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.


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