Camille Thurman: The Origin of the Blues


Grades 5-9, Terrace Gallery (60 minutes), February 1, 2019

What is the Blues? Saxophonist, vocalist, and composer Camille Thurman and her quartet present a fun session exploring the genre. Students can learn about the blues in terms of history and geography, the influence of society and culture, and presence in today’s music. Students will also get to hear Camille Thurman, whose vocal abilities have been compared to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter, and who has been equally lauded for her lush, rich, and warm sound on the tenor saxophone.

Standards Connections:
Music - Connecting (Cn.11)

Student Guide

So, What’s Going On?

She’s got the blues…

For Camille Thurman, the blues aren’t just singing about your problems—although they can be. For Thurman, the blues are a conversation, an exploration…the language of jazz music.

The blues is the oldest American art form, originally created by enslaved Africans in the Deep South. The blues was sung in the cotton fields and in chain gangs as a way of passing time when experiencing hard physical labor. Its originators used the blues as a way of communicating, sharing stories, and expressing emotions including joy, pain, sorrow, loss, hope, and a longing for freedom. After slavery was abolished, many ex-slaves migrated to the north to escape segregation, racism, and to access better jobs, housing, and opportunities.

New technological innovations, such as the steamboat and train, allowed for masses of people to travel from southern rural areas to the big northern and western cities. As African Americans migrated north, the music evolved, too. These transplanted blues transformed into urban music—with the introduction of drums and electric guitar—resulting in the morphing of the blues into different regional styles, including Mississippi Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, Memphis Blues, Kansas City Blues, St. Louis Blues, Texas Blues, and Piedmont Blues.

Blues was often built off “riffs," also sometimes referred to as “call and response,” and commonly included the voice, hands, feet, guitar, harmonica, and piano (bass and drums were later incorporated). Artists such as Bessie Smith, Joe Williams, W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, Big Momma Thornton, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Koko Taylor, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker all became known as innovators of the blues and were key to establishing the various types of blues for different regions.

Watch and listen as Camille Thurman introduces and explores the blues:

Cool, huh?

In this event, Camille Thurman will provide an interactive demonstration, explaining the background of the blues and its presence in today’s music. Through her selections, she’ll show how society and culture influence music and how the blues has spread throughout the country.

Ready to hear some blues?

Here’s a list of some of the music you may hear at the performance:

“Got My Mojo Workin’” by Muddy Waters

“St. Louis Blues” by Bessie and W.C. Handy

“Every Day I Have the Blues” by Joe Williams and the Count Basie Orchestra

“You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton

“Why Am I Treated So Bad” by Robert Johnson

“Cross Road Blues” by Robert Johnson

“Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotton

“Stormy Monday” by B.B. King

Who’s Who


In the jazz world, Camille Thurman is a triple threat—a soulful singer who has mastered flute and tenor saxophone, and written award-winning compositions. Though her voice is compared to that of jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, she is equally respected for her technical mastery of jazz saxophone.

A recreational singer since she was small, Thurman was inspired by the music of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Chaka Khan as a child. Though she began playing flute at age 12, she didn’t truly consider herself a musician until a family member gifted her a saxophone at age 15. She would sing and “scat”—improvised singing where the voice imitates an instrument with nonsense syllables—her sax solos to learn them, quickly being recognized for her talent and going on to study music with some of the foremost jazz teachers in the country.

Thurman’s four octave vocal range, a phenomenon among singers, captures audiences. Only a few singers boast such a broad range, the circle including pop singers like Ariana Grande, Mariah Carey, and Christina Aguilera. Meanwhile, her lush, velvety tones on the tenor sax have earned the respect of jazz musicians and audiences alike. Equal parts instrumentalist and singer, Thurman hopes her music helps expand people’s ideas about jazz musicians, especially female instrumentalists. She has performed with musicians from Wynton Marsalis to Alicia Keys to Erykah Badu, and has received countless awards, including the Lincoln Center Award for Outstanding Young Artists.

For this Kennedy Center program, Camille Thurman will perform with The Darrell Green Trio, which includes Green on drums, Devin Starks on bass, and Keith Brown on piano.

Check This Out…

  • Listen for how Thurman switches between her voice and the sax. What techniques are similar between the two (hint: think improvisation)?
  • The blues most often take on what is called a 12-bar pattern, referring to the number of “bars” or measures in each phrase of a song. Each 12-bar phrase follows an AAB pattern, with each section containing 4 of the 12 beats, like this:

    A 1-2-3-4 (Problem - Well I woke up this morning, feeling oh so sad)
    A 5-6-7-8 (Problem - Well I woke up this morning, feeling oh so sad)
    B 9-10-11-12 (Statement - But once I started singin’ now I’m feeling really glad)

    Listen for 12-bar patterns throughout the music, as well as the call and response-style lyrics that are a hallmark of blues.

