Written by Zach Goldie
In the beginning, there was…well…lots of things…
I won’t pretend I can summarize the origins of jazz. But, I’ll take the liberty of saying it was born in New Orleans, resulting from a mash-up of influences. Or as a great trumpeter said:
“New Orleans had a great tradition of celebration. Opera, military marching bands, folk music, the blues, different types of church music, ragtime, echoes of traditional African drumming, and all of the dance styles that went with this music could be heard and seen throughout the city. When all of these kinds of music blended into one, jazz was born.” — Wynton Marsalis
With its proximity to the Mississippi Delta, it’s no surprise that blues became a big element in the development of jazz. As well as borrowing the harmonies typical of blues, the 12-bar structure became a frequent feature in jazz repertoires.
As one of my favourite examples, take a listen to Louis Armstrong with his Hot 5s and 7s:
Recorded in 1925 (with a great bit of banjo), the 12-bar form is clearly present. By using brass instruments and that New Orleans style of call and response*, it is already very much jazz, but the blues influence is strongly heard
*side note: the New Orleans style call and response differs from the Delta blues style.
“Like old men in a barbershop, with one guy telling the main story and the others overlaying reactions or commentary as he comes to the end of each sentence.” – Aurora Nealand
Getting into the swing of it
Slowly the trends shifted to swing as big bands grew in popularity. Compared to New Orleans, they were highly orchestrated with harmonically complex horn sections.
Count Basie has to be my favourite from this era, possibly because he had the strongest connection with blues. He always bought a bluesy element into his sound, partly by featuring vocalists such as Billie Holiday and Jimmie Rushing as well as playing many 12-bars.
To create this new sound, composers such as Basie were playing with the basic song structures to add the opportunity for new harmonies and ideas. You can hear Basie’s take on the 12-bar broken down here. The added chords create more gradual transitions between the focal points (C7, F7, G7), letting soloists play longer runs.
To listen to this put into practice, have a listen to Count Basie’s Rockin the Blues, recorded in 1940:
Delving deeper into the music
In the 40s, jazz musicians were looking for new ground to explore. A return to small band formats was occurring, partly due to wartime economics, and a new sound was needed to distance themselves from the tired old renditions.
One prominent musician who led the way was Charlie Parker aka ‘Bird’. As a teenager, he was obsessed with Lester Young (Basie’s sax player) due to his way of playing relaxed solos that seemed to flow through the tune.
As an obsessive musician who practised up to 15hrs a day, he came to be known for his blazingly fast solos and new harmonic ideas. They became a vital part of bebop, a new style of jazz. Regarded as a musician’s music, it was intended for listening audiences, not for dancing.
‘There’s no boundary line to art’
‘l’d been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used all the time at the time, and I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes but I couldn’t play it … I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.’ – Charlie Parker
Of course, the 12-bar blues wasn’t neglected in these advancements. It became another popular progression that was modified with extra chords by bebop players.
Bird’s blues progression is explained here. The chords barely stayed in one place; instead taking a whole three bars to transition between the focal points (Fmaj7, Bb7, C7).
Try listening to Charlie Parker’s Blues for Alice (1951) and see if you can hear these changes:
A Retreat back to simplicity
Not every bebop musician was happy with this ever increasing complexity. Towards the end of the 1950s Miles Davis – a prominent trumpeter and bandleader – felt it was becoming inaccessible as a genre.
To fight against the complexity, Davis stripped his music back down. In his new direction, he focused on more loosely defined songs that were no longer crammed with chords.
“I think a movement in jazz is beginning, away from the conventional string of chords and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variations. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.” – Miles Davis
For this album, he brought in pianist Bill Evans. As a classically trained pianist who favoured composers like Debussy with his floating harmonies, he was the final ingredient for Kind of Blue to be recorded. It went on to become one of the best-selling and most highly regarded jazz albums of all time.
In this short album, our favourite 12-bar blues structure was used for two tunes. The more blues-y Freddie Freeloader and my favourite tune All Blues can be heard to follow our favourite chord progression
So sit back and have a listen to All Blues (1959):
Notice how the players now take their time exploring their ideas, letting each note hold its own with far more use of space. How the calm rhythm section keep the tune gently driving forwards. Or how you might say it’s…kind of blues-y.
A ridiculous final metaphor
Imagine Louis Armstrong was organizing a pub crawl. Most people were generally happy spending time in each pub (read: chord) chugging down pints.
Then Basie came along saying ‘y’know, the walk between pubs is always fun, let’s put some more focus on that’. (Read: chord substitutions and ii-V-I transitions.)
Charlie Parker liked this idea and wanted to take it further, where the pub crawls were mostly an excuse to explore new scenic routes between trying new beers. (Read: extended transitions, only stopping briefly on each main chord.)
Eventually, Miles Davis popped up saying ‘guys, most people actually love beer, so how about we shift our focus back to the pubs but spend time slowly enjoying unusual craft beers instead of chugging back pints of bitter’ (Read: spacious improvisations over just a few chords.)
Of course, jazz didn’t just finish. It’s still going, and it’s still evolving with various amounts of blues-yness.
I hope my post has given you a helpful look into its relationship with blues, and I’ll see you all on a dance floor soon.
Many thanks to the author Zach Goldie.
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