So earlier this week I was sat with my friends in an aesthetic brown and beige toned coffee shop surrounded by bean themed paintings and leather chairs. We were just shooting the breeze over some brews of various temperatures when I heard the music change from mellow easy listening to jazz. I fazed out of the conversation and listened. My friends, noticing that I was silent, asked what was up. I explained that I liked the jazz song playing overhead.
‘Woah, I didn’t realise you were into jazz!’ My partner of the last three years exclaimed. ‘I’ve never heard you even mention it, never mind listen to it.’
I thought for a moment and realised that I only ever listen to jazz alone. Be it while washing the dishes or getting ready for work, my jazz sessions have always been solo. Sharing their surprise, the group discussed this new revelation. Then a question popped up.
‘Wait. So, if you’re into jazz, can you tell me what the difference between jazz and blues is?’
This made me stop. I honestly had no idea. Half-expecting a beanie and glasses wearing hipster to emerge from some coffee beans and lecture us, I confessed that I didn’t know. Therefore, I decided to write this article and figure it all out. This is by no means an exhaustive history or thesis, just some information I collected to form an answer to the above question.
Now, let’s get down to brass tacks.
To newbies, jazz and blues are often similar and can be mistaken for each other. But in this confusion, many can point out some familiar faces. You know them; Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Etta James, B.B. King. But what about the others? Where did it all come from?
Both jazz and blues come from similar origins. They both arose from African-American communities in the deep southern U.S. in the early 19th Century. At the time, slaves brought songs and rhythms from their native tribes and created working songs and shouts that would make the back breaking labour that they endured easier. It’s hard to tell which genre came first. However, we do know that the first blues song that was written down was Antonio Maggio’s ‘I Got the Blues’ and the first jazz song was recorded in 1917 by The Original Dixieland Jass Band (Jass was the original spelling of jazz).
Blues music took the call and response element and melancholy narrative of African work songs and told them through a single person and a three-chord structure, jazz took a different approach. Combining African music with European music, it focused on an ensemble that utilised improvisation, syncopation and what became known as the ‘swing note’. Jazz took the three-chord structure and messed around with it, adding layers of complexity and dexterity.
With blues artists drifting from town to town and jazz players performing on the ferry boats that travelled up the Mississippi river, the genres spread far beyond New Orleans and Mississippi, eventually reaching Chicago and New York City. This, combined with the phonograph and the radio, took jazz and blues not only across America, but across the world. The spread of these movements dug up huge icons such as Howlin’ Wolf, Bessie Smith, Dave Burbeck and Miles Davis. Soon enough, subcultures such as bebop, ragtime and bluegrass also grew. Some would even argue that rock and roll and R&B came around thanks to jazz and blues.
Now, some may call me basic for saying this, but my top jazz and blues artists are Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf and B.B. King. Before you angrily post in the comments, remember that they’re popular for a reason. I often struggle to decide whether I prefer Armstrong or Piaf’s rendition of ‘La Vie en Rose’. ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ cuts me deeply every time I hear it. ‘Let’s Call This Whole Thing Off’ and ‘Let’s Do It’ puts a little spring in my step on my commute. ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ makes me swoon. These are by no means the only ones I love, but you’re a busy person and probably don’t have all day. However, let’s take a second to talk about some other favourites.
Listening to Howlin’ Wolf makes me wanna drink whiskey on the rocks, take up smoking and drive a Cadillac while wearing some sick shades. ‘Back Door Man’ is cheeky and I love it. ‘Baby Won’t You Please Come Home’ by Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, makes me feel as though I’m in some smoky bar somewhere. ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ by Miles Davis is so beautiful that I must listen in absolute silence so I can take it all in.
There are many more that I’d love to talk about, but this is a good starting place for anyone looking to get into Jazz and Blues. Check these out and let us know what you think!