Tuesday, June 26, 2007

When You're Smiling, Billie Holiday and Lester Young

When You're Smiling, Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra, January 6, 1938

Song by Fisher/Goodwin/Shay

Buck Clayton, trumpet
Benny Morton, trombone
Lester Young, tenor sax
Teddy Wilson, piano
Freddy Green, guitar
Walter Page, bass
Jo Jones, drums
Billie Holiday, vocal

Billie Holiday was a singer for the Basie Orchestra, but as luck would have it, they made no recordings. This is a sad poverty, because in spite of the many great recordings they each cut separately, there would have been some gems there, had a recording contract for the singer and the band together been possible. Given the choice, though, of the potential songs with the full band and those recordings with the small groups that were made, I think the small group recordings are undoubtedly better. Of course, they exist, which is by definition better. But I prefer, generally, small band jazz in the swing idiom to large band jazz, even when the large band is led by a Basie or an Ellington. I am certain that if we had Billie recording with the full group, as great as many of them would be, they would not match the small group recordings. We are blessed to have them.

And, in particular, blessed we are to have this one. This is one of those records people like Charlie Parker and countless others would have worn out by getting the needle on the record player to just over the right spot on the record, just about 2 minutes and five second into the song, to find the very end of Teddy Wilson's elegant and (for him) deeply felt chorus to the beginning of Lester Young's incomparable solo.

Everyone plays like a genius on this one, with Benny Morton's gutsy solo chorus to kick it off, and Buck Clayton's impeccable obbligato behind the singer, and maybe its their influence that sends Lester Young into the stratosphere to round out the number.

The song's form is AA'BC, meaning that the first two phrases repeat, but the second is with varation (A'), and after the contrasting bridge (B) instead of returning to the original material the chorus ends with yet another phrase (C).

Listen to the chord progression for the song here.

Introduction 0-4
Teddy Wilson

First Chorus 5 - 44

Benny Morton's trombone solo is incredibly smooth, holding out the notes, barely pausing for breath, as if to make of the whole chorus a single phrase.

Second Chorus 45 - 1:25

Billie Holiday keeps with Morton's breathless approach, but what surprises most here is the obbligato accompaniment by Buck Clayton. He does his own little dance out there behind her, with her, almost through her.
When you're smiling
When you're smiling
The whole world smiles with you

When you're laughing
When you're laughing
The sun comes shining through

But when you're crying
You bring on the rain
So stop your sighing
Be happy again

Keep on smiling
Cause when you're smiling
The whole world smiles with you

Third Chorus 1:26 - 2:04

Teddy Wilson's piano is a familiar accompaniment to Billie, swing feeling in gear, jaunty, clever, clear-headed.

Fourth Chorus 2:05 - 2:37

This is what it is all about. A kind of amused intelligence surfaces in the playing. As with most great solos, we hear the song and we don't, quite, because we are hearing another version, even another song, or as if we were hearing it again, after the song has been away and grown up, or something. In some cases, it sounds like the song we've been wanting to hear all along, though we are probably kidding ourselves in that case.

Coda 2:37 - 2:52

Buck Clayton plays the C section to bring the song to a close.

This Year's Kisses, Billie Holiday and Lester Young

This Year’s Kisses, Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra, January 25, 1937

Song by Irving Berlin

Buck Clayton, trumpet

Benny Goodman, clarinet

Lester Young, tenor saxophone

Teddy Wilson, piano

Freddy Green, guitar

Walter Page, bass

Jo Jones, drums

Billie Holiday, vocal

This is perfection. The composer is America's premier songwriter of the 20th century. The performers, many from the wonderful Count Basie's Orchestra, are among the very greatest of the swing idiom. Lester Young's full chorus tenor sax solo is brilliant, inaugurating a celebrated musical partnership with Billie Holiday that remains among the enduring glories of American music.

Just listen.

But first, listen to Gunther Schuller marvel at Billie's musical prowess:

As one listens to these sides, all from 1937, one is staggered by the realization that we are in the presence of a genius, a twenty-two-year-old girl in full artistic/musical maturity -- a girl who had already been a Harlem prostitute for five years of her young life, drug-addicted, with a chaotic, consistently masochistic love life, a constant witness to the seamier side of the black experience, and more. How such sublime art could flower and flourish in such an abysmal environment is not only a singular tribute to Billie Holiday but to the indestructible power and vitality of jazz itself.

For one not present at Billie's 1930s recording sessions, it remains mysterious as to how she learned these hundreds of songs - and so impeccably. The question arises not out of mere idle curiosity; it is a valid issue: first, because of the technical perfection of her performances, higher and more consistent than any of her accompanists (including even Teddy Wilson, but possibly excluding some of her rhythm section sidemen - like Kirby and Cole - with, to be sure, much less demanding assignments). Second, it is not possible to so thoroughly recompose and improvise upon that many songs without knowing them completely. You can only intelligently deviate from something - perform variations on it - if you know it deeply. (Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930 - 1945)
The form is a minor variant of the AABA, with enough difference between the last A and the first two that it is noted with a ', hence, AABA'.

Intro: Teddy Wilson 0 – 7

First chorus 8 – 1:05

This is Lester Young with an extraordinary sound, new, exciting, different, less flashy than other performers of the day, a sound described as feathery and as lemony. These 32 bars are worth listening to over and over.

A 8 -20

A 21 - 33

B 34 - 51

A' 52 - 1:05

Second chorus 1:06 - 2:07

Here is Billie Holiday, who sounds even more pleased with things generally than usual. You know she’s smiling, after listening to Lester Young's incomparable performance. This was their first recording session together.

Listen to all those sound patterns in the lyrics: alliteration, consonance, and assonance This year’s crop of kisses… The metaphor comes from agricultural economics, which seems like an odd realm to evoke, but then the topic is love, so... Since the crop is sweet, we can assume the kisses are being compared with some kind of fruit. This particular crop, however, grows by the light not of the sun, but of the moon. The metaphor in the last line shifts to fashion. Both fruit and, er, frocks, are seasonal.


This year's crop of kisses
Don't seem as sweet to me.

Bennie Goodman provides some very gentle wailing obbligato to underscore and complete the phrases here.

(Don't tell anyone, but there is a grammatical error in the lyrics here, if you care about such things.)


This year's crop just misses
What kisses used to be.


This year's new romance
Doesn't seem to have a chance
Even helped by Mr. Moon above!


This year's crop of kisses is not for me
For I'm still wearin' last year's love

Third chorus 2:08 - 3:11

Teddy Wilson on piano with Buck Clayton (2:33) on bridge, ensemble on the final eight.

