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“Just Scratchin(g) the Surface”: The Unacknowledged Commonality of Jazz, Blues, and Gospel

Brian Priestley


A development of the last few decades has been the academic separation of jazz from its musical roots. Partly this is a result of jazz performance educationists deciding that what needs to be studied is bebop and post-bebop, with successive generations of students being taught by teachers who know little else. A similar narrowing of focus is seen in blues studies: also a specialism (though not yet in academia) with its own reference works, excellent discographies and detailed research into obscure historical performers. Specialists in this area, however, are rarely aware of what was concurrent in instrumental jazz that may have informed the development of blues and vice versa. [1]

This situation came about in part because the rise of interest in blues and r & b followed the initial popularity of rock-and-roll, in much the same way that interest in early jazz was fueled by the popularity of swing. In each case, the intention was to go beyond the hated commercial aspects of currently fashionable music and find out about the “real” music that lay behind the fashion. But, sadly, jazz scholarship has retreated from looking at the relationship between different versions of the music itself, and increasingly leans towards aspects such as cultural factors, reception histories, marketing strategies, and other branches of sociology — not to mention Europeanized forms of musical analysis. In the process, things that can be easily intuited by mere listeners (and even by those listeners who are sociologists or analysts) are being ignored in the academic discourse about jazz.

Vocalized Instrumentals, Instrumentalized Vocals, and Technical Parameters

Talking about actual music may be famously difficult if one attempts to describe its effect, but many commentators are all too ready to minimize the impact of individual sounds and timbres that drew them to listen in the first place. We all pay lip service, for instance, to King Oliver’s two 1923 recordings of “Dippermouth Blues”, and we marvel at the contrast between the leader’s own solo in choruses 6–8 and the young Louis Armstrong, heard playing the same instrument so differently in chorus 5. (That is, provided we can get past the sound reproduction of either version, so dauntingly primitive that it was only some decades after their publication that hip listeners became aware of the Armstrong solo as a separate entity.)

But, whether we think about the musical architecture of this whole two-and-a-half-minute gem or the emotional trajectory it imposes on listeners, it is clearly Oliver’s solo that is the highlight. It is equally clear that the reason is the many and varied instances of using the cornet to imitate a human voice. Oliver’s specific musical lines became so embedded in the language, through imitation of the recording by countless later soloists, that in 1956 the songwriter Cole Porter, composing a paean called “Now You Has Jazz” for Armstrong to sing, borrowed Oliver’s melodic phrase in bar 5–6 of his solo to add the words: “Everybody’s swinging, everybody’s singing.” But the whole recorded solo, and particularly its shouts of joy at bar 25–26, could readily have had words set to it. [2]

In the minds of the record producers dipping a toe in the waters of black music and in the minds of their target audience, there was little difference between early jazz (as heard on disc) and early blues and gospel music. Blues listeners and gospel listeners have, since becoming specialized themselves, been glad to ignore links that used to exist with the jazz community, but it does not serve the jazz listener to forget our commonality with blues and gospel. For a parallel with the Oliver recording, it is wonderfully moving even today, though hardly surprising in the context of 1927, to find the songster Blind Willie Johnson on “Dark Was The Night” using his slide guitar not only to imitate the words of a hymn his listeners would have known, but to free up his voice for a wordless (i.e., instrumentalized) unison with the guitar line.

The latter example may seem an isolated one, but it does direct attention to the idea that, in more conventional singer-guitarist performances, the instrumental fills after each vocal line could well, especially if deliberately repetitive, have been heard as a quasi-verbal riff. And, when the responding instrument is a cornet or a trombone, as in many classic twelve-bar recordings by Bessie Smith, it is easy to imagine a verbal content to these fill-in ripostes. But, even on the song form “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”, cornetist Ed Allen’s ten bars’ embellishment of the previously heard melody is a deliberate attempt to prolong the mood of the lyrics, in much the same way as Smith’s own subsequent wordless humming.

Is this interchange restricted to the 1920s? Probably not, if you consider how part of the “musical romance” between Billie Holiday and Lester Young relies on her instrument-influenced vocal line and his vocalized saxophone tone. And that again is not so very different from Sonny Rollins’s 1964 extrapolation of Holiday’s original song “Trav’lin’ Light”, where it does not take much sensitivity to hear at some points Rollins bending his tone in direct imitation of Holiday’s voice. (Similarly, on his 1977 version of the then-recent Stevie Wonder hit “Isn’t She Lovely”, Rollins’s re-entry deliberately imitates the inflections of the original’s vocalized harmonica solo.)

Leaving aside for a moment the question of instrumental-vocal cross-influences, we should not forget the common pool of structural devices, both in terms of form and melodic-harmonic content. Naturally, the 12-bar blues form has been mentioned already, and due credit should be given to the early jazz instrumentalists who doubtless took the lead in standardizing what, in the hands of solo folk artists, often remained an 11-bar or 13-and-a-half-bar chorus. If it is difficult to think of gospel songs that resemble the classic AAB blues form, this may be simply because of the form’s overwhelming association with secular lyrics. Marion Williams’s “Great Big God”, from as late as 1966, is a rare exception that proves the rule.

