Without Jazz and Blues, There's No Americana

Saxophonist J.D. Allen’s new record makes the case that any genre that pretends to represent the full scope of U.S. culture can’t ignore black music.

Blues history celebrates mythical turning points. Robert Johnson going to the crossroads to sell his soul. Leadbelly being discovered in—and sprung from—prison by John and Alan Lomax. The 1913 arrest that set 12-year-old Louis Armstrong on his musical career.

J.D. Allen’s moment was less dramatic: It came in a classroom in Seattle, where he asked a student to play a blues pattern.

“He did a 12-bar form, but he did everything but the blues scale. He said, ‘That’s for kids. That’s for third graders,’” the 43-year-old tenor saxophonist recalls. “ I understood where he was coming from. When I was his age, I thought that type of music wasn’t sophisticated enough for a jazz musician. I had to do some investigation.”

The result of that investigation is Allen’s new record, Americana, which comes out on May 20 and features a set of songs rooted in the blues and based on the I-IV-V progression that underpins the genre—as well as most country, rock and roll, soul, and funk. Musically, the record is a tour de force. Conceptually, it’s a bold project, one that moves to assert the blues’ role at the center of modern jazz, but moreover to force a reconsideration of what constitutes “Americana”—expanding it to include jazz and blues, two of America’s greatest vernacular musical modes.

In a 2013 essay in The Atlantic, Giovanni Russonello traced the roots of “Americana” the genre to the 1990s, and the “weather-beaten, rural-sounding music that bands like Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo were making. It was warm, twangy stuff, full of finger-plucked guitars and gnarled voices like tires on a dirt road.” Russonello pointed out that the artists grouped under the banner tended to be overwhelmingly white, male, and older—or at least obsessed with music from the 1950s to 1970. “Can a genre that offers itself up as a kind of fantasy soundtrack for this country afford to be so homogeneous and so staunchly archaic?” he asked.

The blame for this impoverished definition of Americana falls on the tastemakers of the genre. Since the Grammys established an Americana award in 2009, only three black artists have been nominated (one of them, Mavis Staples, twice). But musicians working in jazz and blues don’t necessarily see themselves as part of Americana, either, as Allen’s own story demonstrates.

Raised in Detroit, Allen apprenticed with the great singer Betty Carter, whose bands were famous as the Ivy League academies of the music. He’s recorded nine critically well-received records; his sound and feeling draw comparisons to John Coltrane, while his frequent use of a saxophone-bass-drums trio draws parallels to Sonny Rollins, a leading exponent of the format. No one gets to this point in the jazz world without at least a technical facility with the blues. Allen even had a personal connection to the music—his grandfather was from Sunflower County, Mississippi, the Delta center where Charley Patton, B.B. King, Albert King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson all lived or played.

“He used to sing a lot of old blues tunes to me,” Allen says. “I didn’t associate it with people not having intelligence. It was more historical, something that I didn’t have any connection to.”

Inspired by the student in Seattle, Allen embarked on a deeper exploration. He delved into old archival recordings—like the field recordings that John and Alan Lomax made across the South. He drew a couple of essential insights from the exercise. The first was  meaning—“It’s not necessarily the blues scale, but the intent behind it,” as he says. Blues is often caricatured as a music of sadness and woe, stories of loves lost and fortunes squandered. Somewhat more sophisticated analyses will cloak this misconception in socio-historical garb—after all, the music of a subjugated and plundered people can only be a music of sorrow and strife.

The impression doesn’t stand listening to much blues, where for every hard-time story you’ll find a raunchy sex song, a party romp, and a goofy novelty. Nor was it the interpretation of the foremost theorists of black music and culture. “The blues speak to us simultaneously of the tragic and the comic aspects of the human condition and they express a profound sense of life shared by many Negro Americans precisely because their lives have combined these modes,” wrote Ralph Ellison. Or as his friend Albert Murray put it, in a phrase Allen quotes, “The blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirit people. It is the product of a forward- looking, upward-striving people.”

The second insight Allen gleaned was musical. When people talk about the blues—especially in jazz context—they’re thinking of a specific pattern, 12 measures of music with a roughly consistent order of chords. (A musician might make it eight bars, or 16 bars; she can alter the progression slightly, or add in color chords.) One thing Allen noticed was that the oldest blues recordings don’t obey the form. The 12-bar structure hadn’t been codified. A singer might sing 10-bar blues, or a 13-bar blues. He might sing a 10-bar verse followed immediately by a 13-bar verse, stretching out the music to fit the lyrics or a mood or a whim. Suddenly the form doesn’t seem so formulaic.

“That’s what I wanted to get to. It’s very elusive. It’s unique. You don’t know where it drops, or where it’s gonna take place,” Allen says. “I was trying to figure out, how can I do this in a recording?”

One asset Allen had was his band, which features Rudy Royston on drums and Gregg August on bass. It’s an atypical setup, because most leaders want to have a chordal instrument, a piano or a guitar, in the band to help maintain the harmonic thrust. Without that, it’s tougher for the musicians—much less the audience—to keep track of the chords.