Billie's Blues, Billie Holiday

Billie’s Blues, Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra, July 10, 1936

Bunny Berigan, trumpet

Artie Shaw, clarinet

Joe Bushkin, piano

Dick McDonough, guitar

Pete Peterson, bass

Cozy Cole, drums

Billie Holiday, vocal

This is a good song to listen to for getting the jazz blues idiom into our ears. When we can identify a chorus structure we can consider a song by its shape, and by learning to pay attention to each individual chorus as a particular unit we can make more sense of the individual contributions of the performers, all of whom in this case are superb and at the top of their form.

The short-lived, alcoholic Bunny Berigan was one of the top swing trumpeters as well as a successful vocalist himself. Artie Shaw was a matinee idol and an excellent jazz clarinetist and band leader, He was also, at the time, Billie's lover.

We can start with the nature of the blues lyric, and blues poetry, which consists of three phrases, the first two being variants of each other, and the third as a contrasting verse which also serves as a kind of resolution or completion of whatever is posed in the first two lines. Blues lyrics are typically both expressively and substantively interesting. Often they seem to be two things at the same time – important and trivial, or meaningful and meaningless, or planned and spontaneous. They may be angry, sad, happy, whatever. In this case, the emotions seem to jumble all together.

So we listen to the sound of her voice - her tone - which has both a soft and a hard-edged quality, and feels both rich and thin, both raspy and elegant, both slurred and precise, all at the same time. We listen for the character behind the words, who again seems to combine opposites: she sounds both tough or assertive and weak or passive. We listen to the words of the song; again there is this combination of upbeat joy, as in the first chorus (“I love my man, tell the world I do”) and some pretty rough stuff in the second (“My man wouldn't give me no breakfast wouldn't give me no dinner”). In the final chorus the singer sings about herself from the perspective of other men, again seeming to confirm her disparate, even bipolar nature.

We learn to get used to listening for things in a solo. Listening for what? Well, we just seek it out, whatever it is, wherever we can find it. The technical lexicon of music is not our concern here. When we listen to a solo we find whatever you find, but we learn to recognize it as an individual accomplishment, often as an assertion of individuality.

We learn also to listen to the accompaniment, particularly in the first chorus here to Cozy Cole on drums. We feel how they punctuate the rhythm of the piece and add a kind of rhetorical emphasis that almost says. “Here, listen up.”

As always in a jazz or blues, we try to see how the performers respond to each other. We think of it as a conversation.

Intro 00 – 7

Dick McDonough on guitar establishes a boogie beat going up and down the scale, in the first two bars and then Joe Bushkin joins in on the piano for the next two. This is the introduction to the piece, which takes four bars.

First blues chorus 8 – 32

This is a duet played in unison by Bunnie Berigan on trumpet and Artie Shaw on clarinet, accompanied by Joe Bushkin on piano, Cozy Cole on drums, Dick McDonough and Pete Peterson on guitar and bass, all filling in behind the soloists. Listen to the trumpet solo, how it handles itself and how it feels, and to where it starts and finishes. Now try to distinguish it from the clarinet, which now and then peels off on a solitary moan.

Second blues chorus 33 – 55

Here is Billie with Artie

Lord I love my man, tell the world I do!

I love my man, tell the world I do!

But when he mistreats me, makes me feel so blue.

Billie Holiday’s entrance here is incredibly joyous and heartfelt; you can almost tell she is smiling. Here Artie Shaw accompanies Billie, filling in by wailing off in the background.

Third blues chorus 0.56 – 1:20

Here Billie sings with Pete Peterson on bass and a line or two of Berigan

My man wouldn't give me no breakfast wouldn't give me no dinner, squawked about my supper and put me outdoors

Had the nerve to lay a matchbox on my clothes

I didn't have so many but I had a long, long ways to go

Fourth blues chorus 1:21 – 1:45

Artie Shaw's on clarinet solo with rhythm accompaniment.

1:46 – 2:11 Fifth blues chorus

Bunny Berigan on trumpet, starting out with an aggressive (and somewhat show-offy) growling.

Sixth blues chorus 2:12 – 2:37

Billie with the ensemble in a first rate final chorus.

Some men like me ‘cause happy, some ‘cause I’m snappy, some call me honey, others think I got money

Some tell me, “Baby, you built for speed!”

Now if you put that all together makes me everything a good man needs

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Miss Brown to You, Billie Holiday

Miss Brown to You, Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra, July 2, 1935

Song by Leo Robin / Richard Whiting / Ralph Rainger

Roy Eldridge, trumpet

Benny Goodman, clarinet

Ben Webster, tenor sax

Teddy Wilson, piano

John Truehar, guitar

John Kirby, bass

Cozy Cole. drums

Billie Holiday, vocal

Note…two clichés of the Swing era:…that the title of the song is often the final lyric of the a phrases, and that cuts often end with the drum shot. There are also here the beginnings of a particular Holiday vocal signature or mannerism—she fades at the end of a phrase, without cutting the line off precisely. In the cuts to come, this turns into a downward glissando (slide) at the ends of phrases, usually to emphasize the final word of the line as well as the end of the musical phrase.

Listen especially… to Holiday’s timbre, to her delivery, and to her command of phrasing. She could ride any tempo and make it sound either effortless or hot, as she wanted. She had an unbeatable sense of rhythm, though less explosive than Louis Armstrong’s… Her interplay with the instrumentalists in the group was real jazz give-and-take, and her sense of phrasing, or placement of the lines, was the equal of anyone’s. (Jazz: A Listener’s Guide, James McCalla, 56)

With this song you can clearly feel the solidity of the AABA structure: repetition (AA), contrast (B) and return (final A). The players

Intro 0 – 5

Benny Goodman solo for a couple of bars

First AABA chorus 6 – 54

Benny Goodman with Teddy Wilson doing filligrees in the background. The tempo is somewhat stately, the pitch is in the middle register. The first A is from 6 - 17. The second A from 18 - 29. The bridge comes in at 30 – 41, and Goodman does some nice, firm things to establish the contrasting material of the bridge before Teddy Wilson contributes his return to the final 8.

Second AABA chorus 55 – 1:42

Billie Holiday vocal, Ben Webster in obbligato quietly in the background during the first 16 bars (AA) and Roy Eldridge comes in with his obbligato at the bridge.


Who do you think is comin' to town?
You'll never guess who!
Lovable, huggable Emily Brown
Miss Brown to you! (1:06)


What if the rain comes pattering down?
My heaven is blue
Can it be sending me Emily Brown?
Miss Brown to you! (1:18)


I know her eyes will thrill ya
But go slow, oh, oh
Don't you all get too familiar (1:31)

At the bridge Webster lays out on the obbligato accompaniment and Eldridge steps in on muted trumpet.