There are a few salient instances of musical structures regularly crossing the divide: the 16-bar AABA song “This Train” (“don’t carry no gamblers” etc), apparently first put on record in 1931 by Bryant’s Jubilee Quartet, was a gospel standard that became the direct source of blues harmonicist Little Walter (Jacobs)’s “My Babe” in 1955. (The fact that there was a gospel-jazz version of the same melody in Nat Adderley’s 1956 “Jackleg” is perhaps less remarkable than Little Walter’s adoption of a very saxophone-like approach to his harmonica.) Though slightly different in musical detail, there is a family resemblance here to the AABA blues number “Mama Don’t Allow No Easy Riders Here”, recorded separately by both Cow Cow Davenport and Tampa Red/Frankie Jaxon in 1929, which gave rise a couple of years later to the trad-jazz standard “Mama Don’t Allow No Music Playing In Here”, first recorded by Grant Moore and His New Orleans Black Devils. Rather than examples of “signifying” — with or without the parenthetic “g” — these should be regarded as parallel manifestations of a common language.

Another technical matter is the incidence of rhythm section breaks in early jazz and blues. The 16-bar tunes mentioned in the previous paragraph are often played or sung with “stop-time” during the B-section (bars 9–12), especially during jazz performances. Similarly, the musical description of a 12-bar chorus that has stop-chords on the first beats of bars 1, 2 and 3, with the 4/4 rhythm only resuming at the start of bar 5, will be identical whether the piece is an instrumental like Oliver’s “Snag It” or one of the numerous vocal examples — Jimmy Witherspoon’s “No Rollin’ Blues” is a favorite, while Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say (Part 1)” uses this routine but also the bar 1 stop — bar 3 stop — bar 5 resumption on some choruses). Did this first arise in order to demonstrate instrumentalists’ melodic prowess or vocalists’ verbal prowess? Or did it come about through both kinds of musicians challenging dancers to show their own prowess, as in Bumble Bee Slim’s “New Orleans Stop Time”? [3]

Speaking of the 4/4 time signature, it should not be assumed that everything in this period is played with the ‘swing feel’ (or triplet feel) of uneven eighth notes. Certainly, from at least 1920 and Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”, the swing feel seems to be characteristic of slower-tempoed blues, and indeed it is alluded to in 1918’s “Bluin’ The Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. But, while Armstrong went on to exploit the tension between the uneven eighths of blues and the even eighths of ragtime, the latter remained a powerful influence on rhythm sections throughout the 1920s. Oliver’s famous “Snag It” break may be in triplets, but the band here is still wedded to even eighths, as heard more clearly in his earlier recordings such as “Snake Rag” and “Mabel’s Dream”. [4]

However, the uneven eighths became sufficiently standard for the blues field, so that Sonny Boy Williamson’s 1937 debut “Good Morning, School Girl” sounds quite innovative, because of its double-time feel reintroducing even eighths. Though there is no piano on that performance, there is a distinct connection with certain piano blues of the boogie-woogie genre that also prefer even over uneven eighths. When in 1941 Jay McShann’s drummer Gus Johnson introduces double-time fills on “Hootie’s Ignorant Oil”, we are not far away from the Afro-Latin 12-bar blues heard in Louis Jordan’s “Early In The Morning”, T-Bone Walker’s “Hard Way” or Ray Charles’s “Mary Ann”, which shares the same opening riff as “Hard Way”.

The last two recordings, and indeed most of the more blues-oriented tracks of Jordan or McShann, use a horn section in a clear indication of the input of jazz to what became known as rhythm & blues. But this began at least as early as 1936 with the frequently neglected series of sessions by the Harlem Hamfats, actually Chicago-based but featuring the New Orleans born-and-bred trumpeter Herb Morand, who took occasional vocals alongside the more prolific guitarist-singer Joe McCoy. Guitarist and singer Big Bill Broonzy was also adding trumpet to records from 1937 on (in some cases, the great New Orleans player Punch Miller) and saxophone the following year. But jazz recordings soon borrowed back, such as Johnny Hodges’s 1939 “Dooji Wooji” (whose bluesy triplet riff in the piano’s left hand became the basis for Erskine Hawkins’s 1940 jukebox hit “After Hours”).

Blues and Gospel: Two Ways of Life, One Music?

It is Ray Charles who usually gets the blame for adapting religious songs to secular ends in the 1950s, thanks to Broonzy’s comment about him: “He’s mixing the blues with the spirituals. I know that’s wrong.” [5] But the process obviously goes back much further than that. It has been noted that the theme of Ellington’s 1929 piece “Saturday Night Function” was based directly on the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” [6] The song “Wade In The Water” has had a long list of jazz associations, firstly through Canadian-born singer Bruce Boyce whose 1935 Paris recording is accompanied by the piano of Stéphane Grappelli, and more recently through the very different versions by Max Roach (as “Troubled Waters”) and by Johnny Griffin. But it should also be stated that the same melody, translated from minor to major, forms the basis of “I’m Gonna See My Baby”, a 1945 celebration of war victory by African-American songwriter Phil Moore, recorded by Jimmie Lunceford with his band singing the lyric in unison. Which reminds us that it is worth looking at the role of vocal groups in the history of stylistic crossover.

