Impressions: Blue notes and Modal jazz

Miles Davis’ album jazz Kind of Blue is widely acknowledged to be the most successful jazz album of all time. By 2006, nearly 50 years after its release, it had sold nearly 5 million units, and was still selling about 5000 copies a week[1]. The album is famous for exploring modal ideas in the context of African-American music[2], inspiring a huge number of modal jazz albums in the 1960s.

Impressions is a modal jazz piece that was composed by John Coltrane, tenor saxophone player on Kind of Blue ,in 1961[3]. Based on musical structure very similar to Davis’ So What, it is representative of many jazz pieces being composed at the time. Guitarist Wes Montgomery’s 1965 live version of this song is iconic amongst jazz enthusiasts, particularly for it use of slurred blue notes and multi-octave phrases.

The piece is structured into a 32 bar AABA structure. The A section is in the key of D dorian, while the B section is in Eb dorian. Montgomery’s guitar solo is famous for its virtuosity and melodic content. He uses several passing tones, implying harmonic complexity to a two-chord song. These, coupled with frenetic, bebop-like pace of his playing lend the piece a certain ‘hotness’ . This sits starkly beside Wynton Kelly’s piano solo. Despite his obvious comfort with the form, Kelly is reluctant to push out of the strict confines of the dorian mode. While his playing is technically brilliant, fast and inventive, it stays strictly within the confines of the dorian mode.

While both Montgomery and Kelly’s solos are technically brilliant, the guitarist’s use of the blues scale sets him apart as the lead instrumentalist on the recording.

The blues scale has been used as both a pedagogical tool and a theoretical construct by music teachers and educators since the 1930s to characterize African-American music. Middle school jazz band directors often encourage young musicians to learn these scales by rote in an attempt to produce riffs that sound ‘hip’ over standard chord changes[4]. There is, however, very little mainstream consensus amongst musicologists on the theoretical underpinnings[5] of the blues scale. The only common point of agreement seems to be that this kind of scale relies on microtonal blue notes, somewhere near its flattened 3rd and 7th notes[6][7]. Western musicologists have never defined the position of these notes more precisely, due to a disregard for compositions outside an even or well-tempered twelve note octave.

Despite the use of blue notes and blues scales in songs like Impressions, American scholars have often been reluctant to draw comparisons between ‘sophisticated’ modal jazz and ‘raw’, ‘authentic’ blues. Writers like Charlie Gerard have pointed out inherent biases towards ‘whiteness’ and ‘classicism’ in mainstream American literature[8]. While they have their own prejudices, foreign ethnomusicologists, are less tied to American paradigms of ‘black’ primitivism. As a result, one can often find a more objective comparisons between ‘Western’ ideals and African-American music in European writings than American ones. In his paper ‘Kind of Blue and the economy of modal jazz’ English scholar Samuel Barrett shows that the scale constraints placed on soloists in genres like Delta blues paved the way for mode-constrained soloing[9] in songs like Impressions. Formally educated in Western classical music, but deeply entrenched in African-American culture, musicians like Miles Davis attempted to legitimize their work in the mainstream by expressing them in a more ‘classical’ way. The use of blue notes in modal pieces indicates a conscious effort attempt to integrate ‘African’ melodies with Western ideas on tonality5.

Modal jazz has often been associated with freedom, both of expression and from the grip of harmony. The musical integration of Indian, Japanese, Gospel, Jazz, and Spanish traditions in modal pieces reflects ideas on racial integration7 espoused by famous jazz musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and even Wes Montgomery. Feelings of alienation and of being disenfranchised often manifest themselves active efforts to assimilate. Throughout the 1960s, the zealous nature with which jazz musicians produced modal pieces was due not only to the commercial success of Kind of Blue<sup>7</sup> but also the white American perception of musical blackness as alien.

Integrationist ideals need not always manifest themselves as an assimilationist melting pot. Ethnomusicologists like Eddie Meadows feel like the best way to establish ‘African’ retentions as African-American is to develop an entirely new annotational system to express blue notes. This would establish a framework for better academic study of blues and jazz music[10]. Others like Gerhard Kubik look at African and Asian notational systems for clues on how to properly express musical ‘blackness’[11].

A combination of this lack of formal notation and biases towards classicism and whiteness, as pointed out by Gerard, led to a glut of professional theorists studying African-American music right up to the 1980s. In his search to find the origins of the use of blue notes over Western harmony, historian Gunther Schuller writes:

The question of the derivation of the blues scale has occupied many jazz historians, yet because of insufficient documentation and the generally amateurish musicological approach of most writers on jazz, the origin and role of the blues scale in jazz prehistory has barely been touched upon.[12]

The only consensus that appears to have been reached viis that blue notes are not ‘Western’ and their theoretical study would entail an inconvenient, large scale rearrangement of our stave based notational system.

