Tell me about the blues

by Bill Benzon

John Faddis in the Bluezone

What is the blues? It is a mood, a feeling, a sensibility. Feeling blue. Feeling blue?

It is a musical form, existing in its own tradition, but also as a form within the jazz tradition. The latter is what this series article is about, the blues as it functions within the evolving context of jazz.

The blues is also an object of wonder, fascination, and mystery. Back in the middle of the 20th century some curious and well-meaning white folks went looking for the blues. Marybeth Hamilton wrote a book about their quest, In Search of the Blues:

Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton-we are all familiar with the story of the Delta blues. Fierce, raw voices; tormented drifters; deals with the devil at the crossroads at midnight.

In this extraordinary reconstruction of the origins of the Delta blues, historian Marybeth Hamilton demonstrates that the story as we know it is largely a myth. The idea of something called Delta blues only emerged in the mid-twentieth century, the culmination of a longstanding white fascination with the exotic mysteries of black music.

Hamilton shows that the Delta blues was effectively invented by white pilgrims, seekers, and propagandists who headed deep into America’s south in search of an authentic black voice of rage and redemption. In their quest, and in the immense popularity of the music they championed, we confront America’s ongoing love affair with racial difference.

That’s from the publisher’s blurb. It sounds about right, though I’ve not read the book. I’ve read other books. I know a thing or two. In 1966 a man named Charlie Keil published Urban Blues. It blew the doors off that myth.

He wasn’t investigating blues performed by decrepit old men – dentures, crutches, tattered overalls, battered acoustic guitars and all, deep in the backwoods South. His bluesman played electric guitars, in cities, and often wore sharply tailored suits. Musicians like Muddy Waters, Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King and even saints help us and preserve us! James Brown, self-professed “hardest working man in show business.” Amen. And yet it was the real blues, as authentic as sweet potato pie.

Nor is it just white folks who were buffaloed by the blues. In 1963 Amiri Baraka, then writing as Leroi Jones, published Blues People: Negro Music in White America. It wasn’t just about the blues, though it was that as well. It was about black music in general. And it is very much about racial difference, as its subtitle indicates. It’s a good book, but a bit fanciful in parts.

Albert Murray’s 1976 Stomping the Blues also reads the blues as pivotal to understanding black-in-white America. Murray, like Baraka, is black, but is of a more moderated political persuasion. His book is less fanciful, but it does have a mythic dimension. Whatever the blues is, it is more than just the music, the people, and the performances. It is, style, solace, courage, optimism, democracy, and well, you know, damn near everything!

I was certainly after a bit of magical mystery when I first heard blues tunes in my early teens. I forget just what tunes those were. It doesn’t matter. I liked them, a lot. I tried to play them, to learn how they work: 12 bars, I-IV-I-V-I, call and response, and microtones, so-called blue notes – that’s the form, more or less. As I became a better musician, the mythography receded.

* * * * *

Let’s dig in. This article is going to run long, though I’ve only gathered eight examples running from 1925 to yesterday. Relax, pour yourself a drink, chat with some friends, walk the dog, listen some more, weed the garden – perhaps weed your mind as well, whatever’s necessary. The blues is patient, the blues will wait. It’ll be there when you return and welcome you with open arms.

And if you find some of the prose wanting in some way, you know what you can do, don’t you? Skip it!
Listen to the damn music!

Handy, Bessie, Satch: St. Louis Blues

W.C. Handy was known as the Father of the Blues – a sobriquet I believe he gave himself. He wrote our first example tune, “St. Louis Blues.” Bessie Smith was known as the Empress of the Blues; she’s singing it. Louis Armstrong was known as Satchmo; he’s responding to Bessie. She calls, he responds. That’s how the blues works. When performed by a single musician accompanying himself with a guitar, the voice would call and the guitar would respond, all the while continuing to preserve the ground beat and keeping the harmonic structure moving along.

