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Blues Improvisation
Blues Improv


Blues For Peace

Howlin Wolf, Wang Dang Doodle

Tensions in the Blues

This article discusses how blues music influenced Ornette Coleman, Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins.

I had a chance to play different kinds of blues to an Ethiopian musician, well versed in many Ethiopian rhythms and scales. He liked Robert Pete Williams who reminded him of the singers who deal with the Evil spirits (the Zar) in Ethiopia. He had no problem with Coleman Hawkins or Johnny Hodges, although he never heard them before. When we got to Ornette Coleman, he plainly asked "why does he do it ?". It was completely unacceptable to him.

The definitions of the blues are many. It seems important for us to define what music is to be called "blues" and what music is not blues. Some say that blues is a song form consisting of 12 bar choruses built on 3 chords - the 1st, 4th and 5th. This definitions excludes many songs by the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson who rarely adhered to the 12 bar limitation, or Howlin' Wolf who liked to stay on one chord. According to this definition "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley is "more blues" than "Wang Dang Doodle" by the Wolf. I reject this definition.

Amiri Baraka wrote that the blues is the music of the Africans in America - the music of the separate African American community, as opposed to those blacks that have called themselves Americans. Albert Murray says the blues is the musical means by which African Americans deal with the blues coming down on them. I prefer both definitions to any other I have heard so far.

Still, there are problems. Both Son House and Cecil Taylor are blues musicians according this definition, yet they clearly sound different. Archie Schepp's blues arouses a different response than a Ben Webster or a Lou Donaldson blues. Putting them all under the same umbrella and leaving it at that does not seem right.

It seems that the stylistic differences among blues musicians have something to do with their attitudes towards tradition. Instinctively we place Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker Bessie Smith or Sidney Bechet at one end of the scale, and the likes of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Anthony Braxton on the other extreme end of the scale. Within the blues idiom, they represent totally different approaches.

Robert Pete Williams IS tradition. He embodies the tradition in his lyrics, vocal approach and guitar playing. This is the African tradition in its American manifestation. For some blacks this is unappealing, as they look for a music that is more in tune with the changing life style. "Sleep in a hollow log" does not describe the conditions of African Americans ever since they crowded in the big cities.

Johnny Hodges is as traditional as R.P. Williams, except he plays the tradition at a different stage - the tradition adjusted to the big cities, and the urban sophistication that comes with it. He is not much different in approach from Elmore James, who plays big city tradition of the post second world war generation, of the overcrowded ghettos of Southside Chicago. While their appeal may be universal, they do not think in those terms. They want to play the musical tradition of their people the best way they can, just as the Ethiopian musician attempts to play the music of Ethiopia the best way he can, or any other musician who plays a certain tradition.

And where do Ornette Coleman, Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Archie Schepp and their fellow "Free Jazzmen" stand ?  They are certainly bluesman according to Baraka's and Murray's definitions. They drive away their blues with their music, and they are certainly part of the distinct African American community. Still there is a basic difference.

Ornette Coleman was not totally satisfied with the musical tradition of his people. He was able to play the tradition as well as others, but he wanted A CHANGE. He felt a need for a change. A need to present something new, which may or may not become part of the tradition in the future. His need for change was part of the situation of his community, but whereas James Brown reflected this need with a music that was made totally of traditional elements, Coleman thought to present a new platform, an alternative. He said "look at the mean old world we live in. We sure need somethin' else".

Charlie Parker before him had gone in that direction, but the change he offered was less extreme. He found new ways to articulate traditional rhythms and sounds, but did not offer a new set of rules. He did not offer an alternative. People like Hawkins and Young understood Parker and loved him, but they could not relate to Coleman or Taylor that way. And Sun Ra said outright "I am from Mars". I am offering something else. Pharaoh Sanders began as a total change, later falling back on original African tradition for inspiration.

There was always a tension in the blues (and other forms of music) between the elements of tradition and the elements of change. This tension reached a high friction point with the appearance of Coleman, Taylor, Ayler and their companions. Today, in retrospect, we can say that while the extremes have never achieved real financial success, they have provided the raw materials to the more prosperous mainstream. Bobby Timmons and Cannonball took the raw church sound, Joe Henderson and David Murray took from the "Free Jazzmen", and the mainstream got fed.

I have not mentioned white musicians and their role in blues as the focus of my article is on the development of blues music within the Afro- American community.. From Son House to Snoop Dogg, it is all there.

The author, Nadav Haber, plays saxophone for an Ethiopian band in Israel. Conatact Nadav Haber

© 1998 Nadav Haber

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