Why do you think she's comin' to town?
Just wait and you'll see
The lovable little Miss Brown to you
Is baby to me (1:42)
Yes, yes

Third AABA chorus 1:42 – 2:32

Teddy Wilson solos on next chorus, and she says “Knock it down” in front of the bridge at 2:03, the final A returning around 2:24.

Da capo return to conclude with BA 2:33 –3:03

Roy Eldridge trumpet solo takes them out on the final eight with the others filling in.

We see, then, that the four parts of the AABA chorus are tossed around from player to player, and that the final chorus may consist of only the BA sections.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Billie Holiday

What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra, July 2, 1935

Song by Harry Woods

Roy Eldridge, trumpet

Benny Goodman, clarinet

Ben Webster, tenor sax

Teddy Wilson, piano

John Truehart, guitar

John Kirby, bass

Cozy Cole, drums

Billie Holiday, vocal

"This one was taken at a cracking pace, as quick a beat as Billie ever sang over, but of course Goodman and Billie made it sound easy, while the rhythm section did the work." (Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, Donald Clarke)

The form here is somewhat unusual. Instead of the standard AABA form each 32 bar chorus consists of 4 sections in the ABAB sequence, meaning the first four bars (A) are repeated as the third four bars and the second four bars (B) repeat as the final four.

Piano introduction 0 – 2

First ABAB chorus 3 – 57

Benny Goodman opens accompanied by the rhythm section of Cozy Cole on drums, Teddy Wilson on piano, and John Kirby’s bass. Listen to all of them, and also feel the uptempo beat—fast, fun.

The second A (at 32) begins with a little clarinet wail and picks up the tempo a bit - typical in jazz recordings. You can listen to this accomplished chorus as if you were watching a good dancer, proud of his work, and happy to show it off. The feeling is one of exuberance and skill, and also of belonging and contributing to a group effort.

Interval 58 - 59

They take a few bars to set up the girl singer...

Second ABAB chorus 1:00 – 1:58

Here is Billie Holiday's vocal. Listen to the quality of the voice. It is slightly slurred, relaxed, purring. She really makes a lot of the rhymes in the language, but makes more of the sounds themselves by expressively taking those ooo sounds in her own direction. Listen also for Teddy Wilson’s excellent comping in the background, filling in between the lines, as it were, with some pretty fancy fingering. If Goodman sounded exuberant in his second chorus, Billie sounds genuinely thrilled pleased as punch to be right here doing this right now.


Ooh, ooh, ooh! What a little moonlight can do ooh ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh! What a little moonlight can do to you!


You’re in love. Your heart's a-fluttering all day long
You only stutter cause your poor tongue
Just will not utter the words, "I love you."


Ooh, ooh, ooh! What a little moonlight can do ooh ooh
Wait a while till a little moonbeam comes peepin' through


You’ll get bold, you can't resist him
And all you'll say when you have kissed him is
"Ooh, ooh, ooh! What a little moonlight can do!"

Singers often exploit the purely physical dimension of language, where semantics gets left in the dust, as Billie Holiday does here with her ooh, ooh, oohs. (These come, of course, from the composer, who also composed the hit, "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bop Bop Boppin' Along.") It is a truism to note that a singer’s instrument is her voice; here the singer shows how true that truism is.

Notice how close she stays to the same note - the music is conjunct rather than disjunct - making the song expressive in her own way, taking advantage of what for other singers might be a disadvantage, that narrow range she had to work with.

Third ABAB chorus 1:59 -

Ben Webster, one of the most accomplished and inventive practitioners of the tenor sax. takes the first AB. His solo is from 1:59 - 2: 29. Let's here what Gunther Schuller says about him:

He was “one of the greatest and most consistent, invincible artists of jazz. …Webster was a storyteller who spoke through his horn. The inner poetry of his playing, swelling with imagery and meaning, was enriched by a constantly growing vocabulary of impressions and expressions. (Schuller, 578, 586)

Teddy Wilson takes the final AB section of that chorus, starting around 2:30, with the ensemble coming in at the last 8, starting around 2:43.

Now you can look back, or, listen back, to the solos of Goodman, Wilson, Holiday and Webster. Each stands out in its own way. Each also gets configured by its relation to the other, so that the performers are responding to the song - interpreting it as they play it - and to each other. The sense of communication is vividly felt in a light, joyous sort of way here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I Wished on the Moon, Billie Holiday

I Wished on the Moon, Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra, July 2nd, 1935

Song by Dorothy Parker and Ralph Rainger

Roy Eldridge, trumpet
Benny Goodman, clarinet
Ben Webster, tenor saxophone
Teddy Wilson, piano
John Truehart, guitar
John Kirby, bass
Cozy Cole, drums
Billie Holiday, vocal

Donald Clarke says this:

Billie clearly liked the words and the sentiment of “I Wished on the Moon.” On her very first syllable, the first-person pronoun, she comes in ahead of the beat, then lapses into her swinging version of Southern languor: she has announced that the song is worth listening to, so that we tune in. In the second line of each verse, she omits the pronoun entirely; as for the last line of each verse, "Warm April days" and "It all came true" have the same number of syllables, but entirely different accents; she makes short work of that little inconvenience, and we don’t even notice it. Her singing is not so much lazy as conversational, yet never at the expense of the song; her vocal colour is unique: it is not slick but has a rough edge on it, like the voice the girl next door might have. And her time and her phrasing are that of a musical genius. This is both pop singing and jazz singing at their best; but then it is largely thanks to Billie that the two became almost synonymous, at least for a while…No arrangements and no amount of rehearsal could have resulted in better music, for these musicians were not only among the best of their kind, but they made a living performing every day for live audiences. They were recording their own work, not manufacturing product. (Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday, Donald Clarke)

Let’s meet some of the boys in the band. Here is what Gunther Schuller says:

Benny Goodman: More often than not one is struck by the fluency of Goodman’s musical ideas. Without being terribly original and certainly not profound, they are pleasing, generally in good taste, and at worse, innocuous. (Gunther Schuller, 14)

Teddy Wilson: Wilson has always been one of the most consistent of improvisers. This consistency is achieved… to some extent by taking very few risks stylistically and technically, by constantly improvising within a limited stylistic compass. Big surprises are rare in Wilson’s playing, and in fact there is a certain general predictability about his work. Listening to a lot of Wilson recordings in succession can become somewhat monotonous. Many solos duplicate each other, and the Xerox effect can have a numbing effect. And yet, one is not inclined to use the word “cliché” in regard to Wilson’s work, in part because it is, even at its least inventive, always in good taste with ample displays of his refined touch and clean sense of structural balance. (Gunther Schuller, 508).

