What does it mean to “play it blue”?
Talk to any jazz or blues musician, and you’ll eventually hear them reference “blue notes” – expressive tones that are “between the cracks” of conventional (i.e., European) music pitches. With roots going back to the songs sung by North American slaves, many believe blue notes can be traced to the tonalities of West African languages and music. And while these timbres sounded foreign to the early white colonists, they served as a deep, heart-driven expression of the Black slave experience.
As a light-complexioned Latino who grew up in the cornfields of northwest Ohio, no amount of standard music lessons could truly teach me the intricate, heart-felt and heart-filled musicality of blue notes. It wasn’t until my college years when I truly began to grasp the sorrow, courage, history, and hope that wells up inside those microtones.
As an undergraduate music student at Goshen (Indiana) College, I met a kind friend and beautiful soul in James Logan – a saxophonist with whom I spent hours listening to jazz legends like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker… and talking about weightier things like civil rights and the inequity, marginalization, and oppression of people of color.
An African American from the Bronx, James’ life experience was vastly different from my own, and whether he knew it or not, he was a vital part of my personal and artistic journey. As our friendship grew, James invited me to attend worship at the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Elkhart, Indiana, a predominantly Black and African American congregation of more than 100 members. After attending for a short time, James soon invited me to accompany him on piano.
Before our first duet, I sat nervously in the pew, feeling completely out of my element both musically and culturally. A kind woman next to me noticed, and leaned over to whisper in my ear.
“Don’t be nervous, you’re going to be great,” she said. “Just remember, once you get up there and start playing, just play it Black. No matter what happens, just play it Black.”
Just play it Black… Let go, and let the Spirit take control of my head, my hands, and my heart. Let the music tell the story, through the keys beneath my fingers and the blue notes in between.
Since that Sunday morning, my musical journey has led me to amazing learnings and experiences, and I’ve had the privilege to work with many talented and gifted musicians of all genres. But, no matter where I’m at or what I’m performing, I carry with me the things I learned from James, and the voice of the kind woman from his church – and the power music has to tell the stories found in between the cracks.
That is, for me, what it means to “play it blue.”
– By Dean Altstaetter, with Madalyn Metzger