A Country Music and Jazz Connection
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Jimmy Rodgers
Jimmy Rodgers

Jazz and country are two distinctive styles of American music that don’t seem to have much in common. Country is dominated by vocals and simple chord progressions. Jazz is primarily an instrumental music with more complex harmonic structures. Country often reflects a rural experience and jazz is more urban. Country is one of the most popular genres of music while jazz has a small, niche audience.

But despite these differences, jazz and country share some similar roots. Both developed as folk music in the American South during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, growing from sounds and styles of various immigrant cultures and African traditions. Jazz and country became identifiable genres after World War One with the rise of phonograph records and the radio boom of the 1920s. And they also became more segregated with the recording industry’s creation of the musical categories of “race records” and “hillbilly music.”

A good example of how arbitrary these categories can be is a record Jimmie Rodgers made with Louis Armstrong in 1930 of “Blue Yodel No. 9.” Rodgers is known as the Father of Country Music and was much influenced by African-American music, especially the blues. Forty years later, Armstrong, not long after recording an album of country music in Nashville, joined Johnny Cash on a television special in a recreation of the classic record.

The intertwining of jazz and country was strongest in the southwestern region of the U.S., most famously in the music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Wills grew up in west Texas playing the fiddle in string bands. Although far from New Orleans, the sounds of jazz had permeated this part of the country and Wills added the jazz beat to his music, helping to create what became known as Western swing.

At Wills’ first recording session as a leader in 1935, the producer expected a guitar-fiddle group and was surprised by a horn section and objected to Wills’ trademark hollering and jive talk. This was music that didn’t fit in either the “race” or “hillbilly” category but was instead a combination of both. After the records made during the session sold well, there were no more objections from the record company.

In 1940 the Big Band Era was at its peak and jazz was at its greatest popularity. Wills added a full sax section and hired jazz musicians to bring a smooth, polished sound to the Texas Playboys that wasn’t that much different from the big name swing bands. But the Texas Playboys were more versatile and could play old-time fiddle music, Mexican Mariachi and rhumbas along with big band swing.

When the Big Band Era ended after World War Two, Wills dispensed with the horn section and in their place were amplified string instruments, fiddles and only one trumpet or sax. Newer bands led by Spade Cooley, Tex Williams, Hank Thompson and others came along and updated the Western swing sound, but they still played swing classics like “Woodchoppers Ball” or “One O’Clock Jump.”

Despite the integration of jazz into Western swing, country and jazz were still seen as separated by barriers that couldn’t be breeched. In 1962, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Ray Charles challenged those barriers with the release of the album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” Although the album shocked some people, it was a project that Charles had been thinking about for a long time. As a child in Florida, he grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry’s radio broadcasts and played in country bands in his teens. Although he was famous as a rhythm and blues musician, Charles knew and loved country music and the album was a big hit.

Sixteen years later, the reverse happened when country star Willie Nelson recorded “Stardust,” an album of standards from the jazz repertoire. Although record executives were opposed to the album because it was a radical departure from his earlier country outlaw records, it was a big seller and produced a couple of chart-topping country hits with “Georgia on My Mind” and “Blue Skies.”

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But despite record company objections, “Stardust” really wasn’t that much of a departure from Nelson’s earlier work. Like so many other country musicians from Texas, Nelson was strongly influenced by jazz and some of his early songs such as “Night Life” are steeped in the blues. Nelson recorded more standards albums through the years, including his 2018 tribute to Frank Sinatra, “My Way,” and they all show how well his quirky and idiosyncratic phrasing works with these classic songs.

Ray Charles notwithstanding, jazz musicians haven’t been as open to country music as country musicians have been to jazz. Jazz musicians and fans have often looked down their noses at country music and ridiculed its simple “cowboy chords.” But bebop master Charlie Parker liked to play country records on jukeboxes and when people asked why he liked such corny music, he told them to listen to the stories.

However, in recent years as jazz musicians have looked to material beyond their usual repertoire, some have found a wealth of music in the country tradition. Guitarist John Scofield’s 2018 album “Country for Old Men” features modern jazz interpretations of songs by Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Hank Williams. The Bad Plus plays Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” on the adventurous trio’s 2016 album “It’s Hard.” And jazz singer Sara Gazarek includes Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” alongside songs by Hoagy Carmichael, Frank Loesser and Stevie Wonder on her latest album “Thirsty Ghost,” proving that a good song is a good song, no matter where it came from. These artists are also demonstrating that there remains a deep commonality in these all-too-often segregated genres.

Watch episode one of COUNTRY MUSIC by Ken Burns here: