Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Jazz 7- Everyone's Music

I merely took the energy it takes to pout
and wrote some blues.
-Duke Ellington

I said toward the end of last week’s post on big band music that jazz musicians need to know the roots of jazz. We are the heirs of an incredible tradition:
• Dixieland and ragtime
• Big band and be bop
• Hard bop and fusion
• Latin and free jazz
But there’s one more- perhaps the underlying roots of much American-based music.

The Blues.

I’m not sure we can understand jazz without at least knowing something about the blues. It is often the first type of music a jazz musician is encouraged to learn. The chord progressions are simple and repetitive. Yet it informs, shapes, colors, and even defines Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin, Robert Johnson, Willie Nelson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It is a music of life as it is experienced every day. Wynton Marsalis called it “everyone’s music” and said this about it in his book, Higher Ground:
The blues trains you for life’s hurdles with a heavy dose of realism. John Philip Sousa’s music is stirring. It’s national music of great significance. But Sousa’s is a vision of transcendent American greatness: We are the good guys from sea to shining sea. The blues says that we are not always good. Or bad. We just are. (P. 52)
It’s roots can be traced to the late 1800s in a melding of African-American work songs and European-American folk music.
Blues incorporated spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by the call-and-response pattern, the blues scale and specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues is the most common. Blue notes (or "worried notes"), usually thirds or fifths flattened in pitch, are also an important part of the sound. Blues shuffles or walking bass reinforce the trance-like rhythm and form a repetitive effect known as the groove. (Wikipedia)

Robert Johnson is perhaps the paradigm for blues musicians. Only in a bargain with the devil himself could music of such power and emotion develop. The Faustian story of such bargains is as old as human mythology, but is reserved only for the most incredible and impressive accomplishments. Johnson’s artistry in a short lifetime was powered by the incredible and impressive sound of the blues.

It’s simplicity is what makes it so infinitely malleable. That basic three-chord, twelve-bar progression can be the basis of every emotion. It can express the depths of sadness to the heights of ecstasy. They can underlie Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess or the “Alleluia” in a worship service. B. B. King can bend them into dozens of melodies or W. C. Handy folds them into the "St. Louis Blues." When you have finished listening to a blues, you know you have been touched by that which is greater than any of us. (See the list "Greatest Blues Songs" at Digital Dream Door)

The Blues contain so much joy and
sadness at the same time.
-Bill Charlap

In that way, the blues can be our own personal guide into ourselves. An essential element to any of us who want to play music- blues, jazz, rock or classical is to be some kind of self-aware. It may only be within our own experiences of emotion that we can put that into our music. Or maybe the music itself digs into our psyche and finds those emotions and blends them into itself. I have no doubt that music is THAT alive and THAT powerful. In the blues is the foundation of what that means. Marsalis says it begins in “pain” but it will always have that element of “things will be better” someday. Even in the blues there is a sense of hope. That, I believe is the hope that lies within us, the view that we can get through this. Sometimes it’s hard to find, but it is there.

This is where the music and life intersect with the blues. It can be very difficult for any of us to live in the midst of pain and uncertainty. Somehow or another I believe we have to find outlets for our feelings, ways of expressing our common humanity. The alternative to that is dangerous to our health and happiness. We stuff it; we put on a “happy face;” we deny our concerns, our fears and our needs. The more we do that the more unhealthy we become. Blues becomes a way to let that out either though listening, singing, or playing. Part of that comes from the very repetitive nature of the blues form. We can fall into the rhythm and the groove to be carried along to new places in life and soul.

One other piece of the blues (as well as jazz, in general) is its place in the American story. It may be easy to overlook the fact that this music is a gift to our national spirit and soul from an oppressed people. It is very much American music. It’s an expression of soul in spite of pain, hope in spite of fear, grace in spite of hate. Wynton’s thought that it is “everyone’s music” is beyond argument. Perhaps in these days of fear, pain, and hate, the blues can lead us into some new ways of sharing with each other. Perhaps we can hear the pain and be willing to do something about it. Maybe we can see the hate and refuse to allow it to conquer. In the end we can allow the American soul which includes all of us of myriad ancestries, faith expressions, racial identities, or sexual understandings. In that we will hopefully discover the power of the blues.

The Blues are the true facts of life expressed in
words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding.
-Willie Dixon

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