One of my favourite Oscar Peterson videos is C Jam Blues in Denmark in 1964 with Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. This article links to specific parts of this video to illustrate each point.
It’s tremendous swinging playing, as you might expect. But when you start to dig, there is so much more. The tune is an old Ellington blues jam tune of no particular merit except that it gets the blues changes ticking over to allow the band to take solos.
He got history
Peterson had recorded C Jam Blues before. Probably the one most have heard is on the classic Night Train album from 1963, the year before the Denmark video. This is where he introduced the 4-bar breaks into the arrangement described below. But the track only lasts 3.5 minutes whereas in Denmark, they stretch out for nine!
There is a live jam session recording from 1967 with the Peterson trio but, nothing unusual about this, apart from the front line sound like they just got out of bed (Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges). The young (27) Peterson quartet also recorded it in 1952, but as a kind of novelty boogie-woogie number. The song form is straightforward on both of those recordings: 12-bar blues all the way.
The jazz blues form
The blues is traditionally a 12-bar form and the jazz blues chords have become standardised as something like this:
This notation for analysis is explained in another article. Peterson often plays the II chord at bar 9 as a dominant 7 (D7). Some would analyse this as V/V but it is really still functioning as Pre-Dominant. In the same way, bar 1 may be C7 but it is both tonic and V/IV. This is the blues. Not all classical harmony analysis applies.
What cannot be denied is that there are chains of dominant 7 chords round the cycle of fifths which propel strongly from one to the next. This is what the arrows are showing.
Add into the mix the fact that F#o7 sounds like D7b9 and C7/G sounds like G-6, we have two more potential arrows propelling is forward from bars 2-3 and 6-7. Peterson makes the most of this in his solo choruses (see below under That Gospel Thing.
The original Ellington arrangement added an extra 4-bar break for each new soloist at the beginning of their solo. Peterson did something similar but different with the song form on his Night Train album recording of C Jam Blues. After the head he added an extra four bars at the beginning of each chorus where the band stops and he takes solo breaks showing off his incredible blues-lickery skills.
What is unusual about these breaks is the that they are additional four to the 12-bar form, rather than just taking a solo break in the first four bars and the band rejoining for the last eight bars. This makes the choruses temporarily 16 bars long.
He does this after the head and for a few choruses before reverting to the usual 12-bar choruses and finally finishing with twice through the head.
Money up front
In the Denmark video, this distortion of form is even more extreme than in the Night Train recording. He plays a solo introduction which is all in 8-bar sections. The eight bars of chord progression that he chooses to use are the last eight of the blues progression. What Conrad Cork in his Harmony with LEGO Bricks called the Pennies Ending after the fact that these chords are the last eight bars of Pennies From Heaven. An incredibly useful family of bricks to know since they occur in many jazz standards from Bill Bailey to I Fall In Love Too Easily.
Watch and listen to the video from 0:25.
After setting the tempo with repeated C notes, he starts his intro repeating the 8-bar Pennies Ending form with single line lefthand bass line and mostly single line right hand. Bass and drums are mostly tacet, tapping along with their fingers on their instruments digging Peterson’s deep groove.
He plays the Pennies Ending four times before reverting to the full 12-bar blues form and taking 7 solo piano choruses before signalling the band to join for the head.
That Gospel thing
Watch and listen to the video from 1:45.
During his solo piano blues choruses he does an interesting reharm in bars 3 and 4. The rising bass line from the start of the chorus (C E F F# G …) continues to rise (G# A) before tumbling chromatically down (Ab G Gb) to the expected F landmark at bar 5.
The implied chords are:
(1) C7 Eo7 | (2) F7 F#o7 |
(3) G-6 G#o7 | (4) A-7 Ab7 G-7 Gb7 |
As usual, the diminished 7 chords can all be thought of as dominant 7 b9 chords with missing roots.
The G-6 is really C7/G. The additional move using G#o to get to A-7, the relative minor, has a real Gospel music sound and was one of Peterson’s favourites.
Give us a break!
So, in the Denmark video the form of the performance so far is:
- 8 bars of solo piano repeated C notes to set the tempo and groove
- 8-bar Pennies Ending x4
- (1:02) 12-bar blues solo piano x7
- (2:37) 12-bar head (tune with full band) x2
- 16-bar solo choruses (made up of 4-bar break and 12-bar blues)
- 12-bar blues solo choruses
Surely that is enough? Head twice more and out, right? Wrong.
It may seem a bit odd for Denmark, but Peterson signals the band again and they switch to the “Swedish Blues” changes used by Charlie Parker on his recordings in Sweden in 1951, such as Blues for Alice. Some also call these the Parker Blues changes.
See this marvellous moment for yourself on the video at 4:57. I’d love to know what Peterson said to the Ray Brown to signal the change. “Parker”? “Swedish”? “Here we go”? “Mine’s a schnapps”? Who knows.
Block chords are us
Peterson reverts to the regular blues changes and plays a few choruses of rhythmic block chord figures like a big band arranger might write, giving Thigpen something predictable to phrase with as he does perfectly.
Twice through the 12-bar head to end as expected. I don’t know why the audience start clapping before the end. Perhaps they were lost? (8:44).
Somebody has made an edited version of the Denmark video which lasts one hour. After the head is played for the first time, a clever edit is made to repeat a few bars for the rest of the hour and then tag the original ending on. One to play to those who claim all jazz sounds the same.
For more, such as which other jazz standards use the Pennies Ending, check out my book, Insights in Jazz, in my link tree/ https://linktr.ee/Jaelliott.