rise of rhythm and blues in Britain was a two-pronged affair—spearheaded simultaneously by Alexis Korner. . . playing what we can call Marquee R & B, and Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames, specialising in what we can describe as Flamingo R & B. Both groups hit the scene around the same time—February/March 1962. . .

Fame and The Blue Flames first played at Soho’s Flamingo, then almost exclusively a modern jazz club, when they deputised at a “Twist session”, and did so well that they stayed on. Black American GIs who came to the club turned Fame on to Eddie Jefferson, Richard Groove Holmes, Oscar Brown, Booker T and Jimmy Smith. Tenorist Mick Eve, whose own band had included Brian Auger, John McLaughlin and baritone saxist Glenn Hughes, joined Fame—he later said, “It was the first time I’d been in a band which could do commercial gigs as well as being musical! The Blue Flames was like a fusion of both sides – jazz rock!”

Personnel of The Blue Flames included, at different times, Colin Green and Boots Slade from Nero and the Gladiators; session guitarist Joe Moretti, John McLaughlin and Glenn Hughes, who all also worked with ex-Shadows Jet Harris and Tony Meehan; and jazz drummers Phil Seamen and Bill Eyden. The latter was replaced by Mitch Mitchell, later to join Jimi Hendrix. The music was a mixture of jazz, sophisticated rhythm and blues, and West Indian styles, and was very influential.

Interestingly, Pete Frame notes that by the end of 1964, Fame’s manager Rik Gunnell “operated Europe’s biggest R & B agency. On his books were … John Mayall, Zoot Money, The Cheynes, Ronnie Jones, Elkie Brooks, Chris Farlowe, Tony Colton … and many more. All were fortunate to get maximum exposure at the Flamingo before gigging further afield.”

Georgie Fame

Another musician who worked in a similar musical area to that of Georgie Fame was pianist Brian Auger. Starting off with a jazz trio featuring Rick Laird on bass and Phil Kinorra (formerly with Don Rendell and soon to become Julian Covay in a group called The Machine) on drums, he augmented the group with John McLaughlin and Glenn Hughes. Developing a liking for Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff, he bought a Hammond organ and reverted to a trio format. Rik Gunnell booked him into all the clubs and discotheques that were springing up, and, influenced by Mose Allison, Auger added vocals to his repertoire.

Over the next few years Auger moved through a series of musical developments, incorporating along the way contributions from singers Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart and Julie Driscoll in the band Steampacket. Auger’s Trinity, including guitarist Gary Boyle, was an excellent jazz-rock band featuring numbers like Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” Boyle later left to form his own influential band Isotope.

Manfred Mann

Any survey of the pre-history of British jazz-rock would be incomplete without mentioning Manfred Mann. Born Michael Lubowitz in South Africa, he was an aspiring jazz musician who took lessons from jazz pianist and educator John Mehagen and studied theory at Johannesburg University. On arriving in Britain in 1962 he taught, and wrote a series on jazz theory for Jazz News magazine. The group Manfred Mann had a string of chart successes, but their music was always underpinned with a jazz feeling, not only from Mann, but also from the drumming and vibes playing of Mike Hugg and the alto sax of Mike Vickers. Their album Soul of Mann contained a set of instrumentals including Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack O’ Woe” and Milt Jackson’s “Spirit Feel,” and there was a strong jazz feel to their soundtrack for the film Up the Junction (1968). In 1966 jazz musicians Henry Lowther and Lyn Dobson were members of the band.


When rock and roll emerged in the 1950s, jazz began to impinge upon it in a variety of ways. In its turn, rock and roll influenced jazz, laying the foundations for the fully-fledged jazz-rock music that appeared in the 1960s.


June 18, 2009 · 4 comments

  • 1 mrebks // Jun 18, 2009 at 05:03 PM
    Definitely a well-researched and thought-provoking survey. But i can't quite tell if Mr. Wills is arguing for direct influences, or serendipitous in-the-air connections among working musicians, or in some cases simply introducing us to backwaters and bywaters that eventually dried up. Maybe all three? This is tantamount to the critic's game, "What was the first rock 'n' roll recording?"--i.e., Jacquet on "Flying Home"? Jacquet at the first major JATP concert ("Perdido," maybe)? Some jump blues of the Thirties, by Louis Jordan or other shouter? A Twenties blues with lyrics on the order of "rock me, roll me all night long"? Anyway, an interesting miscellany of whatever-bag-you're-in items...
  • 2 Alan Kurtz // Jun 18, 2009 at 07:44 PM
    One of the reasons I like Ed Leimbacher is that he often says things I disagree with. What else are friends for? In this instance, I differ with him as to Geoff Wills's survey being "definitely well-researched." I find it shallow. Maybe the problem is semantics. I've never understood the distinction between prehistory and history. My dictionary defines prehistory as an account of "the antecedents of an event," and history as "a chronological record of significant events often including an explanation of their causes." How, then, does prehistory differ from history? The adjective prehistoric means "relating to times antedating written history." Yet since nothing within the scope of Geoff Wills's purported "prehistory of jazz-rock" antedates written history, that can't be intended here. Perhaps Wills's "prehistory" connotes the immediate antecedents of jazz-rock, which would explain why he limits himself almost entirely to the 1950s and early '60s. The only earlier recording he singles out is Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home" (1942). Yikes! How can any self-respecting survey of jazz-rock history/prehistory overlook Big Joe Turner's "Cherry Red" (1939)? Big Joe's imposing frame straddled the Swing Era and early rock 'n' roll like the Colossus of Rhodes. "You can rock me, baby, till my face turns cherry red."

    Geoff Wills also misses the boat to the enchanting land of Exotica by concentrating on Les Baxter, who was to jazz as Calvin Coolidge was to comedy. (When informed that President Coolidge had died, Dorothy Parker inquired: "How can they tell?") Honestly, how can Geoff Wills mention Jungle Jazz even in passing without referring to Duke Ellington? For a jazzier guided tour, see here:
  • 3 Alex // Jun 19, 2009 at 05:15 PM
    For some more information on another instrumentalist who straddled jazz and rock/r&b, see my recently-posted profile of trombonist Bennie Green at the Encyclopedia:
  • 4 Geoff Wills // Jun 20, 2009 at 04:35 PM
    Regarding my article A Pre-History of Jazz-Rock, I was flattered to catch the attention of Alan Kurtz,'s resident curmudgeon. He says that he's never understood the difference between pre-history and history. The idea for my article came from reading Stuart Nicholson's Jazz-Rock: A History (1998). This is an excellent book, but to my mind its history starts too late: i.e. around 1962. From the time the wider public became aware of rock and roll, around the mid-1950s, jazz wielded a subtle, if intermittent, influence on it. Thus, my pre-history starts around 1955 and goes up to around the time Nicholson's history starts, and also fills in some bits he misses out. Kurtz also feels that I missed the boat to the enchanting land of Exotica. I'm fully aware of the jazz exotica to which he refers, but I was focussing on the specific genre of exotica that existed through the 1950s to the early 1960s, encompassed by the work of people like Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Korla Pandit and Yma Sumac. Kurtz finds my survey shallow. Well, it was only meant to be a starting point, and no-one else has done one. I'd be happy to go deeper. As for Ed Leimbacher's query as to whether I was arguing for direct influences, the answer is yes. For instance, I cite Carol Kaye as saying that jazz session musicians knowingly and consciously infused jazz influences into pop records. And by the same token, pop musicians like Duane Eddy consciously included jazz numbers among their pop material.