There is a disc jockey on the public radio station in Detroit (Gene Elzy, WDET-FM) who plays what he terms "the jazzy side of blues and the bluesy side of jazz." The coexistence of the two has been inextricable forever. The intersection has always been a busy one, with frequent and gleeful collisions. The history of the relationship between the two musics is long and fascinating. Blues legends like Bessie Smith and Sippie Wallace routinely worked with jazzbos in the 1920s, including Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. They probably thought it was all the same music. Imagine that.
Having worked in record stores for much of my youth (calling them record stores gives a hint when that was), I recall the dilemma of where to file Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington, for instance. Billie was filed in jazz, largely on the basis of her jazz affiliations (Basie, Artie Shaw, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young), but she often spoke of the influence that Bessie Smith had on her singing. I don’t recall where Dinah’s music was filed. She’s probably going to be found in the jazz bins for the same reason Lionel Hampton, Cannonball Adderley and Clifford Brown populate many of her recordings. Certainly, both singers were gifted with the jazz singer’s sense of timing and the ability to stretch a seemingly simple theme into emotionally charged, rhythmically and harmonically sophisticated music. But, it might be argued, both were blues singers at their core, bringing a simple honesty and emotion to their songs, lending strength to the argument that jazz is essentially blues-rooted music.
Jimmy Witherspoon worked with everyone from Ben Webster to T-Bone Walker, and was heralded as one of the great blues voices. By contrast, Joe Williams, with whom Witherspoon had much in common vocally, was widely proclaimed to be one of the grandest of jazz singers. Williams, of course, gained his greatest fame as vocalist with the Count Basie organization, where he replaced Jimmy Rushing. For my money, Rushing stands as one of the most stunning, powerful and expressive blues singers of all time, and he did it for 15 years standing in front of the mighty Basie Big Band. In addition to being one of the most celebrated jazz organizations to ever grace a stage, Basie’s band was also unquestionably one of the hottest big blues bands ever. Any argument about the cohabitation of these two great American musics could easily end right there. That line continues, of course. Among others, Basie’s band was a major influence on Roomful of Blues, the hottest little big band in the land for a spell (the jury’s still out on the new lineup). Founder Duke Robillard, a first rate blues guitarist and vocalist, has just seen a brilliant new release on the Stony Plain label with jazz icon Herb Ellis (More Conversations In Swing Guitar).
The 1930s and ‘40s saw the closest alliance of these two sometimes stubbornly disparate musics, first with small band aggregations such as those that backed Billie Holiday. Scaled down from the big bands that were often too costly to run, the small bands worked as hard as their larger forebearers. Louis Jordan had a swinging combo, but the blues spin, indeed the novelty spin that he and his Tympani Five put on jazz gave birth to jump blues. Delmark Records released a trio of superb Honkers & Bar Walkers volumes a dozen years or so ago that spotlight that early R&B period when jazz and blues were sleeping together and walking the streets to talk about it. Instrumental jazz found its groove. Jimmy Forrest, Tab Smith, Gator Jackson, Panama Francis, King Curtis and others of their era could have gone either way, and usually did. Did somebody say Louis Jordan?
What is commonly referred to as West Coast blues is a style infused with jazz. Charlie Baty, of Little Charlie and the Nightcats, one of the most influential among those stylists, owes an obvious debt to Charlie Christian. The late harmonica player William Clarke was a Gene Ammons aficionado, and harp player Jerry Portnoy’s last album was completely steeped in the sax/organ combo school. What do you call the music of Jimmy McGriff and Hank Crawford? Sure they’re routinely typed as jazz artists, but that greasy organ and fat tenor are deep in the blues tradition. Ditto most of the organists (Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Charles Earland, Joey DeFrancesco, et.al.) and tenorists from Lockjaw Davis to Fathead Newman. It doesn’t matter what you want to call them, on any given day they’re likely to smash all preconceptions.
Pre-vocal icon Nat "King" Cole was one of the finest jazz pianists of his time, but blues-based songs like "Route 66" were a significant part of his superb trio (Oscar Moore and Wesley Prince)’s repertoire. Charles Brown was a gifted blues singer and pianist who fashioned his sound on that early Nat Cole Trio book, due in large part to Oscar Moore’s brother, Johnny Moore, and his Blazers serving as Brown’s band.
Gatemouth Brown and T-Bone Walker are two of the most celebrated musicians to hang their Stetsons on Texas. Both are afforded blues legend status, though jazz charts were as vital a part of their sounds as the blues. Gatemouth plays a ferocious fiddle when not picking out lightning quick jazz runs on the guitar.
Mose Allison probably epitomizes the marriage of the musics more than anyone. You’ll find his music in the jazz racks, but I’ve always referred to him as a blues singer who plays jazz piano. Listen to Parchment Farmand tell me whether he’s a jazz or a blues guy. Jimmy & Jeanie Cheatham’s Sweet Baby Blues Band was another pigeonhole bursting swinging machine. Jeanie was on a program with Big Mama Thorton and Sippie Wallace billed as 3 Generations of the Blues, but that hot band, featuring saxophonist Curtis Peagler, always swung a slew of jazz charts.
Big Joe Turner was a blues shouter who came out of Kansas City jazz legend Big Jay McSheeley’s band. That he would eventually be credited as an architect of rock and roll spoke to his diversity, as well as to the effect that jazz and blues had on each other, on early R&B and ultimately on nascent rock and roll. The music of the 1940s and early 1950s is still enormously popular -- perhaps simply because the lines of demarcation blurred so brilliantly.
Maria Muldaur, whose last few Telarc discs completely defy categorization, carries that bluesy jazz and jazzy blues banner forward. On her latest, A Woman Alone with the Blues, on which she pays tribute to Peggy Lee, Muldaur sings with the exquisite timing of a jazz chanteuse and the emotive gut of a blues gal.
It’s telling that W.C. Handy, the man commonly referred to as "The Father of the Blues," was a jazz trumpeter. The list of musicians who have stepped over that artificial line, both historic and contemporary, is endless. If one professes to be a fan of either of these musics, it strikes me as a logical to relish the equal joy that each brings to our lives. Then again, the blues is pretty bawdy and that jazz music is way too freaky.