Most black or black-influenced instrumental music recorded before 1922 is fairly stiff and unswinging — which are not the words for the 1902 debut of the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, one of the earliest documentations of black vocal sounds. They fall somewhere between gospel, which came together two decades later, and what we know of nineteenth-century minstrel shows. Their 6/8 “We’ll Anchor Bye-And-Bye” has the a cappella group singing responses to a remarkably bluesy solo voice, but the revolutionary development, in fact, is the mingling of sacred and secular. “Down On The Old Camp Ground” looks forward to Louis Jordan with lyrics like ‘I thought I heard that chicken sneeze’, while “Gabriel’s Trumpet” presages “What’d I Say” with “Who’s that yonder dressed in red?” [7] (The latter phrase, answered by the words “Must be the children that Moses led,” also occurs in “Wade In The Water” — and has a surprising echo in that very ethnic-sounding 1965 version of the New Orleans song “Iko Iko” by female vocal group The Dixie Cups, one of whose verses goes “See that guy all dressed in green / He’s not a man, he’s a loving machine.”)

You could justifiably postulate that the Dinwiddies’ mixing of secular and sacred is an echo of African societies where the two were wholly intertwined, and where performing music was almost a religious vocation. But it was very much at odds with the European attitudes that prevailed and still prevail in America’s majority population, and which were imbibed by black churchgoers and echoed in the quotation above from Big Bill Broonzy. It is not my intention to dwell on lyrical or spiritual content, but in terms of musical sound, which is our focus here, there is no way to separate the stylistic traditions of blues and gospel and jazz. Charles Mingus may not have incurred the disapproval of Broonzy but, in explaining his 1950s instrumental allusions to the more unbuttoned type of gospel singing, he deliberately confused the divisive terminology by saying “The blues was in the Holiness churches — moaning and riffs and that sort of thing between the audience and the preacher” [emphasis added]. [8]

Socially, it is easy to understand the barriers between the gospel world and the blues world but, musically, the division seems wafer thin. We do not need to recall those figures such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Little Richard or Thomas A. (Georgia Tom) Dorsey, who played both sides of the fence, if we just listen to the music. It would appear that this fact was understood by the participants in both areas: Mahalia Jackson, in breaking her rule against performing for secular audiences when recording with Ellington in 1958 and appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival (in both that and the previous year), was of course aware that there was no musical barrier, only the entrenched anti-jazz/blues sentiment of her core audience that she was challenging. [9]

Jackson’s counterpart in the classic blues field, and audibly an influence on Jackson’s own style, was Bessie Smith. Though not noted for singing church music, Smith, even during her professional career as a blues diva, was known to sing hymns at home. More strikingly, guitarist Danny Barker claimed that there was a “similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists...did.” [10] Although Barker was talking of her hypnotic effect on audiences, the musical evidence is in the 1930 session where she sang two mock-religious tunes by commercial (albeit black) songwriters, Spencer Williams’s “Moan, You Moaners” (mistitled on record as “Moan Mourners”) and Andy Razaf’s “On Revival Day”. These attempts to cross over have been, according to Smith’s biographer, “berated by collectors and scholars who feel that Columbia took its experiments with Bessie’s repertoire too far,” but her singing here was surely inspired by more than just the aftereffects of the Wall Street crash. [11]

In the song by Razaf, collaborator of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and others, the opening line of the first verse is “Have you ever seen a church begin to rock?”, possibly the first use on record of the word “rock” in this meaning. More noteworthy from the standpoint of musical crossover during this period, the standard discography of blues and gospel points out that the vocal quartet accompanying Smith here (as the “Bessemer Singers”) had recorded prolifically in their own right, including two singles just days earlier. One of those singles includes the splendid “I Dreamed of the Judgment Morning”, a swinging follow-up to the Dinwiddie Quartet, and is credited to the “Dunham Jubilee Singers,” named after the lead vocalist Charlie “Son” Dunham. The other single, performed by the same personnel at the same session, was released as by the “Bessemer Blues Singers” and, while most of their varying credits for other sessions include the word “Jubilee,” apparently an earlier version of the group recorded the clearly profane title “Honey, Turn Your Damper Down” as the “Dunham Jazz Singers.” [12]

Tim Wall, writing of the use of black music on radio in the late 1920s and early 1930s, notes that “‘jazz’ was not a precise genre term for a form of music.” [13] Surely an understatement but, as well as describing the point of view of the early broadcasting organizations and their listeners, it seems to be have been true also among performers. This would help to explain, for observers from a very different time period and social situation, why there was so much cross-fertilization between what we mistakenly persist in viewing as separate styles. The interaction between, say, the lead and the ensemble of a vocal quartet, singing either a cappella or with very light accompaniment, can easily be heard as mirroring the kinds of interplay possible between a jazz soloist and backing instruments (presumably it is unnecessary to mention the frequent vocal imitations, in gospel quartet style, of the sound of a double bass or sometimes even of a riffing brass section).

