An Interview with Axel Zwingenberger

This interview was conducted in July, 2000.

C:  What I'm curious about is the interest in boogie-woogie over time. After the mid-forties, it kind of lost its popularity, I believe, both in America and in Europe - is that right?

A:  It never had a chance to gain popularity [in Europe] in the mid-forties because there was the war going on then, especially in German-speaking countries and in those countries that were occupied by the Nazis. It was absolutely forbidden to listen to jazz, and you could get sent to concentration camps by listening to jazz. There was not a chance to gain popularity for boogie-woogie, in general.

There have been some very few exceptions to that; for example, there was a band in Switzerland called the New Hot Players. They were out of Neuchatel, in French-speaking Switzerland, and they had a number out that was called "Boogie-Woogie," which was an instrumental piece recorded in 1940. I have a 78 copy of that at home. And then there was a group, I think they were called Charlie's Jazz Swingers or something like that. They were working, actually, for the Ministry of Propaganda for the Nazis, and they did some radio programs against the BBC and the Allied Forces' radios. So, they would put some jazz music to it, and those programs were directed toward the Allied Forces. And they were called Charlie's Jazz Swingers or something . . I have to look at it at home. They had a boogie arrangement in their repertoire which later on was put out on 78 records. And this was called Cymbal Promenades , and it actually featured Yancey's bassline, and the piano player played the harpsichord instead of a piano to soften down the rhythmic impact that pure boogie-woogie would have had. You know, those people, after the war, became quite famous jazz musicians. But for a while, there was something like one group in Germany that was allowed to play jazz, as kind of propaganda trick. I think in the 1940s already, there was Charles Norman in Sweden who started playing boogie-woogie. But to sum it up, until the end of World War II, there was practically no chance to listen to boogie-woogie in Europe, or at least in most parts of Europe.

And then, after the War, the American troops came in, and with them, quite a few musicians who would play boogie-woogie. And, of course, after the War and after the Nazi empire had collapsed, there was a strong demand for different music, different rhythm and Jazz gained quite a bit of popularity then. And, of course, you had something like a lot of commercial boogie-woogie tunes recorded by dance bands, but very, very few boogie-woogie specialists at the time. Some of them I know up to today, one of them is Leo von Knobelsdorff who started in the late 1940s and another was Manfred Roth, who started in Berlin in 1945 to play boogie-woogie. But during that time, they never were professional musicians.

And, so it developed into this direction that boogie-woogie playing was just, you know, rather short-featured within the jazz program or something that you would put in for a dance or for the kind of rhythm for pop music, like it was over here in the 1940s. But that didn't sustain for very long, and later on there was rock and roll and, of course, it had a different beat but still similar to that. But it was not like, speaking of Germany and Austria, that there was a big movement of authentic boogie-woogie piano playing.

C:  So, in other words, in the fifties and sixties, there was very little.

A:  There was practically very little. It came back a little bit with the introduction of blues groups to Europe. For example, in the late fifties, they had Big Bill Broonzy over there. It started out in England and France with certain tours that they would have. For example, Joe Turner and Pete Johnson even went on a European tour with Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1958. They had a very short showcase, and Pete Johnson, as well, at that time already (that was before he had his strokes) was obviously not very well off. But, I mean, people like Sammy Price from time to time used to go to France, and Blind John Davis was over there in 1952. In the sixties, with the British rock bands reintroducing blues to the larger public, then you had growing interest in blues and also in blues piano playing. Also at that time, in the early sixties, people like Memphis Slim settled in Paris and Champion Jack Dupree would go over. For a while, he lived in Switzerland, and then he lived in England, and then later on, in Scandinavia before he finally came to Germany. There was kind of some boogie-woogie playing going around, but it was not a very strong movement.

C:  There was no festival of any type, for example, or anyone who made a career out of it?

