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Foundation for Research in the Afro-American Creative Arts

Professor J. Southern (Managing Editor-Publisher)


The Ostinato Idea in Black Improvised Music: A Preliminary Investigation
Author(s): Wendell Logan
Source: The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 193-215
Published by: Professor J. Southern (Managing Editor-Publisher)
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Black Perspective in Music

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The Ostinato Idea in Black

Improvised Music: A Preliminary


Investigation
BY WENDELL LOGAN

THE TERM OSTINATO as used in this discussion refers to a

melody or a motive which is normally (but not always)

lowest voice and is repeated several times in succes

Some further characteristics of this type of ostinato are:

1. The melody is sometimes ornamented during the cours


its repetition
2. The melody may or may not be transposed to different pitch
levels

3. The melody serves as a foundation for other parts-such as


riffs, countermelodies, and harmonies-which supply a continuously changing texture above it
The repetition of a precise harmonic sequence (often referred
to as ostinato harmonies) is a related genre. In this instance, the
initially sounded melody and bass line are variable elements,
whereas the harmonic sequence is fixed. Almost all blues compositions (including boogie-woogie) employ this type.
The ostinato idea in black improvised music is rhythmically and
functionally related to the time-line (or life-line) as found in traditional West African music, where it acts at once as a referential

phrase length to which other musical phrases are added and as a


vehicle for projecting the basic pulse. Consider the West African
bell pattern represented in Example 1, which consists of twelve
pulses, arranged in an additive pattern of 2 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 3. This
pattern can be expressed pitch-wise as indicated in Example 2. The
second example, then, represents an ostinato pattern which can be
assigned a musical role that is functionally related to the time-line
idea in traditional, West African music.
The following discussion attempts to point out the significance
of this rhythmic/melodic concept in dance and recreational music
of the African diaspora, and to briefly trace the development of this
concept in Afro-American musical styles. It should be kept in mind
that much of the music of the African diaspora which is organized
around the ostinato principle is dance music-music that is characterized by an easily discernible rhythmic and melodic organization,
and which tends to suggest a certain type of physical movement.

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194 THE BLACK PERSPECTIVE IN MUSIC

Thus, we can see that dances are organized around unique


rhythmic/melodic patterns.
Example 1

r'
r fr
r' r
Example 2

b.

u+

* r rr O_
O -R

Wr~?e.b.ft

BC

Consider the patterns in Example 3. In 3a, the twel

phrase played by the bell serves as the fundamental pattern


which the drums are organized. In Example 3b, the charac
mento bass pattern unifies the supporting rhythmic/melodi
The bass line has a similar function in Example 3c. The sig
Example 3a. Ewe Agbeko dance
(bell pattern)

()I

I I I lk
Ir- j 1 I

_I . I k

A i r11

_,

- (S.)
3b. "Sly Mongoose" (Jamaican mento)
I

~a
I

w~ ~ le "i Ex jl ; ..
?

U'-

3c. "Hambone" (Afro-American recreational song)


A

a - A

'A

RtTUfIt j- J
V I1

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_
OSTINATO IN BLACK IMPROVISED MUSIC 195

point here is that each piece is organized around a un


pattern or time line.
The ostinato principle and its related structural pr
ditive textures, rhythmic/timbral stratification, repet

are much in evidence in contemporary, black danc

patterns in Example 4 illustrate this point.


Example 4a. Brewster Hughes: "Soso Bobo Dean"

( E I tI'I

7 r r f( 7I( ) ?h
Example 4b. Bob Marley: "Wake Up and Live" (Reggae)

0 . l, (A .mIT)
Pt

AV

L(Fq a.'

~Lh
- r- -(r r o r r 1 r

:X

!,

Example 4c. Earth, Wind, and Fire: "Love Music"

fe^p^J n ALhj

nl2num i

Boogie-Woogie

As stated earlier, almost all blues compositions are based on


ostinato harmonic principle. Boogie-woogie-which was an imp
tant musical style of the 1920s and which was initially an instru
tal blues-appears to be the earliest style of Afro-American im
vised music in which the bass ostinato principle was extens

