Lesson 2: Blues and Jazz


Blues is a music style created by African Americans, which originated in rural black communities in the South. It came from work songs, field hollers, and spirituals. Blues became the foundation for jazz, soul, rock, and hip hop.

Blues is generally made up of I-IV-V chords (as is rock and roll).

Blues form:

  • Chord Progression—12-bar chord sequence is I, I, I, I, IV, IV, I, I, V7, IV, I, I. For example, in the key of C, you would hear these chords every 12 measures: C, C, C, C, F, F, C, C, G7, F, C, C.
  • Blues Scale—The 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes of the scale are flattened (called the “Blue notes”): 1 – 3-flat – 4 – 5-flat – 5 – 7-flat - 1. In the key of C, the blues scale is C, E-flat, F, G-flat, G, B-flat, C.
  • Lyrics—usually express hard times, personal sadness, lost love, etc. Sometimes has an AAB form in the lyrics for each verse (repeat the first line and then add a second line).

The Father of the Blues is W.C. Handy (1873-1958). He promoted urban blues and was a composer who played the cornet. Listen to “Memphis Blues” (1909):

and “St. Louis Blues” (1912):

An early blues artist was Robert Johnson:

Another pioneer in blues music was Muddy Waters:

And listen to Elmore James. "Dust My Blues" has the AAB form in the lyrics:

Here are some other modern blues tunes which show how the style transformed with time. Notice some new instruments now showing up in the popular music—organ and harmonica.

“Mary Had a Little Lamb” by Stevie Ray Vaughan:

“Stormy Monday” by the Allman Brothers:

“Why I Sing the Blues” with B.B. King and All-Star Cast:

“The blues is a feeling and when it hits you, it’s the real news.” –Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter


What is jazz? It’s a music style that’s hard to describe, but when we hear it, we know it! It usually includes a lot of improvisation, meaning the players or singers have a basic idea of what to sing or play, but they change it up every time they do it. You might hear call-and-response (one voice or instrument “says” something and another voice or instrument “answers” it), and it’s usually music that feels easy to dance to. Jazz evolved from blues, brass band, ragtime, and other influences.

The first recordings of jazz came out in 1917, and it spread rapidly from then on. Even today, you can usually find a jazz station on the radio or a jazz combo to go listen to. If there is a jazz radio station in your town, listen to it while driving around and be sure to add that time to your log sheet!

The earliest jazz started in New Orleans, Louisiana, between 1885 and 1915 and is called Classic, New Orleans, or Dixieland Jazz. It includes a lot of improvisation and melodic syncopation (meaning there is emphasis on the “offbeats”). It was often played on riverboats as the entertainment. Here is a great example of Dixieland Jazz being played by a modern group:

And here is a recording of the group Original Dixieland Jazz (Jass) Band, who recorded the first jazz album in 1917:

Louis “Louie” Armstrong (1901-1971) sang and played the cornet, and later the trumpet. After growing up in New Orleans and playing the early New Orleans style of jazz, he headed to Chicago and New York City where he amazed people with his improvisational technique on the trumpet. Hear one of the first bands he played in called King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band:

Louis Armstrong is credited with beginning scat singing, which is singing and improvising with nonsense syllables. His first scat song was “Heebie Jeebies” in 1926. Apparently, he dropped his lyric sheet while recording, so he had to make up something! Many people caught on and scat singing became popular:

Here’s another example of scat singing by Ella Fitzgerald, a master at scat:

Listen to Armstrong sing other hits such as “When the Saints Go Marching in”:

and “What a Wonderful World” (1968):

Duke Ellington (1899-1973) took piano lessons as a child and started his own band in 1917. In three years he had enough money to buy two houses—one for his parents and one for his wife and himself. By 1930 he had recorded more than 200 pieces. Many consider him to be the most important person in the development of jazz.

He wrote “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing”:

“Mood Indigo” (1930):

and “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo":

"Louis Armstrong is quite simply the most important person in American music. He is to 20th century music--I did not say jazz--what Einstein is to physics." –Ken Burns

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