Last month, we looked at songs that use only two dominant chords. Now let’s check out the blues, a song form with three chords. Anyone can have the blues, and the 12-bar structure evokes a deep common language.
The form of the blues is three four-bar phrases: statement, statement, answer. The harmony is based on three chords—I, IV, V—although jazzers add countless variations. In this Woodshed we have three choruses of blues: a line from Duke Ellington bassist Jeff Castleman, a sax solo from the legendary Johnny Hodges, and a solo chorus using scalar and chordal approaches.
In 1967, Duke Ellington’s longtime collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, passed away. Ellington paid tribute to his friend and musical partner with one of his finest studio recordings, And His Mother Called Him Bill [1968, RCA/Bluebird]. Jeff Castleman and Aaron Bell shared the bass duties on the album, with Castleman playing on the track “The Intimacy of the Blues.” Example 1 shows the first chorus of walking bass on the original recording from Castleman, whose youthful approach yields both hip notes and questionable choices.
In bars 1 and 2, the band comes out swinging, and the bass line is textbook. The rhythmic drop in bar 2, and the chromatic approach back to the root in bar 3, are classic techniques. On beat four of bar 3, Castleman plays a D on the Eb7 chord. This note works because it’s a chromatic leading tone into the note Eb in bar 4. He could have played a Db (the b7 of the Eb7 chord), but the note D supplies urgency and forward motion.
In bars 4 and 5, Castleman outlines the Ab7 chord by moving up and down chromatically from Ab to Bb—simple, yet effective. The line in bars 5 and 6 sounds cool, but it doesn’t really fit the changes that Ellington is laying down. The repeated Eb notes on beat four of bar 7 and beat one of bar 8 don’t add to the line’s forward motion. It’s good from an aesthetic perspective, because it reflects a specific moment in recorded history—that’s jazz! From a theoretical perspective, though, there may have been better note choices—that’s academia! Castleman plays a whole-tone line in bar 9, leading into the root in bar 10. The standard bass line in bar 11 finishes with an aggressive, pushy tritone fill in bar 12, landing on a big, fat low E.
Now let’s look at some solo ideas on the blues, starting with a sax solo transcribed for bass. Example 2 shows a solo chorus borrowed from Ellington’s longtime alto player, Johnny Hodges, who had the nickname “Rabbit.” Note that Hodges’ solo comes in the third chorus (0:52) on the original Ellington recording of “The Intimacy of the Blues.” Bassists can learn much from other instrumentalists about playing solos, and a melodic saxophonist like Hodges is a great role model.
In bars 1 and 2, Hodges slides up to the Bb on the Eb7 chord. He squeezes out the sound, searching for the essence of the blues. The notes in bars 1–3 come from the Eb blues scale. In bar 4, Hodges changes the Gb to the note G. In bar 6, the line slips down the blues scale on the notes Bb, A, Ab, and Gb. Bar 7 shows a typical characteristic of the blues: The harmony waffles between major (the note G) and minor (Gb). This harmonic duality frames the beauty of the blues form.
In bars 9 and 10, Hodges uses a rhythmic hemiola—a melodic pattern of three beats in 4/4 time. In bars 11 and 12, the line moves down chromatically to land on the root of the Bb7 chord. Check out the original recording of And His Mother Called Him Bill to hear Castleman and Hodges at work on “The Intimacy of the Blues.”
Example 3 is a solo chorus I wrote—not a transcription. This line uses chord tones and scale tones to outline the sound of the harmony. The chord tones in this chorus always land on beats one and three. This line is rhythmically busier than the Johnny Hodges transcription in Ex. 2. Note that in bar 9, the chord is Fm7, which precedes the Bb7 in bar 10. This is a typical addition to the blues chord progression.
The blues is an easy musical concept to grasp, feel, and internalize, yet its profound nature provides a multi-faceted platform for self-expression. The best ways to learn to play the blues are to play with more experienced musicians and to listen to classic recordings to catch the feeling and mood.
5 Classic Ellington Blues Tracks
1 “C Jam Blues” [Never No Lament—The Blanton–Webster Band, 2003 rec. 1942, RCA], Jimmie Blanton on bass
2 “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” [Duke Ellington and Ray Brown, This One’s for Blanton, 1972, Original Jazz Classics/Pablo], Ray Brown on bass
3 “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” [Ellington at Newport, 1956, Columbia], Jimmy Woode on bass
4 “Jeep’s Blues” [Ellington at Newport, 1956, Columbia], Jimmy Woode on bass
5 “The Intimacy of the Blues” [And His Mother Called Him Bill, 1968, RCA/Bluebird], Jeff Castleman on bass