A Condensed History of Black Rock: Vernon Reid and Jack Bruce Release ‘Spectrum Road’ – A Tribute to Tony Williams

Vernon Reid has known racism. He’s not much different than other African Americans to that extent, nor American Indians, Mexican Americans and on and on. Each group facing racism in varying degrees and places in history. Racism is power and control based on racial difference. Jackie Robinson faced it in baseball. Vernon Reid is a Jackie Robinson in rock.

Note I said “a” Jackie Robinson. Not truly, a little hyperbole. Vernon might be more Rock’s Curt Flood (fought baseball hierarchy in the seventies for free agency), with a better personal ending. There were many involved in the path of breaking down the barriers in rock. Jackie Robinson was virtually alone, with only a few bold friends on the Brooklyn Dodgers in a black and white world. In rock, a fusion of blues, gospel and a 4/4 beat, the battle seemed to brew, ebb and tide, get blown up and away by Jimi Hendrix and, after 1970, got slammed shut. At that moment, everything had seemed to come together – black, white, youth, music, alternative community, rock… at least for those millions.

In rock, the lineage was blues, Robert Johnson, and many others melding through to the pinnacle of Chuck Berry totally rock and rolling it. George Clinton and Sly Stone fused it with funk and premier guitarists hardened it, of course the god, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie Hazel (see “Maggot Brain”), deaths, and then a major road block. Buddy Guy and Sonny Sharrock, contenders were basically told by rejection to stay in blues, and away. Fear, enough had been witnessed and the powers of rock said no more.

Jazz fought rock from the get go. A swinging time signature, jazz was open to different signatures, expanding to 5/4 and 7/4 and further. But lead by critic Stanely Crouch, moving from swing 4/4 into hard 4/4- rock and electrifying it was as satanish as an electric, backbeating Dylan at Newport Folk Festival. But the pen can be powerless, even if it deems you dead (which Crouch deemed electric Davis), and a powerful Miles Davis and a kid named Tony Williams rocked, and funked the jazz to create fusion and expand progressive rock. Williams led things off in 1969 with his jazz rock fusion band called Lifetime, Miles released the mammoth fused “Bitches Brew” and out and out rocked on “Jack Johnson” and “Black Magus”. Later in the eighties traditional jazz trumpeter and leader, Wynton Marsalis would join Crouch publicly and rant against rock and fusion.

Vernon Reid was born in 1958. Jimi died in ’70, after ushering out his all Black power trio, Band of Gypsys to end ’69 at the Fillmore East. Reid was 12. He grew up listening and loving rock (huge fan of Zeppelin, Rush and early Van Halen), soul and jazz, Miles and Tony Williams to Carlos Santana. He began playing guitar a few years later and studying in jazz school. In 1980, he joined Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, pushing Ornette Coleman’s discipline of harmolodic jazz fusion and stayed for six ripping, shredding albums and a lot of European tours. He shared and lent his talents with a group of diverse artists from Defunkt, Bill Frisell, John Zorn, Arto Lindsay, to Public Enemy. All outsiders of rock, or rock outsiders. And on solo projects of Jack Bruce, the bassist of British rock powerhouse Cream.

A big part of Reid’s heart was always in rock. In 1983, he formed a multigenre four piece rock band, traditional – guitar, bass, drums and vocalist, Living Colour. It touched on the main commercial genre that post-Hendrix blacks were herded to – soul. It touched on hip hop, It touched on funk, it touched on punk. And on Reid’s groundbreaking solos and interplay – elements of jazz blew through. But it was a rock band, in living color. A black rock band. Gigs were hard to find. Legendary punk venue, CBGB’s let ’em play.

