Thursday, September 21, 2017

Boogie Woogie - The First Day to R.I.P. - 1939-1949

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“For all its supposed "primitiveness," boogie-woogie has never been mastered by a schooled, technically finished pianist. The music was largely unknown until the late thirties, when it suddenly became a national fad….

At the same time, the handful of genuine boogie-woogie pianists who abruptly achieved fame and fortune were forced by overexposure to mechanize a fundamentally instinctive music. The craze had vanished by the end of the Second World War, and so, to all intents and purposes, had boogie-woogie itself.”
- Whitney Balliett, Jazz author and critic

“Boogie-woogie. A percussive style of piano blues favored, for its volume and momentum, by bar-room, honky-tonk, and rent-party pianists. The term appears to have been applied originally to a dance performed to piano accompaniment, and its widespread use stems from the instructions for performing the dance on the recording Pine Top's Boogie Woogie (1928, Voc. 1245) by Pine Top Smith. The boogie style is characterized by the use of blues chord progressions combined with a forceful, repetitive left-hand bass figure; many bass patterns exist, but the most familiar are the "doubling" of the simple blues bass and the walking bass in broken octaves….

By the he 1950s boogie-woogie had reverted to the blues, becoming a standard element in the performances of every pianist; although its relevance to jazz declined, it proved to be one of the most enduring aspects of blues, and the foundation of much of the Chicago blues idiom.”
- Paul Oliver in Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

Boogie-woogie emerged as a blues piano style in Chicago. It first appeared on record, played by Pine Top Smith, in 1929 on Vocalion. In the hands of Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and particularly, Albert Ammons, it enjoyed a huge burst in popularity in the late 1930s and 1940s. In boogie-woogie, Jazz and blues elements came into close proximity again.

As the fad faded, the music began to be more accepted in blues, where it proved easily adaptable to guitar and harmonica stylists. While boogie-woogie is rarely heard in Jazz today [the occasional shuffle beat that drummers use can approximate its feeling], nearly every blues band performs the style.

The following is drawn from Whitney Balliett’s essay “R.I.P.” which appears in his compilation Dinosaurs in the Morning [1962].

“A complex, incandescent solo-piano music whose thematic material was restricted almost wholly to the twelve-bar blues, it embraced, because of its variety and power, all the emotional shades of the blues. Its obvious features have been widely celebrated and widely misunderstood. Unlike the rest of jazz piano, which depends largely on the right hand, boogie-woogie was a two-part, two-handed contrapuntal music that collapsed if either hand was undeveloped. It was also a basically rhythmic and harmonic form that only nodded at melodic invention.

The left hand was chiefly characterized by the ostinato bass [“Ostinato” from Latin, 'obstinate' is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, usually at the same pitch. ... The repeating idea may be a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune, or a complete melody in itself.]

This bass was often composed of dotted eighth or dotted sixteenth notes, and it included "walking" basses, "rolling" basses, heavy staccato basses, and spare four-four basses often tinged with Spanish rhythms. (Contrary to general belief, only a few boogie-woogie basses had eight beats to the bar.)

A boogie-woogie pianist might use the same bass through an entire chorus or a succession of choruses, but more often he changed basses, and sometimes even registers, once in each chorus. The monotonous rumble popularly associated with boogie-woogie was an illusion; close attention revealed a constant flow of new colors.

The right hand was even freer. The pianist might use legato or staccato arpeggios, a single note struck lackadaisically throughout a whole chorus, tremolos of various speeds, chorded or single-note riffs, simple, fragmentary melodic lines, and clusters of chords that frequently absorbed single-note melodies or dissolved into them. Occasionally one rhythm popped up, simultaneously in the bass and treble, but generally the right hand went its own way, setting up a welter of cross-rhythms that sometimes shifted from measure to measure. Added to all this was an intuitive harmonic sense that ranged from single or multi-voiced melodies to dissonances. Boogie-woogie was a polyphonic, polyrhythmic, and at times even polytonal music.

It is often regarded primarily as a stomp music. Nonetheless, it was played at every speed. There were tempos that were so slow they were tempoless. Numbers played this way became a collection of sorrowful, introverted reflections on the blues that have rarely been surpassed for unadulterated sadness. The brighter the tempo, the more effulgent the music; at medium-slow or medium speeds, the lyrical content was perfectly balanced by its rhythmic aspects.

Many of the "train" pieces — Meade Lux Lewis' "Honky Tonk Train Blues" is the most famous — were played in these tempos, and they provided extended musical images that caught perfectly the concatenation of sounds, motion, and force of steam-hauled trains. They also caught the emotions of transition that trains so peculiarly symbolize.

Fast boogie-woogie was a rock-breaking wonder. A distillation of hurry and strength, it was one of the few forms of jazz with a climactic structure. In a fast number, melodic repetition and the compounding of various rhythms gradually took on a solidity that had no breathing spaces and that reached an impressive intensity in the closing choruses. Not many other types of music have offered such a sense of rampage. And yet, despite its turbine quality, fast boogie-woogie never lost the essential plaintiveness of the blues. Slow boogie-woogie was a carefully arranged array of still shots; fast boogie-woogie transposed those stills into a motion picture.

