The seasonably chilly morning of February 18th, 1969 greeted Henry Z. Steinway with more than one problem. The first had been a contentious point for sometime. Steinway & Sons, certainly New York’s if not the most prestigious piano builder, had a weekly payroll of over $30,000 and the State Department of Labor had just finalized their ruling that the sum be paid in cash. A sixty year old law barring the use of checks for laborers (who, when they were able to cash them, were subject to extravagant fees) the piano company had been able to circumvent had caught up to them. Henry Steinway, who boasted of the company’s 115 year history of employment in the city, vowed not to give in to the ruling until he had exhausted every appeal. You don’t need to try too hard to imagine the kind of short-term P.R. nightmare something like that threatens. The Local 102, representing the Steinway Piano workforce, refused to comment either way, but it’s not a huge leap to guess that they felt the victory bittersweet. The second problem was taking place across town in Columbia’s 30th street studio helmed by Teo Macero. The second problem threatened the piano itself. The second problem was the Fender Rhodes.
Pianos are all but permanent fixtures. They’re elegant and debaucherous, expressive and subdued. The piano is capable of reaching levels of both exaltation and vulgarity because more than anything the piano is ubiquitous. Pianos are as prominent in symphony halls as they are in back alley bar rooms. And if you’re lucky, it’s a Steinway. That’s as true in 1869 as it is in 1969. But, if you’re a gigging jazz musician,there’s no way in hell you’re packing one with you as you travel the circuit. Nor if you’re a solider attempting to calm the nerves of your brothers-in-arms – like Harold Rhodes.
Whether he knew it or not Harold Rhodes began his path to defining the sounds of a generation the same moment as one of the earliest progenitors of the creation which would bear his name. 1929. In that year Rhodes developed and standardized his peculiar approach to piano study, combining both classical and jazz approaches, to national attention. While, halfway around the world, the German piano manufacturer Bechstein debuted the newest addition to their line, the Neo- Bechstein Electric Piano.
The Neo- Bechstein suffered from the same faults as the acoustic piano. It was stationary. It was expensive. It was essentially furniture. So by 1942 when Harold Rhodes was developing a new music therapy program with the Army Air Corps, the standard piano, acoustic or electric, did not have the advantages he was looking for. That wasn’t going to stop Rhodes, however, from trying to solve his problem supplying enough pianos for the recovering combatants. Harold Rhodes devised a solution on his own. Assembling a primitive electric piano out of surplus army materials, Rhodes made his first step toward designing a singular and distinctive instrument.
The journey wouldn’t be near complete until 1959. That year, Ray Charles’ smash ‘What’ d I Say’ featured a sensuous and prominent riff. A riff as immediate as any before or since. A riff brought to life by a Wurlitzer electric piano. Whether coincidence, a sign of the times, or directly inspired by the chart success of the single in 1959 Fender, expert manufacturers of electric instruments, acquired not only Rhodes’ design, but Rhodes himself. The pairing immediately displayed their potential with the Fender Piano Bass. As they continued to develop the full range and depth of the instrument, they were birthing imitators all the while.
1959 was also the year Miles Davis released his landmark Kind of Blue. A record of such gentle complexity it came to define a genre it, in many ways, had little in common with. A record not only propelling Davis from has-been to unconquerable genius, it was a moment that again ignited the flame within him that refused definition – especially by his own legacy. Davis’ muse never slept.
By 1965, the same year Dylan went electric encapsulating the mindset of a new generation, Harold Rhodes and Leo Fender had produced a portable 73-key model with a rich and distinct sound: the Fender Rhodes. And by 1966 Joe Zawinul, one of the few jazz pianists who was quick to adopt the new sound, had traded in his Wurlitzer for a Fender Rhodes.
The Fender Rhodes changed the landscape of the gigging musician (you could bring it with you), and played an integral part in the sounds that developed in the mid to late sixties. Sounds that were inspiring the young model and singer Betty Mabry. Yet the instrument hadn’t been entirely embraced by the old guard. To some degree the Rhodes was a novelty in critical sphere. That is until Miles Davis married Betty Mabry in September 1968. The short-lived love affair would have lasting effects on not only Davis, but on the sonic palette of music to follow.
Betty Davis introduced Miles to the budding funk and hard-rock records of Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone. An excited Miles began booking sessions and augmenting his live band. Augmenting them with the Fender Rhodes. Davis had explored deeper, frankly far-out material since the release of Kind Of Blue. It was a slow progression that tested the limits of purely acoustic music. Like Dylan, there was nothing left to do with acoustic accompaniment for Davis. Herbie Hancock, Davis’ longtime motherfucker, began laying down tracks with a Rhodes over an acoustic rhythm section in ’68. It was the crisp morning of February 18th, 1969 , though, that Miles Davis entered Columbia’s 30th street studio to cut the tracks that would become a new record. What, when all the dust had settled, would become the immutable In A Silent Way.
Though there are exceptions, for the most part jazz records were studio sessions. The band might take four or five swings at a tune then call it and move on to the next. Kind of Blue only has one second take.
In A Silent Way is a transformed organism, an evolutionary leap. Each extended track, one covering each side of vinyl, couldn’t be said to consist of any ‘takes’. The tracks are culled together from an entire studio session. Though, for as different the two records are in some respects, they share one aspect in common for certain; the defining work of their pianists. Kind of Blue takes on much of its personality from Bill Evans and his modal solos and neutral chord phrasing, emphasizing Davis’ new focus on mood and neutrality. In A Silent Way is created by Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul’s electric piano and organ interplay and texture, emphasizing Davis’ return to a similar theme, a decade later, where mood has become atmosphere and neutrality become ambiguity.
Lester Bangs writes in his review for the November 1969 issue of Rolling Stone, seated in between the reviews for Abbey Road and Led Zeppelin II, that the music that comprises In A Silent Way sounds like it’s from the future or another world, and yet, “when Miles enters, the humanity and tenderness of his trumpet’s soft cries are enough to bring you to tears.”
It wasn’t only Davis’ band or emotional emphasis that had changed either, it was his process. No longer were his records documents of the recording sessions, they were products of the recording session. Capturing the sound was only one aspect, editing it together and making the music was another. The members of the band would often remark they left those sessions unsure of what it was exactly they had played. The record was pieced together by the ear and hand of Teo Macero. Macero, staying true to Davis’ vision and keeping in mind the length of an LP, extended certain sections; in the process inadvertently becoming one of the earliest examples of looping, and giving the album its distinctive feel. A feel that perfectly enraptured the audience. Causing Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Josef Zawinul, over the course of the next few years, to become titans of the jazz fusion movement, a movement that rested heavily on the sound of the Fender Rhodes electric piano.
February 18th,1969 caught Steinway Pianos out of step . In one respect the legal code had yet to catch up with modernity leaving Steinway on the hook for hefty cash payments and threats of robbery. In a second, modernity was changing and it sounded like the Fender Rhodes.