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196

THE BLACK PERSPECTIVE IN MUSIC

used. Besides serving as a musical vehicle to whic

were improvised, the ostinato line was vital in

rhythmic feel and tempo of a given composition

Pete Johnson, Jimmy Yancy, Meade Lux Lewi


"Fats" Waller, and many others, were often id
individually unique bass patterns (see Example
The boogie-woogie ostinato principle assume

nificance in the development of Afro-American d


it influenced a change from the then prevailing m
of two beats per measure to one of four equal be
Moreover, the eighth-note subdivisions of the ba
pulse began to be interpreted as uneven duration

equal values, creating what we now know as sw


Example 6).
This type of metric and pulse organization had a far-reaching

influence on Afro-American dance music and jazz, and can be

found in such stylistically varied pieces as: Andy Kirks's "Froggy

Bottom" (Folkways: Jazz, vol. 10, FJ 2810); John Lee Hooker's

"Little Wheel" (Everest Records FS 222); Ruth Brown's "Mama, He

Treats Your Daughter Mean" (New World Records: Recorded


Anthology of American Music-Rhythm and Blues); and Louis
Jordan's "Choo Choo Ch'boogie" (MCA Records: The Best of
Louis Jordan, MCA 2-4079).
Bebop and Latin Jazz
There does not appear to have been a widespread use of the

ostinato principle in the jazz style commonly referred to as bebop.


Perhaps this was so, due to the fact that bebop was less functionally
related to the dance, and due to the highly chromatic nature of

bebop-music with frequent tonal shifts is less adaptable to the

ostinato principle.
During the mid/late 1940s, though, musicians such as Machito,

Prez Prado, Stan Kenton, and Dizzy Gillespie began to combine

Latin American and Afro-American jazz styles, and many of the


compositions which resulted from this fusion made extensive use of
the bass-ostinato principle. "Manteca," co-composed by Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo,is a classic example of the ostinato principle

(see Example 7). The piece opens with several riffs, forming a

vamp (montuna) section. The first riff figure is then used as an


ostinato for the outer sections of the composition.
Structurally related to this piece is the Gillespie/Paparelli composition, "A Night in Tunisia," where the outer sections-the "A"

sections (the piece is based on a 32-bar song form)-are based on


multiple ostinatos (see Example 8).
An extensive use of single and multiple ostinatos can also be
found in Latin styles such as the bossa-nova, samba, and salsa.

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197

OSTINATO IN BLACK IMPROVISED MUSIC

Example 5a. Meade Lux Lewis: "Honky Tonk Train"


(Bass line)

-+I

I/ ~! t *' :

LIF L - I IL -

Example 5b. Charlie Spand and Blind Blake: "Ha

rn 1 -1. .

mr 11. . ( l ' /.1


/ a- w

Q , W_ 1

1t~t~t~Bffil a
Example 6. This:

o, 7 A% r,r T! r S rI p'1 i -1
^wrF'^Wr

rather than:

.A. -^- - -

Example 7. Riffs and melodic fragment from the Gillespie/Pozo composition "Ma

teca"

?tfJ-f~ fl

fcr ?1 6ft- tU

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198

THE BLACK PERSPECTIVE IN MUSIC

Example 7 (continued)

?(',c e,ir)

0 . I I I"TITI 'L

i .2, L
J IIIa 11
_
:II-t 1'
.g r=
I

I I I L

.Cl~
Rk.I J 31,, 1
Ir

-T

11

1- w 14 v 11

-M

11

Example 8. Ostinatos used in the outer sections of "A Night in Tu

(64n~) "t t

W
I L-fT
I

(p) E 0 1
I

`NI r9p'.

N:
I I31 I
-1
E*
.

PAX
.

'! 'L,I r I r i-EfJ- I fT"l


- .I T L I I
r 1 1 r
(vise.)

rr_

21wB

Rhythm-and-Blues

By 1950, rhythm-and-blues had become the dominant con-

sumer product in Afro-American music. This music was primarily


directed toward a youth market, and this phenomenon was entirely
new. It had a far-reaching impact on almost every aspect of the
music, including lyric content, tempo and rhythmic feel, dress, and
disc-jockey styles. As the title "rhythm-and-blues" suggests, the
music of this period reflects an extensive use of the blues idiom

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OSTINATO IN BLACK IMPROVISED MUSIC 199

(formally, harmonically, in its use of vocal and in


formance techniques, and lyric content), and it had
that was very strongly rooted in the boogie-woogi

sider Examples 9 and 10.

