What Came First, Blues or Jazz?

The blues emerged in the late nineteenth century and paved the way for the emergence of jazz in the early twentieth century.

Mar 8, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

what came first blues or jazz


First came the blues and then came jazz. The origins of the blues can be traced to the human catastrophe of American slavery in the Mississippi Delta. Though jazz took shape amidst the vibrant cultural climate of early twentieth-century New Orleans, it is marked by profound musical connections and cultural affinities with the blues. Blues and jazz both serve as powerful expressions of the impact of slavery and the struggles of black communities in America.


First Came the Blues

Scars of a whipped Mississippi slave, Baton Rouge, Louisianna, 1863, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Following the conclusion of the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the subsequent abolition of slavery in the United States, many African Americans sought to break with musical forms associated with slavery. Yet simultaneously, many looked to music as a way to express the sense of pain, loss, and generational trauma visited on their communities. 


First came the blues, a raw musical form derived from African musical traditions, religious spirituals, work songs, and the field hollers of Mississippi slaves. The blues emerged in the Delta region of Mississippi during the late nineteenth century, while Jazz – a later innovation – emerged in the vibrant musical landscape of New Orleans, Louisianna in the early twentieth century. 


In 1915, composer and ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) of New Orleans, published “Jelly Roll Blues”, now considered by many to be the earliest example of jazz sheet music. Early jazz both built on the traditions of the blues – largely by transcending its structures – and reflected the cultural diversity and creativity of its times. 

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Dance, Drums, and Jazz in New Orleans

Dancing in Congo Square artists impression, by EW Kemble 1885, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In contrast to the harsh restrictions faced by slaves in the Delta region of Mississippi, those in Louisiana were allowed to gather with others to play drums, sing, and dance at the weekend. Regular Sunday “ring shouts” in Congo Square, New Orleans not only preserved African and Caribbean drumming traditions, but also created a melting pot of musical styles. 


Within this rich cultural climate, the structured military cadences of marching drum bands evolved into a more spontaneous, syncopated, dance-friendly style. Concurrently, European dance trends like the Waltz fused with African, African-American, and Caribbean influences. The polite, refined steps of the Waltz gradually gave way to the more suggestive, expressive steps of the Foxtrot. 


As ragtime piano and early Jazz gained prominence, groups deviating from the marching tradition sought a new approach. The syncopated rhythms of the marching bands were reproduced by a lone musician on a stationary set of drums – the Jazz drummer was born. 


Musical Differences Between Blues and Jazz

An unknown jazz drummer at the Memphis Juke Joint, Tennessee, 1938, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The blues is a rhythm, it is melancholic and throbs with emotion. It typically features solo vocals and a lone guitar and follows a distinctive 12-bar pattern, loaded with expressive “blue” notes. In contrast, jazz is synonymous with smoothness and “swing.” 


Jazz is epitomized by the sound of a rich ensemble of players – piano, guitar, trumpet, clarinet, trombone, drums. Its allure lies in its expansive array of elements. Dazzling trumpeters, creative solos, crooners, bluesy, soulful piano. Above all, jazz defies rigid structures, and embraces spontaneity in its scales and melodies. It is off-beat, unpredictable, and syncopated. 


The blues features distinctive fingerstyle guitar techniques, such as bends, sliding notes, and syncopated rhythms to create a distinct sense of musical time. The lyrics are raw, soulful, straightforward narratives of everyday life. By contrast, jazz is defined as a style rather than the specifics of its composition (what is played). Thus, any song – including blues songs – can be played in a jazz style. 


The Influence of Blues on Jazz

Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeter, and vocalist, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In many respects, jazz wouldn’t exist without the blues. Improvisation is a key element of jazz and during the early days of the jazz scene, the 12-bar blues structure was by far the most important template for improvisation. 


Blues and jazz share a common cultural heritage in the African-American communities of the South. Yet musically various elements of the blues also made it into jazz, from “blue” notes and dissonances, to the interactive, conversational dynamics of “call-and-response” and syncopated polyrhythmic structures. Blues rhythms are fundamental to the vibrant musical landscape of jazz. 


At a basic level, both blues and jazz share a common emphasis on spontaneity and creative improvisation. Critically, the fundamental harmonic structure, melodies, and chord progressions of the blues became integral to jazz. Renowned jazz musicians, from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) have all based some of their best compositions on the bedrock of the blues.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.