Blues and Jazz

Stanley Pinto is a man of many parts. He can wax eloquent about various aspects of the good life. Here he enlightens a dear one on the soul-stirring world of Blues and Jazz 

My dear Nandita,

You asked me aren’t Blues and Jazz the same? Yes. But also no. The Blues is pretty stories simply told. Jazz is stories built on top of those simple stories, in forms that can (and often do) grow very complex and confusing, yet thrilling. Think Ravi Shankar, Bismillah Khan, Vilayat Khan playing a simple raga theme. That’s the Blues. Then think of them improvising on that same simple raga, playing its notes in increasingly more complex permutations and combinations and rhythms, improvising new ragas over that original one. That’s Jazz.  

Understood? Probably not. Let’s then try the long route. Here goes:

The Blues were written and sung by the first African slaves brought into America in the late 19th century. So they expressed the dismal life of slaves. They were songs of sadness, poverty, hunger, deprivation, inequity; pure, simple, uncomplicated by any expression of high literacy or formal music. Written to the most basic of story-telling formats – the 12-bar format, which states a theme over 4 bars, then re-states it over another four bars, and then caps it with a clincher, also over four bars (for example: My baby done left me, she done gone away. My baby done left me, she done gone away. She left me here crying – now my heart done broke away). And they were written to rhythms that had their roots in African music, so they were sung to the accompaniment of hand claps, country drums, and other easily available “instruments” as you might expect the natives of Africa might have done.

Some would say, with some degree of accuracy, that it was the first American music. In time, as the Blacks evolved to relative prosperity and comfort and finally to freedom, the Blues evolved as well. The format stayed generally the same but content expanded to include other aspects of life, including love, happiness, fun and the good times. Not unexpectedly, their bands included the blues in their repertoire; they started to perform melodies written in the 12-bar format.

Then, as the decades passed, various interpretations of the Blues began to emerge, mainly representing the cultures of the various geographies of southern America. Today, you have Louisiana Blues, New Orleans Blues, Georgia Blues. After WWII, as American influence made its way across Europe, this seductive music form developed to British Blues, and even Romanian, Polish and Russian Blues with the folk songs of those countries melding into the format of the Blues.  

What’s all this got to do with Jazz? What’s Jazz? It is, basically, a musical discipline in which the musician states a theme (generally a whole song based on a chord structure) and then starts to improvise on that chord structure. As the improvisation becomes more inspired, you may not recognise the original song at all – you may hear snatches from the notes that the musician is using – as they are the notes of the chord on which the song was written. The only other music form in the world that does exactly that, is Indian classical music.

Ok, so that’s Jazz defined. But what’s Jazz got to do with the Blues? Simple. Jazz evolved from the Blues. To explain: First, the musicians started to play the Blues. But that can be very boring because the melody of the Blues is repetitive – it is the words that give it its meaning and attraction. 

So, when the musicians played the Blues, after they had stated the theme a few times, they started to deviate a little from it to add colour to their performances, i.e. playing the theme over and over but with a few improvisations on the theme. 

Those deviations (improvisations, that is) began to grow increasingly more sophisticated until the very idea of them became the foundation of a music that no longer depended (solely) on the Blues for its themes. Improvisation became the new music form, called Jazz. Jazz is the art of Improvisations on a Theme. 

Musicians now take any song, Blues, Hymns, banal Pop Songs, lofty Classical songs, Romanian folk songs, Arabic themes and use them as the basis of their Jazz. That’s what the saxophone legend John Coltrane did with Indian classical music, for example. He worked with Ravi Shankar to get into the scales that ragas are based on, then began to write themes on those scales – his own ragas, in effect – on which he improvised – making his own new Jazz. Duke Ellington did similarly with African tribal music, Toshiko Akiyoshi does it with Japanese chants. Tito Rodriguez and Mario Bauza did it with Puerto Rican and Cuban songs and rhythms. And so on.

So: Jazz is a derivation of the Blues, a child of the Blues. Admittedly, the child’s personality has grown in different directions, many of them unrecognisable from the Mother. But he’s the child nonetheless. 

Does this make sense to you? 

One last comment: These are all conclusions that I have reached from sounds I’ve heard, things I’ve read. I could be wholly wrong. Or more fanciful than I should be. That’s why I’ve brought Niranjan Jhaveri and Naresh Fernandes and Gerson da Cunha into this conversation. Corrupting a young lady may have its allure, dearest Nandita, but not to the extent of misleading her about Jazz. Not even my non-conscience could deal with that.

Uncle Stanley



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