Evolution of Blues Piano

It’s fascinating to study a specific musical genre and see how it’s evolved over time. Learning about music in this way is fun, exciting, and we begin to understand how each style within the genre relates to everything else that came before as well as after.

I first got the idea for this from my college music history professor, Dr. Larson. The class was called Solo Literature and was about all the music written for piano, organ, and harpsichord. Dr. Larson was a very inspiring professor and would occasionally interrupt his lectures by proclaiming something like, “Arpeggios. Someone could learn a lot by studying the evolution of how composers used arpeggios over time!”

Wow! I had never thought about doing that!

It’s true, and we can also apply this to studying specific musical genres, like the blues.

All the great players already know this, and it’s contributed to their overall knowledge of music as well and their musical specialty. Elton John evoked 1950s Rock and Roll in his song “Crocodile Rock” because the lyric is telling a story about that era. The bebopper Bud Powell could sit down and play in the style of the earlier Swing Era when he wanted to do so. And an accomplished contemporary pianist/composer such as Sara Bareilles can draw upon many styles of music from different eras when she composes her pop and Broadway songs. Same with someone like Ben Folds.

The more we know in a practical way, the higher we can fly.

Let’s take The Blues, and see how it’s evolved throughout history.

Slow Mississippi Delta Style
The origins of the blues are shrouded in the mists of time since no one recorded it until at least 30-40 years after it’s origin. We do know, however, that it evolved from spirituals, field songs, and other folk music in the American South during the mid-to-late 1800s. It specifically developed in a small geographic area known as the Mississippi Delta, and there are some clues that tell us that it was relatively unknown outside of that area (and perhaps additional small areas) until about 1900 or so. (W.C. Handy’s account of first hearing the blues when he was already a grown man is one major source of this knowledge.)

If you want to play piano with more “blues feeling,” listen to the old Mississippi blues guitarists!

Early New Orleans Jazz
While most new musical styles are a return to simplicity in reaction to a previous, complex style (Early Classical a la Haydn as a reaction to Bach and the Baroque, New Wave and Punk as a reaction to Disco and Progressive Rock, etc.), the birth of jazz in New Orleans arose from a combination and assimilation of many complex musical elements, including blues, ragtime, banjo-picking, marching bands, Latin music, spirituals, African music, popular songs, and classical music including opera and operetta.

All of this resulted in a new music called jazz, which was highly complex right from the beginning. Jelly Roll Morton’s piano composition “New Orleans Blues,” from 1902, is a prime example of this.

Harlem Stride
Jazz soon made its way up north and east, and the pianists in NYC’s Harlem developed a lively way of playing stride piano that was faster and more technically-complex than that of their New Orleans counterparts. James P. Johnson and Willie ”The Lion” Smith are two wonderful Harlem Stride pianists who can still teach us a lot about how to play piano.

Early Rhythm and Blues
I always chuckle when I hear one of today’s R&B artists refer to the music of the 1970s as “Old School R&B,” because in fact Rhythm and Blues has been around since at least the 1930s and 40s. Jazz musicians such as Miles Davis grew up playing R&B as teenagers and this style existed parallel to the Swing and Bebop eras in jazz.

Big Band Swing
Jazz was popular music during the 1930s and big bands like those led by Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman had many hit songs with surprisingly-sophisticated orchestrations and arrangements. These songs had catchy melodies and danceable beats, and hit tunes like “Night Train” and “Black Coffee” used the 12-bar blues to great effect.

Boogie Woogie
While Boogie Woogie can be played on any instrument, it’s best known as a piano style that features a distinctive style of rollicking left hand pattern, and is based on the 12-bar blues. There was a huge “Boogie Woogie craze” during the swing era where older songs like W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” were given new life with titles like “Boogie Woogie On The St. Louis Blues” (recorded by Earl Hines). The Boogie Woogie style was a direct precursor to early Rock and Roll.

Despite the fast tempos and complex rhythms of 1940s Bebop, the style is highly rooted in the blues (check out Charlie Parker’s “Parker’s Mood”). Even the harmonic variation on the blues commonly called a “Parker Blues” can be seen as a derivative of the chord progression that Jelly Roll Morton used in 1902 on “New Orleans Blues,” wherein he went to the major III chord in the 2nd measure during some of the choruses.

Rock and Roll
1950s Rock and Roll can be seen as a type of artistic and cultural reaction to a previously complex art form. Simply put, people wanted a simpler alternative to the highly complex bebop style and so Rock and Roll was born. (Yes, there are many nuances in all this but that’s the overall gist.)

Rock and Roll is direct, primal, and fun. (I once played an entire Rock and Roll gig with the legendary jazz drummer Charlie Persip and was pleasantly surprised to find that he loved every minute of it. In fact, he played with so much energy that he broke his bass drum pedal!)

New Orleans R&B
Like all art forms, the Rock style contains multitudes of regional and stylistic variations, and musicians in New Orleans brought their own “gumbo” to the mix. Pianists like Fats Domino, Professor Longhair and Dr. John played R&B, Rock, and Pop with elements of traditional New Orleans rhythms and a unique sensibility that is instantly identifiable.

If Rock and Roll can be seen as a reaction to the complexities of bebop, Cool Jazz can be seen as another. Even early beboppers such as trumpeter Miles Davis eventually looked to improvise over simpler chord progressions. His composition “So What,” from Miles Davis’ 1959 “Kind Of Blue,” is the epitome of Cool Jazz.

Chicago Blues
As the early blues moved north, it landed in the city of Chicago in a big way. Chicago Blues, as exemplified by Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, also influenced British groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Many of the classic soul musicians, like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, had their musical roots in jazz and blues. Naturally, they brought this sensibility to their soul hits in the 1960s. Aretha Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood,” for example, is a 12-bar blues although the lyric unfolds in a non-traditional manner.

Slow Stride
All through these stylistic changes in the musical world at large, pianists everywhere continued to play a beautiful, relaxing style of stride piano at slow and medium-slow tempos. I remember hearing this style as late as the 1980s in restaurants, bank lobbies, and in people’s living rooms. Slow stride is one of my favorite styles to play. It always make me feel good!

Jazz Waltz
The 12-bar blues chord progression sounds wonderful when played as a jazz waltz. Jazz waltzes can accommodate a surprisingly high degree of rhythmic subdivisions, which is one reason they’re so satisfying to play. Try it with a Charlie Parker Blues!

Classic Rock
The 1960s and 70s Classic Rock bands updated the sounds of Mississippi Delta Blues and early Rock and Roll in their own way. Eric Clapton and Cream revamped Robert Johnson on “Crossroads” and Jimmy Page with Led Zeppelin revisited the 1950s with “Rock and Roll.”

Progressive Jazz
Just as the complex Bebop co-existed with the more basic Early R&B in the 1940s, the 1960s saw Classic Rock alongside the complexities of Progressive Jazz, as exemplified by John Coltrane’s groups.

1970s Funk grow out of 1960s soul, and can still be heard as a major influence on today’s Hip-Hop producers. There’s a direct line from James Brown to Prince to Bruno Mars to Jay-Z.

Playing through all these styles is a lot of fun, and I’ve made a video where I do that.

Ron Drotos: Evolution of Blues Piano

After I played the music on the video, I spent a week transcribing git all so you can learn to play each style too. It’s fascinating to dive into each genre and learn the pianistic techniques, chord voicings, and rhythms associated with it. Then, you can start to compare genres, and discover first-hand how blues music has evolved over time. You’ll also understand the blues music you listen to a lot more.

If you’re want to see it all written out and start learning these styles yourself, you can get the sheet music here:

Evolution of Blues Piano ebook

Have fun, enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

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