Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Listening to the Blues - Blues Chorus

That’s my livin’ and my life. I love them notes. That’s why I try to make ‘em right, see? - Louis Armstrong

I don't read music or play an instrument; I listen. Or, try to. The goal of this unit, then, is to listen, and to learn how to listen better, or, try to.

A good definition of the blues is this one from the Oxford Companion:
The blues that Handy developed was twelve bars with the lyric and melody in AAB form, yet the lyric rarely utilized the full four bars. The space at the end of each line left room for fills, which allowed commentary on what had just been said or provided a setup for the next line. The fills could be vocal or instrumental. While there are many variations, chiefly eight or sixteen-bar compositions, the space for fills is a constant.
What are known as blue notes are the flatted third, seventh, and (in later years) fifth notes in the scale. The twelve-measure blues chorus is, in its most basic form, based on only three chords: 17, IV7, and V, though there are seemingly unlimited permutations—many of them quite sophisticated. How a singer or instrumentalist deals with this harmonic pattern, the blue notes, and the fills between phrases determines his or her effectiveness as a blues performer. (Porter, The Blues in Jazz, Oxford Companion to Jazz, 65)

Blues Schema

The following charts a typical 12-bar blues, showing the AAB form of the lyrics, the four beat measures in three units (AAB) and the 1-4-5 progression (I – IV – V) from tonic to sub-dominant and dominant, always returning to the tonic to finish each line on the tonic - or home key - and each of the lines constructed in two parts, the second part known as the fill.

A //// //// //// ////
1234 1234 1234 1234 Four measures of four beats in 4/4 time
I I I I The tonic I chord is maintained
Lord, I love my man, tell the world I do Musical accompaniment—fill
Well, I was standing at my window, and I was looking out at the rain,

A //// //// //// ////
1234 1234 1234 1234 Four measures of four beats in 4/4 time
IV IV I I The sub-dominant chord IV in first two bars
Lord, I love my man, tell the world I do Musical accompaniment—fill
Well, I was standing at my window, mm, people, looking out at the rain,

B //// //// //// ////
1234 1234 1234 1234 Four measures of four beats in 4/4 time
V V I I The dominant chord V in the first two bars
But when he mistreats me, makes me feel so blue. Musical accompaniment—fill
Well, deep down in my heart, mm, there was nothing but achin’ pain.

We learn to listen to the blues by listening. We learn to recognize each AAB unit as a chorus - sometimes vocal, as here when Billie Holiday sings the lyrics to Billie's Blues - and sometimes instrumental, as when the two white guys who accompany her, Artie Shaw on clarinet and Bunny Berigan on cornet, take a solo chorus or play with the ensemble. Similarly, Johnny Shines, singing his Too Wet to Plow, shares the spotlight with his accompanist on the harmonica (harp), Sugar Blue.

For me, the most insightful thing I have read about the blues chorus is from Gary Giddens:

The miracle of the blues is its endurance, which is probably inseparable from its elemental logic and its strenuous integrity. Almost anyone can be led to a piano and taught to hammer out the rudiments of a blues chorus. It only takes a matter of minutes to learn. Yet pianists who are great virtuosos in other idioms have spent years shoveling one blues chorus after another without getting close to a genuinely creative or satisfying blues. American born and bred, the blues is quintessentially American in form and function. It epitomizes progress and transition. Unlike the symphony, sonata, or concerto, the blues has no beginning, middle, or end. It is a building block; the number of blocks, or choruses, required to complete the building is usually decided on the spur of the moment. Not only have millions of such choruses been played without exhausting the form and its possibilities, but the fact of its constancy has underscored the challenge of keeping it meaningful. The blues remains the outer domain of musical exploration. You enter every chorus at peril, tempted by cliché and banality. Yet when you negotiate the trip perfectly, whether a single stanza or a whole series of them finessed with expeditious turnbacks, nothing in art is more satisfying (Gary Giddens Vision of Jazz, The First Century, 31).
Blues Chorus - the parts and their relationships
We can learn to listen to the blues by learning to follow the several ways of call-and-response - which I am using here as a catch-all to suggest how echoes and relationships are created between various parts of the blues song. We can't (I can't) make sense of all of them - certainly not at once - but I have learned that when I listen I can follow the song a bit better if I am aware of how these relationships sometimes bear fruit. If nothing else, listening for this sort of thing helps us to pay attention to what is going on in the song, to what the song is doing. The recording, then, becomes an event. In class, however, I have found that playing music has the effect of putting students, not to sleep (I can do that sort of thing very well myself), but into a reverie. I remember once in class asking students to listen to one particular thing during a few minutes of a Mozart symphony and being delighted when a student raised his hand immediately after I stopped the recording. I was disappointed to hear him ask what those things were on the wall above the blackboard.

