“Ev’ry day, ev’ry day I have the blues.
Ev’ry day, ev’ry day I have the blues.
When you see me worry baby, ’cause it’s you I hate to lose”.
The great Jazz singer Joe Williams sang these lyrics with the Count Basie orchestra in the classic recording “Count Basie Swings Joe Williams Sings”.
There is a misconception that blues music is sad, melancholy, and perpetually prone to depression. In the western world, primarily America, the “blues” refers to a range of emotions that include sadness, melancholy, depression, the general feeling of being down and out, and weighed down with the world. Blues lyrics even carry these messages.
But blues music is not “blues” as in emotionally feeling low: singers use a wide range of emotions to tell a story, and if the only story they communicated musically was one of sadness, the music would get tiring very soon.
Blues music is music that “gets rid of the blues”, in other words it is that type of music that keeps the blues away, music that is good medicine to cure you when you get the blues.
When Jazz musicians “swing the blues”, they are addressing a type of attitude here that is tongue and cheek, even when the lyrics might be sad they may sing it with a certain flair that connotes anything but sadness, and by swinging the blues we mean performing blues music with the un-definable yet strongly perceived rhythmic push that undergirds much of Jazz music. It also reflects an attitude that if something is terrible, the way to deal with it is a state of certain nonchalance and a positive attitude, certainly a state of elegance while confronted with adversity.
The blues is one of the four fundamental aesthetic elements of Jazz music, along with swing, afro-Hispanic rhythms and the romantic to meditative ballad. Any truly great Jazz musician has to address the blues, and put a unique stamp on their performance of the blues while simultaneously addressing the tradition, including musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and today Wynton Marsalis.
By great Jazz musicians we clearly do not mean some fad promoted by many Jazz critics writing for the bulk of magazines bearing a reference to Jazz music, whose knowledge of western culture and intellectual depth is suspect, and their knowledge of Jazz music is quite pitiful. It is also not some current academic fashion that seeks to “improve” or “extend” Jazz with its theoretical framework of music, where they reveal through their attempts at theory that they are no more than frustrated mathematicians. Neither is it some sort of proto-nationalism that seeks some pretence of authenticity by constantly harping on the “soulfulness” and apparent connection of all non European derived cultures of the world including Black Americans and non-western cultures from Asia or Africa. But Europeans are human too, so they do not have a soul?
In other words the blues is really not about a theory of progress within Jazz music whether it comes from “globalization”, “modernity”, “21st century capitalism”, “cultural anthropology”, “political science”, “spirituality” or “sociology”.
It is about a range of feelings communicated through a musical language that seemingly looks simple on the outside if one only considered music to be a “formal exercise”, but in reality the language is nuanced and deep enough to tell many stories, and communicate to people across the globe. In short, it talks about humanity at large through the music.
Start listening to the blues, and you will soon discover that this music is for everyone who is willing to be open to it.
[This series of articles was originally written for the now defunct Spiceway magazine.]