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“Chameleon” Meets Soul Train: Herbie, James, Michael, Damita Jo, and Jazz-Funk

From: American Studies
Volume 52, Number 4, 2013
pp. 125-140 | 10.1353/ams.2013.0106

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Herbie Hancock must have felt great when he and his group, the Head-hunters, gave a live performance of their hit song “Chameleon” on the weekly television show Soul Train, airing September 28, 1974. Released late the previous year, “Chameleon” and the album for which it was the lead single (Head Hunters)1 were enjoying an extended ride on the pop, rhythm and blues (R&B), and jazz charts. Head Hunters and the follow-up album, Thrust (1974), would become foundational to the jazz-funk movement throughout the 1970s.2 “Chameleon” in particular gave listeners plenty of reason to rethink just how separate funk and jazz were or needed to be. However, to a percentage of Hancock’s mainstream jazz fans, as well as a cadre of jazz critics and scholars, the music represented a strange turn. Throughout the better part of the 1960s, Hancock had solidified a kind of Mount Rushmore position in jazz circles as the pianist in Miles Davis’s “second great quintet,” considered then (and since) to be one of the most influential small jazz groups in history. Hancock had gone on to form an avant-garde jazz group: the Herbie Hancock Sextet (later Septet), known colloquially as the Mwandishi group, after Hancock’s Swahili sobriquet, loosely translated as “composer.” Now, with “Chameleon’s” extended groove, hundreds of thousands of young, platform-soled funk fans were listening—and dancing—to a kind of jazz that discomfited many of their seated predecessors. Overall sales figures for the single and the album were stunning. Industry sales charts made a convincing statement about “Chameleon’s” popularity, whether tagged as jazz, pop, or R&B. But a significant measure of its validity as funk came from the dancing bodies on “the hippest trip in America.”3

In an earlier work, I explored “Chameleon” and the album Head Hunters from several intersecting points of view.4 The central dilemma for jazz critics and fans was how to reconcile the music’s funkiness with its jazz identity, an identity for which there was a decided lack of consensus. This dilemma became dramatized when Head Hunters rose to the near top of the newly christened Billboard Jazz Albums chart while “Chameleon” likewise rode the crest of the R&B Singles chart (the chart home for funk releases at the time). Record sales marketing and the charts they fostered were affected by radio airplay formats; public-radio jazz stations had little attraction to album cuts from Head Hunters at first, but “black urban” and “free-form” radio embraced “Chameleon.” Nevertheless, the album had been issued initially through jazz store outlets, and album sales were tracked on this basis. Soon enough, record bins in the R&B, soul, and funk sections of the stores sported the album, in addition to its placement in the jazz racks. Who could tell whether the purchaser was, in fact, a jazz customer as opposed to a funk customer (as if the two could not exist in a single body)? Several jazz critics resisted the album on the basis of its not being jazz, despite its overwhelming impact on the jazz chart; perhaps a new, younger, and less category-bound jazz audience was emerging.5 Yet the album was not regarded as precisely funk either, including by Hancock himself. Endeavoring to create a funk album, not a jazz one, Hancock fortuitously “decided to pay attention to the way things were flowing and not just stick to what [he] originally had in mind.”6 The musical result fit precariously into a set of contested categorical terms: jazz-rock, funk-jazz, fusion jazz, and others, offered up by fans and critics to both describe the music and set stylistic boundaries for exclusivity and inclusivity.

While I explored Hancock’s album largely through the lens of jazz studies in my earlier work, in this paper I consider “Chameleon” and Head Hunters from their collective perception as funk; I view the Soul Train performance as a metaphoric goal for Herbie Hancock. Hancock wanted to reconnect, through his new direction, with a young, hip, black listenership that had largely come to yawn at jazz. Reception, in the forms of critical exposure, record sales, radio airplay...

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