i hope i'm allowed to ask two questions in a row :)
i've been trying to practice the blues lately, but the i7 chord is driving me nuts.
it's basically the minor seventh. i get that it really helps define the color of the blues by adding that tension on the tonic, but if the tonic seventh chord isn't diatonic, doesn't this throw off the key of the whole form?
practically, when i'm improvising, i'm not sure how to treat it as. do i treat it as any old dominant chord (use altered, bebop dominant, mixolydian, etc)? but it tends to sound nice when treat it as a major seventh chord, too. maybe it's just me..
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this sounds like a case of "thinking too much":)  it can be helpful to consider pre-20th century harmonic concepts (theory) in learning about the 12-tone system we still use, however the conventions of those eras were somewhat disregarded during the evolution of blues, jazz and later music of the 20 century. (damn, that sounds impressive:)

in other words?; don't think; just play.

since you asked about that i7, we should clarify that when that interval of a minor seventh is added to a major triad, it creates a dominant 7th chord, not a minor 7th chord.  in traditional theory, the dominant 7th is a v chord and leads our ear back to the i chord.  however in blues, these dominant 7ths are are considered (dissonant) consonants, so in this case you can treat it as a i chord.  same with the iv

clear as mud?
i didn't want to call the i7 a dominant chord because i tried to distinguish it from the actual v7 chord. so, when you say, "treat it as a i chord" (or iv, for the iv7), do you mean to treat them as major chords when improvising on them?
or is it just that the i , iv chords happen to have minor sevenths, and we treat them like dominant chords with the whole altered, dominant bebop shinanigan?
a b7 is the 7th harmonic in the harmonic series.

10 e

9 d

8 c

7 'bb'

6 g

5 e

4 c

3 g

2 c

1 c

this 'soft' (narrow) b7 still forms a valid tritone, with tension against the m3. it also falls within the bounds of historical tunings of the tritone.

this b7 is, nonetheless, generated by the fundamental, and so it is also quite capable of feeling 'at rest'.

while some might consider it contradictory that a 'dominant' 7th chord can both be restless and restful (depending on context), i feel that it gives musicians greater freedom of expression to be able to take advantage of these options.

the bottom 10 harmonics of the harmonic series form a 'dominant' 9th chord, which is identical to the mixolydian scale, minus the 4th and the 6th.

c9 = c e g bb d

c mixolydian(minus f & a) = c d e g bb

note that the e-bb tritone points to the two missing notes f & a.

this explains why roots tend to want to move upwards a fourth around the circle (or downwards in fifths, if you prefer).
to simplify:  when learning to improvise on a 12-bar blues in c, you may find that fiddling around with the standard c "blues scale" (c eb f f# g bb c) through the whole thing will illustrate what 7 and i have tried to explain:)
if i,iv, and v are all dominant chords, does this mean that the blues is not a diatonic form, and it doesn't strictly have a single major or minor "key" in the western sense of theory?
eg. because e natural is not diatonic in f7 (i7), but it is on c7 (v7). similarly to ab on bb7 (iv7)
the blues is not a "functional" diatonic form in the classical sense of the word, because many of the progressions move backwards (iv to i, v to iv to i, i7 as a static chord) in ways that violate the rules of strict diatonic harmony (i.e., dominants constantly moving to the i chord).  

however, the blues most definitely has a key center, in this case "c"; it is not bi-tonal or non-tonal in any practical sense.  

i think this is all messing with your head.  try stepping back, getting the sound of the blues scale over the progression in your ears (as 7 and whacky :) suggested), try to sing/hear lines that sound good over the progression, then figure out how to play them.  or just cop a chorus or two from a recording you like.  that kind of thing has helped me to break through sticking points.  if you've listened to enough jazz and blues, you'd be amazed how many of those lines are just stored in your ears waiting to come out :)
also, treat the i7 like a i.
sorry, one last insight: keep in mind that the blues began as a modal style of music basic on african songs with no accompanying harmony.  the chords came later, and that's why they don't always make sense.
a common thread throughout stride piano tricks (as well as blues, honky tonk piano, etc) is the usage of these lines below over (for example) a c7th chord:

c d d# e

e f f# g

g g# a bb

combining these lines in thirds provides a great deal of fodder for tricksterism (as well as interesting passing chords):

e f f# g
c d d# e

g g# a bb
e f f# g

it is also possible (yet less common) to combine them in fifths

g g# a bb
c d d# e

and the motion can go up or down

g gb f e
e eb d c

bb a ab g
g gb f e

add into this equation that all the thirds can also be inverted into 6ths (and fifths into fourths, of course), and you have a total of 12 4-step motions that are all consonant, interesting and kosher over the underlying 7th chord.

this is kind of similar to a c.e.s.h. (chromatic embellishment of static harmony, ex: | cm cm/b | cm7/bb cm6/a |), but in this case the harmony doesn't seem to me to actually be static since those interior motions effectively construct valid passing chords.

my question is: is there a commonly accepted name for this set of "tricks" other than "that blues thang".

i've been racking my brain all day, and from a historical perspective i think you can trace that trick all the way back to the earliest jazz records.  i cracked open my jelly roll morton scores to the 1905 pieces and found him using that motive in "jelly roll blues," though without the harmonization.  i think you can also hear it (in single note form at least) in blind lemon's accompaniments from the mid 20s.  those undoubtedly originated before the recordings as well.   no idea what it's called though :).
awesome to see you still posting here.

i remember randomly meeting you in la, 7 years ago. it was even around this same time of year.

i've called them pentatonic passing tones before, and before that "blues" notes. in the right context i will use those over any major pentatonic, not just dominant sevenths

it seems there are different questions being asked, so i will try to answer one or two.

i7 iv7 v7 is not diatonic. the reason this sequence works is primarily because any dominant cadence (bass line down circle of fifths using dominant chords) is basically a series of secondary dominants, each resolving to its natural target. the i7 resolves to iv. the v7 resolves to i. all you're doing here is establishing tonality of a i (the i and v chord center, it doesn't matter what you put for the vii)

the blues came about as a trick or a way to make it interesting by not keeping it strictly diatonic.
also, if you you learn the reasons for the reharmonization behind the jazz blues, the standard blues will make more sense to you
would "god bless the child" be in blues form?
"god bless the child" has influences from blues and gospel, but is not in blues form.  it was composed in aaba song form (typically set in 32 bars with sections of 8 bars each).  "god bless" is unusual because the a sections are 10 bars long while the b section is a standard 8.
even though it's not the 12 bar blues form, god bless the child is one of the tunes i have the most fun on when being all bluesy...  willow weep for me, angel eyes, and love for sale and some other nice tunes that you can get super bluesy on.
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