C Jam Blues: Background and Chords

Practicing jazz often feels overwhelming because there’s so much vocabulary to learn. Instead of trying to learn everything at once, it’s better to use level-appropriate repertoire to learn small bits at a time. For absolute beginners (and their instructors), Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” is a great starting point.

For background and suggested recordings, see the tune’s Wikipedia page. One of my favorite recordings is by Oscar Peterson trio – although the tempo is a bit intimidating for most beginners.

Tomorrow, I’ll go over the melody – which only uses two notes (G and C). For today, I want to talk about the chord progression. Like many jazz standards, “C Jam Blues” uses variations on a 12-bar blues (Wikipedia).  For beginners, it’s best to start with a simple progression like this:

In the Byte-Sized Guide to Musicianship, I recommended identifying the function of each chord using Roman Numerals. Basic blues use I (“one”), IV (“four”), and V (“five”) chords, marked here on a keyboard diagram.

C Jam Blues Keyboard

Note the chord positions in the 12-bars form. The first four-bar phrase uses the I chord, the second moves briefly to the IV chord, and the third uses a “turnaround” with the V chord moving back to the I.

C Jam Blues Chords

You may hear people talk about the I chord being the “tonic,” the V chord being the “dominant,” and the IV chord being the “subdominant.” While that will eventually make more sense, I’ve found it easier to think of chord function in terms of the circle-of-fourths.

C Jam Blues Circle of Fourths.png

Note that the tonic is the center of activity – which is easy to see in the key of ‘C.’ The dominant is one fourth down from the tonic, while the subdominant is one fourth up.

Check back tomorrow for more about the melody of “C Jam Blues.”

Author: Leah Pogwizd

DIY Professor, Nanoversity of Jazz

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