An Integral Take on the Blues Idiom

Greg Thomas Art & Creativity, Article, Free, Integral Post, Perspectives Leave a Comment

From an integral perspective, the blues has many dimensions, from the personal to the bio-behavioral aspects of the individual, to the cultural and social dynamics of collectives. The blues can be experienced from an egocentric, ethnocentric, and world-centric value level or stage of development. We can view the blues as a musical or cognitive or aesthetic line of intelligence or development also, and even as a philosophical proposition—an existential response to life in the late-19th through the 20th century.  

We’ll touch upon many of these in our two-part exploration of the blues, and we’ll be joined by other writers and thinkers on aesthetics and the blues, and musicians who play it. Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Burke, Christopher Small, Suzanne Langer and Wynton Marsalis are primary examples of those I’ve brought to bear on this journey. But first I’ll share a singular, first-person moment. Here’s a short presentation I gave while hosting an event titled harlem is… MUSIC: The Blues Tradition, at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem on Friday, June 19, 2009.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York in the tumultuous ’60s and the far-out ’70s, soul music, funk, R&B, soft and hard rock, the Motown and Philly Sounds, and even disco were most popular. Being young and ignorant, I shied away from the blues.

“That’s old timey,” said I, as an adolescent.

“That’s from slavery times,” I thought, as a teen.

“That’s simple stuff compared to bebop jazz and European classical,” I said, while in college.

See, for me, a little knowledge was a dangerous thing.

But the more I listened, the more I heard blues everywhere—all up in and around the jazz I fell in love with 30 years ago; in the soul, funk, R&B, and rock and roll on the radio; and even in the gospel I heard going to church in the South and the North.

And the more I studied, the more profound the blues became to me.

I learned that the blues was like vaccine, or a homeopathic remedy, giving you little doses of heartache lyrically, so you’d be able to withstand and understand the real heartbreak a little better, later.

I found out that the blues and its siblings, the spirituals and gospel, were what black folk had instead of Freudian psychology.

I came to see that blues, like Brer Rabbit tales, the stories of Uncle Remus, and the myths of John Henry and Aunt Hagar, were the folk wisdom of a strong, resilient, persevering people.

I learned that whereas what the great writer on blues and jazz Albert Murray called the blues as such was about sadness, frustration and even depression, I also came to understand from him that blues music was about communal celebration and victory, elegance and style, and lettin’ the good times roll between a man and a woman. That’s how you stomp the blues!

I noticed that all of the great innovators of jazz—from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk to Miles Davis,  John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman—were masters of the blues.

I also perceived that the most beloved ladies of song in blues and jazz—from Bessie and Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae and Betty Carter—were steeped, marinated, and even perfumed sweetly in the blues.

So when we’re talking about the blues, we talkin’ about something with deep roots and branches that found its extension and refinement in other forms and genres we hold dear. When we talkin’ about the blues, we talkin’ about the existential wisdom of a people, like those who have made Harlem what it is: the Blues tradition.

That gives you a good idea of how my thinking about the blues has evolved over the course of my life. But what, exactly, is the blues?

From the basic perspective of story and narrative, the blues, as such, is a tale of woe about a sorrowful situation. But we also know that story, as a fundamental part of human existence, has layers of meaning and various windows of hermeneutic interpretation. So, from sociological and ethnomusicological vantage points, the blues is: 

  • Good-time music 
  • The secular foundation for jazz and other forms of American music 
  • Based on (usually) a repeated 12-bar cycle, a call-and-response melodic structure, a Negro (or black or African) American vocal timbre, and a harmonic system that connects to Christian church music tradition and other music across the world 

Albert Murray adds psychological, anthropological, and literary depth to the descriptions above. To Murray, the blues is also a way to psychologically grapple with the predicament of one’s current situation while engaging the communal in a purification ritual that banishes the “blue devils” and morphs into fertility ritual. On p. 45 of his classic text, Stomping the Blues, Murray writes that:

“That the blues as such are a sore affliction that can lead to total collapse goes without saying. But blues music regardless of its lyrics almost always induces dance movement that is the direct opposite of resignation, retreat, or defeat.”

In his 1996 work, The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement, Murray re-submits the proposition (first detailed in The Hero and the Blues in 1973)that what he calls the blues idiom is a valid, reliable, comprehensive, and sophisticated frame of reference to define and recount heroic action. The blues idiom, and what he calls the fully orchestrated blues statement, “enables the narrator to deal with tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and farce simultaneously.”