Example 9. Donnie Elbert: "What Can I Do?"

i-e;L ,' A- F CA I r K

Sk 1 / li

Example 10. Bill Doggett: "Slow Walk"

* h^'fo C(AP

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200 THE BLACK PERSPECTIVE IN MUSIC

During the late '50s and throughout the '60s the


number of dances-such as the chicken, the funky
popcorn, the twist, and the yoke-all of which had
and consequently required a certain type of music

patterns in Example 11 illustrate this point.


But it was also during the 1960s that the rhythm
music began to change. It was pointed out above th
organization of boogie-woogie consists of four equ
bar, with the eighth-note subdivisions of the quarte

being interpreted as uneven durations: J = J .

rhythmic feel of the '60s made use of some of the f


1. Four beats to the bar

2. Even two and four-part subdivisions of the quarter-n

pulse (this is in direct contrast to the uneven, triplet subdi


sions found in earlier styles)
3. Heavy emphasis on beats two and four (the off-beat or so
called "back beat")

4. Extensive use of syncopation

Instrumentalists such as James Brown, King Curtis, Jun

Parker, and numerous other "Southeastern" musicians were

among the first to use this type of metric organization, which h


had a far-reaching impact on contemporary jazz and rhythm an
blues styles (see Examples 12 and 13). The ostinato patterns show
there (and their related rhythmic properties) greatly influence
ostinato patterns which are associated with dances of the '80s, su
as the smirf, the pac-man, the whip, the wave, the tilt, and th
gigolo.
Example 11. Ostinato patterns for dances of the '50s and '60s

A. Boogaloo

B. Yoke

C. Popcorn

12vr#F u
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OSTINATO IN BLACK IMPROVISED MUSIC 201


Example 12. James Brown: "Popcorn"
L ' ,^.,n'OS

N. C I

^JfV

(g~s I ,

r,iJ

(3 i V

Example 13. King Curtis: "Memphis Soul

Modern Jazz (Funk)

During the 1950s a new jazz sty

funk, emerged. Musically, the new

earlier roots of jazz: blues and ch


been frequently referred to as "so
and is characterized by the use o

1. A heavy blues reference-tim


2. A simple melodic/harmonic
3. Moderate tempos (as opposed
and hard bop)
4. Catchy rhythmic/melodic ostinatos and riffs
5. Compositions which are spiritually linked to the church and
black folklore

6. A frequent use of three-four meter (which was new to jazz)


Someone has said that funk represents not so much a change in
approach but a change in materials-the materials are less complicated, thus the improvisations are, too. Excerpts from some compositions of the period that are based on the ostinato principle will
serve to illustrate this point.

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202

THE BLACK PERSPECTIVE IN MUSIC

The ostinato pattern in Example 14 serves as th

composition by Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. The co

constructed in two parts-the first is identifiable

ostinato pattern, and the second is a swing section. B

are based on the blues form. Example 15 is an ex

another version of the piece; it also is based on an ost


though different from the first.
Other compositions can also be used to illustrate t
ostinato principle. Consider the excerpts in Examples

is based on the blues idiom in some way-either h

structurally, or melodically. These represent only a sm


pieces from this period which use the ostinato princ
numerous other compositions which make use of the
Example 14. Julian Adderley: "Sak 'O Woe"
Ostinato pattern-'60s version:

1l)
a

-.-

.I

ft1

^~~~~~~~

Mr

"

6iFJ^- JCp -t

Example 15. Julian Adderley: "Sak 'O Woe"


'70s version:

Wi ,. . e

t"

-1

~~- -- AZ 1-- 4--rw4,

X4 w m - -f
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OSTINATO IN BLACK IMPROVISED MUSIC 203

"74 Miles Away," "Planet Earth," "Doo Do Do," "Walk T


Weaver," "Sy-Anthesia," "Hummin'," and "Gemini"-all

were in the repertoire of the Adderley brothers, Cannon

Nat.

Example 15 (continued)

j^-ff ;: r , - j- l -

ff' 1

|T2
J

ml
I4,i I
_
...i;.J,
j

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204

THE BLACK PERSPECTIVE IN MUSIC

Example 17.

Benny Golson: "Killer Joe"

m,

*A

Il

1C7 t 7
M

7#

IN

-*

-i

"-

s r. ,-I _I - =T
C7
I

-I

7
In,I

Example

/.

_=_)

18.

D~~~~~~ IL El t -1I

(!
pj.

