Jazz, Blues and Contemporary Musicians. Essay

Jazz, Blues and Contemporary Musicians.Jazz and Blues appear to intersect on many occasions and both styles are deeply influenced by Negro spiritual music. We take a look at these musical periods with particular reference to artists who have exemplified the fields of Jazz and Blues as well as their influence on contemporary artists. Often compared to her American counterpart Norah Jones, British artist Katie Melua has taken the world by storm with her albums, but her roots lie in Jazz and Blues. Clearly influenced by singers Ella Fitzgerald and Eva Cassidy (jazz), she describes how she admires the work of both artists on her album “Call Off The Search” (Melua, 2004: Dramatico Records)[1].

While we examine Melua’s influence on music we also look at the work of Billie Holliday as a Jazz musician and BB King as a Blues artist who is perhaps sidelined in terms of his effect on the music world.Katie Melua’s first album “Call Off The Search” was released in 2004, with a mix of blues, jazz and rock that complimented her velvety voice. The instrumental choices are what essentially divide the blues taste from the jazz ones in this album. “Call Off The Search” and “Learning The Blues” are mellow, with a full compliment of string instruments from the Irish Film Orchestra (Melua, 2004: Dramatico Records). “Crawling Up a Hill” has a blues beat but with heavy emphasis placed on wind instruments as well as numerous guitar breaks (both electric and acoustic).

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The feel is very similar to her older contemporary Eric Clapton which is best seen in her version of “Mockingbird Song”. In her first album it is evident that the eclectic influences of the classical masters are vivid in her experimentation. “The Closest Thing To Crazy” exhibits Melua’s interest in Ella Fitzgerald, with the emphasis primarily on vocals. Here the vocals are strong and her voice experiments with how much range can be exploited in one song. The jazz singers such as Holliday, Fitzgerald and Cassidy had the ability to project their voices from deep and intercostals to high and nasal in a short but controlled space of time. This is partly in the effort to make the voice into the instrument, as seen in her playful “My Aphrodisiac is You”, where if you were to remove the piano and saxophone the voice itself would suffice. If we compared this to Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child”, very little supporting instrument was used. “Learning the Blues” can be compared to Randy Crawford and Aretha Franklin but perhaps with less vocal depth which is apparently to be expected in a recorded version.

In fact, the use of modern instrumentals has somewhat ‘lost’ the vocals even in accomplished modern jazz singers such as the aforementioned Norah Jones. Less had been more, making the voice the imperative instrument, but in this case the backing music waters down the talent of the vocalist.Billie Holiday had a different type of voice, deeper and more gravelly, which meant that in order to project itself, it did not run the risk of sounding ‘whiny’ as occurs when a voice is not as powerful (such as Katie Melua). Little is known about Billie Holiday’s early life, but much of her music appears to have been influenced by a young life of prostitution and abuse (PBS).

[2] As post-World War I, pre-World War II shifted its focus from the Flapper period of the 1920’s to the ragtime Negro-influenced jazz, it came at an unsettled political time (Larousse, 1981: 373).[3] Holiday had sung greatly about the freedom of the slave, the freedom from racism and the fact that life after emancipation was far from peachy. Like Aretha Franklin and her modern counterparts, her singing was deep and soulful with not much in the way of lavish backing orchestra such as is seen in Katie Melua’s work, but then it is presumed that the emphasis was never on the orchestra but rather on the voice. “Solitude” speaks volumes for the world Holiday had known both growing up and in her young adulthood and the estrangement from her father.

[4]Her backing music appeared to consist mainly of piano support and wind instruments such as saxophones, which set her apart from traditional Blues and placed her solidly in the Jazz bracket.Younger than Billie Holiday, BB King created for himself something of an enigma in terms of Blues as he grew up in a Blues influenced family (Kerekes and O’Neill, 1996: 1).[5] He also joined a gospel group “The Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers”[6] before he became known as a Blues artist which is where much of the early Jazz and Blues music came from: The Negro spiritual. If we compare the guitar break of Katie Melua in her song “Mockingbird Song” we see a strong resemblance to the ‘lead guitar’ BB King made popular.

Solo or ‘lead’ guitar is something the separates the acoustic guitar from the rest of the band, sometimes with the vocals and is something that is not evident in Jazz. Unlike Billie Holiday, King melded the same grating voice with his guitar. Melua and other artists such as Eric Clapton do the same thing and while Clapton is generally accepted to be a Blues artist, the definition is subject to debate.

The 12 bar harmonic is perhaps the only perceivable difference between the two closely related musical types.It is extremely difficult to demarcate the two types of artists into classified groups, as some artists can be seen in both Jazz and Blues (including the late Louis Armstrong). What is clear is the role of beat and assimilating vocals with instruments in both types of music. Contemporary artists such as Katie Melua, Norah Jones and John Legend make use of the recognizable beats that resemble the old religious incantations of Negro Americans. The element of soul and understanding human emotion is audible rather than visible and is something not every artist is able to achieve with success. One need only listen to “God Bless the Child” (Holiday) to feel the emotion Jazz is able to give us.

Sources:Kerekes, Jim and O’Neill, Dennis. (1996). BB King in the Beginning. http://www.

worldblues.com/bbking/prairie/begin.htmlKing BB. Premier Collection CD 1.

Larousse. (1981). Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History. HamlynMelua, Katie. (2004). “Call Off The Search”.

Dramatico Records.Oxford University Press. Billie Holiday.

PBS Online. http://www.pbs.org/jazz/biography/artist_id_holiday_billie.htm[1] Her first Album “Call off the Search” was recorded by Dramatico Record label.

[2] Oxford University Press. Billie Holiday. PBS Online.[3] Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History.[4] See footnote 2.[5] Kerekes, Jim and O’Neill, Dennis.

1996. BB King in the Beginning.[6] Ibid.


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