(A missive for my students at NEC.)
Is the blues important to jazz?
If so, what is the blues?
I don’t have an answer to these questions. Every practitioner will need to decide for themselves.
At the piano we cannot bend notes like a voice, horn, or guitar. We are stuck with using dissonance, shakes, grace notes, and other pianistic devices. (Aside from rhythm, anything a blues pianist plays exists in the literature of Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin.)
The 1940 urban masterwork “After Hours” by Avery Parrish, performed with the band of Erskine Hawkins, seemed especially important for codifying and disseminating a pianistic approach to the blues.
Not all versions of this kind of bluesy glitter is equally soulful. I am still learning my own taste. At one point I thought Oscar Peterson was too bluesy too much of the time, but now I like him more than I used to. My opinion started to change after I saw the video of Keith Emerson and Oscar Peterson together. Emerson is uptight, rushing, and hiding behind a horn section, then Peterson strolls in with exactly the right feel.
For my own studies, I have found looking at pre-1940 blues music especially helpful. Early black jazz musicians worked over the European harmonic system to include an African aesthetic. After Scott Joplin put syncopation onto the piano keyboard, it was up to the following generations to work on sonority. There’s a certain space between Scott Joplin and Avery Parrish that is exceptionally provocative and exciting.
Lil Hardin Armstrong is a perfect example. “Cornet Chop Suey” by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, recorded 1926, is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest jazz performances of all time. The tune is essentially a rag, almost something Scott Joplin could have written. Hardin’s solo chorus uses ragtime as its base but includes much more blues.
(Scholars debate whether “Cornet Chop Suey” is in E-flat or F. I have come down on the “F” side, at least for now.)
When musicologists analyze Igor Stravinsky’s neo-classical music, they might use the words “cross-relationship” or “pan-diatonic” to describe dissonances that can’t be covered by conventional nomenclature. I’m not sure if Stravinky used those vocabulary words himself, but the general idea is obvious enough. In bar two of the slow movement of the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, the bass note stays on E, “ignorant” of the changing harmony above. In the middle of the left hand harmony, a C refuses to budge as well.
Being slightly and intentionally “ignorant” of changing harmony seems part of what makes blues piano blues piano. Lil Hardin plays all sorts of fabulous cross-relations in her chorus on “Cornet Chop Suey,” cross-relations unknown to Joplin. (Her beat also has a swagger unlike ragtime.)
Hardin was a prolific composer. One of the pieces Hardin wrote for Louis was “Skit-Dat-De-Dat,” a composition with an astonishing structural feature: there is no dominant chord! It is just tonic (C) and four (F) throughout. Kid Ory plays one exceptionally soulful G on a break, and the composer’s own chiming break offers a bit of dominant.
The chord in bars two is F major, the chord in bar three is F minor. Except, listen carefully: It sounds like Hardin and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr mix up the minor and major chords. Especially in bar two, the thirds clash as relentlessly as anything in Stravinsky. In his autobiography, Dicky Wells says that “murky” was a term used for black music before “funky” took over. The “murky” thirds in “Skit-Dat-De-Dat” might be one way to make the piano and other tempered instruments express an African aesthetic.
There is extraordinary footage of Lil Hardin Armstrong and Mae Barnes playing Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Pearls.” It truly doesn’t get any better than this.