ZEPPELIN IN JAZZLAND: Their Jazz Influences
(Excerpted from Proximity #30, July 1998)
(An unedited version of this article appears in the issue )
It goes without saying that Led Zeppelin were a rock band, in fact one of the heaviest rock bands ever-and for better or worse, their name will forever be linked to that most limited of musical genres, heavy metal.
On the other hand, it's equally obvious that Zeppelin were always much more than merely a heavy rock band. The tremendous level of their success and the incredible staying power of their music and appeal is something that eludes other heavy bands from the same era such as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath-good as they were in their own right-and one of the main reasons for this is the great diversity of musical influences that Page, Jones, Bonham and Plant brought to the band.
Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, of course, had cut their musical teeth as session players, learning more of the technical aspects of playing than most rock musicians do, and also performing music of many different styles as hired guns in the studio.
Actual examples of jazz style are few and far between on Zeppelin's albums-the swinging intro to "How Many More Times" and the latin, samba feel of "Fool In The Rain" are probably the only concrete examples-however the band's live performances are a different story. As explored in John Mattar's accompanying piece in this issue, the extended improvisations of "No Quarter" and elements of Bonham's drum solos and other spontaneous live moments distinctly displayed the influence and feel of improvisational jazz.
The jazz influence on Led Zeppelin, however, was not just in the sound of the music. It was evident in their willingness to experiment, to allow each musician their own space to 'blow' and go off on lengthy, spontaneous tangents. It was an attitude as much as anything, exemplified by a comment Robert Plant once made about legendary jazz drummer-and direct influence on Bonzo-Buddy Rich: "Buddy Rich was always a big deal for all of us. His personality, his attitude and his playing were basically like ours, but he was twenty-eight years further on down the line. He played with such venom at times, and with such ease!"
Of the four, John Paul Jones was probably the most directly influenced by jazz. He was raised in a musical family-his dad played in the well known Ambrose Orchestra in the big band era, and he insisted that his son learn to play and write music. His initial advice was to take up saxophone, but the young Jones became interested in the bass at an early age, and once he convinced his dad that there was plenty of work for bassists he got full support in his endeavors.
Jones started playing professionally right out of school, his first gig being with the Jet Harris & Tony Meehan Band, who at the time had two hit records and a considerable following. "John Paul always had good taste and good ideas," recalls Tony Meehan. "We were doing the sort of things which Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears came up with a few years later, but we were booed off the stage with some of it, the mainstream jazz things."
"John Paul's contribution to my band had been very significant. . . and he was only a kid then. He's well read, a thinker, very intelligent. For John Paul, rock'n'roll was obviously neither the beginning nor the end of his musical potential. I think rock was really only a vehicle for him-he would have been equally at home in either a jazz group or a classical orchestra. He was and is a musician's musician. He served his apprenticeship with us and then he moved on to session work and arranging."
Jones himself recalls, "I remember that Jet Harris & Tony Meehan band-[jazz guitarist] John Mclaughlin joined on rhythm guitar. It was the first time I'd met him, and it was hilarious. Here he was sitting there all night going Dm to G to Am. That was my first introduction to jazz when he came along, because we'd all get to the gig early and have a blow."
John Bonham was the big soul lover of the group, a fan of the Stylistics and the smooth "Philly Sound," and more obviously the heavily rhythmic funk of James Brown and his killer rhythm sections. But Bonzo also had his jazz influences, specifically Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.
When Zeppelin performed at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall in October 1969, Bonham was reportedly very excited to be playing on the same stage where these jazz legends had performed and recorded previously. "This is it lads," he said as they prepared to go on, "Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich-they've all played here. So I'd better be good tonight!" In his review of the show, Chris Welch indicated that Bonzo did just fine. "Bonham's drum solo was a 30 minute marathon which sounds as if it would be very boring. It wasn't. With a combination of speed, brute strength and ideas he flew around the kit in a blur that remained true to the 30 year old tradition laid down by Krupa on the same spot, with jet age expertise. He produced one blockbuster after another and for a considerable part of the solo, maintained the high speed role Buddy Rich recorded with JATP also at Carnegie Hall called "Buddy Rich's Explosion."
