The Difference Between Jazz and Blues

Jazz” and “blues” are words that define styles of music. What’s the difference in these styles? It’s important to keep in mind that these are just words, and they can mean different things to different people.

The word “jazz” in particular can cover such a wide spectrum of styles that the word is almost useless. Some recordings that are today called “smooth jazz” might better be labeled as R & B. Electronic-orientated “jazz” from the 60s and 70s doesn’t sound like it has any relationship to New Orleans jazz of the 1920s. Jazz instrumentation can go anywhere from a solo pianist or guitarist to a large orchestra. The melodies can be simple, complex, beautiful, consonant, dissonant, structured, unstructured, or hardly existent. The rhythmic style can be easy swing, fast swing, latin, rock, waltz, 5/4, or any number of other amalgamations of Eastern or Western rhythmic styles. There is probably something in jazz for anybody and everybody to thoroughly enjoy. But with such confusion, you can understand why somebody might say they “don’t like jazz.”

Jazz and blues both come from African American roots, and there is some overlap. With the early (1920s) classic ‘blues” recordings of female singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, the backup musicians included instrumental performers such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and many others who later become known as jazz musicians. Both styles started recording about 1917, though the blues style is said to come from an older tradition going back into the 1800s. The Original Dixieland Jass Band, an all-white ensemble that “borrowed” from black New Orleans performers, first recorded in 1917. Jelly Roll Morton, a black pianist/bandleader who has a valid claim that he invented jazz, recorded around the mid-1920s. His recording of “Winin’ Boy Blues” could be called blues or jazz, and there is also a ragtime influence a la Scott Joplin. The ragtime style has musical elements, such as syncopation, that are part of the jazz style, and ragtime is said to have evolved from marches, and also from the blues-influenced “cakewalk” dance of the early minstrel shows of the late 1800s.

Even with the overlap of jazz and blues styles, they have somewhat different cultures. B.B. King personifies the blues culture in that he is a black man who was born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. Duke Ellington, a quintessential jazz personality (though he didn’t like the word “jazz” as a stylistic label), grew up in the city of Washington DC and made his fame in New York City. Blues can have a country or folk element that isn’t so prominent in jazz. It feels right to witness a blues performer on the street in Memphis or New Orleans. Maybe not so much in Paris, where one would more appropriately enjoy Parisian street musicians, or nightclub musicians, playing American jazz.

Blues has a simplicity of style, and earthy, deeply-felt lyrics. Jazz can have more complexity, more often instrumental, and is taught academically. A 12-measure blues form is the most often heard, and taught, blues form. This is common to both blues and jazz musicians. “Goin Up the Country” is country blues performed by a guitar-strumming Henry Thomas in 1928. Canned Heat did it at Woodstock. The song, with the same or similar melody, evolved to “Goin To Chicago Blues” with Jimmy Rushing, then Joe Williams and Count Basie. Now it’s a jazz piece! Later, Jon Hendricks added more lyrics, and the piece becomes even more sophisticated. Check it out at 3:21 on this album:

Conversely, The Jazz Crusaders had a tune called “Greasy Spoon,” added lyrics to it, and B.B. King recorded it with a shuffle groove as “Never Make a Move Too Soon.” Viola, it’s a blues classic, with an unusual 16-bar form, and it’s often performed by jazz singers too. I personally like to perform blues classics in a jazz setting with a swing or shuffle rhythm that has a nice, deep groove. That’s jazzy blues! Or its it bluesy jazz?

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