M^

,i

/-

_,ji

Iv

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OSTINATO IN BLACK IMPROVISED MUSIC 205

Example 19. Horace Silver: "Senor Blues"

.~, v.- ',. . ~- .71

.p' L i' 1

I Jiirk-mV
;I i Iwa I I it A I J _

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206 THE BLACK PERSPECTIVE IN MUSIC


The New Music of the '60s

The modal style, which was first introduced by Miles Davis

later used extensively by such musicians as John Coltrane

Herbie Hancock, greatly facilitated the use of ostinatos. The t

centers in this music usually have long duration (two or m

measures); therefore, it is possible to craft ostinatos with a h


degree of rhythmic and melodic interest, unencumbered by f

quent modulations. Example 20 illustrates this point. The l

example, recorded in 1959, is based on the Phrygian mode and


actually an interpolated section to the concerto. Notice how dif
ent colors, textures, and harmonies constantly change above t
static idea. See further illustration in Examples 21 and 22.

Example 20. Joaquin Rodrigo: "Concierto de Aranjuez," arranged by Gil E


(Miles Davis, soloist)
(Ostinato)

)J. 4-L4 .'g


Example 21. John Coltrane: "Tunji" (Toon-gee)

VL k I I+I-+ 1 .; I _
-4?

-/ I h I I I I I l

0(i,~244

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OSTINATO IN BLACK IMPROVISED MUSIC 207


Example 22. John Coltrane: "Dahomey Dance"

r"

fe^M 1 1

John Coltrane and McC


cians to reinterpret "sta
create original pieces usi
ing harmonies of the co
suspended over the prev
23, notice how various h

figure.

Other

"standar

applied are given in Exa


how the ostinato actuall
Finally, let us briefly e
to what I choose to call
blues." I choose not to u
form with borrowings f
the fact that ALL the in
harmonic, use of electro
styles which were well
In practice, the ostinat
strong resemblance to t
other musicians from th
trate this relationship, l

Brown (see Example


example are:
1.

Use

rhythms

of

the

additive

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208

THE BLACK PERSPECTIVE IN MUSIC

2. A subdivision of the basic quarter-note pulse


tions (not swing rhythms) of two and four p
3. A heavy use of riffs by the horns (This type
be found in West African and Caribbean drum and wind/

string ensembles. More recently, it is an important stylistic


trait of such groups as Chicago, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Cool

and the Gang, and many others.)

4. Use of an ostinato which tends to unify the various rhythmic


levels

5. Performance by a horn soloist who is conversant with the


blues tradition, melodically, and timbrally

6. Use of electronic instruments

James Brown also uses near related and distant modulations


break the monotony of one tonal center, though this feature of

music is not used in the example quoted here.

Miles Davis's piece, "In a Silent Way" (recorded in 196

utilizes many of the foregoing devices, and is considered to be


first so-called fusion recording. This piece does represent a stro
movement away from a conventional jazz rhythmic feel toward
more allied with rhythm and blues; however, Miles had used th

ideas earlier in his recording of 1968, Filles de Kilimanjaro. T


compositions from this album, "Frelon Brun" and "Filles De
Kilimanjaro," support this statement.

Example 23. John Coltrane: "Naima"


(Bass sounds an octave lower)

...
-_

_
5

..
l/

..
l

?7 ! L IF III
5,

L_

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OSTINATO IN BLACK IMPROVISED MUSIC 209

Example 24. McCoy Tyner: "You Stepped Out of a Dream"

IAL2L

'4+ r~T~~> I x I

I~

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210

THE BLACK PERSPECTIVE IN MUSIC

Example 25. John Coltrane: "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes

/,7
__4

L/) r a I

R- 4-- I~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Example 26. McCoy Tyner: "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes"

4.4 p4 44
w 1?' 1
.

.2~-1

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OSTINATO IN BLACK IMPROVISED MUSIC 211

Example 26 (continued)

.2

I U I~ I I I

-1- -V- I r

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212 THE BLACK PERSPECTIVE IN MUSIC

Example 27. James Brown: "Ain't It Funky Now"

r (I-'r*w \\ _

}", l'h I- ! n-- I -i


11 - - ^f, - V E r- -r r r
a
r
r
irrr
I

X /'I /I

2II

W.n

gr F r F '
Sy t ^ A A .

r
I

4*W#5 -^4 IW

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OSTINATO IN BLACK IMPROVISED MUSIC

213

Example 27. (continued)

IA iiL;
/t r F

Example 28. Miles Davis: "In a Silent Way"

?F,F (voKV x f '///7a FS)


rY

IFr

1r' 7 c I A I
1c'Ti^1 2

In Example 28 are the riff and ostinato figures from "In a Silent
Way." The even subdivisions of the beat, the recurring riff idea, the
ostinato foundation, the use of contrasting tonal centers and ostinatos, and the stratification of rhythmic/melodic ideas by means

of timbre are all much in evidence in "In a Silent Way." The

relationship to James Brown's music is not so subtle.

