Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

When news came that Martin Scorsese was presenting a series of seven films on The Blues, the heart momentarily rose and swiftly sank. Initial perusal of the musicians featured by the different directors, who include Mike Figgis and Wim Wenders as well as Scorsese, suggested that the concentration was going to be on the guitar-based groups that influenced rock. How could John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton or Ike Turner be expected to hold forth on the intimate connection between blues and jazz?

Thankfully, one of the seven films, Piano Blues, has been directed by Clint Eastwood. A man who can spin discs of Errol Garner compositions in Play Misty For Me and who filmed Bird about the life of Charlie Parker can be trusted to deliver the audience from the misapprehension that every blues number begins, "Woke up this morning."

Ranging from footage of the boogie-woogie masters Meade "Lux" Lewis and Albert Ammons, to interviews with such different musicians as Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck and Dr John, Eastwood implies they are all connected - a point that is made more forcefully at the end when the camera switches from Oscar Peterson and André Previn duetting, to Jay McShann with Big Joe Turner, to Thelonious Monk's trio, to Fats Domino and his group.

Eastwood once planted Domino and a piano in the middle of a huge Wyoming field. "Suddenly there were 10 elk listening," Clint says. "As soon as he stopped, they all left. Everybody loves the blues." That's true of none more than jazz players, for whom there is no simpler nor truer test than the ability to swing through a 12-bar blues, whether it be the simple riff of "Bag's Groove" or the twisting lines of "Straight, No Chaser".

A few bars of Duke Ellington playing "C Jam Blues" with a trio is the supreme example. Anyone who cannot harness that shortest of figures, consisting entirely of C and G, while traversing a territory whose well-defined hills and peaks provide the most inexorable ride imaginable, should practise until the blues runs through their veins. It is the essential phrasebook and without it, the jazzman is but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal - or not, strictly speaking, a jazzman at all, but one masquerading as such while drawing inspiration from other quite different traditions.

So what exactly is the blues? The standard 12-bar blues follows a pattern rising from the root to the fourth after four bars, returning to the root and then switching from the fifth, down to the fourth and back to the root, with endless chromatic and "round the houses" variations. But this hardly explains it. It's characterised by misery - "the blues ain't nothing but a cold grey day, and all night long it stays that way" (Ellington) - by the open thoughtfulness of Miles Davis's "Freddie Freeloader", or the rackety, joyous chug of "Night Train". But really, it is nothing less than the filter through which the jazzman sees the world.

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