How to write a two-bar blues (featuring an original blues, ‘After Lunch’)

In ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’, first recorded in July 1941 by Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra (a subset of the Duke Ellington Orchestra under a different name), Mercer Ellington uses one element clearly modeled on his father Duke Ellington’s earlier music for his band and another element which my research suggests may have been borrowed from his father’s improvisational language on the piano. ‘Things’ was written in early 1941 under great time constraints created by radio stations suddenly banning music published through ASCAP. This prevented Ellington from playing his back catalog of compositions on the radio and led him to ask Mercer Ellington and Billy Strayhorn to write the band a new ‘book’ of tunes in a very short space of time. This makes it understandable why Mercer would have used borrowed elements in composing ‘Things’. (For more on this situation and Strayhorn’s response to it, click on the tiny superscript ‘1’ at the end of this sentence.1)

In ‘Things’, aside from a short interlude, Mercer Ellington uses the blues progression, a harmonic structure that Ellington had used in many of his previous compositions, such as Creole Love Call and Diminuendo in Blue.  He also uses a melodic figure which is similar to a phrase from the Scottish bagpipe tune ‘The Campbells Are Coming ‘ that Duke Ellington quoted in at least three piano solos on recordings with his band over an eleven-year period.  These include two recordings of ‘C Jam Blues’, one in November or December of 1941 for a RCA ‘soundie’ film and a studio recording in January 1942.  In the ‘soundie’ version, Ellington uses the ‘Campbells’ quote once in his one-chorus solo, and in the studio recording he finds room in the same short space to use it twice; but all three quotations have different placements within the measure and within the blues form. While all Ellington’s uses of ‘Campbells’ are in the later part of his short intro solos on ‘C Jam’, he uses a ‘Campbells’ quote to begin a solo which is an intro to the version of ‘Take The A Train’ from the album 1952 album ‘Ellington Uptown’. It is clear that over the ten-year period between the ‘C Jam’ recordings and the ’52 ‘A Train’, Ellington was going through a process of finding different rhythmic approaches to assimilating this lick into his solos. Click on the tiny superscript ‘2’ at the end of this sentence for more info on Ellington and ‘Campbells’.2  (In my post on Red Garland, I detail what sound to me like Garland’s quotations of ‘Campbells’.)

Although all these recorded ‘Campbells’ quotes come after the first recording of ‘Things’, the fact that this phrase stayed in Duke Ellington’s improvisational vocabulary for over a decade strongly suggests that Mercer Ellington might have heard his father use it before 1941, and that he might have taken the first five notes, changed the rhythm and added one note to form the main motive of ‘Things’.  If this is not the case, Ellington’s ‘Campbells’ quotes could be an example of the son influencing the father, as the discography at shows the Ellington band performed ‘Things’ many times between the ‘C Jam’ and ‘A Train’ recordings.   Ellington’s quotes of ‘Campbells’, in other words, could be the bandleader consciously or unconsciously saying in melodic language, ‘the more I play my son’s tune, the more it reminds me of this old Scottish melody.’ In my view, however, it is more likely that Mercer took his father’s pre-1941 (but unrecorded) uses of the ‘Campbells’ lick to the next level by innovating on it in ‘Things’.

My use of ‘innovate’ and ‘assimilate’ in the last two paragraphs is inspired by Clark Terry’s famous concept of how improvisers develop their language, ‘Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate’. I give my own definitions of these three stages in the second paragraph of my post Ellavolution. I also have a series of posts called ‘Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate’ on how improvisers and composers have engaged in this process using melodic ideas that feature specific intervals. This series can be accessed through the links in the right sidebar of the blog.

Both ‘Things’ and Rudy Stephenson’s ‘Blues On Purpose’, first recorded by the Wynton Kelly trio, share what I would call ‘dialogic phrasing’, melodic phrases that begin after the downbeat of a bar and often function as an ‘answer’ to the ‘question’ posed by the arrival of a new chord.  In ‘Blues on Purpose’, the first two beats of each two-bar phrase are occupied by a chordal comping phrase using ‘Charleston’ rhythm (i.e. a dotted quarter followed by an eighth note in swing rhythm), and the melodic phrases begin on the ‘and’ of 3 in the first bar.  The melodic phrases in ‘Things’ begins earlier, on the ‘and’ of 1, but this still leaves room for a short comping phrase, which Ellington does with single notes on the version from the 1953 trio album Piano Reflections

One can hear pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams in a similar process over a similar period of time experimenting with the phrase that eventually forms the basis of her blues ‘Koolbonga‘ from the 1964 album Black Christ of the Andes.  On her 1953 album Mary Lou Wiliams Plays In London the lick appears at the very beginning of the piano part in her blues ‘Kool Bongo‘, but continues in the bass part as the piano breaks off into chordal comping.  In her tune Carioca, recorded later the 1950s with a trio and in a very similar arrangement by the Dizzy Gillespie big band with Williams on piano in 1957, she uses the lick as a midsection.  On Black Christ in 1964, Williams returns to ‘Kool Bongo’ in the similarly titiled ‘Koolbonga’ and doubles the bassline in the piano part throughout the head statement, effectively making the bassline the melody of the tune.  Like ‘Things’ and ‘Blues On Purpose’, ‘Koolbonga’ is based on a two-measure motive. 

