The old story tells us about an accomplished trumpet player, walking the streets of St. Louis late one night. As he wandered the downtown, he encountered a woman, torn up and saddened over her husband’s unscrupulous behavior. She wailed, “Ma man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea”.
The trumpet player bearing witness to all this? That man was W. C. Handy, an early jazz legend who stands right up with Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong when discussing the forebearers and trailblazers of traditional jazz. To say that he wrote the book is no exaggeration – that very story is the genesis of a song that moved a nation. W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues (published 1914) is among the earliest of jazz tunes to be published, and remains a standard among New Orleans traditional jazz musicians still today. In fact, this song became so popular among the 1920’s American populous, it even inspired a specific set of dance moves – today, we call it the foxtrot.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes this tune so unique:
It’s a pretty simple song, with just an A section and a B section, the B section being your typical 12 bar blues changes. So why all the fuss? The answer lies in two key components – a Latin time feel in the A section, and a parallel key modulation between A and B.
Let’s start at the top. The whole A feel establishes a strong Latin pulse, moving in a tango- style pattern that accentuates straight-not-swung articulations. Beat four in particular features two even eighth notes that drive the progression forward, again similar to a tango-style accent pattern. This was a groundbreaking composition in this respect, as the majority of jazz at the time would not have strayed this far from the traditional feel.
Secondly, the modulation. While the A section, mostly a i-V7-V7-i motion, establishes G minor tonality throughout, the final chord of A (D7) gets turned on it’s head a bit when the B resolves it major, to a G7 rather than the anticipated Gm. This moves the blues section of the tune into a whole new key signature, which keeps the listener’s ears fresh and spices up the variety even further between the Aand B sections.
To check out a recording of the tune being played waaaaaay back, follow this link. I challenge you musicians out there to do a playalong, and bring this old standard back to life.
Tonight we hit St. Louis ourselves, well over a hundred years since W. C. Handy hit pay dirt with his catchy tune in the very same city. We’ll try to catch some of his magic over at the Broadway Oyster Bar – the show starts at 10pm and $8 gets you an evening of entertainment with yours truly. Hope to see you there!
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