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Jazz Corner: The Kissing Cousins in Music: Jazz and The Blues

While the blues attracts large audiences, jazz, largely owing to its intricacies, pulls in only a niche audience

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Sunil Sampat Jul 23, 2020

American blues legend Buddy Guy mid-song at Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai in 2011. Photo: Bobin James

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I had a fairly serious (and often asked) question posed to me the other day by a friend in Assam: What is the difference between the blues and jazz? Jazz is hard enough to define in specific terms; it is a broad, fairly informal type of music. Now, to compare this nebulous, century-old art form with an even older traditional music is going to be an interesting exercise… Here goes!

The blues and jazz have both emerged from the same mold, have many similarities but now are different genres of music. Of course, they are both American art (music) forms and together are responsible for most contemporary popular Western music. However, they are different: The blues have emerged from the songs sung by the African slaves in bondage in the American southern states from around 1800 to the early 1900s at which point they emerged free in society. Their spontaneous “chants” became a style of folk music. Contrary to common belief, the blues are not a lament of life’s woes. They sing of the triumph over life’s troubles! The blues are happy, optimistic sounds.

However, like folk music anywhere, the blues are simple and basic and usually speak of the troubles over women, drink, money or gambling to the accompaniment of not much more than a guitar. Using the basic mood of the blues sounds, some musicians, especially in New Orleans of the early 1900s brought in brass instruments, percussion, a double bass and other miscellaneous collection of instruments to create improvisations in the basic notes in the blues. Soon they formed horn sections, rhythm sections and expanded their bands to create complex musical sounds.

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Orchestration came into this new sound, now christened “jazz.” Musicians like the great Duke Ellington and Count Basie among others wrote arrangements for this complex orchestration. It was almost as if the homegrown, illiterate blues went to school and graduated as jazz! From this take-off point, jazz became more “educated,” complex and even sophisticated. Thus began a quest in jazz to find new areas of development of the “jazz sound”  — it continues even today and the evolution of jazz is a story in itself, a story for another time!

From the early days through the big bands, especially of the 1930s, bebop, cool jazz and so on, jazz is constantly reinventing and redefining itself; the complexity of jazz has increased manifold, creating many sub-genres within itself.

Meanwhile, the blues have chugged along, retaining the hallmark down-to-earth approach, and essentially telling stories to a great rhythm. They have remained, mainly guitar-based in sound and are very popular. Several British bands in the 1960s borrowed heavily from the then blues sounds of Muddy Waters and other great blues artists and came up with popular, commercial music. The Rolling Stones are a prime example of this inspiration. Other groups followed their footsteps and classic rock was born from this exercise. The introduction of amplified electric guitars, booming electric bass sounds and extroverted drumming became a hallmark of this new genre and found its way back into the American blues sound. The contemporary “blues” sound is not too far from that of rock, including in the manner of its presentation — open-air standing room only concerts catering to large crowds.

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While the blues attracts large audiences, jazz, largely owing to its intricacies, pulls in only a niche audience. But they remain kissing cousins! Jazz music is steeped in the blues. The “jazz sound” always has a feel of the blues in it. It is an intricate part of its DNA. Ultimately, they are both a monumental contribution of the African American people. Their gift to the world of music.

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