It is a truism to say that the blues lies at the heart of jazz, whatever the style, whatever the era. Jazz’s roots in the blues are obvious when listening to the early jazz masters, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and the many practitioners of the art of boogie-woogie, stride, and New Orleans marching bands. It may, at first sight be harder to detect in “free jazz” but you only have to listen to the blues-drenched tones of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, early Archie Shepp contemporary John Zorn or even the polyglot “free” pianist Cecil Taylor, to spot their blues and roots lineage.
So maybe it is not so surprising that when I think back to my own early attraction to jazz, I can trace it back to a preliminary absorption in the blues. What was unusual, at least for my age cohort, was that all this began fifty plus years ago in a North London suburb while the rest of the world was turning on to rock in its various manifestations. I’m talking the mid-1960’s here.
Thelonious Monk – Monk Moods
While I was definitely attracted to peace and love, the sixties protests and had an awareness of the prevailing popular music trends (I wasn’t that removed from the major cultural trends of that tumultuous decade), my early musical obsessions and sound tracks were rooted in the Mississippi delta, not Top of the Pops. Quite why I took off in that musical direction all those years ago is a mystery to me. Partly I think it was a determination to be different, but I am very glad that I did, because it was my early baptism in the blues that very quickly put me on the path to modern jazz. From Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker to Bird, Monk and Stan Tracey. I became a dedicated jazz fan in 1968, at the point where jazz was going through an existential crisis in the face of the unstoppable advance of rock music. Strange indeed!
Tantalizing with the Blues
My blues journey began with country blues-the kinds of music that Alan Lomax was recording in his anthropological “field trips” post-World War 2. Lomax was responsible for “rediscovering” a whole generation of musicians who had, seemingly been forgotten. Big Bill Broonzy, Bukka White, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, many of whom went on to develop late career popularity, in the case of Muddy Waters, appearing as an opening act on Rolling Stones tours. The irony was not lost on either party as the Stones worshipped at the shrine of Waters and the blues masters in their west London bedrooms and school gigs.
Little Klunk – The Stan Tracey Trio
My introduction to the blues was unamplified country blues, very much out of the Alan Lomax play book. Often unaccompanied voice and guitar. The outstanding discovery within that genre being Robert Johnson whose life was short and the subject of numerous folk myths but whose influence, collected on two albums worth of which music resonates to this day. John Lee Hooker, in the U.S, and John Mayall in the U.K. provided the bridge from pure, unamplified blues to electric urban blues, accompanied by bands who could move beyond basic blues progressions. I still marvel at the unique timbre and depth of John Lee Hooker’s voice and his distinctive, behind-the-beat, booming guitar style. Hooker was by origin an itinerant Mississippi bluesman ,was able to update the blues for a different world and much bigger audiences, and to use the blues to articulates the hopes and disappointments of black communities in America, particularly in the 1960’s.
I still love the blues and occasionally return to some of those unforgettable soundtracks. But once I stumbled into jazz where blues influences were elevated in a whole different set of ways with more variety and sophistication, I had found my true musical vocation. Towards the end of his life Charlie Parker, a 20th century musical genius in any genre and one of the pivotal figures in modern jazz, whose individual sound can easily be traced back to his roots in Kansas City, began to express dissatisfaction with the in-built constraints and improvisational possibilities based on the classic 12-bar blues form. He dreamed of larger, symphonic contexts and leading a further revolution in jazz music. Of course, we will never know what he would have gone on to achieve. Unfortunately, this was also true of so many musicians of the bebop generation, but that is a story for another time.
Mississippi – John Hurt
I can still recall the impact of my first experience of live jazz. It was probably 1968. I was 17 and caught the bus up to a dreary backroom of the Torrington Arms in north Finchley to hear the Stan Tracey trio, certainly with the legendary Phil Seaman on drums and, probably Dave Green on bass. I had just bought Stan’s Little Klunk album from a specialist record store in Hendon. There were no announcements, such applause as there was was distinctly tepid and the piano was almost certainly out of tune. There were almost as many people on the bandstand as in the audience, but I was hooked, and remained hooked by Stan’s unique angularity and his total devotion to his profession as a jazz musician right up until his death in December 2013
It was about this time that Stan, in response to an interviewer asking how things were going responded, “the telephone never starts ringing”
I have really enjoyed the opportunity presented by this chapter to go back, often for the first time since I bought the albums, to the soundtrack of my teenage years. Great tracks in and of themselves, while also signposting me to the much wider playing field of modern jazz.