Not surprisingly, jazz arrangers were listening and responding. As well as Sy Oliver’s somewhat stilted “Yes Indeed!” for the 1941 Tommy Dorsey band, there is the remarkable “I’m Prayin’ Humble” by the Bob Crosby outfit. Arranged by Bob Haggart in 1938, this was expanded from a note-for-note transcription of the previous year’s recording by the a cappella quartet, Mitchell’s Christian Singers. One notable aspect of the Mitchell’s track is that, like many of their recordings, it is performed with a distinct even eighths feel. More strikingly, though the top line melody is in a major scale (largely pentatonic), the accompanying vocal harmonies often include the flat seventh and flat third, to the extent that the frequent tonic chords are heard as minor triads. A similar sound is heard in bars 11 and 13 of the 1965 Staple Singers tune “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)”, which was subsequently covered (with more jazz-like voicings) by Cannonball Adderley.

The role of a preacher leading a congregation, or that of a solo singer backed by a choir, inevitably recalls situations in jazz performance, simply because these draw from a common stylistic well. To subsume everything under the heading of “call-and-response” is accurate but perhaps inadequate. The first widely heard live recordings of a cleric in action date from 1947 and feature Rev. Samuel Kelsey at his church in Washington, D.C., as on the successful single “Little Boy”, where his hoarse voice and the rough-and-ready coordination of the congregational response, evoke the sound of a classic New Orleans ensemble. The effect is aided by the fact that the accompanying piano and tambourine are frequently joined by a rudimentary trombone, the use of the “sackbut” being sanctified by biblical references to such instruments. Much earlier, the studio-recorded tracks of the Rev. D.C. Rice include two, of which “I’m In The Battlefield For My Lord” became a standard, that have anonymous but jazzy trumpet and trombone alongside the regular piano, bass, percussion and congregants.

By contrast, a highly organized group such as the 120-voice choir of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Newark (NJ) calls to mind, and in its up-tempo work was likely influenced by, the joyous drive of a Swing Era big band. Directed by Rev. Alex Bradford — a solo singer in his own right, but prevented contractually from contributing vocally to the choir’s 1960 live album — a track such as “Said I Wasn’t Going To Tell Nobody” even has a ‘false ending’ (à la “What’d I Say”) followed, after a brief period of congregational reaction, by a reprise of the closing choruses. (Before this, it also has a stunning example of the technique beloved of later pop producers whereby the rhythm section, in this case piano and organ, drops out in the middle of the performance to highlight the massed vocalists accompanied only by handclapping on beats 2 and 4 and foot-stomping on 1 and 3.) It is worth noting that standard material in this genre can remain in use over decades. The cutting voice of singer Arizona Dranes, backed by her own stomping piano on the 1926 “I’m Going Home On The Morning Train”, is almost sufficient to persuade the listener that the vocal responses of Rev. F.W. McGee and his (very few) Jubilee Singers are spontaneous. Yet the exciting 1959 documentary recording of Rev. R.C. Crenshaw and his Memphis congregation puts new life into basically the same arrangement.

The recordings of Rev. Kelsey and Rev. Crenshaw, among others, give us access not only to the sung portions of a church service but to the interaction of the preacher’s sermonizing and his congregation’s responses. In discs from the 1920s by such as Rev. J.M. Gates and Rev. A.W. Nix, the small number of respondents crammed into a studio give a rather underwhelming impression of the real thing. Yet, before Kelsey and Crenshaw had been documented, a surprising instrumental representation had been produced in 1942 by the Ellington band. Playing the role of an in-house dance band for the movie Cabin In The Sky, their major feature number “Goin’ Up” has an out-of-tempo section in which trombonist Lawrence Brown preaches a ‘sermon’ with enthusiastic verbal responses from the dancers who, following an abrupt edit, are suddenly almost motionless.

At this point, it is worth recalling a comment of the black folklorist-novelist Zora Neale Hurston, to the effect that: “All Negro-made church music is dance-possible... The service is really drama with music. And since music without motion is unnatural among Negroes there is always something that approaches dancing — in fact, IS dancing — in such a ceremony.” [14] Clearly the sentiment of an objective observer, rather than a devout worshipper in one of the churches described, which have had a longstanding anathema to self-expression through anything that resembles dance. As late as the mid-1980s the contemporary gospel group The Winans, who had a considerable hit with their recasting of the proverbial phrase “Let My People Go”, took care that their onstage movements stopped somewhat short of actual dancing. But the track’s instrumental introduction and sophisticated harmonization, which constitute a tribute to their record label’s founder Quincy Jones, underline the message that there is little distinction between gospel and, in this case, post-disco rhythm & blues.

In the Beginning Was the Sound

It might have seemed logical at this point to examine what is known as jazz singing. It is of some note that Dan Morgenstern greeted the 1970 Bessie Smith reissue The World’s Greatest Blues Singer with the words: ‘Bessie did all kinds of songs, not just blues, and a good case could be made for calling her the greatest jazz singer of all time, with only Louis Armstrong to challenge her sole right to the title’ [emphasis added]. [15] But the connections and contrasts here are almost too obvious: jazz vocalists have in the past inherited some of the vocal techniques of blues, and more recently the impact of gospel-inflected soul music (stemming from Dinah Washington and Ray Charles) on would-be jazz singing has become so widespread that the input of more ‘instrumental’ hip-hop vocals has come as a relief.

