Blues is not only a genre of music, it’s also a form that has permeated nearly every other genre. The blues’ origins can be traced to late 19th-century African-American communities of the Deep South. As a direct result of slavery, a fusion of work songs, spirituals, chants, and narrative ballads evolved into the blues. The form was an outgrowth of these songs, and became a musical structure most commonly known as 12-bar blues. This progression is the basis of countless songs. Here’s how to put the sound and structure of the blues to work in your own playing.
Jazz educator Andy LaVerne has played and recorded with Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, and Chick Corea. Visit him at andylaverne.com.
[From the Editor: Due to a production error in the August 2010 issue, the sheet music for Example 2 actually appeared twice: Once with the text for Example 1, and once with Example 2. The correct sheet music for Example 1 is below.]
Click sheet music thumbnails for larger versions. Audio examples are at bottom of page.
Ex. 1 is a traditional 12-bar progression made up of three phrases of four bars each. There are only three chords, all dominant sevenths, built on the I, IV, and V of the key. The left hand’s roots and fifths provide the bass foundation for the triads in the right hand. Notice the “blue notes,” which are grace notes of flat thirds. Also, the rhythms aim for the off-beats, keeping things moving forward.
Ex. 2.Add chord extensions such as ninths and 13ths, and a more modern sound emerges. Tritone substitutions and dominant seventh approach chords provide more harmonic interest as well. Measures 4 and 5 contain the famous “Coltrane changes”—the basis for the seminal Coltrane tune “Giant Steps”—which are considered a benchmark of any jazz player’s prowess. The left-hand octaves and right-hand tritones, triads, and sevenths in measures 11 and 12 demonstrate a common blues turnaround with a gospel flavor.
Ex. 3. Voicings in fourths, chords derived from the diminished scale that move in minor thirds, chromatic approach chords, and triad pair voicings all give this chorus a modern jazz flavor. The progression is based on Charlie Parker’s “Blues for Alice.” Again, many of the rhythms are off the beat, which creates a strong forward momentum.
- Audio examples - refer to sheet music above, or on pp. 32-34 of the August 2010 issue.