He also explains that:

Even as the lyrics wail and quaver a tale of woe, the music may indicate the negative mood suggested by the dreadful, or in any case regrettable, details, but even so there will also be tantalizing sensuality in the woodwinds, mockery and insouciance among the trumpets, bawdiness from the trombones, a totally captivating, even if sometimes somewhat ambivalent elegance in the ensembles and in the interplay of the solos and ensembles, plus a beat that is likely to be as affirmative as the ongoing human pulse itself.

Murray’s friend, Tuskegee Institute classmate, and fellow essayist and novelist Ralph Ellison once famously wrote:

“The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” (From the essay, “Richard Wright’s Blues.” Emphasis added.)

Ellison’s poetic description of the blues is pithy and eloquent because it vibrates on a number of levels with nuance and style, yet sums up so much with so few words.

Whereas the previous characterizations of the blues encompassed the Upper Left, Lower Left and Lower Right of AQAL, Ellison begins his deft definition by implying what we today would call the Upper Right quadrant of AQAL, where the individual exhibits biochemical impulses. Then, smoothly, Ellison swings over to the Upper Left quadrant where individual memory and consciousness reside. 

Here, the blues-idiom, nada-confrontation individual isn’t avoiding the truth of their existence in this time, place and space, or their particular material and emotional state. No. Not only is the person who faces the blues not denying or avoiding, she is in fact looking straight, no chaser, into the experience. And this isn’t just the emptiness of no forms, a disembodied consciousness—the True “I AM” Self—being aware of being conscious; in life as lived by what Ken Wilber has coined as the “Unique Self” in the waking or dream state, we tend to “finger the jagged grain” of those painful blues memories. This is a drive for the Unique Self to “include” those experiences—even taking into account those blue devils we call “shadows.”

But the blues, like other forms of what New Zealand-born author Christopher Small in Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in African American Music descriptively calls musicking (the gerund of the verb “to music”), is also a social act and action, and is not confined to an individual. The social dynamics of the musicians playing the blues, and the audience listening to the blues, enhances relationships and provides meaning. And although the blues isn’t simply an object or musical form we analyze from a third person perspective, our integral take on the blues embraces the third-person view also, which leads us to see that such personal, interpersonal and social action can be viewed from a holonic angle of vision. So, first we include the blues as such, which helps us to also transcend them. 

How do we transcend the blues? Not, according to Ellison, with the consolation of philosophy, his allusion to Boethius’s medieval classic (524 AD), Consolation of Philosophy. Sophia is a lady loved by many men, and Boethius personified philosophy as a woman to whom he could ask the existential and religious questions that were of profound concern to him. 

The people who created the blues had neither philosophy to turn to, nor, as I said in my presentation above, did they have Freudian or even Jungian, Adlerian or transpersonal psychology. But they developed what polymath Kenneth Burke called an “attitude toward history,” and a “frame of acceptance,” in which, as Ellison wrote, they squeezed from the blues of life “a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”  

What they mainly had, back in slavery times, was the belief in their ultimate freedom, both secular and spiritual, and their culture, created for the sake of survival and negotiation on these too often cruel shores. A culture in which improvisation, resilience, wit and guile, dance-beat movement, verbal facility—from the folk “playing the dozens” to the eloquence of Baptist preachers such as Martin Luther King Jr.—and musicking were evidence of a cultural complex.

In his 1963 lecture given for the Bank Street College of Education seminar “Education for Culturally Different Youth,” Ellison assayed a clarification of “cultural complex”:

“I’m talking about how people deal with their environment, about what they make of what is abiding in it, about what helps them to find their way, and about that which helps them to be at home in the world. All this seems to me to constitute culture.”

And from his 1964 review of Leroi Jones’ Blues People:

A slave was, to the extent that he was a musician, one who expressed himself in music, a man who realized himself in the world of sound. Thus, while he might stand in awe before the superior technical ability of a white musician, and while he was forced to recognize a superior social status, he would never feel awed before the music which the technique of the white musician made available. His attitude as a “musician” would lead him to seek to possess the music expressed through the technique, but until he could do so he would hum, whistle, sing or play the tunes to the best of his ability on any available instrument. And it was, indeed, out of the tension between desire and ability that the techniques of jazz emerged. This was likewise true of American Negro choral singing. For this, no literary explanation, no cultural analyses, no political slogans—indeed, not even a high degree of social or political freedom—was required. For the art—the blues, the spirituals, the jazz, the dance—was what we had in place of freedom. 

