Cream was the band that made Eric Clapton famous in North America, but the primary lead singer and songwriter for the British trio was the bassist Jack Bruce. It was Bruce who wrote (with lyricist Pete Brown) and sang such essential Cream tracks as “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room,” “Politician,” “SWLABR” and “I Feel Free.” Bruce, who died from a liver ailment Oct. 25 at age 71, was never able to capitalize on Cream’s success as Clapton did, but he never stopped making fascinating music.
The reason for Cream’s success was the same as the reason for Bruce’s limited post-Cream fame: jazz. Like Cream drummer Ginger Baker, Bruce loved jazz, and the two men created roiling rhythms and challenging chord changes beneath blues-lover Clapton’s lead guitar. As a result, when the trio tackled such blues standards as Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful,” Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” the controlled chaos of modern jazz made these new versions sound little like the originals nor the other British-rock versions of American blues.
When Cream started stretching out on extended improvisations in concert, Bruce’s and Baker’s jazz background eased the way. It’s not that Cream was ever a jazz combo, but their jazz awareness changed the way they played rock ‘n’ roll—and that soon changed the way other people played rock.
“I always say, I don’t play jazz; I play Jack,” Bruce told me in 2012. “But if, instead of listening to just the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, you’ve also listened to Ornette Coleman, it gives you a freer approach. A lot of rock players I’ve played with are very four-square. They may be very good, but they’re limited in what they can do. I’m not saying good or bad—just different.”
Just listen to the hit single version of “Sunshine of Your Love.” The song is built around a riveting, descending blues-guitar figure from Clapton, but Bruce builds an ambitious melody on top of it and then retools that vocal line for different pitches, reflecting his early classical training. Meanwhile, the rhythm bed beneath Bruce’s vocal and Clapton’s guitar manages to accommodate a driving 4/4 and a syncopated swing at the same time. It’s that rare pop single that’s both immediately accessible and endlessly revealing.
Bruce and Baker may have worked brilliantly together as musicians, but they fought like dogs and cats whenever the music stopped. Their antipathy actually predated Cream; the two started quarreling while they were members of the London blues band the Graham Bond Organisation in 1965. The fighting got so bad that Bruce left to join John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, which featured the young Clapton. The two clicked and played together in the short-lived Powerhouse band.
So when Baker invited Clapton to form a new band, the drummer was shocked to learn that the guitarist wanted Bruce as the bassist and singer. Baker swallowed his reluctance, and Cream was born. Baker and Bruce resumed their fighting at the very first rehearsal, but somehow the trio remained united from the summer of 1966 through the fall of 1968. During that time, they released four studio albums and created enough concert tapes to fuel live albums for years to come. The breakthrough success came late, and by then it was too late to keep the feuding bandmates together.
After a November 26, 1968 farewell concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, the trio splintered, with Clapton and Baker forming Blind Faith, an even shorter-lived supergroup with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech. Bruce released a solo rock album, Songs for a Tailor, in 1969. He was touring in support of that album that same year when Miles Davis’ recent drummer Tony Williams invited Bruce to join him, guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young in a jazz-rock quartet called Lifetime. He gave up his shot at rock ‘n’ roll success for a chance to play in one of the most exciting jazz bands of the day.
“I had my own band with Larry Coryell and Mitch Mitchell at the Fillmore East when John McLaughlin brought Tony down to hear us,” Bruce recalled in 2012. “After the show Tony asked me to join his band. Even though it was the start of my first tour with my own band, I said yes, because I really wanted to play with that band. Tony had turned drumming around. He would do things like play the bass drum pattern on the high-hat; he’d literally reverse the parts of the instrument. If you’re a musician, it’s exciting to hear someone who turns things around, especially if you want to do that yourself.”
Lifetime proved as important to jazz history as Cream had been to rock history. Williams’ quartet had released what many consider the first true jazz-rock album, Emergency, six months before Williams’ recent employer Miles Davis released Bitches Brew. Bruce climbed aboard for the follow-up album, 1970’s Turn It Over. The group is now legendary, but at the times, it faced resistance from critics and promoters alike.
“Cream and Lifetime were really two sides of the same coin,” Bruce told me, “both fairly experimental in some ways. At the beginning of Cream, we had to struggle for acceptance. We had overnight success after years of trying to find it. Today Lifetime is famous, but we had the same struggles. In the early days of Lifetime, there were a lot of technical problems capturing all those fast passages played at rock volumes, because no one had done that. The technical side of things hadn’t caught up with our brains yet.
“And all that electricity was crucial to the whole situation. When you push an instrument to its limit, you get a different effect. They couldn’t catch the sounds we were making either on stage or in the studio. It was as if bebop had started around the time of the Hot Five recordings. Someone like Charlie Parker wasn’t a quiet player. He wasn’t just tootling; he was pushing his instrument to its limit. That’s the way you get that intensity; you can’t get that on an acoustic guitar or an acoustic bass. That’s part of what you’re doing; you’re generating electricity.”
That version of Lifetime broke up, but Bruce found himself in demand as one of the rare musicians equally comfortable on either side of the jazz-rock marriage. He sang and played with Charlie Haden, Don Cherry and Linda Ronstadt on Carla Bley’s jazz-rock opera Escalator Over the Hill. Bruce co-wrote and played on the title track for Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe and played bass on most of Lou Reed’s Berlin.
Bruce formed West, Bruce & Laing, a trio with two-thirds of Mountain—a quartet that featured Bley and ex-Stone Mick Taylor. He created a power trio with Procol Harum’s Robin Trower, and a jazz-rock quartet with Mahavishnu drummer Billy Cobham and E Street Band keyboardist David Sancious. Bruce joined a later version of McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Spectrum Road, a Tony Williams tribute band featuring Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, Medeski Martin & Wood’s John Medeski and Lenny Kravitz’s drummer Cindy Blackman.
In all these settings, he kept searching for ways to combine the buzzing momentum of rock with the ambition and flexibility of jazz. He was always looking for a way to move beyond the commercial cliches of hard-rock and fusion.
“It was very exciting to put those two musics together,” he said, “but something went wrong and it became very formulaic and bland. It started out as jazz-rock and then it became fusion, which wasn’t so good. That’s a danger with all movements in music; they start out very exciting and become predictable.”