A:  No, not really. The very first real boogie-woogie festival, to my knowledge, that happened, not only in Europe or in Germany but practically anywhere, was in 1974 in Cologne, which was the first time I can think of, that there was a festival entirely dedicated to boogie-woogie and blues piano playing. That was something that, I think, was unheard of, until that time. I mean, we would have had boogie-woogie players featured within a jazz context. You know like, for example, over here like Meade Lux Lewis playing with Jazz at the Philharmonic or the Sprituals to Swing where you had a small boogie-woogie portion within the context of a large jazz festival; or within blues festivals, like Newport in 1973, where you had Lloyd Glenn featured. Can you think of any real boogie-woogie festivals that would predate 1974?

C:  No, no I can't.

A:  I think this was pretty unique, and it was the idea of Hans Werner Ewert from Cologne, who was and still is with Westdeutscher Rundfunk which is a radio station that operated out of Cologne. He had it all set up with people like Memphis Slim and Champion Dupree, who was playing there, and there was a Dutch player by the name of Hein van der Gaag who played. Then there were Bob Hall and George Green from England, Martin Pyrker was participating from Austria, and George Moeller, Vince Weber, and myself from Hamburg.

C:  So, in the sixties there wasn't very much, except for occasionally, and then all of the sudden you had your first festival in 1974, which meant that all you folks had to have been developing your style up until then?

A:  I can tell you about my personal story. I became acquainted with boogie-woogie in early 1973 when I listened to an old Pete Johnson 78 record which contained Swanee River Boogie; St. Louis Boogie; another one: Boogie-Woogie Prayer, with Ammons, Lewis and Johnson; and a third shellac of Lionel Hampton with Albert Ammons: Central Avenue Breakdown and Hamp's Boogie-Woogie #2. And those were actually the first recordings that I ever heard of boogie-woogie. And I just wanted to play that, and I didn't know that there was anybody who could do it. A little later, I made contact with George Moeller and Vince Weber in Hamburg and, through them, with Hans Maitner in Vienna, who was like a boogie-woogie impresario, Martin Pyrker from Vienna, and Leo von Knobelsdorff in Cologne. That was really about it for the whole community,.

C:  This was after the festival that you met these people?

A:  No, no, that was prior to the festival. This group kind of got assembled in 1972 or 1973.

C:  But you had first heard it in 1973, and at the time you were hearing it for the first time in your life, these people had been getting to know each other for about a year or so?

A:  Well, about that. A little longer perhaps. Vince is one and a half years older than I, and he had met George Moeller in the early 1970s, maybe 1971, so that makes it one and half or two years before I met them. Around the same time, they met Martin Pyrker.

C:  So, somewhere in the early 1970s something happened. Was it a coincidence that all these people started playing boogie-woogie and got to know each other?

A:  In my case, it was pure coincidence and in George and Vince's case, too. But Vince knew Martin Pyrker from a short while before because they had been on a school exchange together. Vince was trying out blues piano, and one night, in his teens, he went to an after-hours spot in Hamburg and heard George Moeller play. George had been playing since about 1960; he was pretty singular.

What happened was that George was around from about 1960 on and had been living in different places. He had also lived in London. And he played his own music just for his own fun. He was pretty alone. There was another guy in Hamburg that played a bit of barrel house blues piano with some boogie-woogie to it. His name was Jonas Plagge. He's in his sixties now, but he never played publicly, as far as I can recall.

C:  Then around that same time, some of the Americans started meeting each other, right? Wasn't that about the same time that Tom Harris started having his annual boogie-woogie parties?

A:  Yes, I remember they started having parties, and they invited Hans Werner Ewert over - you know, the guy who had put on the Cologne Blues and Boogie-Woogie festival. But Harris and Castner knew each other from the 1950s, or maybe even the 40s, and they had a lasting friendship. I don't know when the parties started, but pretty soon, I think, they met up with Ben Conroy and Charlie Booty, and that kind of got it started off.

C:  It's almost like there were a few people doing it on their own, very isolated, keeping it alive during the 1950s and 1960s, maybe starting it in the 1960s, but they were very unusual. Then around late 1960s or early 1970s, they started meeting each other. And it was happening at different places at the same time - unconnected, yet building up.

