Development of Jazz-Blues within American Pop Culture

December 17, 2013

lessons-learned-sldieBY MICHAEL TRENI

To most people, pop culture and the blues go together like baseball and peanuts. After all, “pop culture” refers to what is popular in the cultural mainstream, and what could be more popular than the blues? Of all American music, the blues is perhaps the most widely known and admired around the world. The blues, which has its roots in the African American spiritual, plays a major role in most popular music forms including gospel, jazz, rock and roll, and of course, rhythm and blues. Its influences can even be found in folk, pop, and rap music.

Given the historical underpinnings of the blues, perhaps pop culture and the blues aren’t as like-minded as people think. One aspect of pop culture is that in order to find consensual acceptance throughout the mainstream it has become fashionable to dismiss many of the traditions and standards of the past. In the arts, music, film, and literature there seems to be an attitude that previous forms and techniques are not only passé, but are to be avoided. This is especially true in music where musicians often say they must disavow the past in order to move the art form forward. Is this the reason, or is it because in their rush to seek peer acceptance and celebrity status, many of today’s musicians feel it takes too much time and trouble to assimilate and master the prior art?

Roger Kimball, writing on the legacy of Hilton Kramer, one of the founders of the literary magazine The New Criterion, observes that, “Tradition is not the enemy, but the indispensable handmaiden of originality and lasting cultural achievement.” Today, the embrace of tradition in popular music is rare, but when it comes to the blues, its practitioners understand the importance of preserving its legacy through their own work. The same is true in jazz, where musicians strive to preserve the genre’s heritage even as they seek to innovate.

From the 1930s until the end of the 1940s, jazz played a major role in American popular culture. Big band leaders, singers, and musicians were the icons of popular culture, some with their own radio shows, with many bands, even lesser-known regional groups, constantly touring the country’s theaters and dance clubs. The music of the big bands, while primarily designed for dancing, incorporated the most important elements of jazz: improvisation and syncopation. Some of the biggest hits of the big band era were blues compositions, including “At the Woodchoppers Ball” (Woody Herman), “In the Mood” (Glenn Miller), and “One O’clock Jump” (Count Basie).

During the 1950s, as rock and roll emerged, rock musicians and bands infused the elements of gospel and early blues into their music to form the category we have come to know as rhythm and blues (R&B). New popular artists such as Elvis Presley had several big hits singing blues-based songs such as “Hound Dog.” Later performers like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and BB King would make rhythm and blues an integral part of the pop music scene. By the time the term “Pop” had been coined in the mid-50s, R&B and rock had replaced jazz as America’s most popular music genre.

Advancing the Blues Art Form

That the blues has played and continues to play a central role in jazz is evident by its continued popularity over the course of jazz history. Go to any jam session and invariably at some point one of the performers will call a blues. Blues heads are universally known among jazz musicians and most jazz players consider the blues the perfect vehicle with which to demonstrate their improvisatory skills.

Consider the following jazz-blues compositions that have become an essential part of the jazz repertoire: “All Blues” (Miles Davis), “Billie’s Bounce” (Charlie Parker), “Blue Trane” (John Coltrane), “Blues on the Corner” (McCoy Tyner), “Footprints” (Wayne Shorter), “Straight No Chaser “(Thelonious Monk), “Stolen Moments” (Oliver Nelson), “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” (Duke Ellington), and “Watermelon Man” (Herbie Hancock).

Even though jazz hasn’t been able to cash in on the popularity that R&B has enjoyed, jazz musicians have advanced the blues art form in a way that popular R&B artists have not. Over the years, jazz players and composers have modified the basic blues form to include:

  • 16-bar blues: 12-bar blues with a four-bar turnaround extension (“Watermelon Man”)
  • 3/4 time blues: can be 24 bars in length or 12 bars when  written in 6/8 (“All Blues”)
  • Minor blues: based on a minor key (“Stolen Moments”)
  • Major seventh (Bop) blues: chromatically descending II-V  progressions (“Bluesette”)

Other variations and combinations of the above can be found, and even songs that use a non-standard form and harmonic structure can also be labeled a blues if it is evocative of the genre.

The Blues: More than Meets the Eye and Ear

With so many possibilities, it’s astounding that so many jazz players seem to get so little out of the blues when they improvise on the form. What many players, even experienced players, fail to realize is that the blues can actually highlight the limitations of an improviser. It is much easier to master a tune with many chord changes, such as “Giant Steps” (tempo aside), as there are fewer available note choices and less time for thematic development.

The blues offers a broad canvas on which to paint one’s musical ideas. There is more time (measures) to develop thematic ideas. There is also more time between the chord changes of the basic harmonic progression. Due to the number of harmonic substitutions and passing chords that have become part of the modern jazz lexicon, there are many more scale and note choices available to outline the harmony of the moment. Usually, these harmonic substitutions are not played by observant rhythm sections until they are first implied by the soloist. It requires a thorough knowledge of jazz theory and a keen ear to take advantage of the ever-changing harmonic context that can occur in the blues. It has been said that there are “no wrong notes” when improvising on the blues. This is somewhat of a fiction, for in the blues there are always “better” notes with their implied harmonic substitutions available at any given time.

The Blues in Music Education

Today there are many blues arrangements available from the companies that publish music for school jazz ensembles, which is why many jazz educators use the blues to teach beginning improvisation. Students should be exposed to the blues from a listener’s perspective early in their musical education; however, it is the author’s opinion that improvisation should begin with diatonic progressions (II-V-I) and standards (such as “I Got Rhythm”), before introducing the blues. Asking a beginning student to improvise on the blues is like asking a young sailor to navigate an ocean in a small boat. In both cases the novice will certainly encounter difficulty and probable catastrophe!

Some teachers also recommend the use of the blues scale as a simple way to navigate blues changes. Pedagogically, the blues scale is one of the last scales the author would introduce to a student of improvisation. While it may contain the raised 9th and 5th, the blues scale offers little in the way of harmonic and melodic source material for the beginning student.

The Blues: A Bridge to Wider Acceptance?

Since the blues enjoys such popularity, it’s possible that jazz musicians might find a wider audience for their music if they devoted more attention to the blues connection. It’s worked well for artists in the past. Consider the widespread appeal of albums such as “Blue Train,” “All Blues,” and “Stolen Moments,” as well as the commercially successful cross-over hits “Watermelon Man” and “Cantaloupe Island.”

With its ability to assume a variety of forms, styles, and harmonic treatments, the blues offers jazz musicians a rich musical resource, one that is expressive, challenging and, most assuredly, very “pop culture”!

Michael Treni is a New Jersey-based composer, trombonist, and publisher. His latest recording, Pop-Culture Blues, performed by The Michael Treni Big Band, featuring Jerry Bergonzi, is a suite in 10 parts that presents the development of the blues within the jazz idiom utilizing the changing compositional styles prevalent from the late 1950s to today. The recording is available from Amazon, cd baby, and the author’s website, www.bellproductionco.com.

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