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Music In The 20th Century

Dawn of Blues, Ragtime and Jazz

Peter Kun Frary


As Impressionists created shimmering textures in France, music in the United States was coming into its own. Blues, ragtime and jazz were among the first uniquely American styles to appear in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, born in the melting pot of culture unique to our country. In today's lesson, we'll take a jaunt through these pivotal American styles.

Playing the Blues | Saturday Market, Portland, OR | Peter Kun Frary


The blues was invented by African Americans living in the rural southern United States near the end of the 19th century. Significant as a unique and lasting art form, the blues are also notable as the foundation of jazz, rhythm and blues and rock styles.

At the root of the blues are African musical traditions, work songs, spirituals, and the folk music of white Americans. Significant stylistic elements, e.g., call-and-response, originated in the traditional music of West Africa. Call and response occurs when a voice or instrument is answered by another voice or instrument (or group of instruments or voices). Here's an African folk song based on the call and response technique:

African Call and Response Folk Song (2:02)

African Americans integrated the call and response technique into their worship and work songs. Listen to the use of call-and-response in this Gospel piece:

Call and Response in Gospel Music (6:25)

Besides the call and response technique, there are several more important defining elements of the blues style. One such element is the blues form: a repeating 12-measure chord progression, i.e., the 12-bar blues progression. The 12-bar blues progression is a structural framework and is part and parcel of the blues, although the form eventually become ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll.

Here's a graphic of the basic 12-bar blues form. The boxes represent measures (4 beats per measure) while the Roman numerals stand for chords. For example, I symbolizes the chord built on the first note of the scale, a C major chord in the key of C, whereas V indicates the chord built on the fifth note of the scale, a G major chord in the key of C.


Here's how the above 12-bar blues progression sounds:

12-bar Blues Progression (2X) | Frary Guitar Duo (1:11)

There are many variations on the above pattern but the basic 12-bar framework remains the same.

Blue notes are also an important melodic trait of blues, rock and jazz: the third and/or fifth of the scale is lowered in pitch—often varied at a microtonal level—creating a uniquely colored scale. Listen to the blues scale:

Blues Scale (A)

Blues shuffle rhythm and walking bass create a trance-like rhythm or repetitive effect called the groove. Shuffle rhythm is similar to jazz swing: eighth notes are played with a triplet feel. Walking bass is a continuous sequence of quarter or eighth notes in a mostly stepwise or arpeggio motion.

The audio track below, Accidental Blues, features a 12-bar blues progression (2X) with both the shuffle rhythm and walking bass. The first 12 measures demonstrate a standard root-fifth bass, similar to bass lines in folk, country and traditional Hawaiian music. The bass begins to walk in a shuffle rhythm in the second half of the track (start of my guitar solo).

Accidental Blues | Peter Kun Frary

Floral Blues | Honolulu | Peter Kun Frary

Blind Willie Walker

Now that we've covered the basics of the style, let's listen to an early recording of a blues work. Blind Willie Walker (1896-1933) was an American guitarist and singer who played the Piedmont blues style. Piedmont blues style is a solo guitar style—finger style guitar—where the right hand thumb executes a bass line while the fingers pick a syncopated melodic line or chords on the treble strings. The resulting sound and texture is similar to ragtime piano but more folksy and played within the blues formal structure. Modern listeners sometimes refer to this style as country blues.

As you listen to the Dupree Blues, note the lengthy guitar introduction, solo interludes and the call and response between Blind Willie and a background singer. The lyrics speak of the hard living of the 1920s and 30s: love, robbery, prison and love lost.

Dupree Blues, c. 1930 (3:30) | Blind Willie Walker | Wikimedia Commons

Now lets fast forward to a modern rendition of the blues: The Thrill is Gone by renowned blues musician B.B. King. Yes, the performance is slick, commercial and edited to perfection in a multi-track studio. However the old style is alive and well in this song: 12-bar blues form, groove, blue notes and dark lyrics.

The Thrill Is Gone (3:47) | B.B. King & Tracy Chapman

Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990) was a leading proponent and virtuoso player of the rock blues, a more electrified and driving form of traditional blues. Stevie, while at the peak of his career, died tragically in a helicopter crash in 1990.

Texas Flood (6:09) | Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990) | 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert for George H.W. Bush


While the blues grew from rural and folksy roots, ragtime evolved in a more urban environment during the late 19th and early 20th century. The fact that this style is wholly instrumental and piano based gave it a larger audience outside the African-American community than the blues, appealing to the parlor piano tastes of middle America.