In 1985, Greg Tate (see Burnt Sugar – a Bitches Brew inspired collective) and Reid formed the Black Rock Coalition (BRC) in NYC, a group of artists of all ethnicities to promote freedom and enterprise for artists who basically wanted to rock and beyond, and did not have an outlet i.e., the huge record company willing to give a contract. At that time, compared to todays lack of a distinct hierarchy, absolute power rested with the huge corporates, witness many court battles of artists and labels. It’s still there, especially controlling pop and the money, there are just millions more starving artists who can easily now in an IT world get their music out! (and starving small labels, for that matter). Incidentally, its Black Music Month at iTunes. See if they tell you this story (Ironically, iTunes seemingly has become an equalizer).

1988. Bad Brains had busted the punk scene, (in D.C., their hometown, and welcomed by CBGB’s.) Prince’s hard funk was pushing boundaries. Living Colour was playing for five years and nobody of merit had signed them.

Ashamedly, it took Mick Jagger, who has a clear understanding of racism and roots of rock and roll, to intervene and convince Epic to sign a band led by arguably rocks greatest guitarist since the man. One listen to the hit out of the gate, “Cult of Personality” …case closed. But I’m only half serious on that, let’s just settle for among the greats, but certainly “worthy” of a contract with one of a relatively small group of majors with total control. The smash hit opened the gates for others.

Reid told Rolling Stone in 1989: “It’s not about ‘Now we got through the door, close the door behind us.’ What I hope our success is doing is encouraging other black rock bands to stick with it, because this is the result of six years of hard work. Other bands have told me our success is giving them the feeling that it’s possible.” The world of rock opened up a bit, others did follow, new generations, and nine rocking Living Colour albums through 2009 and plans are in the works for their next.

So for that kid of sixteen, playing a new kind of acoustical jazz in the early sixties with one of Miles Davis’ legendary quintets, who decided to blow up the lines between jazz and rock with his power trio Lifetime’s “Emergency!” which included electric guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young in 1969, drummer and composer, Tony Williams (who passed away in 1997 of an unexpected heart attack during routine surgery at the age of 51) – Vernon Reid and friends have put out an interpretive album, “Spectrum Road” of Tony’s lifetime work. They just kicked off their worldwide tour at Bonnaroo Fest.

Spectrum Road is Vernon Reid, Jack Bruce, John Medeski and Cindy Blackman-Santana. All influenced by the rock of Tony Williams. A supergroup for sure.

As Reid (who also has an extensive catalogue of side projects) recounts in the liner notes, the group germinated after playing with Bruce, after William’s death, and asking Bruce about his times playing with Lifetime. William’s Lifetime would continue to feature fine players from jazz and rock such as George Benson, Ted Dumbar, Alan Holdsworth and Ronnie Montrose. Medeski (see Martin, Medeski and Wood) who gets deep on organ and psychedelic on mellotron, states that “what started as a tribute, turned into a band”. That is true, and a follow up is in the works. This album also includes a collaborative original piece.

Known as a jazz innovator playing drums with the legendary quintet with Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter, then fusion, Reid also cites Williams with predicting/innovating the plaintive sing song style of singing of new wave/alternative music decades later and today. A listen to “Red Alert”, or “Sweet Revenge” and you can hear Lifetime creating some metallic riffs. Check out “Million Dollar Legs” and you’ll hear predated Talking Heads! lol.

Bruce first heard him in 1964 on Eric Dolphy’s seminal avant jazz “Out to lunch” and set out to meet the young man who “had revolutionized jazz drumming”, while staying true to the giants such as Elvin Jones (see Coltrane). With Spectrum, drummer Blackman-Santana (she has played with rocker Lenny Kravitz and jazz giants Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson) rocks and swings mightily. She immediately came to Reid’s mind when he and Bruce seeded the idea.

For those who haven’t heard the seminal albums and groups with Tony Williams, and his Lifetime albums “Emergency!”, “Believe It”, and “Turn it Over”, go immediately to start. For those familiar, you won’t be disappointed. Heavy, in the pocket, improvisatory, fresh and vital. Testament to the genius of, and surrounding Tony – Mr Anthony Williams.


  1. tractorman100 says

    Heard Vernon and Jack interviewed on the Ron and Fez show earlier this week. What a great collaboration with these guys. Been a fan of both for a long time