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Blues vs Jazz

Date: October 31, 2011

Category: News

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When I tell someone that we educate children about the history and cultural impact of Blues music, it’s not unusual for them to respond with, “That’s very cool, I love jazz”. It happens a lot. Why is it that so many people mistake one for the other when they are so different? Here’s a primer to clear up the clear up the confusion between Blues and jazz. We’ll keep this first lesson simple.

  • Jazz was born in the city, New Orleans to be exact, among a more urban society.
  • Blues evolved from “a small and deprived group of people, the poorest, most marginal people who could neither read nor write, owned almost nothing and lived in virtual serfdom” [Robert Palmer, Deep Blues] in the rural areas of the south.
  • From the beginning, jazz was played by groups of musicians or ensembles
  • Blues had two versions: Country Blues, was mainly a solo or duo act and Classic [Female] Blues (1920 to 1930) featured women singing the blues backed by, in many cases the same above jazz bands
  • From the onset jazz was played in city establishments for common folk or in fine clubs catering to smartly dressed patrons, dependent on the club or the engagement.
  • Blues was played on street corners, at rent parties in someone’s house or apartment, or establishments in the rural south called juke joints
  • Jazz bands typically played in matching attire, tuxedos not unusual or matching uniforms
  • Blues performers also took pride in how they dressed. The traditional bluesman wore a fine suit with tie, shoes polished to a tee and not a hair out of place. Women were equally quaffed and during the Classic period wore more elaborate couture.
  • In jazz, the lead instrument is a wind instrument. The guitar or banjo in the early years was considered a rhythm instrument. Piano could be one or the other. Not until the late ‘30s and early ‘40s with electrification did the guitar serve as the lead instrument, and even today is the exception not the rule.
  • From the onset, a guitar or harmonica, has been the lead instrument for the Blues with the exception of the Classic Blues period referenced above when the singer’s voice was the lead an some isolated examples such as Louis Jordan
  • Jazz has evolved into many variations divided between two periods, Traditional (New Orleans, Chicago, Swing and Modern (Bebop, Cool, Hardbop, Modal, Free, Latin, Soul, Post Bop, Fusion, Funk, Smooth)  with only limited effect from geography (New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, and West Coast).
  • The impact of geography on Blues was much more profound – Texas Blues, [Mississippi] Delta Blues, Piedmont Blues (southeast), Louisiana Blues, West Coast Blues, Chicago Blues, St. Louis Blues and half a dozen other variants. There is also pre-war Blues (Country, acoustic), Classic Female Blues (1920-1930), Urban Blues (city version of Country Blues), Electric Blues, and Jump Blues (brass rhythm section) added to the mix.
  • Jazz is typically a happy music, although blues has been part of this genre from the beginning.
  • Blues was considered the “devil’s music” and is considered by many to be a sad music. This dates back to the mid-19th century and association with the “blue-devils”, a reference to an emotional state. However, the Blues has an inexplicable power to change emotion from sadness to happiness when experienced.

As you can see, the basics of these two art forms are starkly different even though they can and do overlap.

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