Where is the blues in jazz when we need it?  Throughout most of its history jazz was a blues music, at least until the avant-gardists of the 1960’s tried to burn down the cathedral in their trumped-up revolution against American society, playing music unfocused in concept, unmusical in sound, and unpleasant in performance.  They made an outrageous amount of noise that bore little relation to the blues or to jazz, and many sensible black jazzmen—including saxophonists Lou Donaldson, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Eddie Chamblee, George Coleman, and Houston Person—have been quick to call this new “music” what it was: a crock.  Said Donaldson at the time, “The guys say they’re searching but actually all they need to find is a good saxophone or trumpet teacher and their search would be over because they would teach them how to play it.”

Davis blamed the pundits: “Without the critics’ sanction it never would have gotten off the ground.”  More recently Coleman observed that

Coltrane could do it because he could play blues and standards, but Albert Ayler and Frank Wright and those guys could only play noise.  No melodies or harmonies, they just didn’t play good.

Noise, but no blues.  Yet the blues has always been a vital part of jazz and, in the proper hands, a primal feeling elevating solos on even the most mainstream popular standards—like “Autumn Leaves” and “The Man I Love”—into little works of art that spoke volumes to listeners black and white.  From Dixieland ditties to Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” in 1928 to Count Basie’s first blues-riff-oriented orchestra of 1936 to the 12-bar blues constructions of Charlie “Bird” Parker and other beboppers, and on through the hard-bop era and organ-jazz rage of the 1960’s right up to jazz-rock fusion, the blues was always present.  Bassist and composer Charles Mingus once made the valid point that “the blues was in the churches,” but it was also in jazz itself, in all groups and bands and at all tempos.

Prominent in all this from the 1930’s on was the big-toned, bluesy tenor saxophonist, who remained front and center in jazz even after the guitar became the dominant instrument in rock music in the 1960’s.  From Coleman Hawkins, the first standout tenor soloist in jazz history, through Lester Young, a first-class blues player with a lighter tone, to later stalwarts like Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Wardell Gray, Jimmy Forrest, Buddy Tate, Ben Webster, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine, and others too numerous to mention, bluesy tenors were known for rocking the house.  Men like these were featured in big bands and smaller combos, and many local players were almost as good, often kept from national recognition only by the lack of connections, lack of confidence, personal habits, or simple bad luck that deprived them of opportunities to record and travel regularly.  These included George Kelly, Julian Dash, and Al King in New York City; Tom Archia and Claude McLin in Chicago; Jimmy Oliver and Bootsie Barnes in Philadelphia; Joe Alexander, Nate Fitzgerald, and Weasel Parker in Cleveland; Jimmy Coe and Pookie Johnson in Indianapolis; and mainstay tenor soloists in blues-based black orchestras like David Van Dyke and Pervis Henson in Buddy Johnson’s big band, Paul Bascomb of Erskine Hawkins’ orchestra, and Jesse Powell and Big Al Sears in the Count Basie and Duke Ellington organizations.  All were capable of raising the roof at the black theaters, ballrooms, and clubs they played in the big cities and the tobacco warehouses they played down South.  There were other trained jazzmen who worked in more of a rhythm-and-blues vein but easily straddled the line: Red Prysock, Sil Austin, Noble “Thin Man” Watts, Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson, Hal “Cornbread” Singer, and Sam “The Man” Taylor.  These were forceful stylists who knew music thoroughly, improvised well, and generated a fine sense of rhythm.  And no one ever tried to claim that modernists like Johnny Griffin, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Junior Cook, Sonny Stitt, Joe Henderson, and Hank Mobley weren’t good blues players.

Today?  They’re all gone.  About the only veteran big-toned bluesy tenors left are Houston Person, Red Holloway, Plas Johnson, and Sonny Rollins—not known so much as a blues player but excellent at it—but these men are all over 70, with Rollins pushing 80 and Holloway two years past that.  The bluesters were basic and unique, able to infuse nearly everything they played with an intensity that reached out to people and an offhanded mastery that made it look easy.  To hear Davis’s jaunty medium-tempo solo on “Don’t Blame Me” during a live recording at New York’s Birdland in 1954, Austin’s high-energy 1956 track “Dogwood Junction,” or Jackson’s medium-tempo 1961 treatment of “Girl of My Dreams” is to hear bluesy basics taken to a higher level of communication, with a “now listen to this” urgency.

