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Trying to understand the characteristics of jazz vs blues music? Not sure what the differences between these two genres are?
Jazz and blues have a very similar history and many of their elements seem to overlap and influence one another. However, as any blues or jazz aficionado will tell you, they’re far from the same.
In this guide, we’ll tell you about some of the main differences between the jazz vs blues music genres.
History of Jazz Vs Blues
It may not surprise you to learn that blues and jazz music have similar origin stories.
Both jazz and blues evolved out of traditional African-American music such as spirituals and work songs. However, whereas blues came nearly directly from these origins, jazz had a few other diverse influences that helped to craft its unique style as well.
Tracing the Roots of the Blues
Blues originated a bit earlier than jazz did and can be traced back to the late 1800s. It came from the southern regions of the U.S. and is especially associated with states such as Mississippi and Texas. It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact date that blues came along, however, since it was being developed concurrently among different slave populations in the southern United States.
The first blues music was thought to have appeared sometime after the civil war when slaves had been emancipated. The first published blues sheet music was Antonio Maggio’s “I Got the Blues”.
Diverse Jazz Origins
The jazz genre originated during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
While blues originated around the Southeast and can’t be pinpointed to an exact location, jazz is very clearly associated with New Orleans, although Chicago played a big part in its development as well.
New Orleans was a major port city in this time period and there were people from all over the world living in and visiting the city. Along with African-American influence, the musical traditions of Europe and the Caribbean also contributed to its sound and style. In New Orleans, these influences started to blend and eventually became jazz.
From Europe came the harmonic chord structures and the wide range of instruments played. From West Africa and the Caribbean came a strong sense of rhythm along with other important elements.
It’s also important to note that ragtime music was also a precursor to jazz. However, jazz took things to the next level and introduced more improvisation. It also added a variety of other unique elements from a diverse range of cultural influences.
While it’s best to listen to blues and jazz music to get a true feel for how they each sound, we’ll look at a few of the ways that these genres differ. Here’s what you should know about the sound, theory, and appreciation habits of these different genres.
Jazz and blues have a lot of fundamental musical characteristics that are different.
Blues music has a distinctively melancholic sound that relies on the use of the minor pentatonic scale. Players also commonly use a modified version of the scale, known as the blues scale. Players use the natural minor scale as well.
The blues genre also has specific rhythms and progressions that are reused over and over again, such as the 12 bar blues progression. It’s also important to note that blues is a very simple type of music and has a lot of repetition. This can make it easy for beginners to learn. Much of the joy in blues music comes from “feel” and emotion rather than from complexity or technical prowess.
Jazz music is characterized by complex chords and advanced polyrhythms as well as plenty of improvisation. This genre makes use of swing notes and syncopation, and like blues, also makes use of blue notes as well.
Unlike blues, jazz is a type of music that requires technical proficiency as well as knowledge of music theory and concepts to play well. There are complex relationships between chords and scales that musicians need to understand to be great jazz players.
Songs also can vary by quite a bit and will rarely use simple chord voicings or repetitive progressions. Unlike blues, which has common progressions such as 12-bar blues, jazz has more variety when it comes to the progressions that are used.
Another way that jazz and blues differ is in the types of song structures that are commonly used.
With blues, there are a few common chord progressions and song structures that are used over and over again.
The 12-bar blues progression, for example, is one of the most common types of patterns that players used in blues music. It follows a repeated chord structure along with a lyrical AABA pattern in which the first and second lines are repeated. There’s then a third line that is a response and that is a bit different. The structure then repeats the “A” in the fourth line as well.
In addition to the 12-bar blues, there are other simplistic blues progressions as well and they are very easy to learn and play. The chords used in blues are also usually very simple and basic rather than complex variations of those chords.
With jazz music, on the other hand, song structures are much more complex. Different jazz songs have different chord structures and lyrical patterns and no two songs are the same.
Jazz standards vary quite a bit and there are also many popular tunes that are played in a jazz style. These songs vary quite a bit in their structure as well.
With jazz, the chords that players use are often complex. There are many major and minor 7 chords and other types of “jazz chords” that are much more complicated than the basic chord forms that are commonly used in the blues or in popular music.
While both jazz and blues can be played by any instrument that is out there, traditionally and in practice, certain instruments are more commonly used than others in each genre.
For both genres, some of the most common instruments you’ll find include piano, guitar, bass, saxophone, drums, and of course, the trumpet.
In jazz, it’s also common to find the tuba and the clarinet. In blues, on the other hand, it’s very common to find great harmonica players.
Enjoyment and Community
It’s worth noting that the method of enjoyment and the community surrounding jazz vs blues music is a bit different as well. Jazz has often been associated with dancing, but this isn’t the case with the blues.
Jazz has historically been popular as dance music in the form of swing dancing and lindy hop. Many people still dance to jazz today in many parts of Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world.
Dancing isn’t as common with the blues genre as it has been with jazz throughout the years and it hasn’t had the same type of community surrounding it. However, dancing to the blues was popular in the past in the form of blues dance. This style is still sometimes danced today. Many people who dance East Coast Swing also dance to upbeat blues music.
Blues dance likely didn’t catch on because blues tends to be much slower than early jazz was. Blues is also more focused on somber emotions and topics such as sadness, lost love, and hard times.
