All That Jazz #3: Blues

Jazz and the blues. There’s little disagreement about their close relationship, their common origins and their frequent cross-overs. Considerably more controversial is the question of whether it’s true, as some argue, that if you can’t play the blues then you can’t play jazz, or that jazz without some element of the blues ceases to be jazz. That tends on the face of it to rule out the possibility of any genuine European or other non-American jazz, and often gets brought into the argument that white men can’t really play jazz – because of course white men can’t really play the blues.

One of the reasons this is so arguable is that there’s almost as much disagreement about the nature of ‘the blues’ as there is about the true essence of jazz, and hence considerable difficulty in deciding whether or not a particular track has blues in it or not. I Don’t Know What Kind of Blues I Got, as the Duke Ellington song put it. Is it the long-suffering, “I woke up this mornin’ and wished I was dead” misery lyrics? Is it the classic twelve-bar, I-IV-I-V-IV-I structure – and how far can you start substituting more complex chords into that structure, as Wayne Shorter does, before it ceases to be blues? Is it the regular use of the blues and pentatonic scales in improvisation, and how do you stop that becoming a cliche except by using some other scales and thus ceasing to be blues? Is it the blues scream and its instrumental equivalents, the microtones and dissonance – and at what point does that cease to be blues and start turning into nasty atonal free jazz?

All of these tracks, I think, show their links to the blues pretty clearly, whether in formal terms (Shorter’s classic Footprints or the near-pastiche of Miroslav Vitous and Jan Garbarek, both using variants of the standard chord structure) or in terms of their ‘feel’ (a track from Mingus’ Blues and Roots album, recorded specifically to show that he could do roots music as well as the more sophisticated and elaborate compositions he was best known for in 1959, and, sorry GF, Ornette Coleman, for me one of the bluesiest jazz musicians going). The real challenge would be to find a track that doesn’t have any blues influence at all and yet is still recognisably and unarguably jazz, but I’ll have to think about that one. Modern Jazz Quartet, maybe.

For all those of you who were hoping that I’d forgotten all about this; sorry, just been rather busy recently…

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