While the head of ‘Koolbonga’ is based on minor pentatonic scales built on the roots of the I, IV and V chords in the progression, the improvising that follows the head is on a blues progression that uses dominant seventh chords. Below you will find an assignment to write a blues that ‘makes the changes’ (i.e. melodically outlines the harmony) of a dominant-seventh-based blues progression, so I ask that in following that process, you use the phrasing of ‘Koolbonga’ as a model, but not its note choice. One thing that ‘Koolbonga’ and ‘Blues On Purpose’ have in common is a melody played by either the bass alone or by the bass and another instrument in unison, and that is certainly an option for the assignment.

Compose a ‘two bar blues’, in other words, a melody following the chord progression of the twelve-bar blues as shown below and built from two-measure phrases like the tunes mentioned in this post. Use as your models the dominant-seventh-chord based melodic lines of ‘Things’ and ‘Blues On Purpose’ and the way in which ‘Koolbonga’ outlines all three of the basic I, IV and V chords in the twelve-bar ‘jazz blues’ progression below. Although the melody of ‘Things’ focuses on the major triad and the melody of ‘Blues On Purpose’ focuses on the major pentatonic scales of the I and IV chords, feel free to take one of these approaches and/or use the mixolydian/seventh scale based off of the roots of the I, IV and V. Although the melodic lines of ‘Things’ and ‘Blues On Purpose’ do not outline the V chord, your line should outline the V chord, as the melody/bassline of ‘Koolbonga’ does, however, it should do this using the major triad, major pentatonic scale, or mixolydian scale based off the root of the V chord, not the minor pentatonic as Koolbonga does. This is not an assignment in free composition but rather a both a guided compositional project and a theory exercise using the blues progression below as a vehicle. You are welcome to do a second draft of your blues where you move outside these guidelines. I think that you will find that following the limitations of this project may result in a first draft that inspires revision.

Here are the required elements of the assignment:

1) Borrow, adapt or compose a two bar motive or ‘riff’ that outlines a dominant seventh chord. One option is to borrow or adapt one of the dominant seventh chord phrases from the Glossary of Melodic Patterns based on Root Position Chords shown in the post on my tune Broken Heart for Sale.  Your phrase should fit ‘inside’ two bars, either using ‘Koolbonga’, which goes from beat 1 of the first bar to beat 4 of the second bar, or the ‘dialogic’ phrasing of ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ which begins on the ‘and’ of 1 in the first bar, and ‘Blues On Purpose’, which begins on the ‘and’ of 3 in the first bar, and.  It should also fulfill these basic elements of melody which can be heard all the example tunes given in this post:

– Instead of being limited to only stepwise or only skip/leap motion, It should have a balance of step and skip/leap motion.

– Rather than being limited to only ascending or only descending motion, it should have a balance of ascending and descending motion.

– Instead of being limited to only one note duration – i.e., only quarter notes or only eighth notes, should have a balance of longer and shorter note values.  Keep in mind that some sense of eighth-note momentum is an important component of a jazz melodic line, either through using groups of two or more eighth notes or having single eighth notes, for example,  on upbeats preceded by an eighth rest or in a dotted quarter-eighth note combination (single eighth notes on the downbeat followed by rests do not create a sense of eighth note momentum.)

2) transpose your riff so that it outlines I, IV and V chords of a blues progression in G (G7, C7 and D7).  Transpose the riff without altering its phrase length, melodic rhythm or pattern of intervals. 

3) sequence it through this basic three chord blues progression:

G7 / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / |

C7 / / / | / / / / | G7 / / /| / / / /|

D7 / / / | / / / / | G7 / / /| / / / /|

This will result in a tune which departs from the structure of Things Ain’t and Blues on Purpose where they have differing melodic material in m. 9-12, but follows the structure of Koolbonga.

4) Notate your tune as a single-staff lead sheet with one staff of melody in treble or bass clef, chord symbols above, and four measures in each line (as this is easier to read).