So, anyway, here are some of the blues (a very small selection) I recommend listening to, to make sense of some of the more abstract parts to follow:

From the trad jazz wing:

Jailhouse Blues, Bessie Smith
West End Blues, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, June, 1928
One O'Clock Jump, Count Basie and His Orchestra
Blue Horizon, Sidney Bechet
Ko-Ko, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Fine and Mellow, Billie Holiday and the All-Stars
Parker's Blues, Charlie Parker

From the country blues wing:

Pony Blues, Charlie Patton
Barbecue Blues,
Barbecue Bob
Death Letter, Son House [White Stripes cover live]
Preaching Blues, Robert Johnson (1936)
Bring it On Home, Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice or Aleck Miller)
Too Wet to Plow, Johnny Shines (1975)

(1) The vocal (if there is one) and the instruments can be thought of as having an individual voice. Each provokes and responds to each other, in solos or by sections; often these relationships are referred to as a conversation, and they are generally done in a spirit of competition. This is often named call-and-response. If we start with a solo piano blues, we can say that the rhythm and harmonies created in the left hand may both accompany (the norm) and respond to (upon occasion) the melodies in the right. When Blind Lemon Jefferson or Memphis Minnie accompany themselves on a guitar, the guitar will create various effects which will echo other effects found both in the instrument and in the vocals. As more voices are added, more relationships of this sort are made possible.

(2) The first part of a line of verse in a blues chorus is balanced or parallel in some fashion by the fill at the end. This too is known as call-and-response, and might be a singer responding to herself or an instrument to itself - the permutations here can be both elegant and endless. This repetition begins a series of important formal repetitions in a blues that takes us from a single line to two lines to the song as a whole, in which several blues choruses repeat.

(3) The second A verse repeats the first, with variation; singers will add a phrase or two almost as if underneath their breath, (oh, well) often making the second verse more expressive than the first, and instrumentalists will similarly vary the second A in some personal fashion. [From here on the terms are not technically call-and-response, but each can be understood in its expressive qualities as it relates to some other part of the song.]

(4) The first two verses - AA - generally contrast with the last B verse, where a new lyric is introduced, so that whatever they set up, the B verse closes, or challenges; this relationship extends across the chorus and is often quite dynamic. It is essential to recognize that contrast plays as large - or almost as large - a role in a blues recording as repetition; the nature of the blues chorus is based on it.

(5) The phrasing - where to take a breath - in each verse and across the entire chorus, sets up a contrast between sound and silence and represents a series of decisions for performers to make that will express a personal approach to the song. Performers choose where to take a breath, and when, and for how long, and how to repeat or vary the phrasing from verse to verse and chorus to chorus.

(6) Rhythms consist of patterns created by ons and off; instead of the usual da dum - da dum - da dum - da dum, blues rhythms are syncopated - they disrupt and play with expectations creating excitement and energy which may find physical expression in dancing -
dum da - dum da - dum da - dum
dum da - dum da - dum da - dum

(7) Tempo refers to the relative speed of any given part of the song, thus setting up contrasts between fast and slow, often provoking various degrees of energy and varieties of emotions.

(8) the chord progression I IV I V, which is like a simple journey - the metaphor helps to sustain the notion of the song telling a story - away from the home key (tonic) to places (subdominant, dominant) from which it feels most important and satisfying to come back home.

(9) The turnback involves the few bars at the end of a blues chorus, introducing harmonies and rhythms that lead to the next chorus or to the conclusion of the song.

(10) One chorus will relate to another in any number of ways. The lyrics might or might not start to establish a narrative, with incident, character, and setting, but generally with only sidelong glances at just what is being said. Observations are made musically from one chorus to the next when, for example, a second soloist responds to a previous statement by another.

(11) The lyrics - the words to the song - are in blues singing bound to repeat, so that we will always hear the same sounds over and over, and are often accompanied by various moans, groans, sighs, whistles, skat or other vocalizations and sounds the performers create.

(12) Performers create characters and story in the song, and these promote feelings and emotions in the listeners; such narrative elements tend to be created by the effects of solo improvisation.

(13) Generally - though not in every case - we listen to blues and jazz recordings for the effects of solo improvisations, where variations and extensions of some original theme or thought are performed in an individual way, creating individual and personal characteristics.