Nothing But the Blues
Not long ago, a knowledgeable musicologist we know declared that jazz was dead — and had been for more than 30 years. We recall circa 1978 Johnny Rotten (nee Lydon) of the spectacular punk band the Sex Pistols announcing that rock and roll was dead. Opera, of course, has been consigned to the cemetery for nearly a century, and with the way things are going polka and zydeco can’t be far behind.
What the doomsayers mean, we think, is that these tired old musical forms have succumbed to a chronic fatigue borne of constant repetition and regurgitation. Everything we hear these days is either a quotation or an imitation. Nothing’s new under the sun, etc. What these practitioners of the mortuary sciences don’t seem to realize is that even the progenitors of the original form freely borrowed and expanded upon all that had come before them. We wouldn’t have jazz (or Frank Sinatra) without Louis Armstrong. But we also wouldn’t have Pops without Sydney Bechet, Scott Joplin and King Oliver. The tiny refinements and expansions that continue to happen in modern music are a sign that far from being deceased these forms are still quite alive.
The Blues, on the other hand, seem to be on life support.
As a foundation upon which other forms are built — jazz and rock among them — the Blues are as vital as ever. But in its pure form (12-bars; repeat phrase A three times and phrase B once), the Blues have been done to death.
Our indispensable local radio station, KKJZ, plays Blues all weekend, and if you’ve had the misfortune of being stuck in your car all Saturday and Sunday you’ve gotten a crash-course in how boring and predictable the venerable form has become. Perhaps realizing that the genre they’re selling is moribund, the promoters of the annual Long Beach Blues Festival have hired acts like The Black Crowes and Los Lobos to headline. Even the “living legends” of the genre, like Buddy Guy and B.B. King, are these days best enjoyed in limited doses, like ice cream or recreational drugs. Too much and you go into a coma.
One of the best singers we know, Ms. Barbara Morrison, is famed as a jazz and blues singer. The “and” is the key part. Barbara can sing the Blues as compellingly as anyone, but she sings them as one component of a larger aural spectrum. Even she, we reckon, would go crazy if she were bound to the enervating strictures of straight Blues. The artists who specialize solely in the genre, it must be said, aren’t especially good musicians, and they necessarily attract listeners without discriminating ears. Blues-gospel; Blues-jazz; Blues-rock — these hybrids extract the juiciest bits from the ancient form and do something delightful with it. The straight Blues shouters merely bludgeon an already ailing patient.
That’s enough to give a music lover the blues.