5) learn to play your line on your instrument

Here are some optional  elements of the assignment:

1) to include the ‘innovate’ stage of the ’emulate, assimilate, innovate’ process, add alterations to any of the phrases after the first phrase.  Alterations to the pattern can include (but are not limited to):

– adding additional notes, as long as the line stays within the two-measure parameter (as in m. 3-4 of Things Ain’t WTUTB)

– making minor alterations to the shape (i.e. direction) of the line without changing the length of the phrase, as in m. 9-10 of Koolbonga

2) give your line ‘dialogic’ phrasing, as in Things Ain’t and Blues On Purpose (i.e. beginning the phrase somewhere after beat 1, where the bassline tends to state the root and chord instruments place the chord.  If you play a chord instrument, you can incorporate a statement of the chord on or near beat 1 of m. 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 (as in Blues On Purpose).  If you are performing the tune on piano, you could notate the rhythms and voicings of the chords. 

3) change the chord in m. 9 to Am7 so that m. 9-12 form a ii-V-I as is typical in ‘jazz blues’.  A two bar phrase that outlines the V chord will generally sound good over a two-bar ii-V progression. 

My tune After Lunch resulted from following this process and is loosely based on a lick from Paul Asbell’s tune Blue Lunch from Burmese Panther, an album of his fine jazz compositions. (While ‘Blue Lunch’ doesn’t include keyboards, I play organ and piano on other tracks of the album including the title tune, ‘Ambidextrous’, ‘Chillantro’ and ‘Tore Up’.)

This blog post including footnotes copyright 2024 by Tom Cleary

  1. On January 1st, 1941, hundreds of radio stations around the country announced that they would no longer broadcast music published through ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).  This move was in protest of ASCAP having made a 100 percent increase in the royalty payments they charged to radio stations for the right to broadcast the songs they controlled.  For Duke Ellington, who performed regularly with his orchestra on the radio and for whom radio had been ‘instrumental…in gaining him fame and fortune’, this meant that as of January 1st, all the music he had written for the band since he joined ASCAP in 1935 could not be performed on the radio.  Learning of the ban on January 1st created a major crisis for Ellington and his band, as they were scheduled to play a live broadcast from the Casa Manana in Culver City, California on January 3rd.  According to Walter van de Leur in Something To Live For: the music of Billy Strayhorn, ‘in order to gain entry [to ASCAP] a writer had to have published at least five successful songs…Ellington turned to his son Mercer and Strayhorn, both of whom fell short of the ASCAP registration requirements and thus could provide music that steered clear of the ban.’ 

    Strayhorn biographer David Hadju writes that over the course of two days spent in a Chicago hotel (where they stayed behind after the band left for California) and on a train to Los Angeles, Mercer Ellington and Strayhorn composed a total of twelve charts that formed a new ‘book’ for the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  While some of the music Strayhorn wrote at this time, such as ‘Chelsea Bridge’, ‘A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing’ and ‘Rain Check’, made major departures from Duke Ellington’s compositional style, at least one tune of Strayhorn’s and one of Mercer Ellington’s showed signs that the composers were building on previous successful Ellington compositions.  The melody of Strayhorn’s ‘Take The ‘A’ Train’ shows the influence of bop melodic concepts, which were not part of the Ellington band’s vocabulary at the time, but the first eight measures of Strayhorn’s chord progression uses the same essential harmonic structure that opens ‘Mood Indigo’ and ‘Solitude’, two iconic Ellington tunes from the period before Strayhorn joined the Ellington organization as a staff composer. (Given the breadth of Strayhorn’s musical knowledge, it seems possible that he was aware the progression of ‘A Train’ had both a likeness to the A sections of the two earlier Ellington tunes and an even greater similarity to the progression of the 1930 Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields song ‘Exactly Like You’.)
  2. The Campbells Are Coming’ has a Scottish version, which seems to have originated sometime in the 1700s, and an American fife-and-drum version which was apparently played during the Civil War by Union troops as they marched toward the battle of Gettysburg.  As all Ellington’s quotations of this tune occur during the intro sections of ‘C Jam Blues’ and ‘A Train’, his use of it to rally his ‘troops’ for the ‘battle’ of the improvised solos shows his awareness of the tune’s origin.  It seems possible that Ellington was also aware that the tune was adopted by Union troops in the Civil War, as in his own way he was a lifelong proponent of civil rights.  The lyrics to ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ by Ted Persons, written during World War II and sung by Ella Fitzgerald on her album of the same name from the 1970s, have a civil rights theme of sorts, alluding to both the mental ravages of the Jim Crow era (‘got so weary of bein’ nothin’), and the experience of finding less discrimination and more solidarity in the military than in society at large: ‘look at that Army, fightin’ to be free / it doesn’t bar me / shows me how to go with my head up / eyes ain’t lookin low, don’t feel fed up / that’s how come I see a victory / believe me, Things Ain’t What They Used To Be. ↩︎
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