Blues, Authenticity, and the Hopefully Not-So-Abstract Truth, Part 1

jazzinbluesRecently someone asked a question in Jack Walrath’s excellent Facebook group along the lines of “What tune makes you sweat bullets every time someone calls it on a gig or at a session?” Many responders picked tunes like “Giant Steps,” “Countdown,” “Cherokee,” etc., in other words thorny tunes with lots of intricate changes. I didn’t have to think about my answer at all–firstly because tunes like those have gotten easier since I’ve put the work in (although the challenge then becomes how to play the tune instead of letting the tune play you–more about this here); but mainly because for at least ten years my unquestioned nemesis in improvised music has been The Slow Blues.

Yes, that’s right, a regular old slow blues–the very first tune I ever improvised on, as a matter of fact. Why is it still hounding me? First, let’s establish some context by going back in time for a little background vignette:

SCENE: Stereotypical “Jazz Education” rehearsal room, mid 1990s. Whiteboard with diminished scale pattern on it, acoustical foam on walls, etc. 3-4 young white American and European college JAZZ STUDENTS are “jamming” on a Bb blues because the teacher is late again. Their solos are a mix of unswinging bebop lines, self-conscious “out” pentatonic or chromatic patterns, and corny stereotypical blues licks. One AFRICAN-AMERICAN TENOR PLAYER sits in the corner, looking vaguely stoned (which he probably was), not playing. TEACHER, a grizzled older jazz musician, arrives, looking like he just woke up under a rock, listens for a minute or so, and stops the tune.

TEACHER: What are you guys playing?

STUDENT: Just a blues.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN TENOR PLAYER shakes his head.

TEACHER (to AfAm TENOR PLAYER): What?

AfAm TENOR PLAYER: They ain’t playin’ The Blues.

TEACHER (eyes closed meaningfully): This guy gets it.

Rest of STUDENTS go into a visible slump.

Yes, this was an actual scene from my past. (And no, I was not the hip African-American tenor player, if you hadn’t already guessed.) This guy has been successfully living in my head since that day, lying low and waiting until I start soloing on a slow blues to jump back into my consciousness at the most inopportune time: “You ain’t playin’ The Blues.”

I should mention that this guy was no great shakes as an improviser, either–he was all style and not much substance, at least as best I can remember 15 years later–but he turned into a symbol of my own inner critic. So let’s unpack what exactly is going on that turned these 12 simple bars into a source of overthinking for me.

If you come up playing this music (whether you call it jazz, or BAM, or whatever), you’re drilled from the get-go about the importance–more like holiness–of The Blues. According to whichever textbook you probably had, it’s the magical ingredient that turned corny Euro-American band music into the “hot” jazz that took the country by storm. It’s mysterious and ineffable but has to do with field hollers and Congo Square and speakeasies and African thumb pianos and The Delta and church and sin and a whole load of other things which are extremely foreign to the life experience of a late-20th-century white kid from the suburbs.

Now I should clarify that when I say “the Blues,” I’m talking about both a form (usually 12 bars) and a language. (I was going to say “a feeling,” but that could cause confusion with the emotional state “the Blues”–more on that later.) It’s possible to improvise accurately over a standard blues progression while using none of the blues language (it will probably not sound “bluesy”), just like it’s possible to use the blues language on a form that is not technically a blues (it will still sound bluesy). (“Willow Weep for Me” is a good example of an often bluesy tune that is not a blues per se.)

(Note: I’m not making a value judgment when I say something is “bluesy” or not–just whether it sends the musical message “this is the blues.” It can still be good, bad, or indifferent.)

So what makes the Blues sound “bluesy”? This brings us to what to me is the biggest challenge surrounding the Blues–the use of cliché. In order for the Blues to sound “authentic,” it requires the use of elements of musical language that can only be called clichés (I’m talking mainly about blues scale licks and phrases). For musicians who play “blues”-proper (the tradition of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and so on), this isn’t really a problem, since the language of that genre is pretty much accepted to only be the blues scale. But in jazz you’re told from early on that cliché is bad, that you should be using your own language and expressing your individuality. (Also, blues clichés can get old fast. I remember the great pianist Barry Harris talking about how blues licks are like cursing–they’re effective if you use them here and there to emphasize a point or get people’s attention, but if you’re just cursing endlessly, people stop listening to what you have to say.)

Further complicating matters is the fact that blues clichés are some of the easiest tricks to learn (can you learn 7 notes? good, now you can play blues clichés), and also the simplest way to get audiences to go “wooooo!” (which is one reason they’re really popular with beginners). We’ve all heard players who will shamelessly pile cliché on cliché and let the “wooos” rain down, but that is a pretty shallow musical pool to be swimming in, and more sophisticated and/or less drunk audiences will see through that shit pretty fast. (Your fellow musicians will likely not be impressed by this, either. I believe the word that comes to mind with this kind of repetitive flag-waving is “jive.”)

So how do you balance the need to use enough of the “blues language” to sound authentic with the desire to avoid sounding like a caricature? All while sounding like yourself? (And Hip? And Modern? And BURNING? BUT NOT TOO BURNING?!) These are the questions I really wanted to deal with after realizing I was still afraid of those 12 damn bars after 20+ years of learning this music.

In Part 2, I’ll talk about the steps I took to work on these issues (spoiler alert: it involves some intense listening of people doing it well). For now, I’ll leave you with an example of some undisputedly authentic yet sophisticated blues improvising by someone who had no problem using the standard blues language in an intensely personal way:

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