Roy Eldridge: Eldridge’s risk-taking is that of an exuberant youthful virtuoso performer rather than that of a seasoned master composer. There remained in Roy’s performing throughout his playing days a boyish, devil-may-care spirit which in his younger days was fed by an enormous physical energy and technical facility. (Gunther Schuller, 452)

Ben Webster: I think Webster was a great poet, perhaps one of the few true poets jazz has had. He used notes and melodies, rarefied and precious at the end, like a poet uses words and metaphors, reduced to their quintessence and innermost meaning. As with most truly great art, Webster's cannot be fully explained. And when he played, it didn't need to be (Gunther Schuller, 590).

Introduction 00 – 07

Teddy Wilson on the piano establishes the tempo and the key. He plays four bars, which you should be able to count out by picking up the beat and counting out 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 four times until he stops playing.

These four bars are worth listening to as an introduction to Teddy Wilson's style. He moves effortlessly across the keyboard, and is unafraid of dazzling arpeggios. This is showy, but Teddy is not showing off. His work is precise, clean, and thoroughly engaging.

First AA chorus 08 – 42

This song is composed in a somewhat unusual, very simple format. Each chorus consists of 32 bars – you would count out 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 a total of 32 times for each chorus - broken into two similar sections of 16 bars each. Each section is given a letter, and since both are identical, the form is identified as AA. This is unusual because typically the form includes a B section - and sometimes a C as well - which provide contrasting material. There is no bridge in this song; we hear the tune and hear it again, and then repeat until the end. The result is, as I say, simple, and less dramatic than most songs that include a bridge.

In the first chorus Benny Goodman takes the first (clarinet) solo - first A – accompanied by Ben Webster (tenor sax) and Roy Eldridge (trumpet). Teddy Wilson plays the next 16 bars – the second A - bringing the first chorus to a close. Goodman and Wilson often played together, and their easy musical relationship is evident here. This is not a great tune, and neither soloist is trying very hard, because they don't need to; in fact, it would sound wrong if they did. It sounds right.

Second AA chorus 43 – 1:16

The second chorus follows the same sequence: Goodman, then Wilson. As is usual in jazz numbers, the second time something is played it is given more expressive qualities. Where before they were content to lay down the melody with some embellishments, here the embellishments are more prominent.

To me, Goodman’s solos on these choruses are more than just fluent, though fluent they are: easily confident and assured, melodically sure-footed and engaging, an exemplary if somewhat raffish complement to Teddy Wilson’s elegant piano and Roy Eldridge’s bouncy and brassy trumpet and Webster's warm, subtle undertones.

Third AA chorus 1:15 - 2:22

The third chorus (AA) is Billie’s vocal. Donald Clarke, quoted above, refers to her evident love of the lyrics. It is not just the feeling, when Billie Holiday sings, but the nuances of feeling that make the difference. Her attitudes engage not just the listener but the other players and the words themselves.

I wished on the moon for something I never knew;
Wished on the moon, for more than I ever knew;
A sweeter rose, softer skies, warm April days
That would not dance away.
You can hear Ben Webster's obbligato accompaniment come in as she sings about softer skies and warm April days. Players usually know the lyrics to the songs, and often the best of them will do various things to enhance them. Here, it seems to me that Webster takes his cue from these words - sweeter, softer, warm, dance away - and fits his music to the qualities they suggest.

I begged up a star to throw me a beam or two
Wished on a star, and asked for a dream or two
I looked for every loveliness, it all came true;
I wished on the moon for you

The lyricist, Dorothy Parker, was a New York writer of short stories and poems. She wrote some wonderfully funny and acerbic stuff, but these 8 lines are not among them. Doesn't matter.
Fourth AA chorus 1:22 – 3:01

The fourth “out” chorus (A) is the ensemble with Eldridge on trumpet taking the lead, with Goodman on clarinet filling in. Typically, the final chorus in a jazz number brings everything together and in a more expressive manner than before.

Listening to Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday is one of America’s great artists of the 20th century. In jazz her peers include the other jazz innovators such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and a small handful of others. Like them, much of her greatness stems from what she could uniquely bring to this style of music with her instrument, in this case her voice. Like them, the enormous influence she has had on subsequent performers is incalculable.

She is often referred to as a blues singer, which is correct, though also misleading. She is best identified within the swing idiom, which she helped to establish. Swing is a music and dance style that emerged out of the innovations of Louis Armstrong by the late twenties and early thirties. It is generally associated with larger bands than the combos from New Orleans and Chicago, though the groups Billie Holiday sang with were generally smallish. With swing music a light, propulsive beat seems to make dancers of all the performers, and rather than pitting a rhythm section and a front line against each other, with swing the rhythm section is joined by both a horn section and a reed section. Collective improvisation is out, but solo improvisation in swing music takes on even greater expressive qualities. So, how is Billie Holiday a blues artist? She brings to swing music an especially effective personal tone, so that her voice emerges more as an instrument like any other in the band than as someone standing apart singing the words. As a vocalist she is a fully fledged member of the band musically, which was not the case with most other singers.

One of Billie Holiday’s talents was an amazing control over a very limited melodic range; another was her phenomenal rhythm. Musicologist Gunther Schuller says she was “most comfortable between G and A. As a result she invariably compressed melodies into that range, often going beyond vocal necessity to the sheer joy of invention in smoothing out the contours of particularly rangy lines.”

Now, what’s so great about that? On the face of it, you might think that as good as she is, someone with a greater vocal range could be greater. Maybe someone who could reach all the notes might do better? Yes, there may be better singers, in the generally accepted sense of the term, but Billie Holiday’s ability to do so much with so little is more than just a feat. The range and intensity of the feelings she brings to the music—and these are feelings she shares with her many fans as they listen—are well expressed by this, again: “often going beyond vocal necessity to the sheer joy of invention in smoothing out the contours of particularly rangy lines.”

She makes these songs entirely her own, creating with each song a new way of expressing it, partly through exploiting her limited vocal range, partly through her sense of rhythm, partly through her keen awareness of who was playing with her, and also through an infectious enthusiasm and joy which propels most of her recordings. There is not less here, but more. The metaphors one thinks of include that she inhabits the song, living in it and sharing with the audience its life; that she wears the song, displaying how it looks on her as if it was a particularly fetching outfit; and that she has taken over the song, painting and coloring it and twisting and shaping it so that the song becomes something quite new.

