Blues and Transforming Jazz into an Art Form

There are many styles of routine, some the trademark of particular arrangers and others more or less standard. The simplicity of the conventional layout of hot jazz is due primarily to the lack of any creative development in the harmonic dimension of jazz. Jazz harmony, is very standardized, pretty unimaginative and very simplistic and couldn't be regarded as an art form in the conventional sense. Jazz in its original form is harmonically monotonous, in common with most folk music (for example, when you listen to a ceilidh band or barn dance band most harmonies are simple single part, the variation and variety being given by the different instruments in their individual tonality. Sometimes one instrument will improvise round the tune while the other sticks to the tune, and other occasions a two-part harmony will be improvised or very often written out, as when we get two-part harmony you're getting to the realms of classical composition. Therefore playing in a ceilidh band or barn dance band is totally different to playing in a classical string quartet, where harmonies can be very complex). So the music of traditional jazz band is totally different in the harmonic sense from the harmonically inventive art of concert music  I.e. the string quartet. Although sometimes claimed that musicians in a jazz band playing in counterpoint, this isn't really the case as the simultaneous melodies of hot jazz are not fitted together neatly according to the laws of a highly perfected intellectual technique such as the one that produces canons and fugues. Their coordination is to a large extent accidental, and occurs mainly because the harmonic framework on which they are based is so simple that nearly anything played with reference to it is bound to "go together." It to try to analyse any of these "contrapuntal" hot jazz passages you'll probably find that underlying the apparent freedom of improvised melody, a sturdy repetition of one of a half dozen simple, monotonous chord sequences is going on.

Despite this, jazz has made one contribution to conventional musical art form: the characteristic twelve-bar stanza characteristic of the blues and of boogie woogie piano playing. If this form ever existed in European or white American folk music, which probably didn't, it has been rare. Yet it's a surprisingly "natural" sounding kind of musical structure, brilliantly suited to the slow songs of lament of the blues.

The blues to rise from the religious songs and working songs, where a leader or minister chance some stanzas which are applied to by the congregation or slave gang. This stanza form is apparent in the words of most blues songs, which fall naturally into this sort of triplet verse. Often the first two lines are identical. There are countless examples. One of the very early songs goes like this:

"Gwine take morphine an' die,. Gwine take morphine an' die, Gwine take morphine an' die."

Another two examples that I'm some reform are:

"I's tired of livin', pretty mama, I don' know what to do. I's tired of livin', pretty mama, I don' know what to do. You is tired of me, babe, an I is tired of you."


"Well-a Shorty George, he ain' no friend of mine, Well-a Shorty George, he ain' no friend of mine, Taken all de womens an' leave de mens behin'."

Musically this form produces the twelve-bar blues, that is three small phrases of 4 bars each, which has been used by the boogie woogie pianists as the basis of a variation form. The thudding bass line that the boogie woogie pianist plays with his left hand is usually a rhythmic extension of a blues chord sequence. It is played repeatedly with no variation. Meanwhile, the right hand works the melodies, runs and chords that is the equivalent of the blues vocal part. The pianist might improvise on the blues scale, improvisation is fitting to the harmonic framework provided by the bass. Apart from its characteristic twelve-bar phrasing, boogie woogie is closely related to the classical chaconne and passacaglia, the chaconne being a variation form based on a continuously repeated sequence of chords, the passacaglia being a similar form based on a continuously repeated melodic bass phrase.


This means that the form of jazz band music, phrases and jazz routines is really rather simple compared with the form of a typical string quartet or symphonic work. Jazz doesn't work to formula and I said above, in some respects is closer to Indian, Arabic and and North African improvised music than to Western European classical music.



It's been argued that jazz "response in several ways to what is loosely referred to as the American psychology". The origins of jazz are both African and European, and unsurprisingly as American people are a mixture of African and European, the music of that mixture of racial backgrounds fits the American psychology. After all, music is, as I have suggested in various of my other ramblings, a result of the development of language in homo sapiens, with all the tonality, inflections and modulations that are part of any advance language (isn't it the Hottentot or  Khoikhoi Language that has something like 25 different clicks and meaning different things? Maybe I'm mistaken, I just have vague recollections of reading or hearing this, but certainly any language is a complex mixture of sounds and tonalities which can only be produced by the sort of voicebox in the larynx that evolution has gifted to the homo sapiens.)

