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The Gig: B.B. King

The jazz of King

B.B. King, Montreal Int'l Jazz Festival, July 2014

B.B. King, who died in Las Vegas on May 14, at 89, will be forever remembered as one of the greatest bluesmen of any era, a guitar player of rough eloquence and a singer of dignified fervor. His irrefutable sobriquet, the King of the Blues, could hardly have been more fitting or just. And the shadow he cast on rock ‘n’ roll is a matter of settled fact, with proud inheritors like Eric Clapton, U2, Carlos Santana and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. But his artistry also resonated with jazz. More than any major blues hero of his generation-more than Jimmy Reed, more than Buddy Guy, more than his fellow surname sovereigns, the otherwise unrelated Albert and Freddie King-B.B. had a feeling for jazz musicians and jazz protocols, often giving them purchase in his music.

Born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi in 1925, he came up at the right time to understand jazz as a music of the people, with shining exemplars like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. (In 1960 he’d record a version of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” as a guest vocalist with a studio band including only two noted Ellington alumni and no Duke; it was released a decade later, more than a bit misleadingly, as Stereophonic Sound of Duke Ellington.)

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