I don’t know whether “St. Louis Blues” was the first blues I ever heard. Could have been, who knows? But it wouldn’t have been this recording; I didn’t discover this recording until my college years.

This version was recorded in 1925, by which time the blues had been doing all right in the USofA. There was a blues craze and this was in the middle of it. It had broken out of the woods and swamps and traveled the land in Pullman cars and fur coats.

What’s important about “St. Louis Blues” is that it is in three parts. The first and the third exhibit the formal characteristics we have come to recognize as the blues. The second does not. It has a tango rhythm, a bit of what Jelly Roll Morton called that “Latin tinge.”

You should be able to pick out these three sections pretty easily without me giving you the timings. They’re obvious:

Let’s break down the first chorus – “chorus” is a standard term for one repetition of a tune that’s repeated several times in a single performance. It’s twelve bars long and divided into three four-bar sections, what’s become known as the standard blues form.

First section: We have a single introductory chord and then the song-proper begins. Bessie sings, “I hate to see…” That’s the call. Armstrong responds with a little trumpet riff. And that’s the response. That’s one bar. Bessie continues, “…the evening sun go down.” That’s the second bar. Armstrong then responds in bars three and four. Notice how clever that is: Within the first two bars we have a call-and-response structure which itself is the call within the larger call-and-response structure. Such nesting is not itself obligatory. It’s the larger call-and-response structure that is common, though by not obligatory. The blues leaves you plenty of options.

Second section: It’s just like the first, same words, same nested call-and-response structure. The melody is the same. But, and this is very important, the underlying harmony is different on bars five and six. That’s one of the defining features of the form, the shift in harmony on bars five and six. On bars seven and eight we’re where we were on three and four.

Third section: Big change. Bessie sings some new words: “It makes me think, I’m on my last go ‘round.” The call and response structure is as before. The harmonic structure changes, again, on nine and ten, and back to ground on eleven and twelve, like in 3 & 4, and 7 & 8.

That’s one chorus of the blues, text-book perfect: twelve bars; three sections; call-and-response; first line of lyrics repeated for the second section, then new lyrics for the third; I IV I V I harmony. Don’t worry just what those roman numerals are about. They come from notation that’s standard in harmonic analysis from the common practice period of European classical music. W.C. Handy was a well-educated musician and was likely familiar with it. Traditional bluesman were not. You don’t need to know the analytical language in order to perform and listen to the music to which it can be applied.

That’s an awful lot of prose for such a little bit of music. That’s how it goes. Music is a physical thing, and physical things often resist easy prose description. And I haven’t said a word about nuance, how Bessie bends notes, about microtones and blues notes (that don’t even exist in standard European theory, nor on the piano) and what about how Armstrong varies his responses? I’m leaving that up to you.

The second chorus is like the first, but with different lyrics. The third chorus (c. 1:36) is not yet another repetition of the musical forms and practices we heard in the first two choruses. The tune switches into a minor key, a different melody, and a different underlying beat, the tango. Bessie and Louis are still engrossed in their call-and-response conversation. This goes on for 16 bars, divided into two 8-bar sections – the second 8-bar section starts at about 2:04. You hear things start to shift at about 2:27, when Smith repeats the phrase, “no where.” The repetition is on a rising phrase.

It rises to the final chorus, which repeats the standard 12-bar blues form. But we have a different melody and lyrics from the one in the first and second chorus. We get one chorus of this second blues form. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what’s going on. Hint: It’s not quite the same as we saw the first time, but it is still the blues. There’s lots of fish in that sea.

Duke Ellington: The Mooche

“The Mooche” is not a 12-bar blues, but blues (the sensibility) oozes from every pore. Call it an extended blues. This recording is from 1928. It exemplifies Ellington’s so-called “jungle” style. That style is uniquely Ellington’s; it’s what made him famous.