“For me, playing with the trio, just bass and drums, it allows for the greatest note in the world, which is space,” he says. “When there’s that space, there’s a lot of stuff running through your mind. You think more about what was just played. Space is the 13th note.”

On Americana, the trio use that freedom, stretching songs out and twisting them around. The record is mostly Allen originals, plus one by fellow saxophonist Bill McHenry and the standard “Another Man Done Gone,” originally by Vera Hall but covered by artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Elvis Costello to Hot Tuna. (Allen first heard Hall through the 1999 Moby hit “Natural Blues,” which is more or less a remix of her “Trouble So Hard.”)

Americana is a rich, woody, intimate album. It has some of the dignified propulsion and dark veneer of Coltrane’s Crescent, and just enough of the jagged edge of that recording. At times, as on “Bigger Thomas,” it’s straightforward, boppish jazz. At other moments, it’s more incantatory, like “Lightnin’.” The format allows the members to trade the spotlight, with each one taking the lead at times. At a recent performance at the Art of Cool Festival in Durham, North Carolina, the band had even more fully inhabited the songs since recording the album in January. Allen is a clear but not selfish leader. August took a long, bowed solo on “Another Man Done Gone,” on which the melody was deeply subsumed, only surfacing occasionally through a tempest of sound. Records hardly do justice to Royston’s explosive, riveting bursts of percussion. The trio drifted into free sections then merged back together smoothly.

In short, this is modern jazz. Too frequently, there’s a split between musicians who play soulful, bluesy jazz, focused on I-IV-Vs and blues scales, and those who play progressive music, intellectually and aesthetically satisfying but with increasingly tenuous links to the music that birthed it a century ago. The bluesier players are sometimes criticized as simplistic and backward-looking; the modern players take heat for losing the soul of the music. Americana is a bridge—a record that’s forward-thinking yet conscious of its roots. Ellison wrote that “classic blues were both entertainment and a form of folklore,” and Americana embodies that dual role.

For years, jazz advocates have pursued a well-intentioned project of construing the form as “America’s classical music.” In a time of declining record sales and hard times for an important art form, it’s an understandable attempt to garner both critical recognition and scarce arts-programming dollars. That strategy has risks, though. In 2014, Mostly Other People Do the Killing satirized the risk of ossification with a note-for-note cover of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Another danger is that the “classical” tag drives a division between jazz and its roots.

“I get the impression that people think that jazz isn’t at its heart a folk music. It comes across now as this, ‘Oh, high intellectual’ ... which it is! Being a jazz musician you have to be a Jedi,” Allen says. But he continues, “Sometimes you see that people who haven’t heard good jazz or been exposed to it, they tend to think it’s this intellectual, cappuccino thing that you can’t get with. The blues should be in that music, the blues should bring that humanity and bring people into the music.”

Then there’s the cover of the album: Eleven black Americans of various ages, standing in a field of cotton. The crop’s connection to slavery is obvious, but freed slaves and their descendants later farmed cotton themselves in exploitative sharecropping arrangements. The history of the particular photo is obscure. The Library of Congress, where it resides, records only that its title is “Land of Cotton,” and that it was shot by the Charlotte, North Carolina, photographer Edward Warren Day. Allen speculates that the subjects are sharecroppers, noting that his grandfather’s mother was a sharecropper.

Allen acts nonchalant about it, but pairing this image with the title “Americana” is a pointed political gesture, placing jazz and blues at the heart of any definition of Americana. Allen is not the only jazz musician to make this connection. The guitarist Bill Frisell (with whom Royston also frequently plays) has spent the last 25 years digging into Americana, but he often veers toward the twangier side of the genre. The singer Cassandra Wilson’s 2002 Belly of the Sun is a stunning example of revisiting the blues in a jazz context, but her album is also folk-inflected and guitar-adorned. The blues-based correction Allen makes is overdue.

“I can listen to Hank Williams and still hear the blues in that,” he says. “Businessmen, they have to have numbers on it, they have to have categories. Every great artist that I’ve met, they don’t care what the title is, they care about the quality of the music. We have a right to that work. We’re part of Americana. The blues is in every part of American music.”

The record carries some uncomfortable reminders of the complicated racial past of roots music, too: The liner notes meticulously record that “Another Man Done Gone” is legally credited not just to Hall, but also to John and Alan Lomax and Ruby Pickens Tartt, the three white folklorists who discovered and recorded her.

The irony to all of this is that the things that captured Allen about the old blues are similar to the ones that drew the pioneers of alt-country to roots music in the first place. Just as Allen came from the sophisticated jazz world, Uncle Tupelo emerged from Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s punk band, the Primitives. On Whiskeytown’s “Faithless Street,” Ryan Adams confessed, “I started this damn country band / ’Cause punk rock was too hard to sing.” Turning to twang, they found something deeper, older, and—crucially—weirder. It’s fitting that all of these musicians reached back in time for similar reasons, and fitting that they all exist under a single label. It’s all Americana.