Bluegrass and Jazz: What Do They Have in Common?

If you’ve come across some of the other things I’ve written for Abbeville, you might have been exposed to my assertion that almost all of American music is Southern music.  Therefore, an obvious answer to the question of what do Bluegrass and Jazz have in common would be geographic origin.  Yes, they definitely both come from Dixie, hallelujah.  And just as a little sidebar, it still blows my mind that not only do such diverse musical styles as Bluegrass and Jazz come from Dixie, but that they COULDN”T have come from anywhere else.  The ingredients that make up Bluegrass and Jazz are specific and unique to the South.  I know a lot of Yankees that try to claim Jazz as being from Chicago or New York, but they’re wrong.  Although Chicago and New York definitely contributed significant aspects to Jazz after its development, neither location was in possession of one of the key and vital ingredients to the birth of Jazz – a Creole population.  Without Creoles, Jazz would have never existed, and nobody else had a Creole population like the one in Louisiana.  Sorry, Yankees (not really).

However, what about the original question – what do Bluegrass and Jazz have in common?  My answer to that question would be the extreme virtuosity of the performers.  Already, I can sense people needing to take a nap after reading the phrase “extreme virtuosity of the performers.”  So, let me approach it a different way, and that is by examining a common ingredient that both Bluegrass and Jazz are mostly missing.

Let’s start with some of the differences between Bluegrass and Country music.  Listen to a couple of old examples of each, and rest assured that I have chosen two selections from the same era of the Grand Ole Opry that will emphasize my point.

First, this is Hank Williams playing “Hey Good Lookin.”

Next, this is Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys playing “Earl’s Breakdown.”

What differences did you see and hear?  First, the instruments are different.  Although both acts use bass and guitar, the Bluegrass song also features banjo, fiddle, and dobro, and it’s easy to think of that as being the typical Bluegrass sound.  Although not EVERY Bluegrass song will feature a banjo, fiddle, and dobro, most of them do.  That particular combination of instruments immediately makes people think of Bluegrass.  Nobody hears a banjo, fiddle, and dobro and thinks “Beethoven!”  Conversely, the Country song features a pedal steel guitar.  There’s obviously a fiddle in Hank Williams’ band, but it’s not featured.  Additionally, Hank’s band uses an electric instrument, which you usually don’t hear in most Bluegrass.  Therefore, one of the most prominent differences between Country and Bluegrass in general is the instrumentation.  Put more simply, they sound different because they use different instruments.  Also, think about this – what if Flatt & Scruggs had done a version of “Hey Good Lookin?”  What would that have sounded like?  You can probably already hear such a version in your head if you remove Hank’s voice and replace it with banjo, fiddle, and dobro.

And that brings us to another difference between Country and Bluegrass, which is that the Country song is vocal and the Bluegrass song is not.  While there are a few Country songs out there that are instrumental, most of them are vocal.  Similarly, although some Bluegrass songs can be vocal, a lot of them are not.  And this gets to the heart of one of the hidden differences between Country and Bluegrass – a connection to the audience.

The Country song purposefully reaches out to the audience in order to make a connection.  Hank even dances a little bit in order to make the girls squeal.  Did you see Earl Scruggs dancing?  No, and that’s because Bluegrass performers are not even TRYING to engage the audience.  Bluegrass performers are much more dedicated to impressing each other than they are the audience.  If you’ve ever been to a Bluegrass festival, then you might have noticed that the underlying philosophy of all the performances is, “We’re going to be playing music up here, and if all of the hundreds of people standing over there happen to like it, then cool.”  Another way of saying the exact same thing is that you cannot be a Bluegrass performer if you are only average at your instrument.  The very nature of Bluegrass demands excellence and a very high degree of virtuosity on your instrument.  You’re not allowed to have an off-day in Bluegrass.  If you’re not at the top of your game, your fellow performers will expose that in a heartbeat.  Bluegrass performers constantly push each other to be better and better, and there is no rest from it.

So what am I really saying?  Well, at the risk of offending a lot of people, I’m going to boldly say that Bluegrass performers are typically much better musicians than Country performers.  And the reason for that is due to the desired connection of the performance.  In order to connect to the audience (Country), you don’t have to be very good.  You just have to have charisma.  But, in order to connect to your fellow musicians (Bluegrass), you had better be good on your instrument.  I love Hank Williams, but he has never been known for his virtuoso guitar skills.  That was never his magic.  Honestly, can you name a single musician who plays the “Hank Williams style” of guitar?  By contrast, I can probably name 50 banjo pickers who play the “Earl Scruggs style.”

And that brings us back to the original question of Bluegrass and Jazz.  For my ears, Jazz music is exactly the same as Bluegrass in that the performers seek a connection with each other more than with the audience.  I have played a lot of Jazz, and there are few things more satisfying in life than jamming with some hot musicians and creating Jazz magic.  The odd thing is that the audience is totally left out of the experience.  Jazz is almost exclusively the property of the performers, and it has not been packaged in a consumer-friendly format since the golden age of Swing.  I never understood how anyone who is not a musician could ever appreciate Jazz, because you can never really understand it until you’ve played it.   Musically, Jazz also uses the drums and bass, but the guitar is usually missing.  They key instruments for Jazz are obviously the trumpet and saxophone.

In closing, watch this video of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers playing a tune called “Moanin.”  Played from the beginning, you can hear Blakey’s simmering disdain for even needing an audience in the first place, and once they start playing, they stay wrapped up in themselves.  In order to enhance your listening, try to pay attention to the organization of the song, which is the typical head-solo-head Jazz form.  In the section known as the “head,” the band plays the melody of the song, which lasts up until about 2:05 in the video.  At that point, they take turns improvising solos, which means they’re making up everything they’re playing right there on the spot for the next 10 minutes.  Every single performer is expected to be able to improvise at the highest level, and they do.  The final two minutes of the song goes back to the beginning (the head) which repeats the melody, and then the song is done.  As you watch the Jazz musicians taking turns playing their improvised solos, think back to the Flatt & Scruggs video.  Didn’t you see the same thing there, as the banjo, fiddle, and dobro each took turns with their improvised solos?

In my mind, I have an image of Flatt & Scruggs taking turns playing songs onstage with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.  What kind of audience would even show up for something like that?  It doesn’t matter, because none of them would be playing for the audience anyway.  However, I believe the musicians would all nod very respectfully in each other’s direction.

About Tom Daniel

Tom Daniel holds a Ph.D in Music Education from Auburn University. He is a husband, father of four cats and a dog, and a college band director who lives back in the woods of Alabama with a cotton field right outside his bedroom window. His grandfather once told him he was "Scotch-Irish," and Tom has been trying to live up to those lofty Southern standards ever since. More from Tom Daniel

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