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Excavating Heavy Metal's Blues and Jazz Roots

Black Sabbath, formerly known as the Polka Tulk Blues Band
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 "Electric Mud" Watters
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.   While all the bands mentioned have a distinct role in the creation of heavy metal, none quite matches the importance to the genre's blueprint the way Black Sabbath does. Sabbath's blues roots were explicit: The combo started out as the Polka Tulk Blues Band, then changed its name to Earth, then settled on the name Black Sabbath. In some of the band's earliest recordings, they utilized a saxophonist and a slide guitarist, and wrote music that interpreted the blues albums they listened to. Iommi couldn't read music, so he tried to cop the swinging feeling of jazz and blues by ear, listing artists like Joe Pass and Tal Farlow as favorites. Musically smitten by fellow Englishman Eric Clapton, Iommi took those same blues-based licks and riffs and turned them inside out, tuning down his strings so that his prosthetic fingertips could more easily execute barre chords. The resulting sound was heavy and bluesy.

Iommi's heavy blues sound remained even as heavy metal incorporated punk, classical, and more extreme, niche influences in the '80s, becoming less "groovy" in the process. I can't wait to get my hands on the band's upcoming record this year,

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and hear such tracks as the seven-minute "Epic," which reportedly could pass for an unheard outtake from Sabbath's highly creative 1972-1975 period.

Of course, I'm guessing it may not be as intense as their 1973 recording of "Wicked World" from Live at Last, a 19-minute fascination that opens with Buddy Rich-style hi-hat rhythm and a swinging call-and-response riff (a common blues move), and delves into some of Iommi's brooding free-form jazz. Damn, I love that tune.  

John Zorn
John Zorn

Among the bands that continued to evolve the genre by nixing a lot of the blues sounds in the mid-1970s was Judas Priest, spawning several different branches of heavy metal. But there was still the sound across the board, from the Scorpions' swing to KISS' walking bass. Swedish band Meshuggah's distinct blues polyrhythms, and Morbid Angel's percussion jazz techniques. Even extreme metallers Demilich creates riffs that resemble avant-garde jazz fusion.

Modern audiences probably don't even realize how much of jazz and fusion influenced Metallica, and it doesn't get more mainstream metal than that. Bassist Robert Trujillo is known for his intricate fingerstyle and slap techniques, but what you may not know is that he studied with Joel DiBartolo from the NBC Orchestra and veteran jazz and session bassist Max Bennett before graduating music school. Drummer Lars Ulrich is even rooted in jazz--his dad is woodwinds player Torben Ulrich, and Dexter Gordon's godson.

It's important to also consider the cousin-like relationship of '70s jazz-rock and progressive rock. The intricate composition, musical urgency and metric complexity threads bands like Yes to a ton of modern metal bands.

As a metalhead, if you decide to go out and buy anything remotely jazzy after reading this Metal Mondays column, get a taste of John Zorn. In the late 1980s, this staple of New York's musical cross-pollination scene released two albums that are essential in understanding heavy metal/jazz. Spy vs. Spy is the epitome of acoustic hardcore, while his band Naked City's self-titled LP messes with musical arrangement in an incredibly exciting, sinful manner. Plus, it utilized the saxophone as a completely adequate metal instrument.

Something that also stands out poignantly for me is that jazz was once just as taboo and bastardized as hard rock. The only difference between the two genres--that were each seen as a celebration of headstrong youth and unwholesome lifestyle--was a couple of decades. They both have the reputation as a working-class music of the people, utilized to show the breakdown of the organized society, hardship and emotion. They both were fine with falling from grace and being exiled in the mainstream.

Just like current metal and their loyal fans. Does that mean NPR will one day have a program dedicated to Black Label Society's take on 12-bar blues? Maybe. You never know exactly where the problem child is going to turn up.


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