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214

THE BLACK PERSPECTIVE IN MUSIC

The present study is only a preliminary one. Muc

mains to be done in investigating the use of the ostinat

other styles, such as gospel, non-tonal jazz, and ext


compositions. An in-depth study in this regard wou

further enlighten us about the conceptual unity that exi

black music.

Oberlin College

REFERENCES

1. Baker, David. Arranging and Composing-for the small ensem


& b./jazz-rock. (Bloomington, Indiana: Frangipani Press, 1983)

2. Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. The Music of Africa. (New York: W

and Co., 1974).

3. Roberts, J. S. Salsa! (New York:BMI, The Many Worlds

1976).

DISCOGRAPHY*

Example 3a. Addy, Mustapha Tettey. "Master Drummer fr


London: Tangent Records, TGS 113.

Example 3b. Brooks, Cedric. "From Mento to Reggae to Th

Kingston, Jamaica: The African Caribbean Institute of Jamai

Example 3c. Personal recording of Upward Bound summer

choir rehearsal, 1982.

Example 4a. Hughes, Brewster. "Highlife from Nigeri

Melodisc Records, MEL 12-141.

Example 4b. Marley, Bob. "Survival." Kingston, Jamaica: Tuff Gond Re-

cords.

Example 4c. Earth, Wind, and Fire. "The Best of Earth, Wind, and Fire."

New York: Columbia Records, FC 35647, 1978.

Example 5a. Lewis, Meade Lux. "Jazz," vol. 10. New York: Folkways

Records, FJ 2810.

Example 5b. Spand, Charlie and Blind Blake. "Jazz," vol. 10. New York:

Folkways Records, FJ 2810.

*Dates are not known for many of these recordings.

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OSTINATO IN BLACK IMPROVISED MUSIC 215

Examples 7 and 8. Gillespie, Dizzy. "The Greatest of Dizzy Gillesp


York: RCA Victor, LPM 2398.
Examples 9 and 10. Elbert, Donnie. "Anthology of Rhythm and Blues,"
vol. 1. New York: Columbia Records, CS 9802.

Example 12. Brown, James. "J. B. Plays and Directs the Popcorn."
Nashville, Tenn.: King Records, KS 1092.
Example 13. Curtis, King. "Live at Fillmore West." New York: Atlantic

Records, SD 33-359.

Example 14. Adderley, Julian. "Greatest Hits." New York: Riverside Re-

cords, RLP 416.

Example 15. ."Phenix." Berkeley, Calif.: Fantasy Records, F

79004, 1975.

Example 16. . "Greatest Hits." New York: Riverside Records, RLP

416.

Example 17. Golson, Benny. "Meet the Jazztet." New York Chess/Janus
Records, CA 664, 1960.

Example 18. Silver, Horace. "The Best of Horace Silver." Los Angeles,
Blue Note Records, BSt 84325.

Example 19. Adderley, Julian. "Planet Earth." New York: Riverside Re-

cords, RS 3041.

Example 20. Davis, Miles. "Sketches of Spain." New York: Columbia Re-

cords, PC 9875.

Example 21. Coltrane, John. "Coltrane." New York: Impulse Records,

A-21.

Example 22. . "Ole." New York: Atlantic Records, 1373.

Example 23. . "The Best of John Coltrane." New York: Atlantic

Records, SD 1541.

Example 24. . "Coltrane's Sound." New York: Atlantic Records, SD


1419.

Example 25. Tyner, McCoy. "Song for My Lady." Berkeley, Calif.: Milestone Records, MSP 9044A, 1973.

Example 26. . "Fly With the Wind." Berkeley, Calif.: Milestone

Records, M9067, 1976.

Example 27. Brown, James. "Ain't It Funky." Nashville, Tenn.: King

Records, KS 1092.

Example 28. Davis, Miles. "In a Silent Way." New York: Columbia Re-

cords, PC 9875.

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