Blues & Jazz (and punk!)
zodiac at interlog.com
Wed May 29 09:12:09 MDT 1996
Okay, lemme start out by saying I really don't want to start a thread
called "Blues & Jazz (and punk!)".
With that formality out of the way...
I've loved blues all my life, not jazz.
Howlin' Wolf, in particular, was the inspiration for 1001 highschool
notebook scrawls, and I'm sure more than a few tables had the words
"SMOKESTACK LIGHTNIN" carved into them. Chester Burnett (aka Howlin'
Wolf) was lord god king of kings of industrial black blues -- the rest
mere pretenders to the throne.
The Wolf was among the first to capture that throbbing dirty grinding
industrial pounding beat, the sound of the grimey factory pounding in the
background of life. He transplanted the Mississippi sound/reality to
I never really got into jazz the same way. I like a lot of it, the
historical stuff. The dirty countercultural sexy druggie stuff, such as
Cab Calloway was notorious for. I have a great Louis Armstrong
1920-something version of St James Infirmary is haunting. And I like a lot
of the high-powered big band stuff... Bennie Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall
performance of Sing Sing Sing is orgasmic.
But I always figured I had missed something in jazz -- because it wasn't
as automatic an attraction as I had for Burnett.
The very first paycheque I ever earned -- in a corrugated box factory when
15, my task was to fold these big boxes and feed them through a taping
machine, and a guy on the other end would bundle them with twine --
sometimes we swapped tasks to heighten the thrill. My friend and I went to
a record store and among the little pile of stuff I bought was the Chess
records collection of Wolf. Probably my most played LP ever. I still have
it. I've sold my record collection more than a few times to scrape
together money, but I never parted with that two-LP Chess set of Wolf
stuff between 1951 and 1965.
Has there ever been anything written on the split between Jazz and blues,
and which cultures they found most resonance in?
Off hand, jazz always struck me as being more upper class, individual
virtuosity showcasing, whereas blues was folkish -- rural blues/folk being
the traveling bard like Robert Johnson and early John Lee Hooker, and the
urban blues/folk being Chester Burnett and Elmore James et al.
I mean... When you hear Wolf wail darkly in his classic "Smokestack
Lightnin," it's pretty clear he's playing for factory workers gathering
to get drunk together in Chicago clubs after work. Who is Duke Ellington
playing for in A Train?
(The white working class counterpart to blues was early country and
western -- the Johnny Cash stuff on Sun records, when he was just a string
picker, captured the tail end of that. There is some very cool stuff on
there, though by 1960 it was garbage, with string sections and Phil
Spector-style choirs. Blecch.)
BTW -- Since we are talking music... I wanna mention PUNK.
My pet theory, which has started more than a few friendly bar shouting
matches, is that punk is a direct branch of the blues folk tradition.
(See, the controversy comes when the other punk, who has been nodding at
me with glazed eyes and slack jaw, suddenly realizes that means punk is
somehow related to Led Zepplin Baaaahahahaahaha.. It usually gets ugly at
Punk, aside from being merely a marketing scam of Malcolm McLaren, is
_modern_ urban/industrial/under-class folk music. And that is why
blues/folk/punk is still very much alive in bands like Bad Religion and
Killing Joke and Dead Kennedys -- whereas jazz-fusion shit is absolutely
nothing. It has almost no social relevance.
Aside from social relevance... I wanna add that with Wolf's blues, there
is something much more going on. There is a very eerie sound, a kind of
blues not well-emulated, probably because of Wolf's African/Mississippi
heritage. Island Records has a little web page for the man. Part reads:
"It is maintained by some blues writers that Delta Blues artists, of
which Wolf is an example, came from a tribe in Africa which
communicates microtonally, that is, in harmonic increments that are
smaller than those in the European 12 tone scale. In addition to the
polyrhythmic playing, it is what sets these blues apart not only from
other types of music but also from other types of blues. The feeling
produced can often be very eerie and 'magical' as if the music somehow
escapes time and the harmonic constraints of European music."
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