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Harbison's blues: explaining the art of the bass chord

I LIKE the cut of the man, immediately. He wears a tomato-red shirt, an ugly necktie splashed with autumnal colors, and the jacket - the old, brown leather bomber vintage - shapes itself down across his shoulders like a work glove. Behind him, a piano. He stands tall and circumspect on the stage. I'm at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an auditorium for a Saturday afternoon lecture. ``I ordered a blackboard for the occasion,'' quips John Harbison, the unassuming winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for music, ``but here at MIT we don't deal with anything quite that small; we send things into space or communicate with the entire universe.''

Laughter rolls through the small audience seated in folding chairs on the stage. The blackboard that should be on stage is not.

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Harbison's gentle jest reflects certain family rights. He's been on the faculty here since 1969, an eclectic musician and composer surrounded by engineers with reputations, a man with musical roots deep in jazz and the blues. Missing blackboards are not novel.

The occasion this day is Harbison's demonstrable love for the blues. For the next hour he alternately plays examples of blues music and explains the chord pattern and harmonic schemes that are alleged to be thoroughly American. But in fact Harbison leads the audience all the way back to the Baroque and then forward. It is a rare musical history lesson from a man whose Pulitzer Prize-winning music, a symphony titled, ``The Flight Into Egypt,'' has been described as ``a lambent watercolor of uncommon beauty.''

``In the 1900s, it [blues] very soon became recognized as a useful progression,'' says Harbison in a bucolic, almost matter-of-fact voice, ``a kind of flagship for the early jazz players.''

I'm seated about eight feet from him in the front row next to a bearded young man who nods knowingly at Harbison's every fact. Harbison turns and sits down at the piano. The way he does it, like a farmer slipping easily into a tractor seat, speaks of long familiarity.

``The composer in the Baroque era who comes closest to being an honorary jazz musician is Henry Purcell,'' Harbison says. ``He had an absolute mania for the ground bass, for patterns repeated over and over. Let me illustrate.''

He leans over the keyboard and plays a fragment of Purcell. He plays it perfunctorily, with only a touch of passion; the bass plods along heavily as if a child is obediently playing piano lesson six and heading for seven. ``The blues pattern has very much the same thing,'' Harbison explains, ``that is, that the end of the pattern scoots you into the beginning of the next.''

This disclosure is not computing for me. Blues music, as I remember it, drives and bubbles, it banters and elucidates, with heady joy. Purcell seems to be an elephant. Harbison dwells on Baroque connections for a few more minutes and mentions harmonic progression as ``a lot harder for listeners to hear'' than melodic characteristics.

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His point is that Baroque music flourished with a ground bass. ``It was an inherited bass pattern which could be improvised upon,'' he says. ``That is the connection to blues, even though blues musicians in the beginning were not aware of what they were doing.

``The 12-bar blues pattern,'' he continues, ``divides into three groups each of four measures. This distinguishes it from other kinds of music. Beyond that, the lyrics of blues tunes consist of statement and restatement, of answer and conclusion.''

Then Harbison brings it all together and plays ``Kansas City,'' that wonderfully rolling and quintessential blues tune about a man going to Kansas City to find some ``pretty little women.'' (When he finishes, Harbison apologizes to any feminists in the small crowd.) Heads bob, toes tap, and the bearded man next to me slips into a kind of harmonic oneness with the music, his eyes closed.

When Harbison plays the next three or four pieces, his hands and arms are supple, but his body remains curiously reserved. There is delighted competency, but his full commitment hasn't been seen yet.

He talks about the ``infinite number of local but not deeply structural changes possible'' in blues music. Then he offers a sidebar.

``My first experience as a blues player was in Trenton, N.J.,'' he says. ``When I was about 15 I got a reputation as a good blues player, and I was recommended to a band there called the Mahogany Nights, playing in the Carnation Lounge. No one told the band I was white, and my father had to drive me to the job because I wasn't old enough to drive. So I showed up at this place with my history professor father in a suit and tie, ready to play. You could see the faces of the band drop when they saw me and thought I wasn't going to work out at all. By the end of the evening there was at least a feeling I was going to be able to cut it through the weekend.''

Just then a door opens at the side of the stage and someone tentatively pushes out a movable blackboard and disappears. Harbison spots it. ``I imagine the next Space Shuttle also may be postponed,'' he says flatly. HE plays ``Every Day,'' a happy, jovial blues, and identifies the music as once called ``city blues,'' but inappropriately now because blues are blues.

``There is another type,'' he says, turning away from the piano for a moment, ``which is usually referred to as the breakthrough. The player or players are invited to take some segment of the pattern, usually the first four bars, and use it as a kind of free-fire zone. They can do something rather inventive as long as they sign in again at the beginning of the second four.''

He plays W.C. Handy's ``Hesitation Blues'' and says it encourages musicians to be inventive. During the playing he bangs his foot and indulges in a little head movement, but not as pronounced as the bearded man next to me.

``Handy wrote `Hesitation Blues' before World War I,'' says Harbison, pausing and rummaging through a briefcase leaning against a piano leg. ``It still sounds terrific, just in terms of the invention within the pattern. It's really still kind of state-of-the-art as far as blues composition.''

He finds some sheet music and places it above the keyboard. ``Now I'd like to play one of my pieces. It's a very stripped-down, emblematic kind of minimum of blues, but it contains a full blues statement straight through. The piece is called `Gospel Shout for John Burroughs,' a composer who was killed in the early 1970s.''

Harbison triggers himself; he jams up the sleeves of his jacket, the piano stool is pushed back a little, his torso hunches in tension over the keyboard, and his fingers are spread and committed. He begins.

He plays a powerful and at times shrill composition with a hint of George Gershwin elbowing all the way through it. A heavy bass underlies quirky melodic hesitations. And although my description does injustice to the completeness of the music, the dissonant crashes within the flow sound strangely similar to the noise made when a bowling ball hits the ten pins. Somehow, like a distillation rising out of the tonal motif, the echo of blues resonates from beginning to end.

It is a short, intense piece. When Harbison is finished, and standing by the piano, breathing heavily while the audience applauds enthusiastically, nothing has been held back. His eyes are pleased, his manner almost nonchalant. The bearded man next to me says loudly as he claps and claps, ``Wonderful. Wonderful. What a treat! Wonderful! Wonderful!''

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