Bluegrass and Jazz Improvisation

Bluegrass and Jazz Improvisation

Joey Pilot

Joey Pilot

Yes, Joey Pilot is my real name.

I play jazz piano, bluegrass mandolin and other things in Raleigh, North Carolina. I’m a self proclaimed music nerd and recently found myself in a unique position due to my background in both bluegrass and jazz. I run a periodic newsletter of weird, obscure and interesting music called The Orphic.

Like many productive members of society, I work a desk job to finance my unhealthy interest in music. The following is a rewrite of a response I made on the r/jazz subreddit about the relationship between improvisation in jazz and bluegrass.

First, some vaguely self-defined terms….

  • Bluegrass: you are on so you should know what this is
  • Traditional Jazz: most New Orleans based jazz of the early 20th century
  • Modern Jazz: jazz after bebop, not swing or traditional jazz
This is not bluegrass.

Songs and Blues, Fiddles and Banjos

Bluegrass and jazz both have roots in popular song and blues. As Bill Monroe said, “It’s jazz and blues, it has that high lonesome sound”.

The actual amount of jazz that bleeds into bluegrass via Bill Monroe is an interesting topic, but for the sake of this post, what this tells us is that the forms of early jazz and bluegrass have more in common than different.

Each has vocal/song forms as a backbone, as well as instrumental dance numbers (breakdowns and reels in bluegrass from the old time fiddle tradition, and stomps, rags and swing in jazz). Interestingly, many of the greatest black fiddlers before the Civil War spent significant time in New Orleans, and early ragtime was played on fiddles and in string bands. Traditional jazz also has (albeit a “tenor”) banjo.

Listen to traditional jazz (Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five/Seven) and compare to any of the pre-50s Bluegrass Boys (check out Heavy Traffic Ahead). They follow typical song forms with verses and refrains, with instrumental breaks.

Filling in the space

In general, bluegrass improvisation takes place over one verse or part of the form. The goal is to keep the rhythm going and fill up space before the singer comes back in. Besides the soloist, all the other instruments are accompanying with their usual schtick – chop the mandolin, roll the banjo, thump the bass on the downbeats, with an occasional walk. This kind of arrangement with verses, chorus and instrumental breaks is part of a lineage throughout American popular music including country music and rock.

There are instrumental breaks over the form in modern jazz, but they tend to be over the entire form (not just a verse or part) and in the case of traditional jazz, group improvisation is constant along with a rhythm section akin to a string band (bass lines and rhythmic harmonic accompaniment on guitar/piano).

In modern jazz improvisation, the soloist is much more free to explore the form of the tune and alter the melody and harmony. The same even goes for the accompaniment in jazz – the pianist and bassist can reharmonize, the drummer can mess with the time. As long as everyone knows where each other is (big ears) then this will be successful. This manifests in a deep level of dynamic interaction that you can hear happening in real-time.

The improvisation that occurs in Bluegrass is about creating excitement and interest without betraying the groove. The groove is central to the sound, and when you think of the rhythms involved and timbre of the instruments- a syncopated stream of notes from 3 string banjo, mandolin chop on 2 and 4 like a snare drum, and vocal qualities of the fiddle dancing around the lead singer, this leaves little room for “decorating” or “obscuring” the beat. There are A LOT of high-frequency sound events happening simultaneously. It is more about arranging music on the spot (like traditional jazz) rather than improvising novel melodies (modern jazz).

Some melodies are more novel than others.

Individual and the Collective

There is a contrast between the collective sound of Bluegrass and the individual as expressed in modern Jazz improvisation.

In modern jazz, the music can be defined in terms of the interaction. It is a central part to the musical experience.

In general, the “interaction” in Bluegrass is a means to an end, in as much as you play with others to achieve a cohesive sound. In some ways, if you don’t detect interaction in Bluegrass that is a good thing. But that does NOT mean there isn’t interaction, musicality or dynamics The interaction in bluegrass is more akin to the “improvised arrangements” of traditional jazz than the long-form narratives present in jazz after bebop.

You may notice I didn’t really talk about sub-genres of Bluegrass (namely Progressive bluegrass, Newgrass and Jamgrass). Music exists on a continuum, and these styles definitely depart from bluegrass towards jazz in some interesting and surprising ways, particularly in regards to form. However, I still feel that the central characteristics of instrumentation, rhythm, space and a shared musical history apply to these styles in the same way they do to older styles of bluegrass.

Both bluegrass and jazz have roots in rural music making its way to urban centers, where African American and other regional styles co-mingled, mutated and gave birth to new idioms of musical expression. But elements of improvisation and interaction manifested differently as each music developed, notably with the ascendance of the consummate improvisor in the jazz world and the radio for bluegrass. At the end of the day it’s important to note that the players of this music did not exist in a vacuum and were certainly influenced by a wide variety of American music, whether on the radio, in church or in their communities.

Editor’s Note: Joey Pilot is the source for the Toe, Knee, and Bowl of Rice Tee shirt in the merch shop. Pending a lengthy discussion with legal counsel more shirt ideas from Joey may be coming soon. In the meantime please subscribe to Joey’s newsletter, The Orphic. It really is incredible.


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