So what happened?  In one sense, education happened, which, in this case, was a bad thing.  Earlier players were often largely self-taught, developing through trial and error a personal sound and manner of phrasing beyond the reach of the academic theories of teachers and clinicians preaching a standard approach and producing blandness.  Further, most earlier saxophonists came up through the big-band era before amplification was commonplace.  They knew that to be heard over the blaring arrangements of a big band, one needed to project, especially to black audiences.  Willis Jackson once critiqued the sound of younger tenor players as “what I call a peashooter sound, they sound like they’re playing alto on the tenor.”  The older masters did things their own way: Hawkins, Young, Webster, Ammons, Tate, Gordon, and Davis sound nothing alike, but each was forceful, distinctive, and instantly recognizable—Hawkins’ sound jagged and powerful on faster tempos, Young’s more mellow and legato, Davis’s a coarse-toned bark, Gordon’s a booming foghorn.  Ammons was a master of soul, funky and persuasive; Tate the quintessential swaggering, big-toned Texas tenor; and Webster played with a deep, velvety buzz.  Killer blues players at fast tempos, every one—and on slow blues and ballads, working within the romantic intricacies of chord changes and melody lines, they could break your heart.

Younger players take microphones for granted and studio dubbing and editing as a way of hiding mistakes.  The saxophonists of an earlier generation, much more secure in their skills, aimed to get things right the first time around in both recording studios and clubs.  One thing they never did was to damp down the blues feeling, which too many younger players, with technique to spare and some educated at such elegant conservatories as Berklee, Peabody, Hartt, and even Juilliard, seem to regard as an enemy.  They can swing, but the bluesy snap, crackle, and pop of their forebears is gone, bred out of them by an odd-fellow combination of overschooling and racial integration that, socially overdue and justified though it was, took black players away from the natural ethnic audiences that originally dictated the way they sounded.

Today’s young players—many of them black and well connected musically—are now into their 30’s and 40’s, well past the age by which earlier generations had perfected a sound.  Not to dismiss the accomplishments of Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis, Walter Blanding, James Carter, Mark Turner, and others, but their lack of blues feeling makes them uninteresting.  The slurred phrasing of Joe Lovano, a highly regarded white player, has nothing of the blues to it.

Sometimes a hit record is all it takes to revive a sound or style.  Yet the chaos in the record industry that makes it possible for young listeners to download any track onto their iPods, a boon to rock musicians, has actually made it more difficult for a would-be jazzman to tap into a 1958 Gene Ammons track and follow his nose in that direction.  Further, with the decline of jazz radio, it is even more difficult for youngsters to hear of people to emulate.  How do you listen for something you don’t know about if you don’t know where to look for it?

Lou Donaldson, one of the best alto men of all time, regularly preaches the gospel of listening to older players from history even as he decries, in club dates, “Fusion and confusion, Kenny G music, 50 Cent and Diddy.”  George Coleman complains that the students he teaches in New York “don’t even listen to Coltrane, let alone Bird—they’re trying to reach out into the blue and create something that’s all self-involved, and you just can’t ignore history and be a complete player.”  None of these trends is good for jazz—or blues.  The spontaneous improvised nature of jazz makes tradition, approach, and sound crucial.  It was natural, then, that when Stanley Turrentine died in the fall of 2000, bassist Ray Brown said of Houston Person, “he’s one of the few left with any honest grease.”

Grease may be a naughty word to people watching their diet, but in jazz the term is a compliment, an insiders’ slangy reference to such factors as blues, feeling, and attitude, and most often all these in combination.  Within a two-week period in January 2009, three bluesy saxophonists who together played significant roles in Ray Charles’ 16-piece big band of the early 1960’s passed away: baritone saxophonist Leroy Cooper, multireed man David “Fathead” Newman, and alto saxophonist Hank Crawford.  Newman, whose original instrument was alto, began his career playing baritone in Charles’ small group of the early 1950’s and was promoted to tenor when the regular tenor man, Don Wilkerson, left the band after an argument with Charles over narcotics.  Newman later became known as a multireed master on tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones, but throughout his career he was best known for his work on tenor—and he played a mean blues with plenty of healthy grease.