After reading this article, you should be able to tell the difference between blues and jazz music.
Both music genres have been around a very long time – there have been many changes in the styles, with each of them being influenced by the other. For the purposes of this short article, we’re going to concentrate on the most cliché types of blues and jazz – something you might hear as background music in a movie scene set at a club, that’s instantly recognizable as blues or jazz.
Similarities Between Blues and Jazz
Both genres originated in the Southern United States around the late 1800s to early 1900s, with blues arriving first, then jazz a little later. Both were inventions of African Americans, who combined African musical concepts with European musical concepts, thus making these both uniquely American music genres.
Mid tempo blues uses a shuffle beat, while jazz uses a swing beat. However, these two beats are very similar – the shuffle beat was probably influenced by jazz swing, which was hugely popular during the Great Depression era of the 1930s.
Different Origins in the South Resulted In Different Music Genres
Blues originated in the Delta region of Mississippi sometime after the Civil War (late 1800s). African American work songs, spirituals, and field hollers formed the basis of blues. Blues was originally a rural music, played by individuals on low cost and easily available instruments such as a harmonica or a guitar played with a slide. The songs were originally slow laments with flatted notes or “blue” notes, which gave it a completely different sound than European music.
Eventually, the song structure, when combined with European music elements, solidified into a 12 bar blues pattern, with an AAB lyric pattern. In this type of lyric pattern, the first line is sung, the second line repeats it, then the third line resolves the thought.
In between the vocal lines, a space is left for the instrument to respond. This is called “call and response”. Call and response can also be between the main singer and background singers, or between two musical instruments.
Jazz originated in New Orleans, Louisiana in the early 1900s. Unlike in the Delta, slaves had been allowed to get together on weekends and play drums and dance. This preserved the drum rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the tradition of embellishments and improvisation. When African American musicians later played in horn based bands, they carried on this tradition. The blues was also an influence, adding blue notes to the musical scales used.
Any kind of song can be played in a jazz style, including blues songs, therefore there is a lot wider variation in song structure in jazz. In general, jazz is not about what is played, it’s about how it’s played.
Post War Blues
Many of the same basic elements are preserved in today’s blues and jazz. After World War II, both genres went through large changes as the instruments became electrically amplified, and African Americans migrated to cities in the Northern US.
A common type of blues you might hear in a post war movie scene would be Chicago blues. It features a three to five piece band with vocalist, guitar, bass, drums, and possibly a harmonica or piano.
The music still contains the blues elements of blue notes, the AAB lyric pattern, call and response, and the 12 bar blues pattern. A common repertoire would consist of the songs of Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf.
The music would likely be on the louder driving side, with a somewhat distorted guitar sound, a preview of the rock and roll that followed. The drumbeat would either be a slow blues beat or a mid tempo shuffle with emphasis on the snare drum. The beat would keep a steady groove.
Example: Muddy Waters – Blow Wind Blow
Post War Jazz
A common type of jazz you might hear in a post war movie scene would be jazz standards performed with bebop style improvisation. After WWII, jazz changed from danceable big band pop music to bebop and its many variations such as cool jazz and hard bop. The lyrics were dropped and the band concentrated on improvisation, making it mainly an instrumental music.
Bands became smaller with a piano, bass, and drums being a common configuration. Horns such as saxophone and trumpet were also common. A common repertoire would consist of complex improvised instrumental versions of the Great American Songbook, such as “All of Me” or “Fly Me To The Moon”, reinterpretations of the blues, or original compositions.
The music would have an acoustic or lightly amplified sound. The drumbeat is a swing beat with emphasis on the cymbals. The drums may emphasize off beats instead of keeping a steady groove.
Example: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Moanin’
Blues vs. Jazz Summary Chart
|Music formed in the Southern US in the late 1800s/early 1900s by African Americans
|Shuffle beat/snare emphasis
|Swing beat/cymbal emphasis
|12 bar blues chord progression
|Great American Songbook - 32 bar progressions
|Usually a vocalist
|Call and response
|Instruments improvise in legato (long streams of short notes)
|Guitar - distorted sound, vibrato, string bending, slide
|Guitar - clean sound, no vibrato, string bending, or slide
|Emphasis on the emotion of the song and the groove
|Emphasis on improvisation
|Simpler more basic chords, scales and improvisation
|More complex chords, scales and improvisation
We hope this answers your questions about the differences and similarities between blues and jazz! We hope you’ll now be able to identify each one if you hear it.