Just Play the Blues
NOTHING BUT THE BLUES: THE MUSIC AND THE MUSICIANS Edited by Lawrence Cohn Introduction by B.B. King Abbeville Press, 432 pp. $45.
I CAUGHT pianist/composer John Lewis on the phone when he was just home from a French music festival. He had been invited to show how he uses the blues in improvising on Bach. The blues and Bach? Not entirely unexpected after the blues edge Lewis gave to Bach's Goldberg Variations in ``The Chess Game,'' recorded with harpsichordist Mirjana Lewis, his wife.
``Some of Bach's themes do give an opportunity to integrate phrases that suggest the blues,'' Lewis said. ``There's not so much [opportunity] in 19th-century music.''
I was calling Lewis because almost four pounds of blues had landed on my doorstep in the form of a new book, and I wanted to hear the latest from a man who has brought the blues - an enduring but sometimes tattered art form - to a peak of elegance with his colleagues in the Modern Jazz Quartet. The blues must be rising again when a prominent publisher of art books decides it's time for a volume of more than 400 large pages of text and vintage photographs under the title ``Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians.''
Lewis, who travels the world, finds that the blues dominate current music and are popular almost everywhere. You may not have the blues today, but you probably have heard the blues today - either with a blues label or in jazz, pop, rock, soul, country and western, or other music infiltrated by the blues over the last century. There's a trade secret of little jazz bands like the one I'm in. When we're asked to play ``In the Mood'' yet again, we do the Glenn Miller themes that everybody knows - and then we relax and ``just play blues.''
The Rolling Stones took their name from a recording by American blues master Muddy Waters. When the Beatles came to America for the first time, they told everyone that they wanted to see Muddy Waters.
``Muddy Waters?'' said one reporter. ``Where's that?''
Paul McCartney laughed at him, according to blues chronicler Bruce Cook's version of the twice-told tale, and said: ``Don't you know who your own famous people are here?''
Today Briton Eric Clapton, another admirer of American bluesmen, keeps playing the blues and keeps winning Grammys.
One of the early popular blues singers, Bessie Smith, made a transatlantic difference to the late American writer James Baldwin. He had left the uncomfortable racial scene in the United States and gone to Switzerland: ``In that absolutely alabaster landscape, armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter, I began to recreate the life that I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight.
``It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and cadence, who helped me ... to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt.... I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America (in the same way that, for years, I would not touch watermelon), but in Europe she helped to reconcile me to being a `nigger'....
``Once I was able to accept my role - as distinguished, I must say, from my `place in the extraordinary drama of America, I was released from the illusion that I hated America.''
This fall, guitarist Ali Farka Toure has been touring the US, playing the blues along with the traditional music of his native Mali. Here's a latter-day echo of connections between the early blues and the griots, the storytellers, of West Africa.
The ``blue'' sound goes back to the work cries and hollers of Africans transplanted to the United States. It colors the harmony that the blues borrowed from European music. The three chords that are basic to the blues occur in the accompaniment to songs as familiar as ``Silent Night,'' ``Yankee Doodle,'' and ``Way Down Upon the Swanee River.'' What a difference the blue makes!
Much religious music shares those chords, and blues musicians often came out of churches that understandably frowned on the bawdiness or innuendo of many blues lyrics. Thomas A. (``Georgia Tom'') Dorsey, pianist for pioneer blues singer ``Ma'' Rainey, turned back to the church and became, according to the new book, ``the single most important individual in twentieth-century gospel music.'' His spiritual ``Precious Lord'' (known as the song requested by Martin Luther King Jr. for the evening church service on the night he was shot) shows how reverent a musical kinship with the blues can be.
The blues can have the paradoxical effect of ameliorating or conquering adversity by the very act of expressing it with art and feeling. Hope is not always spelled out, as in the classic lines: ``Troubled in mind, I'm blue,/ But I won't be blue always:/ The sun's gonna shine/ In my back door someday.''
The manner of playing and singing, of phrasing and swinging, can turn almost anything into blues. But in technical terms, the basic blues became 12 four-beat measures divided into three groups of four measures. The melody or lyrics customarily fill about 2-1/2 measures of each four, leaving space for reply or elaboration by another voice, instrument, or whole band - a little like the old call-and-response of workers in the field.
One example is ``Sub-Deb Blues'' (``It's a year to my debut, and I'm gonna be blue until''), a wry Count Basie twist on the typical blues of the lovelorn or downtrodden: ``If you like swing music, Beacon Hill's no place to be (instrumental response).../ Oh, oh, if you like swing music, Beacon Hill's no place to be (instrumental response).../ 'Cause nothing swings up here but the branches on the tree....''
Basie spoke of another band-leader's blues: ``[Duke] Ellington can take the blues and make classics of them. You split them many ways, and that's what he did, and it still will always be the blues.''
Dizzy Gillespie said: ``Now, it may sound funny, but I don't consider myself a blues man.... My music is not that deep.... Mine ain't the real blues....''
Ah, the real blues.
It's a ``golden age'' for the blues, according to Louisa Hufstader of REP Sales, who has been selling blues and other records for 10 years as a representative of independent record labels. ``The labels' ears are open, and the people's ears are open.'' And new blues musicians are coming along, such as guitarist Sue Foley, blonde and bedenimed on her ``Young Girl Blues'' CD. She's from Canada, far from the Mississippi delta where so many of the blues people began.
If there are new blues listeners out there, ``Nothing But the Blues'' is a handsome one-volume way for them to catch up with a lot of history. It thoroughly presents what its subtitle promises, ``The Music and the Musicians'' - plus the scholarly saga of finding and recording them - in 11 chapters by various authorities. A discography and bibliography invite further explorations.
The index could be improved by including all the music titles referred to in the text. Occasionally one chapter overlaps or even contradicts another. On Page 51, today's ``king of the blues,'' B.B. King, is referred to as the nephew of a great predecessor, Bukka White; on Page 195 they are cousins. But more important for King's fans is learning that he developed his guitar tremolo, a wonder for the ear to behold, in imitation of White's slide guitar playing.
King's foreword confirms that in many cases the blues ``had to take a European detour before some Americans would recognize their own music.'' ``Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians'' is one more American recognition of the music lovingly evoked by Lawrence Cohn in his preface.
He writes not only as a blues historian but as a producer of a large blues-reissue recording project, beginning with a Grammy-winning CD set featuring Robert Johnson - ``quite possibly the most influential blues artist of all time.''
But all the legendary blues names are here: Son House, Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Lonnie Johnson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Memphis Minnie, Victoria Spivey, Willie Dixon, Mississippi John Hurt, Big Bill Broonzy - to name a few.
One photo spans the blues generations: Mississippi Fred McDowell and Bonnie Raitt.
And there are such incidental pleasures as the defense of a less widely known bluesman - ``superlative'' Dan Pickett: ``Rather too lightly dismissed by some as derivative, he was no more so than, say, Titian or Brueghel.''