Watch Thurman sing the 12-bar blues:

  • Like all blues artists, Thurman brings her own experiences and emotions to her rendition of the blues. Does listening to her sing and play the blues help you feel connected to her?

The Language of Jazz and Blues

Here are some key jazz terms to know and to listen for during the performance:

Articulation: Performance techniques used by musicians that determine the style or sound of the music by specifying how individual notes are to be played within a section or entire piece of music.

Blues: An African American musical art form involving expression and storytelling through “call and response.” The blues is a feeling or way of expressing one’s emotions through sound. The blues is about overcoming adversity—facing a problem in life and overcoming it with a solution.

Call and Response: A musical approach in which a melodic or rhythmic phrase is exchanged between two parts; also called “question/statement” or “answer/solution.”

Harmony: Two or more notes played together that create a compatible or pleasant sound.

Improvisation: Creating music or song spontaneously or embellishing a pre-existing melody; a technique that requires great musical skill and creativity.

Jazz Standards: Popular musical compositions, mostly created between the 1920s and 1960s for Broadway musicals and films. They’re called “standards” because they’re so widely known and performed, they’ve become a permanent part of the jazz music repertoire, also known as the “Great American Songbook.”

Melody: The tune of a piece of music created by a series of notes; most often recognizable as the main tune you hum or sing along with in a musical work.

Rhythm: A strong, repeated pattern of sound.

Riff: A short, repeated musical phrase.

Soloing: When a musician improvises by elaborating on the music’s melody and harmony in their own personal style.

The Great Migration: The movement of six million African Americans from the rural south to urban northeast, mid-west, and west between 1915 and 1960. The majority of African Americans migrated to cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York, Kansas City, and Detroit.

For more on the Great Migration and the Kennedy Center’s production of Blues Journey, check out: http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/multimedia/series/AudioStories/blues-journey

Think About This…

  • The blues evolved from spirituals, work songs, chants, and other musical forms that represent the experiences of slaves, ex-slaves, and descendants of slaves. Considering this, how do the blues tell the story of America?
  • Along similar lines, the blues uses music and lyrics to tell the story of the composer’s deepest sorrows and highest joys. How does the music you listen to or play today represent your life? If it doesn’t, where might you look to find music that does?

Watch the late B.B. King discuss why anyone can sing the blues:

  • Technology and innovation (like the steamboat and train) changed and evolved the blues, spreading it throughout big cities in America. Consider how technology and innovation have affected modern music in just the last few decades. (Hints: How music can be recorded on your iPhone. Or how music can be delivered via iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, etc.)
  • Just for fun! Follow the instructions on the graphic below to reveal your “blues” name. Compare names with a classmate, friend, or family member.


Take Action: Singin’ the Blues

Camille Thurman takes elements from her life and carefully incorporates them into jazz/blues to create unique compositions. Here’s a challenge: Think of a personal situation that you’re comfortable writing about and create a blues lyric about it. Here’s the format:


You can use this simple example for inspiration:

My dog ate my ice-cream, feeling really sad today
My dog ate my ice-cream, feeling really sad today
But my mom brought me another cone, and I’m feeling happy again

You might even try adding a simply melody to your text to make it a complete blues composition. Share your words or even consider taking a video of yourself performing the blues and share it with friends and family.

And here’s some help--a backing track they could sing over:

Teacher & Parent Guide

Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers: We’ve Got You Covered

Hey adults! Whether you sing the blues or not, we’ll help you navigate this program with ease. Camille Thurman is a powerful jazz singer and saxophonist who is changing the modern jazz scene. You’ll hear her take on the blues, including its history and its importance in American society.

Here are a couple of links to help you understand Thurman’s music and the blues:

Alright, you’re ready to hear Camille Thurman.



Tori Friedrich

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Tiffany Bryant
Assistant Manager, Audience Enrichment

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources


David M. Rubenstein

Deborah F. Rutter

Mario R. Rossero
Senior Vice President

Discovery Artists in the KC Jazz Club are supported by The Buffy and William Cafritz Family Foundation and The King-White Family Foundation and Dr. J. Douglas White.

Major support for educational programs at the Kennedy Center is provided by David M. Rubenstein through the Rubenstein Arts Access Program.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee for the Performing Arts.

© 2019 The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Related Resources

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