Excavating Heavy Metal's Blues and Jazz Roots

Categories: Metal Mondays

Black Sabbath, formerly known as the Polka Tulk Blues Band
"The blues was like that problem child that you may have had in the family. You was a little bit ashamed to let anybody see him, but you loved him. You just didn't know how other people would take it." --B.B. King

"Metal confronts what we'd rather ignore. It celebrates what we often deny. It indulges in what we fear most. And that's why metal will always be a culture of outsiders." --Sam Dunn, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey

To me, either one of these quotes could be used interchangeably to explain the spirit of blues, jazz, or heavy metal; although I'm sure there are plenty of music enthusiasts that would disagree. But there are more than just shared stylistic traits linking the genres: There's a shared DNA that unites them at their sonic foundations.

See also:

-Unearthing Metal's Classical Roots
-Digging Up Heavy Metal's Country Roots

Stereotypically, jazz is the music of erudite hepcats. Blues is the domain of the pony-tailed baby boomers, and metal is the soundtrack of predominately adolescent, testosterone-driven young men. But that's just from the shallow surface: the genres agree on much more than meets the ear.

First and foremost, let's remember that while polite society types might toss on a Dave Brubeck album at a dinner party now, jazz was once a dangerous music, a freaky stepchild of gospel and blues, descended from Mississippi's honky-tonk ragtime blues piano at the turn of the twentieth century.

Jazz is a hybrid of the blues and European classical harmony, and what I love about the genre (same with metal) is that it relies more on the soul's impulse to play than on theory--even though it's technically heavy in musicological terms. At its loosest, jazz reminds us that free-form style of playing has existed in every civilization.

Muddy Waters.jpg
Muddy "Electric Mud" Watters
In the early 1960s, when Muddy Waters went on tour in England, he shocked crowds that were used to a more acoustic brand of blues with his amplified Chicago-style blues. He met and performed with harmonica player Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner, the latter whom was born in the 1920s and is often referred to as the Father of British Blues. Around the time Davies and Korner met Waters in 1961, they had a band called Blues Incorporated, a loose-knit group of musicians that included at various times Ginger Baker, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Rod Stewart.

The exposure to Muddy Waters and an array of other American blues musicians helped inspire those local musicians to emulate the louder style, which propelled The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds into the limelight.

Heavy metal emerged from hard rock in the 1970s, a creation that distilled and intensified the heavier blues-rock and the diminishing "peace and love" phenomenon of the mid- to late- '60s. The amps got bigger, and guitars crunchier, and before anyone was quite sure what was happening, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Jeff Beck Group, and of course the Jimi Hendrix Experience, were inventing heavy metal. These groups took their electric blues improv, amplified it, layering it on top of a jazz foundation. Cream's drummer Ginger Baker, Zeppelin's John Bonham, and Hendrix's Mitch Mitchell all took influence from such jazz musicians as Elvin Jones and Baby Dodds.

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