Note: What follows is an exploration of ideas involving Acid Jazz as a continuation of what might still be called 'jazz'. To the avid AJ listener this process might seem tedious and unnecessary. To the enthusiastic researcher it might seem too brief, and hasty in its conclusions, with my descriptions scarce and my representation of the music poor. It is hard to gain the approval of all. Please think of it not as a treatise on the subject, but rather as an essay; a brief exploration.

Article by Thom Stewart, Email:
ICQ Universal Internet Number: 2006033
Reprinted with permission. © 1997 Thom Stewart
Editors note: visuals edited, background color changed.

Is Acid Jazz a Continuation of the Jazz Phenomenon?

The development of 'jazz' can be traced from early Gospel and 'black' folk-music in America, through the 'race music' (before 'jazz' was coined), R&B, and big-band 'swing' of earlier this century, and can be thought of as both influencing and being influenced by other styles: Blues, Rock'n'Roll, the classical 'avant-garde' and so on. The streams that flow into the river of jazz are numerous, as are the styles that have branched off from what might be regarded as the historical core of jazz: 'bebop' of the 1940-60s.[1] By first looking at how the style Acid Jazz came about from a social point of view, and then by comparing two pieces, Cantaloop by Us3 and Loud Minority by United Future Organisation, with the earlier music of the likes of Miles Davis (1950s) and Herbie Hancock (1960s), it can be seen how Acid Jazz can be thought of as a continuation of what is called 'jazz'.[2] This style takes much from the earlier era that contributed to its name, but through an analysis of how it has used aspects of this style we can understand how it is an extension of jazz.

Regarding Acid Jazz as a music genre, the concept of labels (in the sense of a descriptive categorisation) is most important. Tags attached to styles often help to locate the music socially, and emphasising the idea that Acid Jazz might be better thought of as a continuation of jazz, and not a separate genre, is the reason behind its name. The term became most widely known through the record label of the same name, but Acid Jazz Records was not the origin of the phrase (unlike the phenomenon of 'Indy' music). However, the founders of Acid Jazz Records are thought to be the first to coin the phrase, as a response to the new 'Acid-House' music that was hitting the UK club scene in the late 80s (Lochner 1994:16, Johnson 1997:17). There is even a fitting anecdote depicting one of the founders of the record label, Gilles Peterson, using the phrase to describe his DJ set in a club (most probably sometime in 1987): having to follow a DJ who played a new 'house' feel, where the floor was full of uplifted dancers, Peterson started playing fast music with a Latin-rhythm feel and purportedly quipped, "if that was acid house, this is acid jazz". (Phenian 1995:1) Acid-Jazz is born, if in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner.

Peterson named the phenomenon but didn't really create it: the name was a spin-off from the acid-house movement at the time, and the sounds were already occurring in clubs in the UK. Often they were called 'rare grooves', meaning not-so-well-known 70s funk tracks which were reappearing on the turntables in clubs, so the music was being heard although it was not very well defined (Stephenson :2). The 'acid' prefix seemed to be a way of revitalising jazz for the youth in the same way that it had altered house-music (Edström 1996:86).[3] What is important, however, is that 'acid' doesn't describe the essence of this style: the reference to the hallucinogenic drug LSD is not intended, and is not a defining element of the Acid-Jazz sound. Why, then, the 'acid' in acid-house? The question cannot be fully dealt with here; the crucial fact is simply that Acid-Jazz was named after another dance-music style as a way of incorporating it into the club scene.[4]

In an interview with the head of Acid Jazz label in Australia, Mark Lovett states that "Acid Jazz has brought people back to jazz clubs" (Lochner 1994:16). But I think it is more the case that it has brought jazz into the clubs (looking past the 'true' jazz clubs that still support the bebop sound, and are predominantly listening venues).[5] Again, this shows how the genre is really a continuation of the same style. When one examines how people talk about Acid-Jazz, the most obvious fact is that it is always about "bringing jazz here" or "taking jazz there" -- there is little discussion of the use of certain particular elements of jazz in creating new music, but rather a full-scale appropriation, or development, of a style. Acid-Jazz, from the beginning, became part of jazz music as a whole.

