Styles & Forms | Boogie-Woogie | Blues

A rollicking, fast piano style characterized by repetitive eighth-note bass figures in the left hand, meshed with sharp, bluesy single-note runs in the right hand, boogie-woogie was an infectious form that had an immediate appeal to dancers.

While the left hand remained tied to the task of covering driving bass lines in a kind of ‘automatic pilot’ approach through chord changes (repeating continuous eighth-note bass figures in each different harmony), the right hand was liberated to explore, express and create with bluesy impunity.

Although the boogie-woogie fad swept the nation in the late 1930s, its roots go back much further. Jelly Roll Morton and W. C. Handy recalled hearing boogie-woogie-style piano in the American South during the first decade of the twentieth century. By the 1920s, boogie-woogie pianists were making their mark in saloons, juke joints, honky-tonks and at rent parties throughout both the South and North, where their powerfully rhythmic attack could cut through the din of a good time.

A Powerfully Rhythmic Attack

One of the pioneers of this raucous, rapid-fire, eight-to-the-bar piano style was Jimmy Yancey. Born in 1894 in Chicago, he worked in vaudeville as a singer and tap dancer – starting at the age of six – before taking up the piano in 1915. Although he did not make a recording until 1939, his most famous student, Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, would become one of the first to document the boogie-woogie piano style on record with his 1927 ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’, a masterpiece of intricate cross-rhythms that highlights Lewis’s remarkable independence between hands. That same year, Pine Top Smith garnered widespread attention with his catchy ‘Pine Top’s Boogie-Woogie’, in which the pianist shouts instructions to dancers over the top of his rolling keyboard work. The hit tune, covered by several artists – including Bing Crosby with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra – also featured the rhythmic ‘breaks’ that were an essential part of early ragtime.

From Spirituals To Swing

In 1938, a single event helped bring boogie-woogie to wider public exposure. Jazz impresario John Hammond, a producer and talent scout who had a keen interest in boogie-woogie piano (and particularly in Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis), arranged to have Lewis and fellow boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson appear on the bill of his ‘From Spirituals To Swing’ concert, held at Carnegie Hall on 23 December 1938. The gala event (which also featured Count Basie’s Orchestra, gospel singer-guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, blues shouters Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner, blues harmonica ace Sonny Terry, soprano sax genius Sidney Bechet and his New Orleans Feet Warmers and the Kansas City Six featuring tenor saxophonist Lester Young on the bill) not only helped launch the boogie-woogie boom but also led directly to the formation of Blue Note Records by the German immigrant Alfred Lion.

As Michael Cuscuna wrote in The Blue Note Years (Rizzoli): ‘Lion attended the legendary ‘From Spirituals To Swing’ concert at...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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