Subgenres of Jazz Vs Blues
Both blues and jazz have many subgenres. Here are some of the main subgenres that you should know about.
Subgenres of Blues
Blues is a complex genre of music and has many different subgenres that each evoke different moods and have a unique take on the genre. Here are some of the most common blues sub-genres and styles.
1. Delta Blues
A very popular form of the blues, delta blues originated in the Mississippi Delta region during the early 1900s. Delta blues is typically associated with just a single person on guitar (possibly with a slide) but may also feature the piano and the bass guitar.
Delta blues has a simple structure, repetitive and melodic guitar patterns, and is sung in a high-pitched voice. The lyrics are often improvised and this has become a defining characteristic of this genre.
2. Chicago Blues
Chicago blues came about as a result of delta blues, but with more complex structures and improvisation. The lyrics are often about women, alcohol, and other common blues themes.
This genre is essentially a mix of the traditional sound of blues and rock music. This was a popular subgenre in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in Britain.
4. Southern Soul
Another offshoot of delta blues, southern soul music is often characterized by soulful singing accompanied by electric guitar or piano. Southern soul features a highly emotional and passionate sound.
5. Psychedelic Blues
This genre came about in the 1960s as a result of psychedelic rock. It typically has a strong electric guitar presence as well as an emphasis on free-form improvisation and unusual time signatures.
6. Texas Blues
Another offshoot of delta blues, Texas blues is known for its emphasis on rhythmic vocals and strong guitar riffs. It’s also known for its fast-paced sound that was pioneered by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.
7. Contemporary Blues
This genre emerged in the 1970s as a result of soul music, rock, jazz, and R&B influences. This style often incorporates elements of funk, soul, and R&B.
8. Jump Blues
Jump blues emerged in the late 1940s as a combination of swing music and rhythm and blues. It was pioneered by Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner.
9. Urban Blues
Urban blues emerged in the 1950s as a result of gospel, R&B, jazz, country music, and other genres influencing each other at the time.
Subgenres of Jazz
The jazz genre is often divided into sub-categories as well. The most commonly known sub-genres of jazz music are the following.
1. Dixieland/Early Jazz
Dixieland jazz (also sometimes referred to as traditional jazz) refers to a style of jazz that focuses on the individual players within a group and doesn’t typically feature any solos by the bandleader. Dixieland jazz also features small ensembles with trumpets, trombones, clarinets, saxophones, and drums.
This style of jazz was popular in the early 20th century and can be heard in many early New Orleans jazz recordings.
2. Ragtime Jazz
Ragtime Jazz was a precursor to the more complex styles of jazz that developed later on. This genre features melodic rhythms, syncopation, and a swing beat. It also features the prominent use of the piano as an instrument, which isn’t as common in some forms of early jazz.
This style of jazz was popular in the late 19th century through early 20th century, particularly in America and Canada.
3. Swing Music and Big Band Music
Swing music and big band music are also forms of jazz. These forms of jazz moved on from the traditional sound to make a more popular sound. As a result, swing and big band genres became centerpieces of popular music for many years from the 1910s to the 1940s
Big bands consist of musical ensembles that typically have 10 or more musicians and 4 different sections which include saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and rhythm.
4. Progressive Jazz
Progressive jazz is a form of jazz that developed in the 1940s and 1950s. It includes other subgenres such as bebop, hard bop, modal jazz, and cool jazz.
The main distinguishing feature of progressive jazz is its use of chords with altered tensions and extensions, such as 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, and altered dominants. It also included a lot of dissonance, atonality, and similar features that were uncommon at the time of its rise.
5. Avant-garde Jazz
Avant-garde jazz is a form of free improvisation that developed in the 1950s. It includes free jazz, avant-garde jazz, and “The New Thing”.
This type of jazz is not based on chord changes like traditional forms of jazz. Like progressive jazz, it focuses on the use of dissonance and atonality to create a new sound.
6. Free Jazz
Similar to avant-garde jazz, free jazz is a type of music that developed in the 1950s and is even more free and improvisational.
In this form of jazz, the musicians use many different instruments to create an experimental sound. The musicians improvise much more than other types of jazz musicians. They do not use chord changes or written music for their songs.
Free jazz is not based on any specific song form or chord progression, but some pieces are loosely based on blues scales and chord progressions.
7. Jazz Fusion
Fusion music combines different styles of music to make a unique sound. It was at the height of its popularity in the 1970s and 1980s.
Fusion musicians use many instruments including electric guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, horns, and percussion instruments. The genres it blends include rock, funk, R&B, and Latin.
It’s often known as jazz fusion but also be referred to as simply “fusion”.
Understanding the Differences of Jazz Vs Blues
While there is a lot more to understand about these two unique music genres, the information above should give you a basic understanding of the jazz vs blues debate. While both genres have similar historical roots, they have developed and matured throughout the years in unique and totally different ways.
Searching for more genre guides? Check out our post on country and bluegrass next.
Hi, I’m Harrison! I created this website to help musicians navigate the ins and outs of their craft and to help them choose new instruments and gear to add to their collection. I have 15 years of experience as a guitarist and singer and have also played many other instruments throughout the years including the bass guitar, piano, banjo, mandolin, and harmonica.