Afro Blue

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"Afro Blue" is a jazz standard composed by Mongo Santamaría, perhaps best known in its arrangement by John Coltrane.

Santamaria version[edit]

Mongo Santamaria 1969

Mongo Santamaria first recorded his composition "Afro Blue" in 1959, when playing with Cal Tjader's band, Cal Tjader Sextet - Concert by the Sea, Part 1 (Fantasy). The first recorded performance of the piece, recorded live on April 20, 1959, at the Sunset Auditorium in Carmel, California, with composer Mongo Santamaría on percussion.

In 1960, lyrics were added by prolific songwriter Oscar Brown.


"Afro Blue" was the first jazz standard built upon a typical African 3:2 cross-rhythm, or hemiola.[1] The song begins with the bass repeatedly playing 6 cross-beats per each measure of 12/8, or 6 cross-beats per 4 main beats—6:4 (two cells of 3:2). The following example shows the original ostinato "Afro Blue" bass line. The slashed noteheads indicate the main beats (not bass notes), where you would normally tap your foot to "keep time."

"Afro Blue" bass line, with main beats indicated by slashed noteheads.

While the bass sounds the six secondary beats, Paul Horn's flute solo and Emil Richards' marimba solo emphasize the four primary beats. Francisco Aguabella takes the conga drum solo on the first recording, quoting phrases from the vocabulary of the abakuá bonkó drum.

Using brushes, Willie Bobo plays an abakuá bell pattern on a snare drum. This cross-rhythmic figure divides the twelve-pulse cycle into three sets of four pulses. Since the main beats are grouped as four sets of three pulses (dotted quarter-notes in the top example), the bell pattern significantly contradicts the meter. Bobo played this same pattern and instrumentation on the Herbie Hancock jazz-descarga "Succotash."[2]


The harmonic structure of Santamaria's version is a simple Bb pentatonic blues.

Coltrane version[edit]


In 1963 John Coltrane recorded "Afro Blue" with Elvin Jones on drums.[3] Jones took the opposite approach of Santamaría, superimposing two cross-beats over every measure of a 3/4 jazz waltz (2:3). This particular swung 3/4 is perhaps the most common example of overt cross-rhythm in jazz.[4][5] Coltrane and Jones reversed the metric hierarchy of Santamaria's composition, by performing in 3/4 swing (2:3), instead of 6/8 or 12/8 (3:2).

Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things", also uses a 3/4 jazz waltz rhythm.


Coltrane added several chords, making his version more harmonically sophisticated than Santamaria's original version.


  1. ^ Peñalosa, David (2010). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins p. 26. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3.
  2. ^ "Succotash" Inventions and Dimensions (Herbie Hancock). Blue Note CD 84147-2 (1963).
  3. ^ "Afro Blue," Impressions (John Coltrane) Pablo CD (1963).
  4. ^ Conor Guilfoyle demonstrates 3/4 swing.
  5. ^ John Coltrane performs "Afro Blue" with Elvin Jones on drums.

Recorded performances[edit]