The transcriptions of Impressions in Figure 1 and 2 will never manage to accurately express Montgomery’s solo. A different system is definitely required to catch the nuances of his guitar phrases. While other notational conventions might better express blue notes, prevailing attitudes and network externalities prevent scholars and musicians from abandoning the stave.

Figure 1                                                                   Figure 2

These attitudes on notation again show how musical ‘blackness’ and blue notes are considered somehow foreign to American ideas of music[13]. At the same time, a few minutes listening to American ‘Top 40’ radio confirm how deeply entrenched they are in popular music. These musical devices are simultaneously inherently American and exotically alien.

Accepting the limitations of western notation might help us not lose the richness of ‘foreign’ traditions in the course of their study. ‘African retentions’ form an integral part of popular music, and are being slowly homogenized by academic study due to our devotion to European models. While it may be idealistic and wildly impractical to demand the adoption of a perfect ‘all-inclusive’ notational system, one can’t help but feel that Miles Davis’ ideas on racial integration and equality, as expressed in Kind of Blue, might be realized only once America stops seeing ‘non-white’ cultural paradigms as fundamentally foreign.


[1] Barrett, Samuel. 2006. “Kind of Blue and the economy of modal jazz”. Popular Music 25/2, Cambridge University Press:185-200.

[3]  “Impulse! Records Discography: 1960-1962.” Impulse! Records Discography: 1960-1962. Accessed November 15, 2015.

[4] “Teach Improvisation.” Survival Tips for Junior High Band Directors. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2015. <;.

[5] Tallmadge, William. 1984. “Blue Notes and Blue Tonality”. The Black Perspective in Music 12 (2). None: 155–65. doi:10.2307/1215019.

[6] Hein, Ethan. “Blue notes and other microtones”. Accessed 11/01/2015.

[7] “The Blues Tonal System”. 1999. “The Blues Tonal System”. In Africa and the Blues, 118–45. University Press of Mississippi.

[9] Barrett, Samuel. 2006. “Kind of Blue and the economy of modal jazz”. Popular Music 25/2, Cambridge University Press:185-200.

[10]  Meadows, Eddie S.. 1987. “Ethnomusicology and Jazz Research: A Selective Viewpoint”. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, no. 95. University of Illinois Press: 61–70.

[11] KUBIK, GERHARD. 2008. “Bourdon, Blue Notes, and Pentatonism in the Blues: AN AFRICANIST PERSPECTIVE”. InRamblin’ on My Mind: New Perspectives on the Blues, edited by DAVID EVANS, 11–48. University of Illinois Press.

[12] Schuller, Gunther. “Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development”.New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print. 43.

[13] “Some Characteristics of the Blues”. 1999. “Some Characteristics of the Blues”. In Africa and the Blues, 82–95. University Press of Mississippi.


Korea Blues


The slow transmission of information, as well as the lack of opportunities provided to African-Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s had a large influence on the content of most traditional blues songs. Prison workers in the southern states, for instance, sang songs about inmate conditions and hard task masters. Work songs like “We Don’t Have No Payday Here,” protesting prison conditions illustrate how most blues songs dealt with very local issues and problems [1]. The emergence of broadcasting mediums like radio and the realities precipitated by the Second World War, however, led to blues songs dealing with these issues. Blues songs like “Obey the Ration Laws” by Bus Ezell criticized inequity in the country, but still very much supported American war efforts [1].

Fats Domino was born in New Orleans in 1927, and grew up during the Second World War. His father and uncle were well regarded jazz musicians [[2]], and he was likely exposed to politically charged blues like Ezell’s at a young age. His recording of “Korea Blues” reflects the slow evolution of some branches of blues music into a powerful tool of criticism and discussion about national and international policy.

With forced conscription during the Korean War, the re-enlistment of WWII veterans was seen as a way to escape poverty for African Americans. But old soldiers, often with PTSD were loath to return to the battlefield [3].  “By the end of the war, probably more than 600,000 African-Americans had served in the military” [4]. This high involvement brought the war in Korea to the forefront of the African-American consciousness.

“Fightin’ over in Korea, and you know that ain’t no fun,
Every minute of the day, I can’t hear nothing but noisy guns”

Back to Korea Blues, Sunnyland Slim[5]

Fats Domino’s “Korea Blues” expresses distaste with the idea of forced conscription, but still supports the Korean War effort. By 1952, however, public opinion on the war was waning [3]. A genre of anti-war blues emerged, expressed deep concern for soldiers in Asia.

