Jazz vs. Blues

Jazz and blues overlap; Both have been influenced by each other’s harmony and language. We can hear this in the songs themselves and the way the musicians improvise within the tune. Jazz singers have recorded songs in the traditional blues style (Ella Fitzgerald a 16-Bar Blues called “Organ Grinder Blues”) and blues singers have recorded standards (Bessie Smith Sings “After You’ve Gone”). Besides the musical language, jazz and blues share some defining features:

  • Melodic improvisation
  • Emotionally driven, raw vocal inflections (growl, bends, slurs etc.)
  • Loose, creative phrasing
  • Roots in African American music “such as field hollers, work songs, spirituals, and country string ballads.” (pbs.org)
  • Instrumentation
  • Accessible and flexible melodies, open for interpretation

Many musicians try to categorize music in an attempt to understand it better, but all these commonalities can make it difficult to differentiate a blues singer from a jazz singer. For example, how do we classify Joe Williams? He worked with some of the best jazz musicians in history (Count Basie Jazz Orchestra, Coleman Hawkins, Clark Terry etc.) but some of his most popular recordings are classic blues tunes (Every Day I Have the Blues, Alright Okay You Win).

Most singers have very strong opinions when it comes to labeling singers and some refuse to address it altogether. I’ve come up with a few features that help me differentiate blues and jazz. Check it Out: Is it jazz or blues?

Jazz vs Blues

Still, some will argue that certain vocalists fit in both categories. Common examples include Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington & Etta James.

What do you think?

1 Comment

  1. Again, it’s fascinating to view some of the theory behind what I’m hearing–with you and with everyone I listen to!


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