March 30, 2009

Why I Love the Blues

Countless people say they love the blues. It’s such an American institution, the same as we love the poetry of Robert Frost and the painting of Norman Rockwell. I wonder though, why many blues artists are not represented extensively on people’s iPods or in their CD collections. If you ask the average listener “who is a great blues artist?” after some hesitation, you will probably get B.B. King and Billie Holiday, even though Billie Holiday rarely sang a true blues song.

I’ve just finished another extensive book about the blues and I have to admit that the stories about early bluesmen — Son House, Charlie Patton, and Robert Johnson — interest me more than their actual recordings, which are a bit too raw and loose for my personal musical taste.

What I do love about the blues is the structure of the 12-bar blues form. It’s the perfect blueprint (pun intended) to play over, to write over, and to use at any tempo. Over the years I’ve compiled a list of songs based on the 12-bar blues, both from a chordal standpoint (the I-IV-V chord structure), and the 3-line verse including two identical lines and a rhyming response. The list is surprisingly extensive. My definition of the blues is probably wider than most, and it came to light for me last week.

I presented a workshop last week at the Common Ground Arts in Education Conference in Albany, New York. The focus of my workshop was using the blues in the classroom as a vehicle for writing poetry, for movement, and for art making. When I made the point that songs as diverse as Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” and James Brown’s “I Feel Good (I Got You)” are based on the 12-bar blues structure, one participant took issue. She said “don’t tell me James Brown was singing the blues.” The point was well taken. James Brown was not singing the blues. But James Brown was singing about how good he felt, over the 12-bar blues structure. He used the structure to write his song. He sang the first sentence twice and answered it with a rhyming sentence, just as Robert Johnson did and just as Muddy Waters did.

The 12-bar blues has also been the basis for such wide-ranging instrumental songs as the theme for the Batman TV show, for innumerable jazz tunes (from the sophisticated Bebop of Charlie Parker, to the killer swing of the Count Basie Orchestra), and to the most recent contribution, the quirky, former Vonage TV commercial, best described as the “Oo-Oo” song. Also I must mention one of the greatest recordings ever, “Green Onions.”

What I love about all this is that the blues form provides a format, an architecture and a structure over which you can do just about anything. If you improvise over the blues there’s no way you’re going to get lost; it inevitably returns to where it started in a short amount of time, allowing you to relax when playing. It’s the perfect vehicle for teaching improvisation. It’s the perfect vehicle for teaching children to write their own blues lyrics. Lastly, it’s the perfect vehicle for writing in any groove you choose.

March 4, 2009


Because it has come about in such a gradual form, we might not be aware of how much undesirable noise invades our personal space. When I become annoyed by noise bombarded at me, I begin to strategize how I could reside in the boondocks, miles away from all but the noise I choose to hear.

It is true that I live in a commercial zone and have for the last 25 years. A certain amount of unwanted noise is bound to come my way because of this. Even though the house is well insulated, open windows in warm seasons let in more than our share of noise pollution blasts.

In the nineties, car phones ringing via automobile horns was a prime irritation. Even today, a car locking device or locator horn going off while I’m walking by not only startles me but gives me a headache for the rest of the day, probably owing to my years of playing loud Rock & Roll.

I once resided in a duplex apartment where my next door neighbor was frequently picked up by a driver who announced himself with a couple of car horn blasts. The more considerate strategy would be walking a few steps to the doorbell and ringing it. Apparently this approach was never considered — never mind that he may have awakened my toddler from her much needed nap, or disrupted a spell of otherwise meditative time.

Ironically, the reason car horns were created in the first place, for safety in navigation (“LOOK OUT, I’M COMING” or “YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING STUPID”), has been relegated to secondary consideration by air bags. Having recently had the urgent need to use the horn in my car, I found that because I rarely use the horn, I couldn’t find it when I needed it. That’s because the position of the horn was two small buttons at four and eight o’clock on the steering wheel. In an emergency situation if one needs to locate them quickly they may elude you. It is only when the crisis situation has passed that you are then able to re-learn where the horn activation is. What happened to the old semi-circle metal car horns on the steering wheels in the fifties? They were perfectly functional devices. But if the new purpose of the car’s horn is to indicate a locking device, I suppose it doesn’t matter where the manual activation resides.

Jazz bassist Michael Moore spoke on noise pollution being a pet peeve. Here’s the direct quote from my interview with Michael in 1997 :

MR: The amplification issue, it seems like things tend to get louder as years go by. I’m not sure why.

MM: Well I’ve noticed it, the whole society is getting louder, everything is getting louder. If you go to the theater, everything is miced very heavily and I don’t know whether collectively as the human species our hearing is getting worse all the time, which makes everything get louder, which makes our hearing get worse all the time. I’m sure if we went back 200 years we would be surprised at how quiet everything was. But I think, I go to places where I’m going to play and the sound people will have these huge speakers set up beforehand. And they’ll be playing things through the speakers to test them and so forth, and they’re having bands on, even jazz records, and they’re so loud, I can’t hardly stand to be there. And we’re constantly talking over the top of music. I mean if you’re in a night club, you play, you finish playing, as soon as you finish playing, they turn on the music. But when you come into the place the music is going. So the ear is never hungry for music. You’re saturated with sound all the time. And I think there’s a certain amount of fatigue that sets in with that too. And I think it’s detrimental to concerts. I mean if you go to hear a Mozart string quartet, before you sit down, they’re not playing somebody else’s recording of the same Mozart quartet through big loud speakers, that was done in a studio with the optimum equipment and so forth and so on. But you go to a jazz club or a concert a lot of times, you come in, and they’re already playing the best Benny Goodman Big Band recording, all re-done, through these huge speakers. There’s no way number one that you can compete with it in a way, because it’s almost an unfair comparison to make. Plus the fact that your ears are worn out by the time the band starts.