Acid-Jazz, then, can be thought to be first the re-birth of jazz music by club DJs in the late 80s, and then the development of composition and sampling techniques in the later formation of the Acid-Jazz 'sound'. Edström, in his analysis of the composing techniques of one artist, describes the early stages of the style as being "basically soul and funk jazz in a 1960s version", pointing out the differences with more developed Acid-Jazz music which involves more original work and less recycled material (such is the difference between Us3 and UFO, where the former recreate the earlier Acid-Jazz technique, shown later) (Edström 1994:86).

It is widely accepted that Acid-Jazz -- and in particular the earlier music where DJs looked for 'rare grooves' to spin -- constantly looked back to American 70s 'funk-jazz'.[6] Considering that what might be called 'funk-jazz' is confusing (as with Acid-Jazz), what with 'free-form' jazz emerging in the late 60s alongside the 'funk' feel of 'soul' artists like James Brown, I would like to go further back, to a comparison with 50-60s bebop. This is a stable period to look at, illustrated by the ubiquitous 'jazz standard' of written compilations such as The Real Book (some similar hefty book will always be found at an impromptu jam-session).

The groups Us3 and United Future Organisation (UFO) definitely fall into the category (one permitting) of Acid-Jazz (Borälv :1, Johnson 1997:19). The first is a group that worked in collaboration with Blue Note to re-work older jazz 'classics' (including sampling the older recordings), and combined live musicians with sampled bebop material and hip-hop vocals. The rap sounds are prominent on this album, and it is obvious that Us3 regard what they do as a neat blend of bebop and hip-hop style: feel the beat drop / jazz and hip-hop.[7] Although the vocals do feature on the album, I would like to look at the instrumental version of Cantaloop in a comparison with traditional bebop since the earlier jazz era was essentially an instrumental sound (suffice it to say that American hip-hop merged with UK Acid-Jazz smoothly in the early 90s, and this wants for a more in-depth study).

Cantaloop is essentially an arrangement of the 1964 Hancock Cantaloupe Island, but one that actually reuses parts of the original recording. The piano part (a one bar repeated vamp) is sampled into the piece, with fresh melodic improvisation on trumpet laid over the top. The piano sample includes the original drum work in the background, but this is covered most of the time by the introduced percussion sounds: a 'thick' bass-drum beat emphasises the syncopation in the bass line; a ride-cymbal sound plays straight semi-quavers alternating from left to right across the stereo pan (at times substituted with a lighter-coloured sound); a snare-drum (also 'thick') fills in sections with what is often called the 'hip-hop shuffle' (Payne 1995:55): a quaver riff is forced into a triplet feel, making it 'shuffle' in the same way that earlier jazz 'swings'.[8] The bass line (again probably sampled or synthesized, although true to the original) has been strengthened and drops down the octave in one part of the one-bar line, exaggerating the 'bassy' feel. This strong emphasis on beat and bass is crucial to the dance element of Acid-Jazz. Apart from these central sounds (and other more textural elements), there is a short percussive fill that reappears throughout the piece, playing on a Latin feel (using conga-styled sounds and the snare mentioned above) and describes the strong South-American influences in Acid-Jazz music.

How then does this new sound compare with bebop? Melodically, it is almost no different, apart from the fact that Hancock's main melody is omitted; the continuous trumpet solo uses 'blue' scales and rhythms similar to that of Hubbard on the original. Much of Cantaloop sounds like the solo sections of the original recording. Harmonically it is also almost identical: there are no new harmonic relationships, and the same 7th/9th/13th chords are preserved in the sampled piano part as well as the relation of the trumpet and chorus 'horns' to the bass. The other horns (sax, trumpet) play the same jarringly rhythmic notes, although more 'sharp' and piercing, which again emphasises the stabbing Acid-Jazz sound. The timbre, as I mentioned above, is very similar to the bebop sound, though with the introduction of harder sounds that align with the dance nature of the music: here, with the 'thick' bass-drum and snare, one can see how the jazz sound has been re-worked to suit the tastes of new ears, ears that are sympathetic to the harder sounds of house and later, acid-house.