The history of boogie-woogie is blurred, romantic, and short. So far as is known, the form was invented around the turn of the century in the Midwest and scattered areas of the South by itinerant laborer-musicians. Its singular percussiveness was probably the result of attempts by its pioneers to overcome, through sheer volume, both inferior instruments and the noisy environment  —dances, lumber camps, rent parties, and the like — in which they played. Its repetitiveness and wayward harmonies, which were eventually handled with considerable intelligence, grew out of plain ineptitude.

(For all its supposed "primitiveness," boogie-woogie has never been mastered by a schooled, technically finished pianist.) The music was largely unknown until the late thirties, when it suddenly became a national fad.

Every swing band had at least one boogie-woogie arrangement, while one band — Will Bradley's — made a career out of it. Correspondence-course pianists played it at parties. Jose Iturbi [a concert pianist by training] made an unbelievable two-sided 78 r.p.m. boogie-woogie record. The term became widely and genially mispronounced. (Both words rhyme, more or less, with "bookie," rather than "bootie.") The results were ironic and disastrous. The unwieldy complexities and fire of the form, untouched by this imitative army, settled to the bottom, leaving a vapid, colorless liquid.

At the same time, the handful of genuine boogie-woogie pianists who abruptly achieved fame and fortune were forced by overexposure to mechanize a fundamentally instinctive music. The craze had vanished by the end of the Second World War, and so, to all intents and purposes, had boogie-woogie itself. Two of its leading exponents, Albert Ammons and Jimmy Yancey, died not long after, while two others, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson, dropped into obscurity. No reputable neophytes appeared.

The music began to be looked down on as ungainly and shallow. Although there must have been hundreds of proficient boogie-woogie pianists in the twenties and thirties, only Yancey, Ammons, Lewis, and Johnson left a sizable and first-rate body of work behind them. Jimmy Yancey, who died in 1951, at the age of fifty-seven, was, in addition to being a model for Ammons and Lewis, possibly the greatest of all blues pianists.

A small, lean, shy man who gave up music professionally in the twenties and took a job as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox, Yancey had a style of classic simplicity. He invented a wide selection of discreet, almost tentative basses that were often set in four-to-the-bar or Spanish-tinged rhythms. His right hand was similarly understated. It rarely left the middle registers, and was limited to elementary chords, loose tremolos, and, principally, to lucid, reiterated melodic figures grouped around or below middle C. He had a sure sense of dynamics, and never went above brisk medium tempos, favoring slow speeds, which gave him the time to wring the maximum amount of emotion from his notes. Indeed, the best of his slow blues — "Death Letter Blues," "Five O'Clock Blues," and "35th and Dearborn" —are  indelible.

Ammons, Lewis, and Johnson were altogether different from Yancey. In their heyday, in the early forties, all three swelled to tremendous girths, and all three played with a rococo fury that made Yancey seem schoolmasterish.

Lewis was the most accomplished of the three. He was adept at all speeds and was perhaps the most complex of all boogie-woogie pianists. His variety of basses was limitless, and so were his right-hand figures. Yancey's influence was clear, but it had been transformed into a fatter, nimbler, more intense approach. Ammons was at once a looser and even more driving pianist. At leisurely tempos, he seemed to spread slowly, like a stain, occasionally slipping out of the confines of boogie-woogie altogether to play a straight stride bass and heavily pedaled right-hand chords. At up tempos, though, he generated a passion that was bent wholly to the rhythmic characteristics of the music. Johnson was a Kansas City-trained pianist who frequently used a walking bass. His slow pieces often resembled Ammons' but at fast tempos—despite his mountainous walking basses and his agile staccato right-hand chords— he achieved only a tight, dispassionate quality. Johnson's work had more bark than bite. Both Lewis and Johnson have recorded in the past decade, but, sadly, their inventiveness is gone. One hears only repetitions of old phrases, mixed here and there with intimations of their old ingenuity.”

If you are looking for a single CD primer on boogie-woogie, in my opinion, you can’t do better than Ammons & Lewis: The First Day [Blue Note’s First Recording Session of January 6, 1939] [Blue Note CDP 7 98450 2].

Here are the eminent Jazz author Dan Morgenstern’s insert notes to the CD version of this historical important recording.

“On the first day of what was to become a legendary jazz label, Alfred Lion brought to a rented recording studio two of the great masters of boogie woogie piano, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.

Two weeks earlier, he had attended the first of John Hammond's famed "Spirituals to Swing" concerts at Carnegie Hall, in which the two piano giants were featured, along with a host of other performers in what Hammond considered the pure jazz, blues and gospel idioms. It was a powerful experience for the 29-year-old jazz fan - a recent refugee from the murderous thugs who had seized power in Germany and made even his native Berlin (where he had discovered jazz at 16 at a concert by Sam Wooding's band) a place fraught with danger.

