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Blues or Jazz: What’s the diff?

February 9, 2012


English: Ornette Coleman, Moers Festival 2011

Ornette Coleman at the Moers Festival, 2011. Image via Wikipedia

Editor’s Note: You cannot learn about jazz without “comparing and contrasting” these two genres of music. Both are American Treasures and worth learning about.

By Peter Spitzer
Jazz Author, Musician, and Instructor

Blues as a genre took shape around or shortly before the beginning of the 20th Century, at about the same time as jazz. As with jazz, the details of its origins are hazy, since the music was not recorded, and was barely documented in any way. It is safe to say that blues grew out of various antecedent African American music forms (spirituals, work songs, “songster” styles, church music, ragtime).

Blues as popular music has its own history and evolution, from sheet music tunes of the 1910s, to the first recordings of female blues singers in the early 1920s, to the Delta players recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to boogie-woogie piano styles, to the Chicago players first recorded in the 1940s, to the R&B of the 1950s, to the vocal and guitar styles of rock and funk. Although it is a distinct genre, blues has always been a tremendous influence on jazz, and an integral part of it (jazz, in turn, has also influenced blues). Most musicians would say that jazz is not jazz without blues.

Jazz has historically incorporated a “sophisticated” blues style, from W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (1914), to big band arrangements of the 1920s and 1930s, to bebop blues in the 1940s, to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman’s modal and “free jazz” work in the 1950s and 1960s.

In a theory sense, blues has two aspects: a 12-measure harmonic structure, and a melodic vocabulary that includes traditional licks and certain performance practices (“blue notes,” bent notes, instrumental/vocal timbre).


The melodic characteristics of blues have, from the beginnings of both genres, had a great deal to do with defining a performance as “jazz.” These melodic factors include, but are not limited to, use of the b3, b5, and b7 scale degrees (“blue notes”), usually in an otherwise-major tonal context. Beginning in the 1930s, music theorists have attempted to discover a “blues scale” that would explain this. A number of different “blues scales” have been suggested over the years; the one that is generally accepted today is: 1, b3, 4, #4, 5, b7, 1 (in the key of C this would be the notes C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb, C). This scale has proved to have a lot of practical utility in soloing, although it doesn’t explain or incorporate all the traditional blues licks, by any means. It is important to remember that the vocabulary of blues was mostly established long before the concept of a “blues scale” existed.

In a traditional 12-bar blues, lyrics (and melody) will often be in the form of a 4-bar phrase, repeated, with the final 4 bars a concluding statement. Here is an example from “St. Louis Blues”:

If I feel tomorrow, like I feel today, If I feel tomorrow, like I feel today, I’m gonna pack my trunk and make my getaway.

Later jazz-oriented blues tunes often have through-composed melodies, although traces of this early format can be heard in pieces like Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” or Sonny Rollins’ “Tenor Madness.”

One related variety of blues, “riff blues,” became quite popular during the big-band years. This consists of a 2-bar or 4-bar melodic pattern repeated over the 12-bar form, with the chords changing under it. Sometimes a note may be changed to make the riff fit the supporting chord. Examples of “riff blues” include Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump,” Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball,” and Charlie Parker’s “Cool Blues.”

Harmony: The 12-bar Blues Form

The 12-measure blues form can be played with a great many harmonic variations.

You will rarely encounter blues played in this simple a form, though. One very common basic version is a pattern, using all dominant chords.

Jazz players, since the 1940s, are more likely to use a progression more or less like a“bop” version.

Charlie Parker introduced a more sophisticated harmonic variation in “Blues for Alice,” interpolating a number of cleverly-placed II V progressions. This harmonic structure is quite current and well-known among today’s jazz musicians.

The use of dominant-structure chords for the I (tonic) and IV (subdominant) chords has some interesting ramifications:

  • The tonic chord, when played with a b7, becomes a V of IV, providing a strong push towards the resolution in bar 5. Soloists often accentuate the b7 note in bar 4, to enhance this effect. A similar device is to add tensions such as #5, b9, or #9 to the I7 chord in bar 4.
  • A “guide tone line” (voice-leading line) is created, following the third of the I7 chord (if we are in the key of C, this is the note E in the C7 chord) to the seventh of the IV7 chord (the note Eb in the F7 chord), as the chords move through bars 1-7. Improvisers often incorporate this line into their solos. You can hear this guide tone line at work in some blues heads (e.g., “Tenor Madness”).

Blues is sometimes written in minor keys (John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments”).

When playing a standard 12-bar blues, jazz musicians are likely to add chord variations on the spur of the moment, as they see fit. This might be done either by chording instruments or by soloists, without prior discussion. Although this may cause momentary harmonic conflicts, it doesn’t really bother the listener. The creativity is part of the fun. This improvisational reharmonization can happen in the performance of non-blues tunes as well.

The basic 12-bar blues form may be extended or otherwise altered. For example, Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” is a blues extended by four measures; Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” is in AABA form, with the A section a blues progression reharmonized to the point that it doesn’t sound much like blues.

Many jazz standards are blues-inflected, without using the 12-bar harmonic structure. Composers accomplish this melodically by using blue notes and blues phrases, and harmonically by backing these notes with appropriate chords. Blues-implying chords, harmonizing b3, b5, or b7 in the melody, include IV7, bVI7, and bVII7 (these are all dominant chords). Some “Great American Songbook” composers were particularly adept at writing blues elements into their songs (Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington). For an example of a 32-bar AABA tune with extensive blues usage, see Matt Dennis’ “Angel Eyes.”

English: Savoy Records, label of a 78 rpm gram...

Image via Wikipedia

Jazz performers frequently employ melodic blues gestures in their interpretations of non-blues tunes (a classic example is Ray Charles’ performance of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind”). This can done with any material at all, even Christmas songs.

Some tunes achieve a bluesy feel simply by being in a minor key, played with an appropriate interpretation (“Afro Blue,” “Nature Boy”).

You can find a brief discussion of Charlie Parker’s approach to blues, and his favorite chord substitutions, in this article: An Analysis of Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” Solo.

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