Her influence has been profound, although not always beneficent. What she does so well - including express individual feelings within the confines of artistic production - others do not.

Billie Holiday’s work is noteworthy in part because many of the songs themselves are unpromising. Holiday takes virtually nothing from other recordings or interpretations of the songs she sings. She learned, instead, from two principal sources—and they were the best—Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Louis Armstrong’s vocals transformed jazz singing—listen for example to his version of The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Bessie Smith’s astonishingly powerful and mesmerizing blues meant a lot to Billie Holiday, though their styles are markedly different—listen to anything Bessie Smith recorded, like Young Woman’s Blues. I expect she took many things from both of these vocal artists, in particular a sense of the authority of accomplishment that can be achieved by doing something as well as it can be done.

Unlike many other recordings, when the star vocalist is not singing the music remains extremely interesting. Another enormous talent Billie Holiday brought to her recordings was a knack for gathering other great artists around her, and bringing out their best. These are not just Billie Holiday songs, but the songs of an ensemble of some of the best performers of the day playing in a relaxed and joyful atmosphere—doubtless enhanced by various drugs, principally alcohol and marijuana.

It won’t take much work for most students to listen to her recordings, which are universally admired as masters of jazz interpretation even by those who find her particular style of singing not to their taste. When you know the melody, you are better equipped as a listener to follow what the soloists are doing with it. Most of her songs are in the 32-bar AABA song structure. though a few of her best-known works are 12-bar blues. We learn to listen to these songs by following the way each individual soloist, Billie and the instrumentalists—who are always worth listening to—approach the song, and how they contribute to its structure.

The players usually made four songs together in one long session in the studio; individual soloists take turns playing or singing the choruses; the rhythm section and sometimes other instrumentalists generally accompanying the others in their solos. When Billie sings these numbers—she increasingly would take the first chorus, thus setting the tone—she is just one other member of the band doing her thing.

A Brief Biography

In my humanities courses I try to steer clear of artist biographies; we have only a limited amount of time and the task is to learn and practice analysis and interpretation. In the case of Billie Holiday, her biography has become part of American legend, and has in some ways distorted our view of the artist. It is common to view Billie Holiday as a victim: of racism, of poverty, of drugs, of men, of you name it. She certainly suffered inordinately, and was mistreated by many, especially by authorities. When I listen to her work I don’t get that feeling at all. She sounds like someone in charge of things, at least while the recording plays.

There is an autobiography called Lady Sings the Blues (1956), which Billie Holiday claimed never to have even read; it was ghost-written by journalist William Dufty and published a few years before she died.

Billie Holiday’s given name was Elinore Harris. She was born in 1915 in Philadelphia General Hospital on April 7th, at 2.30am, if you’re interested. Her mother was 18 when Billie was born. Her father, Clarence Holiday, was a jazz guitarist. He never married Billie’s mother, and abandoned mother and child. Billie Holiday took her last name from her father, and her first name either from Billie Dove, an actress at the time, or from somebody else.

Billie Holiday was a cabaret singer when she started to record in the early thirties. The series of songs she made for Columbia in the 1930s under the general direction of John Hammond have always been popular with jazz fans; they boast the talents of some of the greatest performers of the day and are still astonishingly fresh and original. In later years, after her addiction to heroin, Billie Holiday recordings became almost unrecognizable to earlier fans; her voice seemed to reflect years of hard living. Many artists, however, prefer the later material for its deeply expressive qualities. Billie Holiday died at 3:20am (if you’re interested) on the 17th of July, 1959, in the Manhattan Metropolitan Hospital and is buried with her mother in St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.

We know of 663 different recordings Billie Holiday made and that are available; put together they make up about 40 hours of music, plus 50 minutes of video (movies). She recorded 306 different melodies: 214 once, 42 twice and 50 three times or more.

What People Have Said

In mid-1935, Teddy Wilson was only twenty-two, and Billie just twenty. They made fourteen sides together that year, and they had already made history. (Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday, Donald Clarke)

One of the wonderful things about her is that she lights up some pretty average songs, and there's a playfulness on the earlier records. Then it gets far more intense, and you get the great duets, with Lester Young. Sinatra covered a lot of songs that she did. It's interesting that he took so much from Billie Holiday. It's an interesting tribute to her that a singer so self-possessed as Sinatra clearly took so much, and I feel it's because she just imprinted herself all over those songs. (Elvis Costello)

With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years. (Frank Sinatra)

She could take a tawdry tune and do it, turn it around forty different ways, which she used to have to do in night clubs, because, you know, she'd sing to tables, particularly in speakeasies. You see there was a, there was, there was no sound systems in speakeasies because that might get out into the street, so, so she would sing very quietly at various tables, and sing the same tune differently at each table. It was just an unbelievable feat, you know, just came absolutely natural to Billie. I never heard another singer who could do it this way. By this time I had gotten Billie a business association with Brunswick records and Vocalion records, and she could go into the studio any time.'(John Hammond).

Billie Holiday was a keen observer. She saw through lyrics and she saw through people. And she chose what and who she wanted. She sang every song not only as if she had written it herself, but as if she had written it that very morning. (Maya Angelou)

It is a truism to regard Billie Holiday as one of the great artists of jazz. But her art transcends the usual categorizations of style, content, and technique. Much of her singing goes beyond itself and becomes a humanistic document; it passed often into a realm that is not only beyond criticism but in the deepest sense inexplicable. We can, of course, describe and analyze the surface mechanics of her art: her style, her techniques, her personal vocal attributes; and I suppose a poet could express the essence of her art or at least give us, by poetic analogy, his particular insight into it. But, as with all truly profound art, that which operates above, below, and all around its outer manifestations is what touches us, and also remains ultimately mysterious. (Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era, 528)

So powerful is the mystery of her art and the fatal attraction of Billie’s tragic life that many writers and critics have been unable to resist reading their own personal creeds and philosophical tenets into her work. Thus many have seen only its tragic side, emphasizing the oppression of black artists, racism, the evil forces of commercialism: “the messenger of miser,” as Leonard Feather once put it. Indeed, latecomer to her work, drawn to it—like the non-musical intelligentsia and political left—by her recording of Strange Fruit (1939), were bound to see only the gloomy and, to put it plainly, more calculated aspect of her art, being unaware of the infectious joy and optimism of her early recordings. (Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era, 528-9)

