Blues & Jazz Counterpoint

Defining counterpoint as “two or more independent lines played together in a shared harmonic and rhythmic context,” there are many instances in Blues and Jazz renditions where counterpoint is obvious.  Four of these are:

  1. A bass line under the melody
  2. A counterline that complements the melody
  3. Lines created by voice-leading the Guide Tones in the harmony
  4. Ostinato parts that are linear

Constructing Bass Lines

The standard 12-bar blues progression has evolved over the last century, from early Delta blues to sophisticated Jazz blues variations.  The core progressions and bass lines have been constant elements.  To construct a bass line for a Blues tune, select a 12-Bar Blues lead sheet and write the melody (or “head” in the vernacular) on the top line of a grand staff with the chord symbols above it.  Follow these steps in building your bass line:

  1. Write the root of each chord on the first beat of each measure in the bass register, using quarter notes. In the blues, most chords are either Mm7 or mm7. Occasionally, the root may be replaced by the third or fifth if the moving line benefits.
  2. Connect these chord roots in mostly stepwise (conjunct) motion with a quarter note on each beat, “walking” between the chord changes.
  3. Approach the first beat of each measure with stepwise motion most of the time.
  4. To vary the constant stepwise motion, you may outline the triad or bounce between the root and fifth of the chord.
  5. It is idiomatic to use the M2, m3, and M3 scale degrees when moving upward between roots a P4th apart. Moving downward with the same intervals (W-H-H), an inversion of the upward movement creates a half-step approach to the next chord.
  6. The last two measures often use a I – VI – II – V progression. This “turn around” is a good place to experiment with substitute chords. An example using tritone substitution would be I7 – subV7/vi – ii7 – subV7/V.  In the key of F the chords are F7 – Ab7 – G7 – Gb7.
  7. Harmonize with a tritone consisting of the M3rd and m7th of each chord above the bass line. Smooth voice leading is created by moving this tritone down by half-step to the next chord. The F chord is represented by the notes A and Eb, moving to Ab and D for the Bb chord.  The tritone substitutes in the turn-around create strong motion over roots in the bass.

Blues Bass Line Assignment  

Find this assignment in the Materials below.  It includes examples of typical chord changes for 12-Bar Blues in Roman Numerals for each style.  A selection of Blues heads is located in the Lead Sheet Library.  Follow the steps in the assignment and play the result.  Try playing any two parts of the Blues by Five arrangement together at the piano in a swing tempo.

The best way to absorb idiomatic traits is to study and transcribe your favorite blues bass lines to learn how creative bass players and arrangers have developed this style of music.  You will hear the quarter notes divided on the beat occasionally into repeated swing eighth notes, passing chords in the harmony, and a variety of chord changes in the turn-around.  B. B. King (1925-2015) is well known for his mastery of the Blues, and his song entitled I’m A Blues Man is a good example of a modern 12-bar blues progression.

Counterlines that Complement the Melody

It is common in Blues and Jazz arrangements to write complementary linear material for an instrument that accompanies the vocal part or the primary melodic line.  Since the early days of Traditional Jazz (Dixieland) styles, the front-line horn players would fill in spaces in the music with improvised “riffs.”  Sometimes the riffs are imitative, and at other times they are contrasting.  They embroider the melody, or they may be used in a “call-and-response” method in which they interact with the primary line in the form of a dialog.  The tune Oh When the Saints go Marching In is often performed in this fashion.

Guide Tones

Generally, in Blues and Jazz styles, the harmonic structure of a chord can be reduced to its 3rd and 7th.  These are referred to as “Guide Tones.”   In progressions that move by a 4th or 5th, these notes become common tones or move stepwise to the next chord.  This is the essence of voice-leading in both Blues and Jazz styles.  The guide tones can be embroidered and used as counterlines to better define the harmony.

In addition to guide tones, it is common practice to examine the harmony to find lines that strongly define each successive chord, or chord alteration, and connect the salient notes to create powerful linear movement. 

Two songs that offer clear examples of this are The Man I Love by George Gershwin (1898-1937),  and This Masquerade by George Benson (1929).

Ostinatos and Claves

The Clave, a Spanish word for “key,” is a central concept in Latin music.  Generically, it can be defined as a 2-measure beat pattern that is repeated throughout a song.  Each style of Latin music, derived from folk traditions, owns a unique clave pattern.  When a bass line is associated with a Clave rhythm, it can create counterpoint with the melody and other parts.  See the Clave Son and Patterns in the Materials below.

Clave Patterns and Repeated Bass Lines

A unique form of the Clave rhythmic pattern is used for each style of Latin music.  The Bossa Nova is a Brazilian form of the clave.  Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994) wrote many well-known songs in this style.  An arrangement of his composition entitled Triste is included among the Materials below.

An example of a repeated bass line in swing time is found in the Benny Golson (1929) tune Killer Joe, which most bass players embellish in performance.


King:  I’m a Blues Man 

Gershwin:  The Man I Love

Benson:  This Masquerade

Jobim:  Triste

Golson:  Killer Joe (arr. by Q. Jones)

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