He perfected it in a ridiculous neo-colonialst setting, Harlem’s Cotton Club. The entertainers were exclusively black. The dancing girls were relatively light-complected and were scantily clad. The patrons were white and rich. The club was run by gangsters. And yet Ellington made music that pleased him and his musicians AND that rich, white audience.

Just listen to the tonal colors, the shimmering clarinet on top, Bubber Miley on plunger-muted trumpet in the background. Miley’s goal was to make the trumpet sound as much like the human voice as possible; this sound was and remained central to Ellington’s tonal palette. Sounds like the drummer (Sonny Greer) is playing temple blocks. Now we change it up (0:46), with trumpets playing the top line. It goes to the clarinet (Barney Bigard), in the smooth lower register (1:10), with Lonnie Johnson answering on guitar. Then Baby Cox does a nasty raspy vocal (1:30); Bubber Miley returns (1:54), with answers from Johnny Hodges on alto sax. We go back to the beginning (2:17), run it through, and then start fading to the end.

Ellington was a consummate composer and arranger. He worked with a fairly stable group of musicians for his entire career and crafted his arrangements to fit their unique capabilities.

Count Basie: One O’Clock Jump

Now, Count Basie’s first recording of “One O’Clock Jump” from 1937. It was to become his theme song. The Wikipedia article lays out the basics:

The melody derived from band members’ riffs—Basie rarely wrote down musical ideas, so Eddie Durham and Buster Smith helped him crystallize his ideas. The original 1937 recording of the tune by Basie and his band is noted for the saxophone work of Herschel Evans and Lester Young, trumpet by Buck Clayton, Walter Page on bass, and Basie himself on piano. The song is typical of Basie’s early riff style. The instrumentation is based on “head arrangements” where each section makes up their part based on what the other sections are playing. Individuals take turns improvising over the top of the entire sound.

The line about riffs and head arrangements is important. The musicians just made it up and, over time, figured out what to do with all those instruments in one organization. In the process some musicians came to specialize in writing arrangements for bands.

The tune starts out with the rhythm section, bass, drums, and piano (Basie), on a short vamp. The tune, that is, the blues form, starts at roughly 0:11. Notice that the guitar also enters, playing on every beat. That’s Freddie Green, who played with Basie for years. The second chorus starts at 0:28 – for those keeping track. The change should be obvious even if you aren’t counting bars. That’s followed by a tenor sax solo, which sounds like Lester Young, with backing riff by the trumpets. Then we have a trombone solo, with saxophone backing riffs. Another sax solo, now trumpet – notice how the backing riffs change from chorus to chorus. By this point we have a moderately thick texture. It thins out at 1:53 for piano, bass, and drums for a chorus. Now we bring the band back on riffs. Finally, the saxes have the standard melody at 2:27. That’s followed by another riff chorus and we’re done.

Think about that. We are over two-thirds of the way through the tune before we get the melody. But then, maybe the melody isn’t the point. It’s mostly a way of attaching an identity to the tune. What’s important is the play between the various voices, soloists, and sections of the band.

Charlie “Bird” Parker: Blues for Alice

Charlie “Yardbird” Parker was from Kansas City and is one of the progenitors of the bebop style, some say he was the chief instigator. He was first and foremost a supremely gifted musical thinker, a virtuoso player of the alto saxophone, a superb improvisor, and an inventive composer of bebop tunes. He was also a drug addict who died in 1955 at the age of 34. It’s that combination, musical genius and drug addiction, that is the stuff of which obfuscating romantic legends are so easily constructed.

“Blues for Alice” is one of those blues that may not sound like a blues unless you pay careful attention. Why is that? The basic blues form requires only three different chords, which are often fleshed out to five or six or so. “Blues for Alice” has 17 chords. It’s like you have your basic hamburger sandwich consisting of the burger, a bun, and a dab of catsup. Then you elaborate on that with cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, some pickles, jalapeños, and of course a special sauce. But it’s still a hamburger sandwich. The burger and the bun are still in there.