True, you shouldn’t have to be subjected to music as you dine, just as music when you shop, ride in elevators, or get put on hold is also noise pollution. Originally business owners bought “Muzak” for this purpose — music which was created to inspire a feeling — but the word “Muzak” has come to be known as boring, simplistic music. It’s ludicrous to think of putting Muzak over our own personal stereos, so why is acceptable to have to listen to it on elevators or while on hold? I am reminded of the old Lily Tomlin joke: “I can’t sleep at night worrying that the inventor of ‘Muzak’ is thinking of something else to invent.”

If you luxuriate in television viewing and watch anything but the commercial-free channels, noise pollution rises to the felony level. Your show is abruptly cut away, and on comes their product, accompanied by dancing girls, catchy visuals, and increased volume. Thank heavens for the remote control, and your corresponding ability to channel surf, as in “that’s annoying, I’m outta here.” Advertising noise is almost never good, or even acceptable. One exception to this was the old Gap commercials containing 95% entertainment and 5% product push. Created by the Gap’s own in-house advertising staff, a number of dancing, swinging and singing styles create a 60-second show in and of itself, with all the characters uniformly dressed in the sponsor’s clothes. Other clothing manufacturers attempted to copycat this idea, but none came close to the Gap’s success and their ability to continually top themselves.

It’s not a coincidence to us boomers that old Rock & Roll continues to thrive. We all know it when we hear old Beatles tunes which are finally being allowed to be used for TV commercials. Indeed, many commercials are based on sixties and seventies hits. Sixties music stations thrive, and to this day they are great to find when traveling in the car. Those old AM hits we listened to for free on our little AM radios still swing like mad. Yesterday I heard the old Sam & Dave version of “Hold On I’m Coming” on the car radio and it sounds as good as ever, with that fantastic horn section and infectious beat.

Noise pollution in the retail environment often causes me to head directly for the checkout. For some reason advertising analysts have determined that certain music will lull the shopper into shopping longer, as in “gee this music is so entertaining, I think I’ll stay here and shop for another hour.” Maybe they envision their shoppers groovin’ to Motown as they dance down the aisles tossing the toilet paper in the shopping basket. For some reason the ad execs have determined that the boomers, their targets, like sixties music, and original versions of James Taylor or Simon and Garfunkel are frequently projected. On the other hand, many a Beatle tune has been turned into a Muzak experience and one can’t help but wonder why someone perceives this to be an improvement over the real thing.

Young retail clerks who must listen to Muzak or some other piped noise pollution all day long obviously have not developed the musical fortitude to recognize it as an annoyance. Otherwise it would be impossible to ignore and they would all quit and begin delivering newspapers. I marvel at their young, naive wills being able to endure it hour after hour, day after day. It must be that they simply don’t hear it.

Teenagers throughout the annals of time have always operated their car radios at volumes so that other drivers in their cars could share in the musical experience. How thoughtful. How lovely nowadays to be treated to thunderous vibrations of bass grunge as you await the traffic light change. I recall the now-classic opening scene of the movie by Michael Judge, “Office Space,” with everybody stuck in traffic on their way to work, the middle-eastern guy who just wanted to keep his job and remain in the US, the white guy seeing the elderly man with the walker who was beating his car, and the third geek, “Michael Bolton” groovin’ to Rap but rolling up his windows afraid someone would see a white rapper.

Noise pollution, the unwanted subjugation of sounds at you, seems to be almost entirely created by man. Noise arising naturally from nature is more likely to please than annoy you. When seeking out the joyful, quiet noises nature brings, I was in awe of a cardinal family visiting us last summer. The father brought the baby to the feeder, as we watched from two feet away behind the kitchen window. First the father perched at the feeder nervously looking around and sporadically chirping while eating himself, as if to set an example for how to shell the seeds. The mother sat fifteen feet away on the clothesline standing guard and chirping occasionally as well. The baby, sitting with the father, chirps high, long, almost whining and continuous types of chirps while it flutters its wings waiting for the father cardinal to shell the seed and feed it to him. The baby’s chirping and fluttering became increasingly intense until the seed was dispensed. Even if we weren’t standing at the window, we could hear when the family arrived. After a few days of this behavior the baby began to come to the feeder on its own. The baby’s chirps then become more adult-like and not so constant, but still not mature, as the baby learned the difference between the seeds and the spent shells. The father then guards from the clothesline, and the mother is not in sight. Without quiet in the house, and the opportunity to explore the sounds that nature gives us, we would never be able to experience this magnificent display of nature.

Thankfully, in one’s own environment, we are able to create our own mood. Turning on commercial television is an ultimate decision to submit yourself to what other people want you to hear, see and think as well. In recent years I have found NPR, C-Span and Turner Classic Movies to be informative and ear-friendly. The power our own music delivery system gives us to alter our mood cannot be understated. While it is different for everyone, we all can choose the atmosphere and corresponding mindset we wish to create for ourselves. At least in my own home I am able to control the noise environment — if I choose to ignore the ring of the telephones and the doorbell.