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The Blues Are Everywhere

Music is the oldest of all the performing arts. It encompasses the expressions of human joy and pain. It can tell you stories straight from the heart. Listening to Billie Holiday, the great jazz singer with a plaintive, pensive delivery, conjures a certain mood of reflection and introspection. Listening to Begum Akhtar has almost the […]

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Sunil Sampat Sep 26, 2009
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Music is the oldest of all the performing arts. It encompasses the expressions of human joy and pain. It can tell you stories straight from the heart. Listening to Billie Holiday, the great jazz singer with a plaintive, pensive delivery, conjures a certain mood of reflection and introspection. Listening to Begum Akhtar has almost the same effect. The pain or dard in the singing of both these ladies evokes reactions which are amazingly similar, although they came from different parts of the world, sang entirely different genres of music and in all probability were not aware of the other’s music.

There is a certain universality about music, particularly the blues. Music is a language with many dialects. The music called the blues would be, in this analogy, a modern day Latin or Sanskrit, a fount from which its many versions have sprouted. All jazz, swing, boogie woogie, rock & roll, rock and R&B have sprung from the blues. Jazz is its oldest offshoot. Interestingly, rock music has had a slight detour, taking a circuitous route. British musicians influenced by the blues (such as Mick Jagger by Muddy Waters) have evolved their own musical dialect based on their feel of the blues. The blues structure of harmony and rhythm remains, although substantial stress on accent (aggressive drumming) and other deviations have created a new genre. This sound has preserved the elements and instruments of the blues but also deviates largely as a result of the arrival and now extensive use of electronics in music some 40 years ago.

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Willie Ruff, an unusual jazz musician in that he was part of a jazz duo – Ruff playing either acoustic bass or French horn with Dwike Mitchell, pianist – is an intellectual (head of music at Yale), and a real adventurer, having travelled to the Soviet Union in 1959, the winter of the Cold War when no cultural exchange took place between the two superpowers, and played jazz concerts! With a huge fan following to jazz behind the Iron Curtain, Ruff made many friends and also met the great Paul Robeson, an American singer who emigrated to Russia in the 1950s. Robeson said some wise things to Ruff. Says Ruff: “Well, Robeson was the ultimate music scholar. He not only sang brilliantly, but he learnt all these folk songs of the world. He could sing in 14 or 15 languages, and do it beautifully. His Russian was so poetic, it’d make you weep. Even songs that I don’t understand, his delivery of them just kills me every time. But on a record he made in Carnegie Hall, he sang some African chants, melodies from East Africa and then he sang some Czech plainchants. And they were almost the same melodies, just different words. And then he sang some of the plainchants that found their way into Gregorian religious ceremony. And you couldn’t tell the difference in these melodies of all these coming from widespread areas of the world, this common way of expressing feeling that people have had.  And to see this similarity in our music, the blues made a profound impression on me.”

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Jazz musicians are at their peak of expression when they play the blues. They will tell you these blues are not always sad; they can be happy and cheerful as well. Just listen to John Coltrane playing ”˜Alabama,’ Ella and Louis singing ”˜Summertime’ or Duke Ellington doing ”˜Mood Indigo.’ You’ll know what I mean.

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