Of course, Morgenstern rightly raised the issue of repertoire. A potential stumbling block is the fact that both blues and gospel use verbal language as the most obvious element of their communication process. Instrumentalists’ frequent jealousy towards singers — in most musical fields — is rooted in the latter’s ability to connect more directly with their audience, not merely by being front-and-center but by using actual words to tell their story. In the specific case of gospel music, the position is more complicated because some of those contributing instrumental backings may not share the religious belief of the performers enunciating the lyrics. Significantly, this can also be the case with listeners, who may enjoy gospel music without accepting its ‘message’, but at least nonbelief is no bar to admiring its aesthetic qualities.

The concept of “desacralization,” coined by French author André Malraux to describe the aesthetic appreciation of religious art from non-Western cultures, may be of comfort here. It might be argued that such a process is in play with jazz versions of hymns such as “When The Saints”, which, though a religious song from Blind Willie Davis’s premiere recording through to Mahalia Jackson and beyond, has acquired secular status. Pursuant to that connection Sister Ernestine Washington, who enjoyed a long career in church and on record, made four tracks with Bunk Johnson’s band including the gospel standard “The Lord Will Make A Way”.

By contrast, jazz scat-singing is a rather specialized case whereby jazz singers, all too obviously (and with occasional success), attempt to reproduce the twists and turns of instrumental improvisation in a nonverbal or pre-verbal manner. Although it has become over-prevalent, partly under the influence of jazz education, the approach is not restricted to post-bebop jazz, since Louis Armstrong’s pioneering work of the late 1920s clearly emulates his trumpet style, rather than the other way around. The technique known as “vocalese” (a la Jon Hendricks) is in reality a subset of scat, since it takes specific recorded examples of instrumentalists and attempts to give them wider currency by adding lyrics, which may or may not represent the “meaning” of the original solo. In terms of possible crossover from jazz to blues, it may be worth considering if the title phrase of Blind Blake’s 1929 “Diddie Wa Diddie”, or of the contemporaneous “Beedle-Um-Bum” by the “Hokum Boys” (Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, no less) — whatever the metaphorical qualities of the sounds — may be onomatopoeically influenced by jazz phraseology. Certainly, the latter was a sufficiently big hit to be instantly covered by the successful jazz group, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.

There is evidence that jazz instrumentalists have sometimes attempted to reproduce words in their playing. The trumpeter Bubber Miley not only heard hymns at home and used the chorus of “The Holy City” in Ellington’s “Black And Tan Fantasy”, but he told the dancer-critic Roger Pryor Dodge concerning another Ellington collaboration that: “He kept noticing the electric sign of the dry-cleaning store Lewando’s. The name struck him as exceedingly funny and it ran through his head and fashioned itself into [the opening phrase of ‘East St. Louis Toodle-Oo’].” [16] It is possible to hear other Miley phrases as speech-influenced, and the same is true of Rex Stewart’s use of half-valve effects on such Ellington pieces as “Boy Meets Horn”. During Stewart’s post-Ellington period, he created a routine called “Conversation Piece”, whereby speech-like effects in the normal cornet register simulate a “female” voice, answered by gruff “male” responses created by the rarely used fundamentals of the instrument’s harmonic series. In Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, Shakespeare’s words “Lord, what fools these mortals be” are enunciated by trumpeter Clark Terry during the piece “Up And Down, Up And Down”. [17] Apparently, too, the opening line of “dialogue” in Harold Arlen’s blues opera Free And Easy was enacted by the plunger-muted playing of the same Clark Terry, then a member of Quincy Jones’s big band. [18]

Lest anyone imagine this verbalization is merely an Ellingtonian tradition, 40 years ago Charles Mingus drew attention to its continued relevance:

See, in bebop...aside from the chord changes and patterns and lines that there were, there was another expression on the bandstand that was called “conversation”.... We used to really talk and say words with our instruments.... [Charlie Parker and I] were having a conversation...and I made a view on it and he said, “Mingus, that’s something to think about. I’ll give my views, let’s discuss it on the bandstand.” When I got to the bandstand, man, what he played — it totalled up everything we was talking about! [19]

For the interview in question, Mingus was actually drawing a historical parallel, in response to a question concerning the frequently speechlike playing of Eric Dolphy, heard at its most extreme on Mingus’s “What Love”.

If the listener becomes sensitized to the use of varied articulation, whether on wind instruments, strings or drums or, it becomes hard to hear many performers’ solos without experiencing a quasi-verbal statement (think for instance of Joe Henderson, Joe Lovano, Mingus himself, Art Blakey, Max Roach). [20] Although Mingus’s statement has been in the public domain for nearly thirty years now, it has evoked precious little comment, and one has to wonder why. Is this a discussion whose time has come, rather like the subject of swing rhythms and uneven eighth notes? Or is it something, unlike swing, that we prefer not to think about, because it casts doubt on the prevailing preoccupations of jazz scholarship and of jazz performance studies? Certainly, it would be easier to believe Mingus was capable of a certain level of exaggeration than that he imagined the whole thing — especially given the weight of evidence available elsewhere when one scratches the surface.