The art, the creativity, is what we have, when there’s a need to make a way out of no way. The arts are one of the key forms of feeling that humans have created to confront the chaos, suffering, and absurdity of human life and the human condition. The blues is a key example of what philosopher Suzanne Langer called “feeling in form,” and is a quintessential prototype of the power of music as it extends from the folk, to the pop and fine art levels. 

But before we view the blues through a developmental aesthetic lens of folk, pop and fine art, let’s get some more insight via Albert Murray’s hermeneutic of the blues. 

Murray’s first book was published in 1970—The Omni-Americans. He was 54 at the time, and had already retired from the Air Force with the rank of major, and had taught at the Columbia University School of Journalism as well as his alma mater, the Tuskegee Institute. In addition to being a polemic against the flatland of black American life and culture as depicted by social scientists (“social survey technicians,” he called them), The Omni-Americans is the first place Murray begins to detail what he calls the blues idiom, which I call his aesthetic and philosophic compass. 

Here’s where he begins to break it down, here’s where he commences to drop aesthetic, existential and cultural science, so to speak. He sets the pace at a nice stroll:

The blues ballad is a good example of what the blues are about. Almost always relating a story of frustration, it could hardly be described as a device for avoiding the unpleasant facts of Negro life in America. On the contrary, it is a very specific and highly effective vehicle, the obvious purpose of which is to make Negroes acknowledge the essentially tenuous nature of all human existence. 

The sense of well being that always goes with swinging the blues is generated, as anyone familiar with Negro dance halls knows, not by obscuring or denying the existence of the ugly dimensions of human nature, circumstances, and conduct, but rather through the full, sharp, and inescapable awareness of them. One blues ballad after another informs and keeps reminding Negro dance couples (engaged, as are all dance couples, in ritual courtship) of the complications and contradictions upon which romances are contingent: Now, don’t be coming to me with your head all knotty and your nose all snotty; if you don’t know what you doing you better ask somebody.

(After that folk, vernacular riff, he next increases the tempo of insight.)

As an art form, the blues idiom by its very nature goes beyond the objective of making human existence bearable physically or psychologically. The most elementary and hence the least dispensable objective of all serious artistic expression, whether aboriginal or sophisticated, is to make human existence meaningful. Man’s primary concern with life is to make it as significant as possible, and the blues are part of this effort.

(Now for the uptempo swing of revelation.)

The definitive statement of the epistemological assumptions that underlie the blues idiom may well be the colloquial title and opening declaration of one of Duke Ellington’s best-known dance tunes from the mid-thirties: “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing.” In any case, when the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues, he is fulfilling the same fundamental existential requirement that determines the mission of the poet, the priest, and the medicine man. He is making an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response to that which André Malraux describes as la condition humaine. Extemporizing in response to the exigencies of the situation in which he finds himself, he is confronting, acknowledging, and contending with the infernal absurdities and ever-impending frustrations inherent in the nature of all existence by playing with the possibilities that are also there.

Thus does man the player become man the stylizer and by the same token the humanizer of chaos; and thus does play become ritual, ceremony and art; and thus also the dance-beat improvisation of experience in the blues idiom become survival technique, esthetic equipment for living, and a central element in the dynamics of U.S. Negro lifestyle. (pp. 58-59, The Omni-Americans)

Yet the blues, which was formerly a central element in the dynamics of black American lifestyle, is not confined to that group or cultural configuration. Wynton Marsalis, the most famous and accomplished of Albert Murray’s students, makes this clear in his chapter titled, “Everybody’s Music: The Blues,” from his Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life (2008). 

“. . . the blues recognizes no national boundaries. There is a whole genre of tunes called Japanese blues. The Chinese opera is full of blues-like themes. . . The moans and cries, humorous asides and embarrassing outbursts that give character to human expression, regardless of language—the blues.

“The pentatonic scales of Eastern music and the three fundamental harmonies (chords) of Western music called one, four, and five—the blues. 

“A twelve-measure structure like the twelve months of the year or the twelve signs of the zodiac—the blues.

“The amen cadence in Christian church music—the blues.