Also readied argued that the spontaneous and improvised nature of jazz is fitting to a mobile and pioneering group people that the Americans were in the early days. Indeed, if you listen to an American barn dance bands in full swing, music and be a cross between English, Irish, use Eastern European and jazz. So the music went around around. Early Americans had to be inventive (before the gradually became more and more similar to each other), and the typical American just like the typical jazz musician went their own syncopated way, making instantaneous and inventive solutions to the problems as they presented themselves, either the life of a settler rancher or two the creation of music. The original American was an individualist, and so was a musician, preferring to make their own kind of music rather than the composition of the great classical masters. This was perhaps in part temperament, but in part it was presumably that they didn't have music colleges to go to in many parts of USA, nor the time or inclination to settle in one place for long enough to go through the rigours of the typical musician who would be playing in it classical string quartet. (Situation today, is of course completely different, with some the best string quartets and orchestras in the world being American. But that wasn't the environment that jazz grew up in.)


Tradition cramps the jazz musician style, this is strange as many of the great Broadway composers who often incorporated jazz ideas into their music, were Jewish, and tradition (as made much of in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, is everything.) The jazz musician gets a buzz out of the good fight between other members of the jazz band, so long as it all comes out right in the end. 

It's perhaps not very surprising that a society that has invented the skyscraper, baseball and Hollywood spawn a new form of musical expression that is jazz. If the cathedral is the equivalent of classical music and the American high-rise block of skyscraper is the equivalent of jazz, then the cathedral -like a Hyden or Beethoven string quartet, is built to a pattern, with concern for tradition and past styles, and is constructed to last. And indeed it does last, hundreds of years so far. The average skyscraper of high-rise block is on the other hand not designed to last for the same length of time. This is not just because the reinforced concrete that is made from has a limited lifespan before the whole building is to be torn down, but because the designers know that it will be replaced. The skyscraper thrusts upwards to a height that is only limited by the engineering skills of the designers and constructors and the depth of the pocket of the company that commissioned it. Similarly, the jazz band is only limited by the skill and inventiveness of the musicians, and the finite energy they have at their disposal. It's a performance that they now has a limited lifetime. Just as with pop music, it is not destined for ever (or at least, most of it's not. There is the occasional long-lasting pop tune of such quality that it goes on beyond the lifetime of the performers, just as the occasional building like the Empire State building withstand the demolition crews that most skyscrapers succumb to), but just as pop music is not destined on the hold forever, so is the case with jazz. The performance comes and goes. When a jazz performance ends, it's not because that was the logical conclusion of the music, it was just that the players in the jazz band for the audience have got tired, or wish to play or to something else for a change. There is no dramatic climax as in the Symphony or string quartet. As far as the musical form is concerned, it could just as well have finished off the end of any eight bar phrase, as anywhere else. A typical skyscraper ends its upward rise in a very similar manner. It could have stopped anywhere on its way up, continued still further. The stop wasn't normally friendly aesthetic reason, not like the height with proportions of the Greek temple which with that way for a very logical reason. It probably stopped because that's all builders could afford, even Mr Trump as limit. 

Therefore the difference between a typical jazz band performance and a classical performance of some string quartet composition, is not just the difference in the music itself. Reflects the difference in the psychology of music. The classical composition style that came out of Western Europe is a structure of organised sound and organised form. Certainly, as each great composer came along they added something or made to change, but always he was based on the development of what had gone before. It perpetuates that kind of music in the minds that created it, for centuries. There is a strong element of tradition, even when the tradition is broken, it is only partly broken. The musical tradition is added to. Composers and performers of classical music are highly trained professionals. The average string quartet musician has gone through the equivalent of a degree at a music college, possibly with postgrad training at other colleges. The string quartet is a little place in the universe that exhibits an extraordinary degree of control and perfection, a place where the entropy of the universe has been reversed from its usual flow of increased entropy, reversed even beyond the momentary low entropy of a life for to the even lower entropy state of for life forms playing a string quartet.