Here it is. The recording is early, probably late 1940s or early 50s, but there’s no information about it on YouTube.

We start with a quick four-bar introduction from the piano. Bird plays the head (melody) starting at 0.05 and going to about 0.25. He starts bar five of the form, the first major structural change, at about 0.11 and the second change, bar nine, comes at 0.17. He then launches into a solo, playing three choruses. Listen for the fast figure he plays in the last section of each chorus; those “double-time” passages are typical bebop. The trumpet solo starts at about 1:15 and runs for two choruses. Notice the rapid flurry of notes in the middle of the second chorus – a different kind of construction from what Bird did. I’m conjecturing that it’s Miles Davis. (You might be thinking, “it’s too fleet to be Miles.” Wrong! Miles had his technique. He simplified later on because he wanted to, for musical purposes, not because his fingers couldn’t move fast enough.) The piano takes two choruses starting at 1:49 and then we return to the head to finish it.

Thelonious Sphere Monk: Mysterioso

Monk’s tricky to place. He’s generally associated with bebop and hard bop, one of bebop’s descendants, which makes sense given his active years, 40s and into the 70s, but his playing style tends to eschew the fleet lines more typical of bebop. However, he reveled in  bop’s harmonic inventiveness and contributed many tunes to the standard jazz repertoire, including “’Round Midnight.” “Blue Monk,” “Epistrophy,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Ruby, My Dear,” “In Walked Bud,” and “Well, You Needn’t.” Oh, but you do.

He first recorded “Mysterioso” in 1948 with Milt Jackson on vibraphone. This is another one of those – you guessed it – blues tunes that doesn’t sound quite like the blues. The melody simply isn’t based on standard blues licks or any other kind of standard licks. It’s based on successive pairs of notes spaced at a wide interval. As a result the bottom notes in each pair tend to be heard as one melodic line while the top notes are heard as another line, staggered half a beat away from the first. It’s an utterly captivating conception. Is it one melody built on wide intervals, or two melodies, staggered in time and far apart in pitch? One sound stream or two?

We’re in a medium tempo. Monk starts with a four-bar introduction and then plays the head along with Jackson. Jackson takes the first solo, one chorus. Liston to Monk’s spare comping. Monk takes a chorus and we’re back on the head.

Notice I didn’t mark the subsections of them. That’s so you can verify that you can hear them without me prompting you.

Miles Davis: All Blues

Its title not withstanding, “All Blues” doesn’t really sound like a blues, not a down home, dyed in the wool, old time blues. Moreover it’s on an album called Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time and, for that matter, one of the very best. Think of it as a modern high speed “bullet” train, like they have in Japan, in contrast to one of those old chugging trains pulled by a steam engine. But it still runs on two rails.

Miles Davis released the album in 1959. He’s credited with “All Blues.” The musicians on the date are stellar: Davis on trumpet, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto Sax, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb. Let’s listen to it before figuring out why it’s a blues. The tune proper starts at about 0:19 with the entrance of the trumpet:

It sounds cool and sleek. Notice, first of all, that it isn’t in 4/4 time, which is standard for the majority of jazz tunes, blues as well. It’s in 6/8, giving it a lilting feel.

It starts with an intro consisting of a piano tremolo and a repeating bass line, called an ostinato. Then the two saxes enter in harmony, playing a line that mirrors the bass line – three voices, but one pattern of motion. The trumpet enters at 0:19, playing a simple line that alternates between only two pitches; the bass and saxes continue as before. Four bars later, at roughly 0:29, things change. The harmony changes – as the blues form dictates – and the trumpet joins the saxes in a simple moving line for two bars while the bass continues as before. Then it’s back to the initial pattern, both saxes and trumpet, for two bars. The bass continues. Everything changes nine bars into the form, at 0:42.