“The bent notes and melismatic singing of Indian and Middle Eastern music, the pungent timbre and intonation of some African music, the deep gypsy flamenco cries of cante jondo in Spain, church hymns, nasty whorehouse songs, the singing of workmen in the field and on the levees, Broadway show tunes, the work of classical composers like Darius Milhaud, Aaron Copeland, and Igor Stravinsky, who wanted to put some ‘more American’ in their pieces, even theme songs for cartoons like Spider Man—what do you think? The blues.” (pp. 50-51, Moving to Higher Ground)

He also made this larger perspective clear when I recently interviewed him for a story published on April 7, 2011 in the New York Daily News.

Regarding the relation between jazz and blues, Marsalis (who recently performed with famous blues and rock guitarist Eric Clapton) said the blues is “central to the music. It’s central to American music. It should be known, and it should be in everybody’s sound by now.” 

I asked him, “So do you think that the avoidance of blues and swing is a conscious or unconscious rejection of that tradition?”

“It started off consciously, now it’s unconscious,” Marsalis asserts. “It’s not just Afro-American; there’s an Anglo-American tradition of the blues too. Ultimately, there’s a tradition of blues in all of our cultures. Country music, Anglo-American folk singing; the blues is our American folk music. We have rejected that. So, who created it is not important at this point. We’re suffering from a profound identity crisis in our nation.”

Can embracing the blues help solve what Marsalis calls our “identity crisis”? What can understanding the blues as a folk, pop, and fine art aesthetic line of development add to our understanding of Integral theory? Why is the “break” in blues idiom music so important? And how does Ken Wilber’s Miracle-of-We concept of Joy2 equate with Albert Murray’s notion of the “velocity of celebration”?

These are a few of the questions I’ll answer in Part Two of “An Integral Take on the Blues Idiom.” For now, I’ll leave you with several examples of blues within a jazz context. 


A classic 1957 clip of Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow,” with solos by tenor saxophonists Ben Webster and Lester Young (one of the purest blues solos you’ll ever see or hear), trombonist Vic Dickenson, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and trumpeter Roy Eldridge.



The OM, the Original Master, Louis Armstrong, with the song and recording that forever changed instrumental and improvised music. The explanations along the way make this video special too.



“Parker’s Mood,” a classic blues by Charlie “Bird” Parker. I guess the person who uploaded this to You Tube thought that a view of Paris from the sky was a pictorial representation of Bird’s mood.



That’s a vocalese version of Bird’s “Parker Mood” by one of the first vocalese masters, Eddie Jefferson. Vocalese in jazz is the art of composing lyrics to instrumental solos. Jefferson’s lyrics tell of the heartbreak and hope a man felt after his baby left him. His melodic flow is based on Bird’s improvisation, heard in the previous clip.



Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” written in 1931. It remains a jazz blues standard to this day. This is an example of what Billie Holiday, in the clip above, called “the happy blues.”



One of the greatest trumpet players in jazz history, Clifford Brown, playing “Sandu” at the age of 24. He collaborated with a young Quincy Jones, toured with Lionel Hampton, recorded with Art Blakey, and played in a famous quintet (that included saxophonist Sonny Rollins) which he co-led with drummer Max Roach. Brownie, as he was affectionately called by his peers and jazz heads the world over, was a teetotaler, and a chess-playing math whiz, who died tragically at 25 in a car crash. The blues.



This is “Twisted Blues,” performed by the legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery. Nice camera work and editing. Wes influenced all guitarists in his wake who aspired to the aesthetic objectives of jazz.



John Coltrane, who, along with Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, is one of the Mt. Rushmore figures of jazz improvisation, here plays the blues with his characteristic depth of feeling and the onrush of what one jazz critic called his “sheets of sound” style. From his 1957 album, Lush Life, the song is “Trane’s Slo Blues.”



And last—for now—country great Willie Nelson along with Wynton Marsalis and his ensemble playing a folk blues song made famous by Hank Williams and Louis Armstrong, “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.”

Greg Thomas

About Greg Thomas

Greg Thomas has over 25 years of experience as a writer, producer, broadcaster and educator, and has been featured in publications as various as The Root, All About Jazz, Salon, London's Guardian Observer, the Village Voice, Africana, American Legacy, Savoy, New York's Daily News as well as the scholarly journal Callaloo. He was the Editor-in-Chief of Harlem World magazine from 2003-2006.

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