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Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy, and the Blues.

A few months ago I came across a record of Louis (Armstrong) playing all W.C. Handy tunes. the record, “Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy” was released by Columbia Records in 1956, 42 years after Handy published St. Louis Blues. Louis has been a huge inspiration to many of us, as he is one of the pioneers of jazz and, according to stories, is responsible for integrating improvisation into the music. St. Louis Blues was most familiar to me, as I’ve been listening to Louis since I was a young boy and have come to know that piece. After listening to the record a few times I started making a list of which tunes would be great Po Boys. It turns out most of them would be great. Of all 11 tracks, 8 were titled as some kind of blues which raised some curiosity.

As a kid learning about “jazz”(for lack of better word that describes improvised music) I was always told that it grew out of the blues and ragtime (to be general about it). This made sense to me, as the beginning of my jazz education was largely focused around the blues. I was first taught to play a blues and was given a whole new sound to explore in the “blues scale”. Seeing Louis dedicate a record to the blues certainly corroborated this idea that the blues was important to early pioneers of jazz. I’ve noticed, though, that blues music developed rather independently along side of jazz. So what really makes something a blues? What did jazz borrow from the blues?

After doing a little research on the man that wrote the music, I learned that W.C. Handy, the “father of the blues” as he is sometimes referred to, was, if not solely responsible, one of the first to develop a popular compositional style based on 12 and 16 bar blues forms. He borrowed melodic stylings from the vocal blues traditions (employing flat 3rds and 7ths on major chords) and used 3 or 4 line lyrical stanzas to determine the 12 or 16 bar forms. These short forms were often only a part of a larger composition which would include an intro and a bridge. I think Handy was influenced by the compositional styles of military band, so his bridge is reminiscent of what marching bands know as a “trio” section. Handy published Memphis Blues in 1912. It was the first of his blues to be published and was the beginning of his popularity as a blues composer. Until this time, the blues was folk music and hadn’t really been explored by composers.

As the blues became a more popular music, we can see that composers in the jazz idiom kept the 12 (sometimes 16) bar form and continually developed the harmonic and melodic vocabulary to work within that structure. Thelonious Monk’s composition “Blue Monk” and Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” are good examples demonstrating how different composers have manipulated melody and harmony within the now standard 12 bar form of the blues.

Here are a few listening examples for you to reference:

The original recording of the Memphis Blues (by military band)

Louis’ recording of Memphis Blues

St. Louis Blues- original recording

St louis Blues- Louis Armstrong

Blue monk (a relevant 12 bar blues in the standard jazz repertoire)

Billies Bounce (a relevant 12 bar blues in the standard jazz repertoire)

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