Of course the harmony changes – though harmony isn’t quite the right concept. But don’t worry about it. You can hear a change and that’s what’s important. The saxes have a different line, but a simple one; same for the trumpet. Not only that, but the bass drops the ostinato it had been playing since the beginning, but only for two bars. In bars 11 and 12 the bass returns to the ostinato and the harmony changes accordingly; the trumpet and saxes harmonize on a simple melodic phrase.

So, while “All Blues” doesn’t sound like either “St. Louis Blues” or “One O’Clock Jump,” it does follow a 12-bar structure that is divided into three different 4-bar phrases. It IS a blues, albeit of a different kind.

That first chorus is followed by a 4-bar interlude where the saxes mirror the bass, as in the introduction, but the trumpet drops out. Then we have another full chorus, as before. That’s followed by another 4-bar interlude. Miles enters at roughly 1:46 for the first solo. The bass continues its ostinato. Miles plays four continuous choruses, no interludes between them. Then:

  • a 4-bar interlude, four choruses by Cannonball Adderley on alto sax;
  • a 4-bar interlude, four choruses by John Coltrane on tenor sax;
  • a 4-bar interlude, four choruses by Bill Evans on piano, and finally:
  • a 4-bar interlude, and we return to the tune, playing it twice as in the beginning;
  • there’s another 4-bar interlude, and Miles does a very simple solo for one last chorus – it could almost be mistaken for a vamp.

Ornette Coleman: Broad Way Blues

Ornette Coleman was an alto saxophonist. He was Coltrane’s contemporary, a couple years younger. But, while Trane was based on the East Coast, Coleman matured out West, in Los Angeles. Nor did he apprentice in bebop. He created his own apprenticeship. Thus when he came East in 1959 no one knew what he was doing. He played a plastic alto sax and his compatriot, Don Cherry, played a funny looking pocket trumpet. Are these guys for real, playing toy instruments and music that don’t make no sense no how? Sheesh! Yes, they’re for real. Some people dug them strait off, others had to warm up, and some never did.

He recorded “Broad Way Blues” in 1968 on New York is Now. It’s not a blues in any conventional way of thinking about such matters. And yet, in a somewhat less conventional way, it’s as all blues as “All Blues,” if not more so. Why don’t you give it a listen and see if it makes sense to you:

Make sense? Yes? No? Maybe? Or perhaps you did not try to make sense of it and it just sounded wonderful, though perhaps a bit sideways.

It sounded that way to me. When I tried to count it out, I got lost. So I looked at the sheet music. 22-bars long. That’s not a blues form, it’s not a 32-bar standard, it’s not made of 4-bar phrases (adding up to, say, 16 bars). And there are some bars in there that don’t count out to four beats; they’re in six. When they solo – Dewey Redman joins Ornette on tenor – time undergoes a different discipline, courtesy of Elvin Jones.

Let’s take it easy. I’ve been doing this for a while and my brain is running low on the neuro-transmitters that make for quick shifts of concentration. So I’m going to minimize my attempts get times for you. But I’ll do this much: The melody starts at the beginning. That descending line at about 0:13 – the first one in the tune – is in six. We return to the opening figure at about 0:17, at bar 14, which begins the second part of the head. Descending line in 6 at 0:21, then down for a bar, up for a bar, and down. We’re at the end of the head. Starting at 0:28 we go around again, then into solos, where everything is up for grabs.

So listen and grab some why don’t you.

Coleman is endlessly lyrical, no?

Those rising figures are standard blues figures. That, if nothing else, justifies the blues in the title. There are other blues figures in the head. Are there any non-blues figures?

Here’s where I’m going with this. The blues happened at the confluence of two very different musical traditions, one from Western Europe and the other from West Africa. The result is sui generis. Jazz is like that as well. Think of the blues element as that which exists in this music and not in the musics from which it comes. It’s the hybrid vigor that grounds the music in American soil.