A:  That's right. I think there is a general difference. Booty and Conroy kind of played publicly from time to time. While the European players, like Vince and myself for example, we kind of developed into being professional musicians. And, I think that's the main difference. From the European group, there were people emerging as full-time professionals, and we have been making our living from playing boogie-woogie ever since. And in America, I've gotten the impression that most of the people playing pure boogie-woogie - you know, keeping it alive in its pure content, are merely amateurs. But, the thing that we, especially Vince Weber and myself, tried to establish (you know, we were so convinced about the power of boogie-woogie as a musical expression) was to play an entire evening of boogie-woogie to an audience. This was not very easy to do by the way because, first of all, you had to convince club owners and concert promoters that you could actually to it and that the audience would go with it without losing interest. They would always say, "OK, you can play that in intermission," or "You can do a short bit for something like four or five tunes and then after that it will be boring and people will lose interest." And we always told them it's not true. So, we had to prove this was possible.

C:  So, the main reason then that it took off more over there was because the performers, you folks, were more persistent.

A:  In a way, yeah. Also, we were from a different generation. I mean, I was born in 1955, Vince was born in 1953, George Moeller was born in 1944, and Martin Pyrker was born in 1954. The American players are now in their 70s. So, at the time when they were our age, it was the late 1940s and early 1950s, and at that time, they didn't quite step out as professionals; they took other professions. I think that's the main difference.

C:  Were the European audiences more open to it?

A:  I didn't live in America during the 1940s and 1950s. I've just heard that it was more difficult to have an audience listening to a concert performance in jazz. So, I cannot judge from that. The general thing was that we also kind of benefited from a movement, in the early 1970s, toward listening to live music. A lot of music that was going on then would have been like New Orleans-type, Dixieland-type, swing jazz, which blended very well with boogie-woogie. The players who were in those bands were still in their 30s, so it was a music that didn't appear old to people; it was just lively. Although everyone knew it was from the jazz museum, it was presented in a way that caught fire. I think a bit of that appealed to our playing as well because I never cared if it was a museum piece. It was just an expression that I liked. When I heard it for the first time, it was absolutely new to me, and I figured other people would have the same experience. What happened was that people would come across it and just listen to it and would say, "Hey, it's great music," or "It sounds great," or "What a crazy way of playing piano!" They didn't have to go to university or to a jazz lecture and hear people telling them that this was dated.

C:  They just heard it with fresh ears.

A:  Yeah.

C:  That was the '70's. Would you say that the popularity has remained the same? Or increased?

A:  It has increased.

C:  Steadily?

A:  Well, first of all, you can measure it from the number of young players who are doing it and how many of them are playing in public. Especially in Germany and Austria, many people who are playing some kind of rock piano playing are billing themselves as "boogie-woogie pianists," which I dislike in a few cases because it is giving the wrong impression. But, at least, it says something about the commercial value that people see in it. That's quite a good indication [of its popularity]. Twenty-five years ago, no one would bill themselves as a boogie-woogie player in public in order to have a large audience. Right now, people are billing themselves as boogie-woogie piano players in order to draw an audience!

C:  So, back then you maybe had boogie-woogie players who said they weren't boogie-woogie players, whereas now you have people who aren't boogie-woogie players saying they are.

A:  Well, not quite that sharply. Of course, it used to be like that at the beginning of the 1970s. Of course, in most jazz bands, when they featured the piano player, in many cases when he would play his feature number, he would play some sort of boogie-woogie. But they were not specialists. I mean, this guy would have one or two different tunes that he could play in the [boogie-woogie] style, which was sufficient for these types of jazz bands; he would put on one or two solo boogies and that would get the crowd. But they were not really big into it as specialists.

I don't want to say that there was nobody between 1945 and 1970-something. It was just that they had been singular performers doing something somewhere. A couple of weeks ago, I ran into somebody in England who has been playing [boogie-woogie] in the 1950s. People have been around. There's a great blues and boogie-woogie collector by the name of Bob Tomlinson who is also a bit of a piano player. He started his interest in boogie-woogie in 1948 by listening to Maurice Rocco playing live in London. He plays a little bit of piano. George Green, whom I have mentioned before, was around in the 1950s, too. But, it was never a profession for anybody.

C:  They had jobs, and then as a hobby they would take an interest. . .