Quickly mentioning form, or structure, it is obvious that Cantaloop is more free and flexible than most bebop (taking after the free-jazz and funk sounds that would follow bebop). In 50s and 60s jazz, having "rhythm" was the most important thing, and this included the ability to hit the top of the tune at exactly the same time each time round -- any listening to this jazz period will show how the sections of the pieces are clearly (and rigidly) defined. With Acid-Jazz this is no longer important: it is the continued feel that is important (illustrated by the almost continuous ride-16th-note line, above). In Cantaloop, the move from 'A' (F minor) to 'B' (D-flat minor) to the bridge (D minor) is not set, and varies in ways more complicated than is necessary to describe here. Simply, the piece often returns back to 'A' rather than moving onto the bridge section, repeats sections, and throws in rhythmic fills without 'making them up' later: as long as the beat sits in a groove, and the bpm stays the same, the piece works.

Following on from this groove in which Acid-Jazz likes to sit, how the music uses rhythm compares interestingly to bebop jazz. Johnson states that "... there is much more palpable swing in most acid jazz than in any smooth jazz." (by "smooth" jazz he means the pop-pseudo-jazz which is far from the 'swing' of true jazz) (Johnson 1997:17). Of course Acid-Jazz does 'swing' in some respects (it has little choice when sampling bebop music!), but I find that the 'shuffle' element of Acid-Jazz rhythms is dominant over any triplet-quaver 'swing'. In Hancock tunes of the 1960s the drummer will always swing the ride-cymbal and snare[9], but with this style the artists don't want to pull the feel back to a lazy swing, but instead drive the beat -- as well as anyone on the dance-floor -- on, and so snare/ride/high-hat are played straight (depending on which sound is executing the 'shuffle': in Cantaloop the ride is straight while other sounds take care of the triplet overlay). In this way Acid-Jazz somehow manages to swing and 'drive' at the same time.

Looking now at Loud Minority, firstly the album name Jazzin' implies obvious debt to an earlier era, and the piece opens with a voice excerpt mocking the nature of people at jazz clubs: one interpretation of this might be "hey, this is jazz, but it's not your traditional bebop jazz-club tune". A later voice sample in the piece states We are a part of the loud minority / And as such, we are a part of those concerned with change, but I leave the interpretation of this as a desire to re-work an old style up to the reader. Important also is the fact that UFO use less sampling and 'recycling' of older jazz tunes, and more of their own material -- this became the later procedure, evidently after people decided that the older jazz vinyls were worth spinning at clubs.

The musical elements that make up Loud Minority appear minimal at first, and the texture is thinner than that of Cantaloop: a sweeping horn and keyboard line sets the fast tempo at the start, re-entering at later stages; a trumpet states the first melodic line and then plays with it in a minimal way (sharp trumpet 'stabs' are also heard, as in Cantaloop); soft 'organ' sounds are heard under the trumpet, establishing the jazzy harmony; there is a keyboard solo later which develops into syncopated chords and a Latin riff. Under all of this is a very simple bass line and a multitude of percussive sounds. Some of the percussion emphasises the 'hip-hop shuffle', as described before, but there is a constant conga-sound pushing the Brazilian feel that was supposedly heard when DJ Peterson played his "acid jazz" set (Phenian 1995:1). Just as in the music of Us3, UFO uses 'thick' drum sounds to strengthen the beat, and without isolating all of the sounds, some can be highlighted: in contrast to Us3 the ride and high-hat do actually 'swing' in Loud Minority, emphasising the off-beat more often, but in a middle percussive 'interlude' (with harsh vocal sounds over the top) snare/bass-drum/toms give the listener that definite 'shuffle' feel. Regarding 'jazz sounds' in Acid-Jazz music, Edström talks of the finishing touches in a section of composition:

However, only when KM [the composer] added a jazzy ride cymbal was the piece stylistically legitimised and the basic rhythm right. (Edström 1996:88)

Moving on, the bass part of this tune is especially relevant to a discussion of bebop elements: a 'walking' bass-line (with an acoustic or fretless tone to it) that is very reminiscent of the fast walking lines of 50s Miles Davis' groups. What is contrasting in the UFO style is that this bass line is looped, and repeats exactly, nearly all the way (dropping out for percussive fills) through the piece. This is something that would never be heard in bebop bass; the walking bass often defines the beat, but is always shifting to the tastes of the player in an improvised fashion.

