A little-known story behind the standard “Blue Bossa” reveals that most jazz musicians are missing something huge when they play it.


Blue Bossa. A standby in any jazz musician’s repertoire. Likely one of the first bossas they ever learned. The very mention of its name immediately conjures slightly out-of-tune horns played by a middle school jazz combo at their first recital — that’s how often it’s heard in that sort of scenario. And you can bet those novice preteens keep “Blue Bossa” in their collection for as long as they’re jazz musicians.

And I’ll bet that through all those decades, they’ve been missing the whole point of the piece.

The Story Behind The Standard

Every jazz musician knows “Blue Bossa,” and many people outside the world of jazz know it at least by the melody. But the man behind the composition is far more obscure — probably not in the jazz world, but certainly outside of it. Kenny Dorham, or KD as we call him, is often regarded as the most underrated trumpeter in jazz. Although his trumpet skills are to this day lauded by critics, fans, and musicians alike, he never rose to the same legendary status as his peers. But success struck when he hooked up with tenorman Joe Henderson in 1963, a friendship that produced Joe’s famous album Page One, on which the first recording of “Blue Bossa” appeared.

But it wasn’t Joe’s ability to deliver a melody that inspired KD to write “Blue Bossa.” The hit was written for the session, but that famous descending melody was actually an afterthought. The truth behind “Blue Bossa” is that it was intended to be a feature for the bass.

Wait — What? The Bass? 

That’s right. The first part of “Blue Bossa” — the most integral part of the piece — was actually the bass line introduction. You can hear it on the original recording, laid down by the incomparable Butch Warren (thanks to commenter Edward Warren for pointing out my oversight in leaving out this credit). I’ve boosted the bass so it’s clearer:

“Blue Bossa” off Page One / Joe Henderson (Blue Note BLP4140). Recorded June 3, 1963.

It was around this bass line that KD wrote the entire melody.

 

Many musicians we’ve told that to find it pretty hard to believe, but it’s true. That iconic descending melody that you know so well — that we all know so well — isn’t even the point of the song. What you just heard is. That’s the center of the piece — maybe even the meaning of it.

If you listen to the original recording of “Blue Bossa,” you’ll hear that the bass intro is fleshed out into a full bass part, one that continues throughout the entire piece, even through the solos. It’s the backbone of the entire melody.

But Isn’t Jazz About Interpretation? Who Cares How I Play “Blue Bossa?”

Every musician is entitled to play a piece however they want. Where would jazz be today without college kids playing a 7/8 interpretation of “All Of Me?” But everyone is still aware what the composition of “All Of Me” actually sounds like.

I’m not sure that’s the case with “Blue Bossa:” it’s been recorded incorrectly in subtle ways so many times that it no longer exists in the jazz vernacular as the composer intended. Interpretation is one thing, but it has to be building off of a base of something. When the base is fundamentally incorrect, there’s a huge problem. Especially for a publisher like me who has an obligation to preserve the composition as Kenny intended it.

Listen to how Joe Henderson and Kenny Dorham phrase the melody. I’ve left the bass turned up so you can hear how the bass part fits in.

“Blue Bossa” – Joe Henderson / Page One (Blue Note BLP4140). Recorded June 3, 1963.

 

Before I say anything further, I’ll compare it to another recording. This is Dexter Gordon, another one of our composers who I love dearly. Dexter really lays back on the head. This has become a particularly classic recording of “Blue Bossa,” aside from the original, of course.

“Blue Bossa” – Dexter Gordon / Bitin’ The Apple (SteepleChase SCS1080). Recorded November 9, 1976.

 

Sound familiar? Besides the fact that this is a well-known recording, of course. Dexter’s laid-back “Blue Bossa” has become the way to play the head — phrasing each note slightly behind the beat. It makes sense given the title — bossas are generally very laid-back — but listen again to the original. Hear the way Joe and Kenny lock in their phrasing with the bass.

 

Blue Bossa

The beginning of the C leadsheet for “Blue Bossa” as sold on jazzleadsheets.com. All editions include the bass line.

The bass line serves more of a function than just aesthetics. Its purpose is to anchor the melody. Because at its core, “Blue Bossa” is not a laid-back Brazilian style bossa. It’s a hybrid: part bop, part bossa, and infectiously syncopated.

 

So What Does This All Mean?

There’s no prescription for good jazz. Nor is there one way to play “Blue Bossa.” Even KD would agree! At some live shows, he’d trade in the bass line for a different arrangement with, say, percussive piano comping. The laid-back “Blue Bossa” that sits behind the beat is not the composition KD imagined. He heard a piece with drive, vigor, and syncopation.

And that’s the real secret to “Blue Bossa.” It’s not just that oft-forgot bass line, but the fact that Kenny Dorham wrote a bossa nova that purposefully went against the very nature of bossa novas. He wrote one that intentionally has a bit of swing, a wink of hard bop, a nagging syncopation, and a forward drive that insists on its existence no matter how naughty that may be within the rules of a bossa.

What I’m saying is: maybe you think you know “Blue Bossa.” Really well. Too well. And you probably do know the melody. But I’m willing to bet that you don’t know the soul of the standard. Once you learn that bass line and experience first-hand how the melody locks in, you’ll see the composition in a whole new light.

So get a proper lead sheet with the real bass line. Learn it. Since you have the opportunity, you should get to know what this standard really means.