A:  Yeah, if they had jobs as piano players, they would feature boogie-woogie as one part of their repertoire. Today, you can find some very valuable boogie recordings from this group of people. But they were not specialists, and they wouldn't bill themselves as boogie-woogie specialists.

C:  So each year since the 1970s, there's been more players than the year before, right up until today, roughly speaking?

A:  Yeah, it started slowly that people really came into light. That has to do with, first of all, you have to learn for quite a while before you can play it, at least in a way you can present yourself to the public. Then, I think, it was quite a step when I put out the sheet music in the mid-1980s. So far, we've sold over 7,000 copies of it. People seem to have gotten quite good insight into the refinements of the style from that. So, at least, what I noticed was that for a while after that came out, the quality standard of the players really raised quite a bit, and the number of boogie-woogie players has increased pretty quickly since. Prior to that there had been a handful of followers and slowly they were starting local scenes. We would have a group from Munich, we would have groups of players who knew each other from the Frankfurt area, and (there was Vienna, of course, and then Hamburg, of course) especially from the German-speaking countries. My friend Vince Weber and myself were quite stylistic antipodes to them so some of the players would model themselves after Vince's playing and some of them to mine. And in many cases, we were the starting points. From then on, they would start to find out about Albert Ammons, about the Boogie-Woogie Trio, and then they would find out about Otis Spann and James Booker. By the way, did you know that James Booker lived in Germany for a couple of months?

C:  No, no I didn't.

A:  Oh, back in 1977 or 1978, he used to live in the town of Göttingen, which is about 60 kilometers south of Hannover, the town where Champion Dupree used to live. We also benefited from that - that people like Dupree were in Germany, Eddie Boyd lived in Finland, Memphis Slim in Paris, Little Willie Littlefield over in the Netherlands. And also some promoters who saw that there was a growing interest in boogie-woogie brought people over, like John Davis, like Katie Webster, of course Littlefield, Lloyd Glenn, Sammy Price, and all of them toured Europe. So we could get a closer view of some of the original performers.

C:  So, because it was popular, the performers went there, which made it more popular.

A:  Yeah, it helped, of course. I think it was very important that there were also some young players from the area who would do it, like Vince, George, Martin, and myself. We were the same ages as the fans of this music, so that made it accessible to them. If they had been only exposed to some upper-age musicians from the States, they could have well gotten the impression that this was some old people's music. I think the mixture was very good.

C:  And this is still going on and on? Next year, there'll be more than this year? And the year after that, there'll be more?

A:  Probably. It has been growing. I think I told you that I just met two new ones that I never heard before in Wuppertal, which is not so distant from Cologne. And others have started sending me records. What I think is very interesting today is that when someone is putting some boogie-woogie on a CD, he may even label himself as a rock and roll player, in many cases shows that these people are dealing with the real thing, that they've listened to Ammons, or maybe listened to Vince and myself.

C:  Maybe you could talk quickly about when you met Peter Silvester and your role in A Left Hand Like God?

A:  Well, I had been in contact with English collectors, like Bob Tomlinson, and piano players, like Bob Hall. From Bob Tomlinson, I heard about the project of a boogie-woogie book. Bob used to know the guy who wrote part of A Left Hand Like God, Denis Harbinson. Then, Harbinson died, and Peter Silvester wanted to continue the book on his own, which was in the early 1980s. I met Peter Silvester for the first time in 1984, when I was playing a concert in London at the German Institute, the Goethe Institute. So, we met up then, and he listened to my performance and interviewed me on a few details about playing, and I was able to tell him a few things. For example, two years before, I had been to Detroit for the first time, and by meeting Bob Seely, who was virtually unknown in Europe at that time, I found out that here was a player who was still playing with a lot of fire and who was full of stories about Meade Lux Lewis and the others. And through Ron Harwood, who was one of his managers then, I found out quite a few things. For example, there was a second son of Albert Ammons, not only Gene but also Edsel, and that Edsel was a bishop. I told that story to Peter Silvester, and I think it was new to him.

C:  Wait. Ron Harwood was the one who told you about Edsel?