In this way, Loud Minority uses the older style of a walking bass-line but surprises any conventional listener by looping it every two bars. Another function for the bass, since it is also rhythmically exact (unlike variations a bebop player might use), is to provide that 'driving' beat (particularly the on-beat quavers) which characterizes Acid-Jazz.[10]

Both Loud Minority and Cantaloop describe a continuation of bebop jazz tradition, while also bringing to light the characteristics of Acid-Jazz that extend those styles and adapt them to the contemporary situation of a dance-music. Rhythm appears most important, with the 'shuffle' feel and elements of jazz 'swing' both being incorporated into the music, as is the choice of sound ('thick' percussion and deep bass noises) which strengthens both the 'driving' feel of Acid-Jazz and the syncopated Latin rhythms.

"Acid jazz -- a term that almost everyone involved with the music despises --" (Johnson 1997:17). The fact that the labeling of this style is both inadequate and undesirable is observed in any writing on Acid-Jazz, and yet despite the frustration of a name created in jest it is still used by artists and producers alike. People like to be able to know the boundaries of what they are discussing, and I conclude that 'Acid-Jazz' is used where something is needed. The fact that the genre borrows huge amounts, both physically (sampling) and stylistically, from the bebop jazz era means that the name 'Acid-Jazz' can be tolerated. As shown, this music can also be thought of as simply a continuation of 'jazz', and as such does not need to be explicitly defined: hence the tolerance of the name and the difficulty in describing it. In his history of jazz, written in the 50s, Stearns says that "jazz will continue to absorb, adapt, and re-create a variety of characteristics from the other musics of the world", in reference to the "future of jazz" (Stearns 1956:227). This is an apt way to describe the extension of 50s and 60s jazz to include 'Acid-Jazz', where the difficulty of categorizing this new style highlights the fact that it is really a continued genre.

REFERENCES Articles WWW sources

(All WWW sources come from a quasi-journal site: Acid Jazz Server at

The server consists of a compilation of writings, including some taken from other web sources, as well as providing a focus for relevant discussion).

Discography NOTES
  1. Carr describes bebop as being the "first kind of jazz whose performers were, to some extent, artistic elitists --" and an inevitable part of all later jazz styles. (Carr 1987:33)
  2. Although these decades are not the only periods that could be associated with Hancock and Davis, it is at these times that their music will hopefully be a true representation of 'bebop'.
  3. Edström quotes part of the sleeve of the Acid Jazz release (where the producers of the label talk about what Acid-Jazz might mean) as a way of summarising the re-emergence of jazz in this new form.
  4. For an interesting discussion on the origins of 'acid' music, and the possible reasons for such a name, see Paul Staines' comments in: Saunders, Ecstasy and the Dance Culture, pp.18f.
  5. Johnson feels that the social uncertainty of post-industrial American youth in the 80s led to a cohesion, in the music circles that were 're-working' jazz, similar to that of "classic" jazz lovers two decades earlier (Johnson 1997:17).
  6. "[acid-jazz] owes as much to '70s jazz-funk as the "young lion" movement does to '50s hard-bop." (Birnbaum 1996:50); "The hip-hop and acid Jazz rhythms of the '90s come directly out of the funk tradition of the '60s and '70s." (Payne 1995:54).
  7. One of the minimal 'lyric blocks' in Cantaloop by Us3.
  8. Note that the descriptive words are used simply to locate the sounds aurally; actual knowledge of how the sounds might have been synthesized or created could only come from the artist.
  9. Hancock, The Best of Herbie Hancock or A Jazz Collection.
  10. For walking bass-lines listen to Miles Davis, Bags' Groove, or similar albums.
  11. This article concerned itself with the political/sociological aspects of cross-cultural hybridization of music styles. Interesting for theories on popular hybrid musics, but difficult to apply to jazz, funk-jazz and hip-hop -- forms firmly grounded in contemporary US culture!

Last Modified: 03:17pm MET DST, October 09, 1997