“Why don’t you say a prayer for our boys in Korea,
That are fighting and dying over there?
Lord! ‘Struction on every hand,
There is blood running in the sand”

Say a Prayer for the Boys in Korea, Joseph Cook [3]

Most scholarly discussion about blues in the 1950s view it a tool for “socio-cultural, political and economic protest” [5] solely for African-Americans. While the music unquestionably played an important role in the self-determination of African Americans, the broadening of the issues songs dealt with increased the demographic appeal of the genre as a protest art form. A longer paper might analyze the almost ironic use of the bugle in the song to express dissatisfaction with the military, as well as analyzing the change in protest song material with the dawn of the Vietnam War. It could be argued that several iconic protest songs of the 1960s trace their lineage back to “Korea Blues”.

[1] Library of Congress, Blues as Protest,

[2] Friedlander, Paul. Rock And Roll: A Social History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2006. 28–32. Print.

[3] Guido van Rijn, The Truman and Eisenhower blues: African-American blues and gospel songs, 1945-1960. New York: Continuum. 2003.

[4] Govt. of New Jersey. The Beginnings of a New Era for African Americans in the Armed Forces. Accessed 9/25/2013.

[5] Yancy, Eddie. Rhythm and Blues Protest Songs: Voices of Resistance. (Diss, Atlanta University Center). 2007.

On Money and Jazz

“Take the A Train” is a jazz standard that was originally written by Billy Strayhorn, and was made famous by the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1940s. It is an incredibly influential piece in American music and is still performed by musicians today. This post analyzes the practical and artistic decisions made by performers of this song over the past seven decades, looking for reflections of the supply of money in the jazz industry.

By the early 1930s, America was in the throes of the Great Depression. Industry of all types in the country suffered huge losses, and the music industry was no exception. Radio emerged as a more cost-effective form of music dissemination than records for the common man. While jazz big bands were popular, the cost of recording such large ensembles was prohibitive even for the most successful bands. By the dawn of the Second World War, the forced wartime entertainment tax and new broadcast standards further reduced profits for groups like the Duke Ellington Orchestra. This lack of funds in the business required pieces to be written with more pared-down arrangements. Duke Ellington’s original 1941 recording of “Take the A Train” is significantly less ‘full’ than previous hit songs like the East Saint Louis Toodle-Oo.

Soon after World War II, however, America experienced an economic boom. With teenagers consuming records and dance music, money flooded into the music industry. Ella Fitzgerald’s version of the song (1952) features a large band, better recording equipment, and a more danceable rhythm. To me the recording, with singing and a more standardized AABA structure, seems very intentionally geared towards commercial success. It seems representative of commercial success and mass appeal, and remains one of the singer’s biggest hits.

By the 1970s, jazz no longer dominated the radio waves or charts. Performances were intended far more for a listening audience than a dancing one. With the Civil Rights movement still in full swing, American society had begun to ascribe some artistic value to traditionally African-American art forms. Interest in the genre was of a decidedly more academic nature than the 1950, with jazz curriculums being introduced at universities and colleges. Reflections of this can be seen in Sun Ra’s 1976 recording of “Take the A Train”, with its esoteric arrangement and complex chord substitutions. The piece seems to be aimed at listeners knowledgeable both in the roots of jazz and music theory. The money involved in its production is from a niche audience with academic interests. This trend has continued to the present day. Wynton Marsialis’ version of “Take the A Train” (2013), performed at the Lincoln Center as part of a formal academic institution, treats the piece with the sort of reverence reserved for classical music. The organization, Jazz at The Lincoln Center, is funded more by donations and memberships than ticket sales.

A study of the amount and sources of money in the jazz industry seems very relevant in the context of the history of African-American music. Recordings of any jazz standard over the last several decades illustrate not only the slow process of the legitimization of the study of African-American culture, but also explanations of trends within one of the most influential American musical forms. Study of Ellington’s post-war performance of the song (Prestige, 1946), Charles Mingus’ angry version during the Civil Rights movement, and George Benson’s modern, smooth electronic version could add more weight to this argument. Much has been written about both society’s influence on jazz and vice-versa, but it is equally important to look at the money behind the music to glean the true attitudes of society towards the genre.


  1. “Take the A-Train”, Duke Ellington (Bluebird, 1941 performance)
  2. “Take the A-Train”, Duke Ellington, Joya Sherrill (Prestige, 1946 performance)
  3. “Take the A-Train” Ella Fitzgerald (1957)
  4. “Take the A-Train” Oscar Peterson(1952)
  5. “Take the A-Train” Charles Mingus – Pre-Bird (1960)
  6. “Take the A-Train” Sarah Vaughan(1967)
  7. “Take the A-Train” Sun Ra  (Live at Montreux, 1976)
  8. “Take the A-Train” Joe Henderson (1992)
  9. “Take the A-Train” George Benson (2002)
  10. “Take the A-Train” Wynton Marsialis (Jazz at the Lincoln Center 2013)


  1. Tyle, Chris. “Jazz History in Standard Time.”Jazz Standards. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2015. <>
  2. “About.”About. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2015. <;.