Count Basie, Michael Jackson, the Blues and Pop Music

Back during the heyday of the big bands there were “territory bands” that would criss cross the country playing in dives and other venues that were not a part of the major booking circuit.  Similar to how the independent artist of today has to book him/herself in smaller venues across the country.  These bands were not as well-known as the Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman bands and had to carve out an existence from whatever jobs they could get. 

Many of these bands came through Kansas City because the corrupt politician Tom Pendergast who ran the town, had relaxed restrictions on liquor, gambling and prostitution.  Music of course was a necessary accompaniment to this entertainment and jazz bands flocked to the town. 

Because people came from different areas and had different repertoire, they had to find a way to play together and the one thing they all had in common was the blues.  This spawned what was known as the head arrangement in jazz where a basic melody is arranged for the big band in sections (sax, trombone, trumpet, rhythm) then there are riffs played by each section as backgrounds throughout the song. 

The main feature, however were the soloists who would play many choruses while people danced and had a good time.  While the soloist played the different instrumental sections (saxes, trumpet, trombones) would play backgrounds to spur the soloist on.  Then the piece would culminate into what’s called a tutti section (Italian for “all”) where the whole band would come back in for a grand ending.

Count Basie’s band became one of the most well-known bands out of Kansas City because of his swinging arrangements and great soloists. Listen to the recording of “One O’Clock Jump” by Count Basie’s Orchestra and you can hear the riff style playing of the big band.  Each section plays a blues riff during each solo and then at the end these pieces are layered to create a sonic collage that fits together perfectly.  It is a masterpiece of simplicity and complexity not unlike listening to a group of West African drummers playing short rhythmic patterns in their traditional polyrhythmic fashion.

Count Basie – “One O’Clock Jump”

When R&B music and later Rock and Roll came to be the popular music of the day, instrumental soloists went to the background, vocalists came to the foreground, the arrangement became the feature and the solo section was minimized and in some cases done away with altogether.  However, this concept of simplistic complexity was not abandoned in fact it was refined.  Listening to Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner you can hear some of the same approach to backgrounds but everything is simplified even the bass line.  The bass player is no longer improvising a line over the blues changes, he is playing a repeated bass figure.

Louis Jordan – “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie”

Big Joe Turner – “Shake Rattle and Roll”

This actually sets the stage for Rock and Roll because everything becomes planned and arranged.  Sometimes even the solos are planned.  Listening to this Bill Haley and Comets version of “Shake Rattle and Roll” you can hear how not just the solo is planned but even the supposedly “impromptu” collective shout of “go” is also staged.

Bill Haley and the Comets – “Shake Rattle and Roll”

Even though this version is a bit canned it still shows how the blues and its coveted riffs became the foundation for all of the popular music that comes after it.

As Rock music develops we can still hear the repetitive blues licks in the bass and guitar.  In the Rolling Stones song “Start Me Up” there’s 16 bars of a repeated blues riff played by the bass and guitar for the verse and chorus, and then a 10 bar bridge.  This form is repeated throughout the song and in total there are only two blues riffs that make up the whole song: the verse riff and the bridge riff.

Rolling Stones – “Start Me Up”

Michael Jackson’s  “Bad” is the epitome of an example of the blues used in modern day music because the bass line that goes throughout the whole song is nothing but the first 5 notes of the blues scale.  There is a 4 bar bridge section but this song is essentially a blues recording.  It also employs the layering techniques of Count Basie’s big band used in the horn sections.  This is not surprising because the producer Quincy Jones worked with Count Basie.

Michael Jackson - “Bad”

Granted the sounds used employ synthesizers and drum machines but musically speaking the song is, to coin a cliché, “nuthin’ but the blues.”

Even though I just outlined the use of blues riffs and licks used in modern day music, there are many other examples that show how the Blues is still so much a part of our music today.  I’ll explore those concepts in a later post.

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