Introduction to the Blues

During the beginning of the 20th century, Bessie Smith’s use of the twelve-bar blues took the music industry by storm. Ever since, a wide span of genres have derived their most basic chord progressions from the blues signature I-IV-V harmonic rhythm. In the jazz blues style, these are all dominant chords (I7-IV7-V7).
At its core, the 12-bar blues can be analyzed as:
Ex 5.20
I7 I7 I7 I7
IV7 IV7 I7 I7
V7 V7 I7 I7
Let’s use the key of C in this chapter, for reference.
On a lead sheet, this most basic blues form looks like this:
Ex 5.21

You are most likely already familiar with this chord pattern, as some variation of these three makes up a majority of the music across the globe!
To become even more familiar with this progression, let’s sing the seventh chord arpeggios of this blues form.
Ex 5.22

Now, building off of our knowledge of guide tones, let’s sing a common jazz rhythm (dotted quarter – eighth) with the guide tones of this blues progression. You may get together with a partner and sing in two-part harmony, switching voice parts at will.
Ex 5.23

Notice the half step relationship between the 3rds and 7ths from one chord to another. We will continue to find these patterns as we analyze more complicated blues forms.
As the 1930’s came along, a new “color” was added onto the 12-bar blues pallet with the superimposition of the subdominant chord. It would appear in the second bar, as well as the tenth bar:
Ex 5.24
I7 IV7 I7 I7
IV7 IV7 I7 I7
V7 IV7 I7 I7
Take a look at this slight variation of the blues form, as it would appear on a lead sheet:
Ex 5.25

Let’s sing these seventh chord arpeggios as they now appear:
Ex 5.26

Finally, let’s sing through these guide tones:
Ex 5.27

Jazz blues form
As the blues form became intertwined with American jazz music in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the standard tonic-subdominant-dominant progression was expanded with substitutions and chordal variations.
The concept of a blues “turnaround” was born, with the final four measures leading back to the root chord with a series of perfect fourth intervals.
Ex 5.28
I7 IV7     IV° I7 v7    I7
IV7 IV° I7 III7    VI7
ii7 V7 III7  VI7 II7    V7
Here is the jazz blues form as it would appear on a lead sheet:
Ex 5.29

Now, sing the arpeggios of all the seventh chords in this new but familiar blues form. Pay attention to the series of ii7-V7-(I7) movements that take place (mm 4-5, mm 8-9, mm 9-10, mm 11-12).
Ex 5.30


As you can see and hear, there are naturally smooth-feeling voice leading tendencies from all guide tones throughout these 12 bars. Let’s sing through them in two-part harmony.
Ex 5.31

The bebop blues
The bebop blues form was born from the mind of Charlie Parker, in his bebop blues masterpieces such as “Now’s the Time,” and “Billie’s Bounce.” This form involves even more chordal variation with the use of chromaticism (such as the #IV°7 chord), and involves a more intricate turnaround with the use of the V7/ii chord that resolves as expected to the ii chord:
Ex 5.32
I7 IV7  I7 v7  I7
IV7 #IV°7 I7 V7/ii
ii7 V7 I7  V7/ii ii7  V7
It would look like this on a lead sheet:
Ex 5.33

Now lock into your tonal center, concentrate on the chromaticism and sing these arpeggio outlines of the bebop blues form’s seventh chords:
Ex 5.34

Finally, sing these guide tones throughout the bebop blues form in that signature dotted quarter – eighth note rhythm:
Ex 5.35

Simply put, the possibilities for embellishment on a blues form are endless! You can make this tonic-subdominant-dominant progression as simple or complex as you would like. The tonic-subdominant-dominant progression: three chords, and nothing but the truth.

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