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Boogie Woogie 101

Boogie woogie, a piano style that has been in an out of favor with audiences a few times over the past century, is an excruciatingly complex combination of a dancing bass line (it sure isn’t just walking) supplied by the left hand and dazzling runs from the right, and usually played on an upright piano. The ability to combine the two hands in a complimentary and cohesive fashion is what separates masters from pretenders and is why the list of the former remains relatively short.

History traces the genesis of the music to Chicago in the 1920s, though it has been around in some fashion for more than a century. The most celebrated of the original practitioners, however, were indeed Chicagoans who made their initial mark during prohibition at gin joints, houses of prostitution and rent parties. One of the first and most important of these genius pianists was Jimmy Yancey (1898-1951), who worked by day for more than 30 years as a groundskeepers for the Chicago White Sox. Though he didn’t record until 1939, his influence is inestimable. His "Five O’clock Blues," also known as the "Fives," is credited as a progenitor of the style. Yancey was an established player on the Chicago scene from the teens and twenties. All the elements were there in his playing -- the rolling left hand and the rhythmic right -- but the name. He helped create the style, but not name it.

Boogie woogie would later be christened as such on record by one of Yancey’s best known protégés, Pinetop Smith (1904-1929). "Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie" remains one of the staples of the classic boogie woogie songbook. Smith came to Chicago from Alabama in 1928 and died there the following year, the victim of an errant gunshot during a brawl. He was 25 years old.

Two other of Yancey’s celebrated followers were Meade Lux Lewis (1905-1964) and Albert Ammons (1907-1949). At one point in 1928, according to groundbreaking author William Russell, Smith, Lewis and Ammons lived in the same Chicago apartment building and used to stage private "cutting contests." A few years prior even to that, Ammons and Lewis met in 1924 when they drove for a local cab company. Smith taught Ammons to play his "Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie" and it was from this instruction that Ammons developed his own style. He was also a blues and jazz pianist of some note, though the boogie buttered his bread most of the time. Ammons didn’t record his first solo sides until 1936. Incidentally, jazz fans will note that the famed pianist is father to tenor saxophone giant Gene ‘Jug’ Ammons.

Meade Lux Lewis recorded his classic "Honky Tonk Train Blues" in 1927, before Pinetop Smith cut his boogie, but it wasn’t released until two years later. His "Yancey Special" is also one of the most popular, not to mention complex, of the boogie woogie canon. Though he is said to have been the most intricate and complex player from the Boogie Woogie School, he dropped out of sight for a while. Fortunately, talent scout John Hammond (who "discovered" and signed everyone from Count Basie and Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen) tracked him down in 1936 washing cars. In short order, Lewis re-recorded "Honky Tonk Train Blues." He found himself out of a job as often as not for the next few years; but1938 would change all of that.

At the same time that Lewis and Ammons were pounding the 88s in Chicago, a youngster named Pete Johnson (1904-1967) was making a name for himself in Kansas City. Teamed up with the legendary blues shouter Big Joe Turner, Johnson was less accustomed to solo work than his Chicago contemporaries, but able to burn a stage with the best of them when called upon to do so.

In December 1938, John Hammond organized the first of two Spirituals to Swing concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Before the night was over, Lewis, Ammons and Johnson were celebrities and boogie woogie mania swept the nation. Shortly after the concert, the three, dubbed the Boogie Woogie Trio, played New York’s upscale club Café Society. Boogie had arrived. It left as quickly in the mid-1940s and stayed gone until the 1970s.

Along the boogie woogie highway we meet Cripple Clarence Lofton, Jay McShann (Charlie Parker’s first musical employer), Cow Cow Davenport, Hersal Thomas (brother of the great blues singer Sippie Wallace), Little Brother Montgomery, and Boogie Woogie Red. Red, who played piano with the great John Lee Hooker, was a master who left his mark on a young Mark Braun, aka Mr. B, who also learned from Montgomery in Chicago. (I had the great pleasure of videotaping and interviewing Boogie Woogie Red at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor in 1979 or ‘80 on a night when B came in, shared the bench with Red on a few numbers, and then left as quickly as he came in).

One of the most acclaimed players these days is Axel Zwingenberger. The German pianist is the leading proponent of boogie woogie in Europe and has released dozens of discs over the past nearly 30 years. He is at the forefront of a healthy European contingent of boogie woogie players that includes George Moeller, Martin Pyrker, Charlie Booty, Philippe LeJeune and Carl "Sonny" Leyland. Meanwhile, back in the states: San Diego’s Sue Palmer, who put in half a decade or so with blues vamp Candye Kane, has three superb discs under her own name to recommend her. Palmer is a powerful pianist with a flair for the camp, as well, though she comes by it naturally from her years spent in a vintage swing combo. Honey Piazza (nee: Alexander), who is married to and plays sizzling piano for Rod Piazza, is a knock, too. If you’re serious about boogie, you need Mitch Woods, Katie Webster Mr. B and Pinetop Perkins. Country boogie pianists Commander Cody and Floyd Domino are monster players, too.

Detroiter Bob Seeley is a piano player like Mickey Mantle was a ball player. The 70 year-old pianist has been a fixture at the piano bar at Charlie’s Crab in suburban Troy, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, where he has entertained the locals and visiting dignitaries for 30 years. It isn’t just that he’s an extraordinary pianist. He’s an indomitable soul who has played Carnegie Hall and most of the major venues throughout Europe. Though he only has a few self-produced compact discs to his credit, he is universally hailed as possibly the greatest proponent of boogie woogie and stride alive today. More on him in the next installment.

Boogie woogie is not a dying art form. Dutchman Martijn Schok, not yet 30, Silvan Zingg from Switzerland and Canadian Michael Kaeshammer are also getting great press. The boogie and the woogie are in good hands.

Most of the modern players mentioned have their own websites. Acknowledgement is made to researcher Colin Davey (www.colindavey.com/Boogie Woogie), as well as to the indispensable "A Left Hand Like God" (Peter J. Silvester. Da Capo Press, 1988)

Next: Boogie Woogie 101: An Appreciation - Part Two. Bob Seeley

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