I've never seen Billie Holiday as a victim. She just did what she had to do, dealing with what was going on in society at that time. I identify with the subject matter of her songs, which were mainly about her relationships with the men she chose. I think people may have assumed that she was the typical female victim being controlled by men, but I don't see it that way at all. I don't really see her situation as any different than mine, or that of most of the women I know. I think she had a lot of empathy for people, and she may have had some beautiful losers in her life, but inside every beautiful loser is a beautiful person trying to get out. And how many people always make the right choices and have these wonderful, happy relationships, anyway? Life ultimately is about passion, about feeling passion, and Billie Holiday was nothing if not passionate. (Lucinda Williams)

First, there's her voice, which was technically brilliant, but she also did something that a lot of technical singers can't do, which is convey a helluva lot of truth and emotion. She had a very self-aware, introspective voice, a voice of the soul. Much more important than the drugs was her sexuality, her sexiness. She seduces you immediately. And the other level that's so crucial was she had incredibly good sidemen. I can't tell you how important she is to me. Every time I sing, I pray to Billie Holiday to help me: the singers' saint. (Marianne Faithfull)

Most of these 1935-39 recordings, some with Teddy Wilson-led small groups, others under her own “leadership” (but all organized by John Hammond), are classics of jazz, not only because of Billie’s unique talent but because of the generally high quality and authentic creativity of the accompaniments. Indeed, accompaniments is a misnomer. Whereas on literally thousands of swing era recordings there is a clear qualitative gap between the vocals and their instrumental surroundings, in the case of Billie’s first hundred or so performances, she is an equal among equals. And the joy of these performances is that they are seamless creative entities, not mere instrumental accompaniments for a vocalist, but rather singer and musicians matching and inspiring each other. There is no need to wince or to be tolerant when the vocal comes on. (Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era, 532)

She is the tragic beauty, the self-destructive genius, and the sensual goddess. However, artists are as likely to be drawn to her, not because of her tragedy but because she is a kindred spirit. One who the world failed to protect. One who left us too soon… She is the means by which many writers locate and find confidence in the individuality of their own voices. Her legacy encourages risk and flight in the face of uncertainty and possible failure. The joy is in the journey, the very act of creation itself. (Farah Griffin)

It is impossible (and unnecessary) to enumerate the individual virtues of these many superior recordings. Though they may vary somewhat in quality, I dare say there is not one that is not worth hearing, that doesn’t have some outstanding moments, either vocally, or instrumentally, or both. (Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era, 532)'

Friday, June 15, 2007

Blue Horizon, Sidney Bechet

Blue Horizon, Sidney Bechet and His Blue Note Jazzmen, December 30, 1944

Sidney de Paris, trumpet
Vic Dickenson, trombone
Sidney Bechet, clarinet
Art Hodes, piano
Pops Foster, string bass
Manzie Johnson, drums

Sidney Bechet is another New Orleans jazz artist; he started earlier than Louis Armstrong and also pioneered in the jazz idiom and, in particular, the jazz solo. This tour-de-force is one of the great instrumental blues masterpieces of all time. Although it was recorded in the forties, it derives from the jazz Bechet helped to create in the 1920s.

Listen to the fine tremolo Bechet brings out of his instrument. Like all great jazz musicians, Bechet can bring everything about a song, from the sound of his instrument to the melody itself, to the very edge, where it appears as if it might just break off, without losing control. You may not notice how sure-footed some people are until you see them prance nimbly around a cliff. Here Bechet is in command throughout the piece, which is practically all clarinet solo. Richard Hadlock recalls some musical advice Bechet gave him regarding how to produce a tone:

“I’m going to give you one note today,” he once told me. “See how many ways you can play that note—growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That’s how you express your feelings in this music. It’s like talking.” (quoted in Ted Gioa, The History of Jazz, p. 50).

Throughout the history of jazz, vocals have been made to sound like instruments (recall Louis’s scat solo on Hotter Than That) and instruments have been made to sound like voices. There is no question of simple imitation here, but rather the instrument starts to sound as personal and emotive as a voice while retaining its own distinctive sound.

There are six blues choruses (A – F), each of 12 bars, constructed, as usual, of three sections of four bars.


A: a 0 – 12
a 13 – 27
b 28 – 41

B: a 42 – 57
a 58 – 1:11
b 1:12 – 1:24

C a 1:25 – 143
a 1:44 – 1:54
b 1:55 – 2:09

D a 2:10 – 2:20
a 2:21 – 2:37
b 2:38 - 2: 53

E a 2:54 – 3:08
a 3:09 – 3:23
b 3:24 – 3:37

F a 3:38 – 3:53
a 3 :54 – 4:08
b 4:09 – 4:25

For Sidney Bechet

by Philip Larkin

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares–

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,

And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.

Dipper Mouth Blues, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

Dipper Mouth Blues, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, April 8, 1923

King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, cornets
Honore Dutrey, trombone
Johnny Dodds, clarinet
Lil Hardin Armstrong, piano
Bill Johnson, banjo
Baby Dodds, drums

Joe "King" Oliver was Louis Armstrong's mentor. He brought him into his band in New Orleans and later, after establishing his band in Chicago, sent for young Louis to join him. This recording is fairly typical of their best work, representing New Orleans style collective improvisation as it was played in Chicago in the early twenties. The recording itself was done in Richmond, Indiana, in a studio so close to the train tracks they had to keep the schedule handy to avoid recording train noises.

Texture in music refers to the number of separate voices heard; polyphonic texture is when those voices operate more or less independently of each other. Now, they play very much together - this is not chaos - but each player fits in by improvising his or her line.

It is an up-tempo blues number. The title refers to chewing tobacco, or, to the mouth that uses it, or it is a synecdoche (part for whole) referring to the person who chews tobacco.

Introduction 0 - 4
The ensemble starts it rolling.

First 12-bar blues chorus 5 - 20

This is New Orleans collective improvisation. There is no score, all the players know their parts and play together. Both the trumpet and the trombone are muted, and the rhythm is carried by the banjo, with the clarinet in the high registers.
A 5-9
A 10 - 14
B 15 - 20

Second 12-bar blues chorus 21 - 34

Also collective improvisation. Both opening choruses demonstrate the New Orleans style perfectly, with the trumpet leading, the trombone carrying the lower tones and the clarinet filling in from the upper register.

Third 12-bar blues chorus 35 - 50

This is Johnny Dodds taking a solo on the clarinet. His accompaniment plays in stop time.

Fourth blues chorus 51 - 1:06

Dodds continues his solo in this chorus, as above.

Fifth blues chorus 1:07 - 1:21

Collective improvisation, with the two cornets playing together. I can not tell them apart.

Sixth blues chorus 1:22 - 1:37

King Oliver solos here on the wa-wa muted cornet.