Lion had a special touch from the start. The session produced an astonishing 19 usable masters, 12 of which were issued on the extra-length 12-inch 78s that were to become a Blue Note trademark - no other jazz label of the 78 era devoted so much of its output to this more costly format, giving the artists more space in which to create. From day one, Blue Note had class.

Lion made the two Chicagoans in New York (where they would spend considerable time, appearing at Cafe Society, etc.) feel at home In the studio, providing their favorite food and drink, and they responded with an outpouring of creativity that made this first day a landmark not only in terms of the quantity of music produced, but also the quality.

In early 1939, boogie woogie had not yet become the fad that would bestow upon us such jewels as the Andrews Sisters' Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, disinterred by Bette Midler; Freddy Martin's Bumble Boogie, and sundry other gems designed to make a true Jazz and blues fan take flight. But there had already been some valid mainstream adaptations of the style, such as Tommy Dorsey's big-band Boogie Woogie, well crafted by arranger Deane Kincaid from pianist-singer Plnetop Smith's 1928 hit record Plnetop's Boogie Woogie, which had given the style a lasting name.

Prior to that, the piano blues style marked by a steady, solid ostlnato bass, most often of eight beats to the bar, had been known as "Fast Western," "Texas Piano," or other designations pointing to its presumed geographic origins. It was a blues music made for dancing and partying, powerfully rhythmic and well adapted to the out-of-tune and otherwise Impaired uprights available.

This most percussive of all piano styles uses the blues for harmonic and melodic material; a skilled performer can produce the most complex and driving patterns within a seemingly restrictive framework.

Ammons (19O7-1848) and Lewis (19OS-19O4) have no real peers when It comes to making boogie woogie take flight. Even Pete Johnson, from kansas City rather than Chicago, who also played at Hammond's concert, recorded for Blue Note and often teamed with them, cannot match the inventiveness and power of these two, while such acknowledged originals as Jimmy Yancey (considered the "father" of the style by some) and Cripple Clarence Lofton are not as versatile and accomplished pianists.

Ammons (whose son Gene became a famous jazz tenor saxophonist) could play excellent Jazz piano and led fine little hot bands In Chicago in the '3Os and '4Os. Lewis was somewhat less at home with jazz changes but liked to try his hand at standards (he also sang); he was a terrific whistler. We can hear a swinging sample of their jazz chops on the duet Nagasaki (erroneously listed as "The Sheik of Araby" on previous issues); the Harry
Warren tune also recorded by Ammons with his 1836 band).

But it's the blues that is the main course here. This wonderfully varied blues program is a lesson in the inexhaustibility of this "simple" form which has produced so much of our century's music - including many a hybrid. Here we
have the real thing; Alfred Lion wanted no commercial concessions.

Generally speaking, Ammons is the more forceful, swinging and pianistically accomplished of our two heroes, Lewis the more inventive. As Max Harrison has pointed out, Lewis' prolonged assay The Blues (the fifth part, discovered by Michael Cuscuna, was first issued in 1983; the other four, on two 12-inch discs contained in a cardboard sleeve with art cover and and brief liner notes, constituted the first Jazz album ever issued of a single artist's work) "shows the variety of figuration, the different levels of intensity, and the depth of expression which can be drawn from simple harmonic progressions.
It is a splendid instance of how stylistic limitations, willingly accepted (my italics.), can heighten the impact of a music discourse."

These insights are applicable to most of the music on this disc. On this first day, Ammons and Lewis knew how to get the maximum yield from their chosen stylistic mode - or the choice they willingly made at the behest of their host. Alone and together, they made music still startling in its inspiration and purity. In vulgar or meretricious or merely silly hands, boogie woogies became a noisome cliche, but no amount of vulgarization can rob this music of its inherent grace and power.

On that first day, Alfred Lion could not have had even an inkling of what his enthusiastic experiment would lead to. He only knew that he wanted to capture for posterity (and immediate dissemination) some music that seemed remarkably beautiful and special. That first day's rich harvest showed that he was able to create a climate for recording - a process fundamentally different from other performance modes - that was stimulating for the artists.

He saw that what he had done was good and continued his labors in the fertile vineyards of Jazz, soon abetted by his boyhood friend and fellow fan Frank Wolff. Because they knew what they wanted to hear they eventually made it heard around the world. Here is the start of the romance between Blue Note and the blues.”
-Dan Morgenstern

The following video montage features Albert Ammons playing his original - Boogie Woogie Stomp.

Here’s the Tommy Dorsey Band’s version of Pine Top’s Boggie Woogie:


  1. The statement that no classically proficient pianist has ever mastered boogie woogie is not true, if it ever was. Axel Zwingenberger for one.

  2. Good article on Boogie Woogie. Certainly called out the big four, Yancy, Johnson, Ammons and Lewis. And he did make excellent comments and pointed out the greatness of Yancy. If you like Boogie-Woogie the Ammons/Johnson is good, but make a point to check out Lewis and especially Yancy. There is nothing like Jimmy Yancy.


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