The difference between jazz and blues

I get a lot of emails asking me about the difference between jazz and blues.  Here are some ways to gain clarity about this important topic.

The first thing to keep in mind is that “jazz” and “blues” are just labels.  It’s all music.  So on the one hand, it’s not always important to label everything you hear and play.  But at the same time, yes, identifying genres can help us understand more about the music we play and where it came from and has developed over the years.

So here’s a general way to think about jazz and blues in this context. (Remember that jazz and blues are broad terms and that different people have different ways of looking at them.)

“Blues” started out in the 1800s as a sound, based on a feeling.  It generally used the I, IV, and V chords and featured melodies that incorporated bluesy notes (b3, b7, and notes that were in between the notes in the diatonic scale). The length was variable.  There were 8-bar blues, 12-bar blues, and 16-bar blues.  It was also common for blues musicians to stay on a chord for an extra measure or two if they wished to extend a phrase.

Later, the 12-bar blues form became standard. Here it is in its simplest form, in the key of C major:


Now, here’s the part that confuses many beginning improvisers: This blues chord progression can be played in any musical style.

If you play this progression with a jazz beat, it’s considered jazz. If you play it with a rock beat, you can call it rock. You can even use Latin rhythms, as did the jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton.

Generally speaking, it’s called “blues” mainly when musicians who specialize in blues play it. That’s why B.B. King can play a song and it will be included in a blues playlist, yet if The Rolling Stones play the same song in the same way it’ll get aired on a rock radio station.

Musicians tend to label it according to the music they typically play. So a rock band might say “let’s play a blues” and it will have a rock beat. At a jazz jam session, someone might say “let’s play a blues in F,” and everyone will play it in a jazz style.”

Here’s a video I made to show you how the basic 12-bar blues chord progression can be played in many different musical styles. Enjoy!

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2 thoughts on “The difference between jazz and blues”

  1. Dude, I am so confused by this. I am not a musician, I’m a dancer. Well, I played saxophone in 6th-12th grades including jazz band but I quit after that because it wasn’t my forte. Anyway, now I’m a blues dancer and because the blues dance scene is hella white there’s a lot of political talk about what is allowed to be played at “blues dance” events. So me not being an expert I am kind of lost. Because a lot of songs are bluesy and may be in a genre that directly or secondarily came from Blues: jazz, soul, rnb, funk. Funk seems easy to distinguish but the rest sometimes the lines blur a lot for me. There’s jazz and soul music that’s very very bluesy and gets marketed as blues but isn’t technically considered blues, apparently. Does it really matter? Why can blues dance only be danced to blues music yet swing dance can be danced to anything regardless of genre as long as it has the right beat? They’re both named after African American musical genres – blues and swing/jazz. Why do blues singers go around saying that “everything is the blues” but blues dancers are going around saying “that’s not blues, that’s not blues, that’s not blues” about every bluesy song that isn’t a perfect blues number?

    • I know what you mean, Meg, and I was this confused once when I tried to learn about wine. I bought a book but the problem was that there was so many variants of each type of wine, that I couldn’t easily understand how the categories tasted. It’s the same with jazz and blues, and even rock, pop, etc. And nowadays there are more micro-labels and sub-genres than ever before!

      There are basically 2 ways that a music can be described as blues-based: 1. If it uses a 12-bar blues chord progression, and 2. If it sounds “bluesy.” So you might get a jazz blues that doesn’t sound like the blues but uses the 12-bar pattern (“Blues For Alice”) , or a non-blues chord progression that does indeed sound bluesy (“Basin St. Blues”).

      To learn more, I recommend that you begin by listening to traditional Delta and Chicago blues recordings, and getting to know that style well. Then you can relate other music to these sounds which are firmly in the blues tradition.


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