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9 minutes reading time (1839 words)

I've got a classic case of the blues

The sounds of jazz have always fascinated classical musicians. In the earliest years of the twentieth century composers such as Debussy, Hindemith, Milhaud, and Stravinsky were all drawn to the infectious rhythms of Ragtime.' As jazz harmonies and forms became more sophisticated, classical composers incorporated more diverse jazzy elements into their own musical styles.' And the Blues have had an especially strong magnetism for all of us, classical and jazz musicians alike, for Blues--as both a recognizable twelve-measure musical form fused with altered scale tones and fundamental harmonies of I, IV, and V, and as a unique expression of strong emotions- entice the composer and performer to search within an endless supply of opportunities for personal statement. As a result, classical composers have found the Blues to be particularly rewarding in providing fresh and distinctive works, and pianists and teachers are so much richer for this happy connection. In this article, I will address some of the important stylistic issues and considerations essential to understanding these rewarding pieces. 


 For the purposes of this article, I am going to define the "Blues" as music containing some (or all) of these musical traits:

• A twelve-measure form, with a use of primary triad or seventh-chord harmonies.

• Frequent use of altered scale degrees (the lowering of scale degrees 3, 5, and 7 one half step in a major key) to create an authentic and recognizable "bluesy" sound.

• Use of swing rhythms: each beat has a triplet subdivision and. the articulation is smooth.

• An overall mood of sadness and melancholy. 



So many teachers have tried to turn Aaron Copland's Four Piano Blues into a jazz piece simply because the title contains the word "Blues." Copland himself wrote "These pieces are more of a blues mood; not a blues in structure but in quality." And in my opinion, these marvelous creations do not profit from an understanding of jazz or blues: there are no 'blue' notes, few seventh chords, and no real use of swing rhythms.

One of the characteristic approaches to Blues has been through the use of swing rhythms, providing the performer (particularly singers) an opportunity to create soulful and bending melodies. Fashioned after the call and response of slaves as they worked in the cotton fields, these mournful sounds came to define the Blues sound and style, as the gentle' swing of the beat carried the cry of the song. It is this swaying feel that is so integral to a successful Blues performance, and it is this element of swing notation and a proper interpretation that will aid in an authentic Blues sound. 



Before looking at music, it might be best to listen to a few examples of some authentic, riveting blues, to "get in the mood." Go to then click on blues. You'll find much to read about and many styles of blues listed. Scroll down to "Top Artists" and click on the speaker next to B.B. King and Bessie Smith.

This brief listening tour will yield an earthy, soulful sound-the sound of blues tinged with the melancholy of a swing feel. Of course it is the notation of swing that, becomes the most problematic for teachers, as they wish their students to play as accurately as possible what is written on the printed page. Unfortunately, swing seldom sounds as it looks. Since we are dealing with Classical composers, writing jazz or blues sounds, let's examine a few potential notational situations and see how we can make them sound right.

The first four excerpts are terrific examples of composers who have successfully visited the world of jazz and written pieces that allow the non-jazz pianist to perform with a genuine, jazz-infused sensibility: no artificial swinging needed-it's all in the score.

Barber: In slow blues tempo from Excursions


The wonderful second movement of Samuel Barber's Excursions (1944) is a delight! It is a well-crafted mixture of swung and straight eighth notes, sometimes at the same time! It is precisely that friction that gives this piece its unique rhythmic identity. (I have always found it intriguing that Barber used the tempo indication of In slow blues tempo; he did not write In 'a' slow blues tempo.).

In this piece, be very careful to allow the listener to hear the two subdivisions of the quarter note clearly: 

The manner in which Barber combines both swing and non-swing eighth notes in these four choruses of a twelve-bar blues is nothing short of remarkable. Barber writes so well that to perform this piece stylistically correctly, you play what is written, exactly as it is written (see Excerpt 1).

Excerpt 1: Barber: In Slow Blues Tempo, measures 1-4.

One particularly fine interpretation of this piece is by the amazing pianist, who is a virtuoso in both jazz and classical genres: Andre Previn. You can sample his marvelous interpretation on YouTube at: pRayA. 

Gruenberg: Blues from Jazzberries

This is a very effective piece, a blues- infused cry from the heart. The entire two- page work flows along, from an initial melancholy pace-it is marked Andantino molto tranquillamente--to a stunning climax that leads to a haunting finish. Even though sixteenth notes are used along with eighth note rhythms, this is another example of a classical composition that needs no special jazz inflection or experience. A sensitive player can paint a wonderfully evocative scene of longing, mixed with mystery and uncertainty, especially towards the end of the piece. This Blues piece does not require or benefit from a swinging eighth note; rather, the somber harmonies and mournful melodies are what contribute to a melancholy feeling throughout. A portion of the middle of this piece is shown in Excerpt 2. 