Asked about his impressions of Cream drummer Ginger Baker in a 1970 interview with Ritchie Yorke, Bonham spoke highly of Baker's [also jazz-influenced] skill and at the same time acknowledged the impact of Gene Krupa. "I was very influenced by Ginger Baker in the early days because when I first started he had a big image in England. He was the first rock guy like Gene Krupa. In the big band era a drummer was a backing musician and nothing else. And in the early American bands, the drummer played with only brushes in the background. Krupa was the first drummer to be in a big band that was noticed. He came right out into the front and he played drums much louder than they were ever played before and much better. Nobody took much interest in drums really up until that thing, and Baker did the same thing with rock."
Of the three Zeppelin instrumentalists, Jimmy Page probably has the broadest musical tastes of all. While his love of English folk is well documented, he also brought knowledge of Moroccan, Indian and other non-western musics to the band, and was well acquainted with guitarists of the jazz idiom right from the start of Zeppelin. Some of the most revealing comments regarding Page's knowledge of jazz come from Dave Shulp's suburb 1977 interview with Page in Trouser Press Magazine, from which the following exchange, asking about Jimmy's early development as a guitarist, is excerpted:
Dave Shulps: Were you into the blues as much as the Stones or was it more rock & roll for you?
Jimmy Page: I was an all 'rounder, thank God.
DS: Do you think that's helped your career?
JP: Immensely. I think if I was just labeled a blues guitarist I'd have never been able to lose the tag. When all the guitarists started to come through in America-like Clapton, Beck and myself - Eric, being the blues guitarist, had the label. People just wanted to hear him play blues. I saw the guitar as a multifaceted instrument and this has stayed with me throughout. When you listen to classical guitarists like Segovia and Julian Bream-and Manitas de Plata doing flamenco, it's two totally different approaches to acoustic. Then there's Django Reinhardt and that's another approach entirely.
DS: As far as your own expansion goes, you've mentioned Jack Bruce who had been greatly influenced by the English jazz scene; yet in your own playing I've never really detected a strong jazz influence, if any at all, though you pride yourself on being eclectic. Is there a particular reason why you've steered clear of jazz? JP: In the formative years when, say, Johnny Mclaughlin, far and away the best jazz guitarist in England at the time, had to work in a guitar shop because he couldn't get enough money out of it to be self-sufficient playing jazz, there was a terrible snobbishness. Not from him, but from the jazz guitarist clique. They couldn't accept the fact of bending strings-no rude notes. Later, when Miles Davis started playing with a rock rhythm section, it suddenly became acceptable to use rock devices. They finally started bending notes then, and most of their intonation went down the chute. It was really curious that a lot of these chaps could play these chordal Johnny Smith-type things, but when they started bending strings their intonation got totally lost. A lot of them got it together, of course, but I personally wouldn't follow that type of music after knowing what their attitude was toward string bending and then hearing them sound like a bunch of cats wailing. I dabbled in the Johnny Smith stuff but I was a a rock and roller and a string bender, so I wasn't about to put heavy gauge strings on start playing what is basically just scales.
Despite his professed dislike of this snobbishness, among the many influences evident in Page's improvisational playing is jazz great Django Reinhardt, who Jimmy professed admiration for in is 1977 interview with Steve Rosen for Guitar Player.
On the topic of Bert Jansch's difficulties in playing with arthritis, Page diverged into the following comments. "Another player whose physical handicap didn't stop him is Django Reinhardt. For his last LP they pulled him out of retirement to do it; it's on Barclay Records in France. He'd been retired for years, and it's fantastic. You know the story about him in the caravan and losing fingers and such. [the result of a fire. - ed.] But the record is just fantastic. He must have been playing all the time to be that good-it's horrifyingly good. Horrifying." Rosen goes on to ask Page if he listens to Les Paul, to which he responds, "Oh, yeah. You can tell Jeff [Beck] did too, can't you? Have you ever heard "It's Been A Long, Long time" [mid-40's single by the Les Paul Trio with Bing Crosby]? You ought to hear that. He does everything on that, everything in one go. And it's just one guitar; it's basically one guitar even though they've tracked on rhythms and stuff. But my goodness, his introductory chords and everything are fantastic."
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