Seventh blues chorus 1:38 - 1:51

Oliver's second cornet solo using the plunger mute

Eighth blues chorus 1:52 - 2:07

Oliver leads the collective improvisation to Baby Dodds's vocal break, Oh, play that thing!

Ninth blues chorus 2:08 - 2:22

Coda 2:23 - 2:28

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Reckless Blues, Bessie Smith & Louis Armstrong

Reckless Blues, Bessie Smith & Louis Armstrong, January 14, 1925

Bessie Smith, vocal
Louis Armstrong, cornet
Fred Longshaw, harmonium

This is a wonderful song, where both Louis and Bessie seem exactly in tune with each other's approach and feelings. I wonder if the shorter vocal lines give them both a little more room to be expressive without bumping up against each other. In any case, it is a straight blues, no verse, all feeling, and superb musicianship.

4-bar Introduction 0- 14
Louis opens with a wa-wa technique, one of those ways of playing that gives the trumpet more of a personal touch, using a mute to contain and control the tone. The organ sounds just right, providing a solemn, churchy feeling without being too pious or preachy.

First Blues Chorus 15 - 57

When I wasn't nothing but a child
When I wasn't nothing but a child
All you men tried to drive me wild.

Every word Bessie sings is given her own inflection. Melisma is the term used to describe the technique in which a singer varies the notes on a single syllable. People who don't sing well often use it when doing what they seem to think is a successful version of the national anthem before ballgames. People who do sing well have their own particular approach to it. Nobody does it better than Bessie Smith or - in another tradition - Ella Fitzgerald. You can hear it here all over the place, especially on the word child.

Note the assonance - repetition of a vowel sound - in the last verse: tried, drive, wild.

Louis provides accompaniment and fills that exactly match the mood of the vocal. One of the tasks of a blues accompanist is, as they say to actors, "remember your lines and don't bump into the furniture." The whispering quality of the emotions he evokes in his muted horn sustains the quality of the lyrics. (Since I have read that Bessie was not too wild about Louis as an accompanist, I have a good time imagining her reaction; for this recording, I picture her suggesting he use a mute. Whose ever idea it was, it was inspired.)

Second blues chorus 58 - 1: 36

Now I am growing old
Now I am growing old
And I got what it takes to get all of you men told

The second chorus follows deliberately on from the first. In fact, it is somewhat rare for blues choruses to link together with such logic.

Louis makes every phrase count. He is inventive without being splashy - which would be exactly the wrong effect here. So many blues and jazz tunes work as conversations, but a recording like this one sounds more like the kind of assent you hear when each party is in complete agreement with the other.

Third blues chorus 1:37 - 2:18

Blues frequently make shifts from chorus to chorus. The first two choruses fit together logically, starting out as a child and then growing old. Here the shift seems arbitrary, which is actually more common in a blues.

My Momma says I'm a reckless, my Daddy says I'm wild
My Momma says I'm a reckless, my Daddy says I'm wild
I ain't good lookin' but I'm somebody's angel child

The lyrics here are from the common stock of blues lyrics; you'll find similar choruses all over, including from one of Blind Willie McTell's choruses in Statesboro Blues. (A similar sentiment is expressed by Barbecue Bob in his Barbecue Bob: I ain't good looking, teeth don't shine like pearls (2) / So glad good looks don't get you through this world.)

Louis keeps getting better. The suggestive lyrics are enhanced by the broadly suggestive tone of the instrument.

Fourth Blues Chorus 2:19 - 3:06

Daddy, Mamma wants some lovin', Daddy, Mamma wants some huggin'
Darn it, pretty Poppa, Momma wants some lovin' I vow
Darn it, pretty Poppa, Momma wants some lovin' right now

The recording ends with the singer demanding sexual favors which, it would appear, her lover is unable, or unwilling, to provide. Each of the separate choruses treats this theme in some fashion.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Listening to the Blues Part 2

Listening to the blues, part 2 (in which much of what I said in another post repeats)

The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, 'Is there a meaning to music?' My answer would be, 'Yes.' And 'Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?' My answer to that would be, 'No.' (Aaron Copland)

A musical education is necessary for musical judgment. What most people enjoy is hardly music; it is, rather, a drowsy reverie relieved by nervous thrills. (George Santayana)

Sheer self-expression requires no artistic form. A lynching party howling round the gallows tree, a woman wringing her hands over a sick child . . . is giving vent to intense feelings; but such scenes are not occasions for music, least of all for composing. Music is not self-expression, but formulation and representation of emotions, moods, mental tensions and resolutions - a 'logical picture' of sentient, responsive life, a source of insight, not a plea for sympathy (Suzanne Langer)

Music, if only listened to, and not scientifically cultivated, gives too much play to the feelings and fancy; the difficulties of the art draw forth the whole energies of the soul. (Jean Paul Richter)

If you're busy analyzing you can't listen. (Duke Ellington)

Improvisation was the blood and bone of jazz, and in the classic, New Orleans jazz it was collective improvisation in which each performer, seemingly going his own melodic way, played in harmony, dissonance, or counterpoint with the improvisations of his colleagues. Quite unlike ragtime, which was written down in many cases by its composers and could be repeated note for note (if not expression for expression) by others, jazz was a performer’s not a composer’s art. (Russell Lynes)

It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. (James Baldwin)

It is from the blues that all that may be called American music derives its most distinctive character. (James Weldon Johnson)

People respond or fail to respond to certain music by virtue not only of what the music is, but of what they are. (Ernest Newman)

The blues are a popular and engaging musical form. Many of us, particularly in Chicago, are well aware of the potent impact this music has on both audience and performer alikeI wish to take us a bit further in to the music, to become familiar with some of the formal properties of the blues, because these formal properties tend to carry meaning. When we know a piece by its formal qualities, we can usually get to follow it somewhat more closely than before, and even compare and contrast how something that happens over here—a chorus, a solo, a line—works against, or supports, or leads into another that happens over there. That is, it all has to do with listening for what the parts of the song are and how the parts relate to each other and to the whole. Iit is not too difficult after listening to a few of the particularly fine blues performances that have been recorded over the years to get a feeling for something deeply interesting that goes on in this music. To me, the blues is all about conversation—it is a kind of conversation, an d it is about conversation, if you follow me.

Later we will look in some more detail at the nature of the call and response in this music. Try to keep in mind throughout this unit that the blues has that essentially communicative nature—every part of a blues, practically, responds to some other part.

In addition to engaging a conversation, the blues takes us on a journey; this is typical for popular songs, and often the journey is acted out in dance. The song grabs our attention and starts telling a story, taking us up and out, into new territory where we may experience new dimensions of time - though if we are dancing we are usually most aware of a steady beat, syncopated for expressive effect.