Excerpt 2: Gruenberg: Blues from Jazzberries, measures 18-19.

Although there is not a recording of Jazzberries, there are several fascinating aural glimpses into this musician from the early part of the 20th century. I especially recommend his Jazz Masks, Op. 30a–found on Naxos-for an intriguing jazz 'take' on Chopin's Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 1.

Bennett: Andante lento from Excursions


Although this piece uses straight eighth notes and is obviously a blues with a traditional 12 measure structure, the slow metronome marking of 

allows for a sensuous, deliberate feel and a caressing of the rich, full, bluesy harmonies. Swinging these haunting sounds is not necessary at all. I like to think that the second movement of this three-movement suite illustrates the type of sound Gershwin might have written in later compositions (see Excerpt 3).

Excerpt 3: Bennett: Andante lentofrom Excursions, measures 1-4.

Martin Jones has recorded the Bennett Excursions; an mp3 of Andante lento is available on  

Bennett: Country Blues from Four-Piece Suite

 This terrific four-movement suite for two pianists is a masterpiece. Between a lush latin-tinged opening and a rollicking fourth movement that really rocks, Country Blues skillfully uses the 12/8 time signature, blue notes, and a call and response between the two pianists to create an authentic Blues sound. The feeling of swing is effectively notated in this work (see Excerpt 4). 

Excerpt 4: Bennett: Country Blues from Four-Piece Suite, measures 1-6.

I recommend two recordings of this piece: 1) Bernstein: Scenes from West Side Story (EMI Classics #49116) Music by Leonard Bernstein, Percy Grainger, and Richard Rodney Bennett. Richard Markham and David Nettle, pianists. 2) A performance by Duo Osano that can be found online at: watch?v=A-9La093RVo. 

Rewriting notation

There are also times when the notation "gets in the way," when composers-knowing that swing involves a long note followed by a shorter note-notate swing with dotted rhythms.

This dotted is antithetical to proper swing feel and should be changed to a subdivision of 3, as in  

Here are several examples where the musical style benefits from re-writing the dotted rhythms.

Alexandre Tansman was a master at evoking the Blues sound with the sliding of the triads, much as a guitarist may do along the fret board (see Excerpt 5a). 

Excerpt 5a: Tansman Blues No. 6 from Novelettes, measures 1-2.

In this case Tansman's use of dotted rhythms might interfere with the rolling, swaying feel so necessary to Blues. Here are the first four measures, re-written in 12/8 to achieve a much better, bluesy effect (see Excerpt 5b).  

Excerpt 5b: Tansman Blues No.6 from Novelettes, measures 1-2, rewritten in 12/8.

The first piece from Tansman's Trois Preludes en forme de Blues presents the problem again: the dotted rhythms are mixed with "straight" eighth notes (see Excerpt 6a). 

Excerpt 6a: Tansman Prelude No. 1, from Trois Preludes en forme de Blues, measures 1-2.

How does one interpret these inconsistencies? By listening to the sound and remembering the sway of a blues singer like Ma Rainy or Bessie Smith. ALL rhythms-whether dotted or not- should have a gentle sway, a feeling of three within each beat. The following example (in 12/8) creates the bluesy sound I believe Tansman may have intended (see Excerpt 6b).  

Excerpt 6b: Tansman Prelude No.1, from Trois Preludes en forme de Blues, measures 1-2, rewritten in 12/8.

I recommend a recording by Margaret Fingerhut that has a nice, gentle feel (Tansman: Piano Works Chandos #10527).

Our final example is a curious one. It is the second movement of an advanced work by Dave Brubeck. The title of this movement is Blue Aria, and it begins in a haunting, almost mysterious way (see Excerpt 7). What strikes me is the use of straight eighth notes, followed by eighth-note triplets. Does one then swing the straight eighths or make them contrast to the triplets? Does one then swing the eighth notes in the left hand?

Excerpt 7: Brubeck: Blue Aria from Glances, measures 1-4.

Two recordings of Blue Aria shed some light on this question: 1) Brubeck Piano Compositions performed by John Salmon (Phoenix; sample excerpts available at and 2) New World A 'Comin'-Classical and Jazz Connections performed by Willis Delony (Centaur Records).

I hope teachers will explore some of these works, both in print as well as on recordings, keeping in mind that the printed page does not always reflect the appropriate sound. And the right sound is always our goal. 

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