Now that jazz is a fully-fledged academic subject, it is perhaps not surprising that there is some tension between those whose studies are minutely specialized and those who are categorized as generalists. The Ellingtonian title of this paper can be seen here as a criticism frequently leveled at the generalists who, in attempting to remain in touch and in sympathy with everything that has been produced, may seem incapable of getting to grips with detail. However, it seems to me that the opposite is more true, that it is in fact the specialists who end up dealing with only superficial aspects, and risk missing out on the essence. I am certainly not moralizing in a prescriptive way as to how the performance of jazz ‘ought to’ develop, whether more or less blues-oriented. But I am saying that jazz scholarship has been seriously deficient, not merely failing to address some of the factors I have raised but remaining blissfully unaware of them. [21]


  • Albertson, Chris. Bessie. Rev. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
  • Butterfield, Matthew W. “Why Do Jazz Musicians Swing Their Eighth Notes?” Music Theory Spectrum 33, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 3–26.
  • Dixon, Robert M.W., John Godrich, and Howard W. Rye. Blues and Gospel Records, 1890–1943. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Goreau, Laurraine. Just Mahalia, Baby. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1975.
  • Hobson, Vic. “New Orleans Jazz and the Blues.” Jazz Perspectives 5, no. 1 (2011): 3–27.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. The Sanctified Church. Berkeley: Turtle Island, 1981.
  • Miller, Punch. 1960. Interview. Tape recording. August 23. Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA.
  • Morgenstern, Dan. Living With Jazz. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.
  • Priestley, Brian. Mingus: A Critical Biography. London: Quartet, 1982.
  • Priestley, Brian. “Charlie Parker and Popular Music.” In Library of Essays on Popular Music — Jazz, edited by Tony Whyton, 203–219. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2011.
  • Terry, Clark, with Gwen Terry. Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
  • Tucker, Mark, ed. The Duke Ellington Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Wall, Tim. “Duke Ellington, Radio Remotes, and the Mediation of Big City Nightlife, 1927 to 1933.” Jazz Perspectives 6 nos. 1–2 (2012) (forthcoming).
  • Ward, Brian. Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Records Cited

  • Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir. “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody.” Columbia CL1548, 1960, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • Adderley, Cannonball. “Why Am I Treated So Bad.” Capitol ST2617, 1967, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • Adderley, Nat. “Jackleg.” EmArcy MG36100, 1956, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • Armstrong, Louis, and Bing Crosby. “Now You Has Jazz.” Capitol T750, 1956, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • Blind Blake. “Diddie Wah Diddie.” Paramount 12888, 1929, 78 rpm.
  • Boyce, Bruce. “Wade In The Water.” Ultraphone AP-1567, 1935, 78 rpm.
  • Bryant’s Jubilee Quartet (as ‘Famous Garland Jubilee Singers’). “This Train.” Banner 32267, 1931, 78 rpm.
  • Bumble Bee Slim and Memphis Minnie. “New Orleans Stop Time.” Vocalion 03197, 1936, 78 rpm.
  • Charles, Ray. “Hallelujah I Love Her So.” Atlantic 1096, 1955, 45 rpm.
  • ———. “Leave My Woman Alone.” Atlantic 1108, 1956, 45 rpm.
  • ———. “Mary Ann.” Atlantic 1085, 1955, 45 rpm.
  • ———. “What’d I Say (Part 1).” Atlantic 2031, 1959, 45 rpm.
  • Crenshaw, Rev. R.C. “I’m Going Home On The Morning Train.” Atlantic 1351, 1959, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • Crosby, Bob. “I’m Prayin’ Humble.” Decca 2210, 1938, 78 rpm.
  • Davenport, Cow Cow. “Mama Don’t Allow No Easy Riders.” Vocalion 1434, 1929, 78 rpm.
  • Davis, Blind Willie. “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Paramount 12658, 1928, 78 rpm.
  • Dinwiddie Colored Quartet. “Down On The Old Camp Ground.” Victor Monarch 1714, 1902, 78 rpm.
  • ———. “Gabriel’s Trumpet.” Victor Monarch 1725, 1902, 78 rpm.
  • ———. “We’ll Anchor Bye-And-Bye.” Victor Monarch 1726, 1902, 78 rpm.
  • Dixie Cups. “Iko Iko.” Red Bird RB 10-024, 1964, 45 rpm.
  • Dorsey, Tommy. “Yes Indeed!” Victor 27421, 1941, 78 rpm.
  • Dranes, Arizona. “I’m Going Home On The Morning Train.” Okeh 8419, 1926, 78 rpm.
  • Dunham Jazz Singers. “Honey Turn Your Damper Down.” Gennett 6259, 1927, 78 rpm.
  • Dunham Jubilee Singers. “I Dreamed Of The Judgment Morning.” Columbia 14540-D, 1930, 78 rpm.
  • Ellington, Duke (as ‘The Washingtonians’). “Black And Tan Fantasy.” Brunswick 3526, 1927, 78 rpm.
  • Ellington, Duke. “Boy Meets Horn.” Brunswick 8306, 1938, 78 rpm.
  • ———. “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” Vocalion 1064, 1926, 78 rpm.
  • ———. Goin’ Up. Hollywood Soundstage H.S.5003, 1942, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • ———. “Saturday Night Function.” Victor V-38036, 1929, 78 rpm.
  • ———. “Up And Down, Up And Down.” Columbia CL1033, 1957, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet. “Let That Liar Alone.” Bluebird B7835, 1938, 78 rpm.
  • ———. “The Sun Didn’t Shine.” Okeh 6345, 1941, 78 rpm.
  • Griffin, Johnny. “Wade In The Water.” Riverside RLP12-331, 1960, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • Hawkins, Erskine. “After Hours.” Bluebird B-10879, 1940, 78 rpm.
  • Hodges, Johnny. “Dooji Wooji.” Vocalion 4849, 1939, 78 rpm.
  • Hokum Boys. “Beedle Um Bum.” Paramount 12714, 1928, 78 rpm.
  • Jackson, Mahalia. “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Columbia 1995, 1954, 45 rpm.
  • Johnson, Blind Willie. “Dark Was The Night.” Columbia 14303-D, 1927, 78 rpm.
  • Jordan, Louis. “Early In The Mornin’.” Decca 24155, 1947, 78 rpm.
  • ———. “Keep A-Knockin’.” Decca 7609, 1939, 78 rpm.
  • Kelsey, Rev. Samuel. “Little Boy.” Super Disc 1057, 1947, 78 rpm.
  • Little Richard. “Keep A-Knockin’.” Specialty 611, 1957, 45 rpm.
  • Little Walter. “My Babe.” Checker 811, 1955, 45 rpm.
  • Lunceford, Jimmie. “I’m Gonna See My Baby.” Decca 18655, 1944, 78 rpm.
  • McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. “Beedle-Um-Bum.” Victor V-38052, 1929, 78 rpm.
  • McShann, Jay. “Hootie’s Ignorant Oil.” Decca 8635, 1941, 78 rpm.
  • Mitchell’s Christian Singers. “I’m Praying Humble.” ARC 7-11-59, 1937, 78 rpm.
  • Moore, Grant. “Mama Don’t Allow No Music Playing In Here.” Vocalion 1622, 1931, 78 rpm.
  • Oliver, King. “Dipper Mouth Blues.” Gennett 5132 and Okeh 4918, 1923, 78 rpm.
  • ———. “Mabel’s Dream.” Okeh 8235, 1923, 78 rpm.
  • ———. “Snag It.” Brunswick 3361, 1926, 78 rpm.
  • ———. “Snake Rag.” Okeh 4933, 1923, 78 rpm.
  • Original Dixieland Jazz Band. “Bluin’ The Blues.” Victor 18483, 1918, 78 rpm.
  • Rice, Rev. D.C. “I’m In The Battlefield For My Lord.” Vocalion 1262, 1929, 78 rpm.
  • Roach, Max. “Troubled Waters.” Atlantic SD1587, 1971, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • Robeson, Paul. “Were You There?” Victor 19742, 1925, 78 rpm.
  • Rollins, Sonny. “Isn’t She Lovely.” Milestone M9080, 1977, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • ———. “Trav’lin’ Light.” RCA LSP3355, 1964, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • Smith, Bessie. “Moan Mourners” [sic]/“On Revival Day.” Columbia 14538-D, 1930, 78 rpm.
  • ———. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.” Columbia 14451-D, 1929, 78 rpm.
  • Smith, Mamie. “Crazy Blues.” Okeh 4169, 1920, 78 rpm.
  • Staple Singers. “Why (Am I Treated So Bad).” Epic 9880, 1966, 45 rpm.
  • Stewart, Rex. “Conversation Piece.” Sackville SKCD2-2061, 1966, compact disc.
  • Tampa Red. “Mama Don’t Allow No Easy Riders Here.” Vocalion 1429, 1929, 78 rpm.
  • Walker, T-Bone. “Hard Way.” Imperial 5330, 1954, 45 rpm.
  • Washington, Sister Ernestine, and Bunk Johnson. “The Lord Will Make A Way.” Disc 6038, 1946, 78 rpm.
  • Williams, Marion. “Great Big God.” Epic 24223, 1966, 33 1/3 rpm.
  • Williamson, Sonny Boy. “Good Morning, School Girl.” Bluebird B7059, 1937, 78 rpm.
  • Winans. “Let My People Go.” Qwest 0-20388, 1985, 45 rpm.
  • Witherspoon, Jimmy. “No Rollin’ Blues.” Modern 20-721, 1949, 78 rpm.


[1] A promisingly titled article by Vic Hobson, “New Orleans Jazz and the Blues,” Jazz Perspectives 5, no. 1 (2011): 3–27, quotes lyrics only, with almost no reference to instrumental content. This, however, merely follows the long-standing tendency of writers on blues to privilege the lyrical content over considerations of musical qualities and techniques.

[2] Apparently, Oliver’s New Orleans contemporaries talked specifically of him imitating the speech of preachers, cf. the interview with Punch Miller, August 23, 1960, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA. Thanks to Brian Harker for alerting me to this reference.

[3] I am indebted to Tony Russell for pointing to this, which features the interplay of Slim’s spoken comments, Memphis Minnie’s guitar and Slim’s regular pianist Black Bob with what is listed as an unknown tap-dancer. Aurally, however, the sound is less that of a dancer than a percussionist using drumsticks to simulate tap-dancing.