As we consider form in the blues we may learn to engage a text politically—to think it through, to problematize (oops! Jargon!) issues, questions, concerns it raises, or seems to raise. The blues has a widely felt political message; for many it seems to embody the human spirit in the struggle against social oppression.

In addition to formal and political aspects of a text, we may learn to engage them philosophically. Sometimes our response to a text is another text—this happens frequently in the blues. There is a great deal of competition involved in these sorts of performances, as well as much honorable quotation, all of which makes the blues a large mix of texts that constantly restate and revisit the same sorts of places. When we respond to the blues, then, we are responding to an already fairly dense and often quite sophisticated network of ideas, questions, and problems. These ideas, questions, and problems, however, exist more in the music than in language.

In addition to responding to the formal and philosophical qualities of a text, we respond emotionally. Our emotional response, in general, is larger and more intrusive than the formal or philosophical ways we have of responding to a text. It comes from how much we like it and enjoy the feelings it brings out. These tend to be feelings and such we find in the text itself. Blues voices—vocal and instrumental—are highly individualized and expressive. We get to know these performers as we get to know these songs--or feel we do, at any rate—in particularly important and intimate ways. Blue notes—the flatted third and seventh notes in the scale—are used in the blues as a way of expressing emotions on a falling pitch. In general both vocal and instrumental voices will express a high degree of emotional involvement, which tends to engage listeners.

Blues form is the music from start to finish, or from first to last—from the way the recording begins to how it ends. Form is the shape of the music in time. Essentially, blues songs are sectional; they consist of one blues chorus after another. In a blues chorus you do something for four bars (measures), you do it again for another four—repeating it with variation—and then you do something else, the third group of four bars bringing what you started to a conclusion, sort of, by answering the first part.

The blues chorus (again) is a unique and recognizable musical form which, in vocals, combines three lines of verse (AAB)—usually intensely personal and experiential, with vocals often twisting into moans or howls—with the second line repeating the first and the third line answering the first two. The lines are performed within a 12-bar sequence broken into three units of 4 bars each. The musical phrase in the second four bars (5-8) is a variant of the first; the third line (bars 9-12) contrasts and responds to the musical phrase of the first two lines.

Each blues chorus takes us through one blues progression. A blues progression starts us someplace, establishing that home key for the first four bars. At the second line, at the fifth bar, we move from the I chord (home key or tonic) to the IV (subdominant) chord and stay there for two bars or so, and then return to conclude the second line with two chords on the I chord again. It feels right to return to the home key. The third and final line—which contrasts significantly with the first two—opens at the V chord—the dominant—and gets back to the I chord often by way of the IV chord again. The desire to get back to the home key is felt especially at the dominant key. At the end of the song the third or final line will conclude with two I chords, back home at the tonic. Most choruses, of course, do not end the song but are followed by another chorus, in which case the end of the third line executes what is known as a turnback or a turnaround getting us from the I chord in the middle of the third line through the IV chord at the end of the chorus and back to the I chord, where the next chorus begins. Thus we get from one blues chorus to another.

In this way, we can see how the blues form organizes the music in time. One way to think of a blues as a sequence of choruses, however, is to make the analogy with a skyscraper—a spatial comparison. Each floor of the high rise is a chorus: it has the same overall shape, some of the elements—the elevators and the plumbing, or example—are in the same places on every story - these correspond to the chord changes in the blues progression - but within the essential frame some variation from floor to floor—chorus to chorus—may be arranged internally.

The nature of the blues form has built in powerful devices to sustain a musical conversation between and among voices. This happens at several levels:

  • the level of the line, (call and response between vocal and fill)
  • the blues chorus (the third line responds to and contrasts with the first two),
  • from chorus to chorus (as one chorus takes over from another)
  • over the complete song (choruses change character in a variety of ways).

Each of those voices may have different character and dimension from chorus to chorus; that is, as we learn to listen for voice in the blues we find voices introducing themselves and then, possibly, undergoing some dramatic transformation by the end of the song. In this way we may come to experience the song as a kind of story.

The four bars of each line are generally presented in call and response fashion, often with the vocal in the first two bars and a musical accompaniment response (called a fill) in the next two bars. This means that a call and response device is at work both within each of the three lines in the chorus—the vocal in the first two bars and the fill in the last two--and over the entire chorus—the third line responding to the first two. You can get a good feeling for a song if you see how the various voices get along and interact, what sort of musical conversation they seem to be having; another voice might sustain and reinforce the first one, or contrast with it in some meaningful way.

Most blues, like all conversations, are improvised, meaning that the performance is always more significant than the music itself (this is the reverse of concert music). Improvisation obtains enormous authority when the performer gives significant character to the voice created in music. Blues improvisation often depends for effect on responding effectively and engagingly with other voices as well as to melodic and harmonic material. In blues clubs, of course, the audience joins in the communication.

As we have seen, the blues form is based on a system of communicating elements—the line and the fill, the first and the second lines, the first two lines and the third line. Each of these pairs sets up a kind of call and response. In addition to these formal elements of communication, other elements of a blues song communicate—the voice, tone color, rhythm, syncopation and such. These elements communicate both with the audience and with the other elements of the song.

In any listening guide to the blues, then, first thing we would learn to listen for—before blue notes or the blues form—would be the voices. Blues songs tend to emphasize both the physicality and the individuality of voice, creating voices from the various instruments—vocal, musical, percussive, including hands and feet—and how those voices are created. In particular, we listen for tone color—the particular sound of a voice or instrument—which in a blues can create both feeling and character in every instrument. We also learn to listen for how particular voices interact with other voices in the call-and-response pattern.

Some of the elements of this conversation are associated with rhythm—the arrangement of beats in a counted on/off pattern. There are likely to be two or even more rhythms beating out at once, in percussive, harmonic, and melodic ways. These polyrhythms and cross-rhythms can make the music exciting, interesting, and also - as we might expect - somewhat complicated. They tend to be irregular, setting the rhythm of the groundbeat in opposition to the rhythm of the melody, often making for an intense musical experience. Syncopation of the rhythm means that we feel the beats come just a little off where we expect them to be. Syncopation is essential to much American popular music and jazz.

Furthermore, and significantly, a blues song interacts with other blues songs, and with something like the entire—virtual—glossary of blues phrases, lyrics, and licks that exists “out there” in the land of both recorded music and the music that continues to get played every night all around the world. This is what accounts for the frequent commonplaces in the blues, such as “I woke up this morning,” or “pack my bags and go.”