Amina Claudine Myers
Is there jazz without the blues? The answer is no! Jazz has been defined as a fusion of ragtime (composed music and syncopated), blues with brass band music and syncopated dance music. The rhythms came from Africa, harmonic structure from European classical music, melodic and harmonic qualities from nineteenth century American folk music, religious music, work songs and minstrel shows.
Jazz stresses the individualism of the performer and is a vocally oriented music with instruments replacing the voice. The performer uses an original melody within the harmonic structure of the song for improvisation. In this way the personality of the performer comes through. No one has been able to say when the blues began; some say “it’s always been here”. Some musicians heard it back in the eighteen hundreds.
Jazz came from the blues which came from the second generation of slaves, Black work songs, shouts and field hollers, which originated from Africa’s call and response singing. The blues developed from social conditions and feelings that the church did not touch upon. Singers in rural areas started accompanying themselves with string instruments developing sad, slow songs which at first were called “sorrow songs” (like the spirituals were first called) and later called the blues.
Although William Christopher Handy, born in 1873 and known as “Father of the Blues” was the first to popularize the blues with publishing “The Memphis Blues” in 1912 and later “The St. Louis Blues”. Blues singers known as wanderers have been traveling from one black community to another singing in railroad stations, on street corners, in night spots, eating places, dance social affairs and even picnics before Handy’s music was published. This music was rejected by the so-called respectable people.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the earliest professional artist from Columbus, Ga. and the fantastic blues singer heard a woman at a railroad station singing the blues about a man deserting her and liked the song so much that she started using it in her own travertine tent shows. Jelly Roll Morton, pianist/composer from New Orleans heard a lady with two fingers missing named Mamie Desdoumes singing the blues.
Blues had certain traits that were carried over into jazz such as slurred notes, known as bluenotes, swoops and scoops, moaning moaning, groaning, whining, shouting and falsetto, a specific vocal range. There were two types of blues, the country blues which was rural featuring male singers with guitars and later string bands and other instruments. (I noticed there were quite a few blind singers/musicians during that time.) Country blues included the Mississippi Delta blues, Lead Belly, Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Between 1916-19, blacks moved north for better jobs and around 1920 record companies were started. Blues became more formal. Women singers from tent and vaudeville traditions and jazz bands came into the limelight. Blues became more formal, thus the term“Classic Blues” was applied.
I will now discuss two of the most influential artists in the development of jazz from the blues; Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Bessie Smith born around 1898 grew up singing in a church choir, acted in plays and danced. Ma Rainey heard Bessie and was so impressed that she hired Bessie for her traveling tent show called “The Rabbit Foot Minstrels”. Bessie sang anonymous blues melodies which were in public domain and created melodies herself. Later she went out on her own. She had a way of communicating with you personally. She would reshape the melody, harmonic and rhythmic structure of a song to fit her style. Bessie always did things her own way and that influenced many jazz players. This is how the instrumentalists brought individualism to their horns and strings. They heard the blend of precomposed song structures and the southern blues feeling from Bessie.
Louis Armstrong, a natural trumpet player was born in New Orleans. At a very young age he played in river boat orchestras, marching bands and funerals. He may have heard and felt the blues from the ragtime and brass bands which played traditional themes. Storyville, a section of New Orleans has been credited as the beginning of jazz around the turn of the century. Buddy Bolden played in the ragtime/brass bands and he also played the blues so I believe the blues sounds were within the structures and Armstrong may have heard this sound. Louis was deep into the blues. Actually jazz was being played all over the south and other parts of America.
Armstrong joined Joe Oliver’s band at the age of fourteen. Later he joined Fletcher Henderson’s dance band and Fletcher featured Louis as a soloist and vocalist performing popular music of the day. Louis’ singing and playing reflected the blues. He was also a blues accompanist for many blues singers. He loved to sing and sometimes he would flub the lyrics of a song but the public loved his voice and the way he performed. I think he may have forgotten the lyrics at times and would make some garbled sounds and this became known as scat singing (nonsense syllables). His singing influenced many artists such as Billie Holliday in the way she phrased her songs.
Louis’ technique developed to the point whereas he started improvising more creatively. He also brought new ideas in syncopation and rhythm. Armstrong’s playing is still influencing musicians today.
In the present time, the twelve bar blues form (ex. The Saint Louis Blues) is still going strong and is one of the mainstays of jazz. It was during my freshman year in college playing with the dance band for a high school prom that I learned to play the blues. If you could play the blues, you were definitely considered a jazz musician. Nowadays on occasions, I may play a standard song such as “Willow Weep For Me” and play it in a very very bluesy way. It’s effective!
With the examples set forth in this paper, I have tried to give you an overview showing that there is no jazz without the blues.
Written for a lecture series (music department) at the University Mass. Commissioned by Dr. Boykins, Head of the Music Department; circa 1981
"The Music Of Black Americans" ( A History) by Eileen Southern; W.W. Norton & Co. Pub. 1971
"The Book Of Jazz" by Leonard Feather"; Dell Pub. Co. 1976
"Jazz Masters Of The Twenties" by Richard Hadlock; Collier MacMillian, Pub. Co. 1965
"Blues People" by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) William Morris 1963