Ragtime is characterized by a syncopated melody, duple or quadruple meter and an accompaniment of bass notes on strong beats and chords on weak beats. In other words, a synthesis of African syncopation and European classical music, especially marches and two-step dances. Ragtime was usually played on the piano and was the first musical style to achieve widespread popularity outside of the African-American community, selling million of copies of piano sheet music to middle class households across America. Although fully composed—no improvisation—ragtime had a lasting influence on the compositions of both classical and jazz musicians.

Joplin's The Entertainer Cover | Ragtime was popular in middle America and, unlike blues, raked in impressive revenue due to sales of piano sheet music | Wikimedia Commons

The African-American composer, Scott Joplin (1868–1917), was among the first ragtime composers to notate and publish his compositions, nearly single-handedly defining the style. Notable works include Maple Leaf Rag (1899), The Entertainer (1902), and Gladiolus Rag (1907).

The rag, The Entertainer, was written in 1902 by Scott Joplin and played here in arrangement for guitar ensemble by the Leeward Coast Guitars. As you listen, note the "boom-chuck" accompaniment, syncopated melody and call and response between groups of guitars:

The Entertainer | Scott Joplin | Leeward Coast Guitars

The rag, Solace, was featured in the classic movie, The String, and is an example of Joplin's lyrical writing.

Solace (4:55) | Scott Joplin

Etude pour Musique à la campagne 1948 | Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) | Centre Pompidou


Jazz is an American style originally created by African American musicians playing in bars, brothels and dance halls in New Orleans and other cities in the South during the early 20th century. Although influenced by blues, ragtime, gospel and European popular music, jazz was more spontaneous, mainly instrumental, often virtuosic and heavily reliant on improvisation.

Like French Impressionistic composers, jazz musicians often broke the Classical and Romantic rules of melody, harmony, orchestration and meter. Although jazz is played on standard Western instruments such as the piano, trumpet or guitar, the style evolved from elements of West African, North American and European music intermingling in southern Black communities. West African music traits found in jazz include a heavy emphasis on improvisation, unique timbres, drumming, percussive timbres, blue notes, a steady beat, rhythmic complexity and the use of the call and response technique. However, listen to a big band or bebop classic and you'll also notice a sophisticated harmonic and textural structure more akin to Impressionism than blues.

The jazz classic, Take The A Train by Duke Ellington, exhibits the above characteristics in near textbook fashion:

Take The A Train (2:52) | Duke Ellington and his Orchestra (1962)

Duke Ellington, c. 1940 | Big-band leader and pivotal figure in jazz history | Wikimedia Commons

Duke Ellington (1899-1974), born Edward Kennedy Ellington, was an American composer, pianist, and director of a jazz orchestra, which he led from 1923 until his death in 1974. He was a preeminent figure in the history of jazz, writing over 1,000 compositions, most of which are still considered to be jazz standards decades after his death.

Due to ease of modern travel and the advent of recorded media and radio, Jazz spread quickly, quickly becoming a world wide phenomena. Jazz ensembles like the Duke Ellington Orchestra toured relentlessly from the 1930s and onward. As jazz came into contact with different cultures it developed a variety of substyles such as Dixieland, swing, Gypsy, bebop, cool, fusion, acid, Latin, etc. However, the essence of jazz remained uniquely American: strongly rooted within the black experience of the United States and steeped in the melting pot of cultures that define and enrich our nation.

John Coltrane (1926-67) | American jazz saxophonist and composer | Wikimedia Commons

The saxophonist and composer John Coltrane (1926-67), was a pivotal force in the bebop jazz style of the mid-20th century. He pioneered the use of modal scales (similar to Gregorian chant modes) in jazz and was at the forefront of the free jazz style during his later years. Note the intermingling of modal scales, blue notes and walking bass in the highly caffeinated groove of Coltrane's classic, Impressions, played here by his contemporary, Wes Montgomery:

Impressions (3:37) | John Coltrane (1926-67) | Wes Montgomery (1923-68)

Wes Montgomery is one of the most influential jazz guitarists of the mid-20th century. He was known for the unusual technique of plucking the strings with his his thumb only, creating a distinctive tone from pick and finger players. Here guitarist Pat Martino plays a modern rendition of Wes Montgomery's classic, Full House:

Full House (7:48) | Wes Montgomery | Pat Martino and company

Jazz Guitar | James D'Aquisto (1935–1995) | Archtop guitars were favored by jazz guitarists for their round tone and semi-acoustic timbre | Metropolitan Museum of Art


call-and-response, blues, blues scale, blues shuffle rhythm, walking bass, Piedmont blues style, ragtime, Scott Joplin, jazz

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