[4] See Matthew W. Butterfield, “Why Do Jazz Musicians Swing Their Eighth Notes?,” Music Theory Spectrum 33, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 3–26.

[5] Quoted in Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 188. Clearly, Broonzy’s comment was mainly about Charles’s vocal techniques, but it applies also to some of his material, most noticeably when the melody of the Golden Gate Quartet’s “Let That Liar Alone” (which they themselves re-used for “The Sun Didn’t Shine”) was adapted to become Charles’s “Leave My Woman Alone”. On the other hand, the gospel-sounding “Hallelujah I Love Her So” was based on Louis Jordan’s “Keep A-Knockin’” (written by Perry Bradford), which was also the inspiration for Little Richard’s song of the same title.

[6] This is a commonplace in the Ellington literature, which I have been unable to trace to its original appearance in print. “Were You There...”, first recorded by Paul Robeson in his 1925 debut sessions, is an AABA song which, in some versions, extends the expected 16 bars to 19 with a B-section that, instead of 4 bars, becomes 3+4. However, all the records and sheet-music versions of the spiritual show a melody that is similar, but not identical, to Ellington’s.

[7] A version of this paragraph first appeared in The Wire, 100 (June 1992): 39.

[8] Quoted in Nat Hentoff, notes to Charles Mingus, A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry, Bethlehem BCP6026, 33 1/3 rpm.

[9] See Laurraine Goreau, Just Mahalia, Baby (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1975), 238–9, 252–4.

[10] Quoted in Chris Albertson, Bessie, Rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 155.

[11] Ibid., 208.

[12] Robert M.W. Dixon, John Godrich, and Howard W. Rye, Blues and Gospel Records, 1890-1943, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 229. Incidentally, Bryant’s Jubilee Quartet, cited above for their recording of “This Train”, twice recorded “Who Stole The Lock Off The Henhouse Door” (best known to jazz listeners in a 1932 version by Jack Bland and his Rhythmakers) — and without dropping the word ‘Jubilee’ from their group name.

[13] Tim Wall, “Duke Ellington, Radio Remotes, and the Mediation of Big City Nightlife, 1927 to 1933,” Jazz Perspectives, 6 nos. 1–2 (2012): (forthcoming).

[14] Zora Neale Hurston, The Sanctified Church (Berkeley: Turtle Island, 1981). Quoted in Roger Misiewicz, notes to Rev. D.C. Rice, Complete Recordings, Document DOCD-5071, compact disc.

[15] Dan Morgenstern, Living With Jazz (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004), 407.

[16] Roger Pryor Dodge, “Bubber (1940),” in The Duke Ellington Reader, ed. Mark Tucker, 455–6 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[17] As well as being the opening melodic statement of Terry’s solo, these ‘words’ were also repeated in the more speech-like out-of-tempo coda. An editing error led to a different take, without this effect, being used for the 1999 CD reissue (Columbia CK65568), but the original coda was restored for the version in the compilation Ralph Ellison: Living With Music, (Sony CK85935, compact disc).

[18] See Clark Terry with Gwen Terry, Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 167.

[19] Interview by the author (August 12, 1972) quoted in Brian Priestley, Mingus: A Critical Biography (London: Quartet, 1982; New York: Da Capo, 1984), 114 and 53 (see also p.124 for a further anecdote from this interview).

[20] Let us not forget that the ‘talking drums,’ whether played by Africans or Native Americans, are said to reproduce actual verbal messages.

[21] The whole issue of the constant interaction between jazz and more ‘popular’ music needs to be addressed at greater length. See also Brian Priestley, “Charlie Parker and Popular Music,” in Library of Essays on Popular Music — Jazz, ed. Tony Whyton, 203–219 (Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2011).

Author Information: 
Brian Priestley has published studies of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus, and has taught jazz history courses at University of London Goldsmiths’ College, University of Surrey and Trinity College of Music. A prolific journalist and broadcaster, he has, since retiring to Ireland, presented a weekly program for Radio Kerry. He is also an experienced pianist and composer, whose arrangements and transcriptions have been played by Humphrey Lyttelton and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, among others.

There has been little attention paid to the study of elements in common between instrumental jazz and vocal blues and gospel. This article attempts to isolate some examples of the many and varied ways in which these three genres of music, despite their ideological differences, have influenced each other. The author touches on the non-verbal content of vocal music and the pseudo-verbal elements of instrumental jazz, including that of Duke Ellington. Priestley’s contention is that jazz scholars’ willful ignorance of these factors diminishes their awareness of what constitutes the fundamental attraction of jazz.

jazz, blues, gospel

How to cite this article:

  • Chicago 15th ed.: Priestley, Brian. “‘Just Scratchin(g) the Surface’: The Unacknowledged Commonality of Jazz, Blues, and Gospel.” Current Research in Jazz 4, (2012).
  • MLA 7th ed.: Priestley, Brian. “‘Just Scratchin(g) the Surface’: The Unacknowledged Commonality of Jazz, Blues, and Gospel.” Current Research in Jazz 4 (2012). Web. [date of access]
  • APA 6th ed.: Priestley, B. (2012). “Just Scratchin(g) the Surface”: The Unacknowledged Commonality of Jazz, Blues, and Gospel. Current Research in Jazz, 4 Retrieved from

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