Do I really believe that analytical paradiddle? Well…hmmm…yes? no? I’m sticking with it, for now. Perhaps we should forget all this and you got it! listen to the music.

Hannibal: Homemade Jam

Hannibal Lokumbe is a trumpet player and composer from Texas who has played with Roland Kirk, Gil Evans, Frank Foster, Roy Haynes and Pharoah Sanders, among others. He also has composed works for choir and for symphony orchestra – African Portraits was performed and recorded with the Chicago Symphony. It’s an astonishing piece of music, though maybe at bit ragged around the edges. Deal with it.

I do believe that the worthies of the Pulitzer Prize committee should award some kind of prize to Hannibal. In my opinion he’s as interesting a composer as that other trumpet player. I mean no disrespect. Wynton Marsalis is a fine player, composer, and band leader. But he hasn’t led no army across no Alps on no elephants! I’m just sayin’. Yes, I understand you prized Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill, and Anthony Davis and you gave posthumous awards to Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane. Thank you very much. But Hannibal ain’t dead, not yet. Don’t let his dreadlocks put you off. It’s only hair. Now’s the time. Get on it.

Which is what we’re going to do. I’m not sure just what’s going on in this video, though, given the ferocity of the music, it doesn’t much matter. YouTube lists it as “Soul Man Sam with Hannibal Lokumbe at the Fat Cat Lounge.” The Fat Cat Lounge is in Smithville, Texas, which is where Hannibal is from. So I’m assuming he’s playing with musicians he knows well, and in front of an audience of friends and family. It certainly appears that way.

I don’t know whether or not this is a band that Soul Man Sam regularly performs with, perhaps touring the area, or maybe they’re the house band at the Fat Cat. Perhaps it’s just a bunch of guys he gathered for a weekend gig. Whatever. But I’m pretty sure it’s his band, not Hannibal’s, because this isn’t the kind of band Hannibal plays with regularly. He’s sitting in for the night.

But as you can hear, they get along fine. They’re playing the blues, which they all know and love. Soul Man Sam and the guys play pretty standard down-home blues. Hannibal burns the sky with Coltrane-inspired trumpet flames.

As the video starts, we’re already in progress. I don’t know what tune this is, if any specific tune at all, though the fragments of lyrics I catch sound familiar enough. This is a medium-up blues shuffle. Hear that nice rolling 12/8 bassline. It sounds like Hannibal just got started. Listen to him throw some shakes and flutter-tonguing in there. Then Soulman Sam takes the vocal for a chorus, with Hannibal playing backing figures. And…well…you can hear well enough what’s going on.

But why’d I stick this one at the end of the series, after Ornette “avant-garde” Coleman, no less? Because Hannibal has deep avant-garde proclivities. And yet he’s perfectly comfortable in this setting, a down-home blues.

If it’s good enough for Hannibal “Stompin’ the Alps” Lokumbe, it’s good enough for me.

If you’re interested

I’ve set up a blues playlist at my YouTube page. All of the tunes in this article are in that list, some in multiple versions, and many more. Here’s the link.

I’ve written a bit about the blues and collected those posts under that label, blues. A number of those posts are about my early musical interests and have several recordings in them; one or three of them will be blues.

Back in 2003 Martin Scorsese did PBS series on the blues. It was a very mixed kettle of fish. I reviewed three of them in this post: Three White Men Look for the Blues: Wenders, Scorsese, and Pierce. One of Them Finds It. Both Scorsese and Wenders wander deep into mythology and don’t make it back. Richard Pearce follows three musicians as they work their way toward the W.C. Handy awards in Memphis; B.B. King is one of them. It is excellent. I reviewed two others (the series had seven segments in all): More Blues: The British Get Invaded and Uncle Clint Talks Piano. Mike Figgis tells a story about how the blues made its way to England in the 1950s and 1960s while Clint Eastwood, himself a good jazz pianist, looks at blues piano. Both of these are very good.