Jul 31, 2015

The Flat Five As a Blue Note

It seems pretty clear that in early blues (say, pre-1920), musicians did not much employ the b5 as a blue note. By the mid-1920s, we have recordings with b5 licks used as part of the blues/jazz vocabulary. At some later point, the concept of a "blues scale" was conceived. I've been trying to get some historical perspective on all this (see my previous post, Early Blues, Blue Notes, and Blues Scales).

In his autobiography, referring to pre-1914 Southern folk music, W. C. Handy wrote:
[Black Southern folk musicians were] sure to bear down on the third and seventh tones of the scale, slurring between major and minor. Whether in the cotton fields of the Delta or on the levee up St. Louis way, it was always the same...
Handy speaks of the flat third and seventh, but does not mention the flat fifth.

Looking at the earliest blues (by Handy and others) that appeared as sheet music pre-1915, I don't see any "blue note" use of the b5 (see the books on early published blues by Peter Muir and Vic Hobson, reviewed here earlier).

Listening to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924), I don't hear any blues use of the b5. Gershwin was not a blues musician, but as a bright young music industry insider, he would have been quite aware of blues usage in his time, at least the commercial and big-city type (Gershwin was born in 1898; the "blues craze" in popular music began c.1914). If the b5 had been part of what constituted "blues" for him in 1924, he surely would have exploited it in "Rhapsody in Blue."

To me, "blue note" usage of the flat five consists of either scooping the note in the same way and to the same extent that the third was traditionally scooped and bent, or incorporating the b5 into this sort of lick. This is from the opening of the melody in Tadd Dameron's The Squirrel (1947):

This kind of usage doesn't seem to have been there, in the earliest days of blues.

So when did musicians begin to use the b5 as a blue note? The earliest recorded example I could find was this 1925 Bessie Smith recording of "St. Louis Blues," featuring Louis Armstrong:

In the minor-key section, Bessie bends the fifth, and also embellishes the melody with a lick that's very close to the b5 4 b3 1 shape shown above. (Incidentally, check Louis in the second 12-bar strain of the tune, suggesting a IVm chord in bar 6 - pretty harmonically aware for 1925!)

There are a quite a few similar b5 licks in Louis' 1928 recording of "St. James Infirmary":

The b5 licks here are used liberally - in Louis' vocals and cornet solo, and in the clarinet and piano parts as well (Earl Hines was the pianist). The trombone contributes a b5-5 scoop.

You can hear similar b5 licks in later jazz standards like Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing" (1931) and "In a Sentimental Mood" (1935), and in Matt Dennis' "Angel Eyes" (1946).

Interestingly, the b5 licks in these Bessie Smith, Armstrong, Ellington, and Matt Dennis examples all occur in a minor-key context. This might seem to suggest that b5 blues usage started in the mid-1920s, in minor-key tunes.

On the other hand, the mid-20s time frame only reflects minor-key examples that I could find recordings for. "St. James Infirmary," for example, is a very old tune (see this Wikipedia entry). Perhaps Louis was just playing it the way New Orleans players had played it decades earlier, before recordings.

By the 1940s, b5 licks were commonplace in major-key blues as well. (Note: blues usage of the b5 by the bebop players was a different phenomenon than their use of the b5 for harmonic color.)

Some years ago, I researched blues scales for a college course. Surveying books and articles, I found no less than ten different "blues scales." The earliest proposal of a "blues scale" that I could find was by Winthrop Sargeant, in his 1938 book "Jazz - Hot and Hybrid." Here's Sargeant's diagram, as reproduced in Gunther Schuller's "Early Jazz":

The arrows indicate prevalent melodic motion. Sargeant stated that this diagram related more to early or traditional blues (from a 1938 perspective).

If this scale is based on C as tonic, it is our present-day "major blues scale" with an added b7, and does not include the b5.

I'm not sure when our present-day "minor blues scale" (1 b3 4 b5 5 b7 1) came into the picture. If a blues scale involving the b5 had become commonly known by the 1940s, could it have influenced b5 usage? It's an interesting thought, but I have a feeling that it didn't happen that way.

I emailed this question to a few jazz musicians who who had learned their stuff in the late 1930s or early 1940s: When you were learning to play, were you aware of any concept of a "blues scale?" I heard back from two of them. One well-known NY pianist had this to say:
When I was learning to play, in the 30's and 40's, there was no "jazz education" to formalize matters, but there were soloists such as Lionel Hampton, Pete Brown, Lester Young,  Harry Edison, Buck Clayton, Charlie Christian, and the boogie-woogie pianists (Ammons, Lewis, James P. Johnson) who employed the blues scale in their solos and their pieces, and we followed what they did without labeling it systematically as "the blues scale."
Maurice "Dr. Bugs" Bower's answer was, "Never heard of it."