A:  It was from Harwood, yeah. And Ron knew it from Sippie. Of course, Albert Ammons was close to the Thomas family. And she knew about it, and I verified it when I was recording with Mama Yancy. I asked Mama Yancy if she had heard about a second son of Albert Ammons, and she said, "Oh, sure." You know, Edsel was so different from his father and his brother, Gene, because Edsel was religious. So, I told Peter Silvester about Edsel Ammons, and I think he verified it and was able to get Edsel Ammons' address. We exchanged letters, and I told him the story that Sippie Wallace had told me about the Fives, and that this was a composition of her brothers, George and Hersal Thomas. Peter Silvester and myself exchanged quite a few letters, and he had quite a few questions about some details of boogie-woogie, but I would have to look [at the letters] to really remember what we were discussing at the time.

C:  You were doing a lot of it by mail.

A:  Yeah, there was no e-mail at the time and no fax.

C:  And the telephone?

A:  Sometimes telephone, yeah.

C:  So there was a lot of exchange?

A:  Yeah.

C:  Are you aware of the movie The Sting, and it's role in the ragtime revival?

A:  Yes, I've seen the Mississippi Rag magazine. You know, The Sting was actually shown in Germany, and it had a minor effect also on boogie-woogie. For a while, there was a stimulated interest in ragtime as well, not as ragtime craze because there were not many people around who would play it. I mean, you would have quite a few amateur players who would play The Entertainer, but it was not a strong ragtime loving crowd that they could have offered a sufficient background for a ragtime craze. One of those players who would do quite well with that for a while was Gottfried Böttger, also from Hamburg, who would even do a German version, with of his own lyrics to The Entertainer. He played that kind of stuff on TV shows from time to time, but it was not a strong movement. But, at least for us, it meant that there was an interest in vintage piano jazz. Pretty soon after, there was playing like Joshua Rifkin's arrangement of Scott Joplin's Rags and on radio stations they would ask for something similar. And then, boogie-woogie came up. For a while, some Albert Ammons would be played on the radio stations because they had put out this green LP album of Albert with eight Mercury recordings on it. This gave us a little additional boost. But none of us really cared about playing ragtime, speaking for this group of boogie-woogie piano players. We had our own thing going.

One thing I figured that would have been important very shortly after that was by the 1970s, and this proved to be true. It was my musical dream to play and record with Big Joe Turner, since he was still around and was the original singer of the Boogie-Woogie Trio. I did this in the late 1970's and succeeded quite well. I had thought it would be musically worthwhile, and it proved to be an important step in my career.

Then I figured that there were some of the first generation, founder generation, of this music still around, not necessarily the piano players but people who were around at that time, like Sippie Wallace, like Mama Yancey later on, like Lloyd Glenn. And Lionel Hampton had invited me to play on a tour with him and later on he wanted me to record with him, which resulted in this boogie-woogie album that we did. I figured that first of all, I could benefit quite a bit from this, by soaking up this expression from these people. And second, of course, we introduced these names to the German public, to which Sippie Wallace was just unknown, no one knew of Sippie Wallace except for a very few blue enthusiasts. And third of all, I figured I could gain a kind of credibility from that because if you can work with authentic figures, it rubs off on you. And so I pursued that for about 15 years actually, and I really concentrated on putting out new combinations, and checking on what could be done in certain combinations. Sometimes I was really surprised, for example, with Sippie Wallace I got together mainly because I had the idea that I wanted to record a version of the "Suitcase Blues" with lyrics and if there were any lyrics to it, she would probably know them. And that proved to be very correct. But what I never dreamed that at the end we would record something like 30-40 songs together.

C:  It was great.

A:  It was just taking off. The same with Mama Yancey, the same with Champion Jack Dupree, also with Jay McShann. Once I got started, I found that I had hit the spot. That also added interest to the boogie-woogie style in general, because you could demonstrate it, you could do a lot with it, without ever losing the authenticity.

C:  The versatility.

A:  Yes, that too. I mean, that it was not just fast eight to the bar rolling, but it was also something sufficient to back up classic blues sang by an or octegenarian. Or like in Hampton's or Jay McShann's case, there was a jazzy element to it without ever leaving the pure boogie form.

C:  Great. On a different subject, any word on Hans Maurer [author of The Pete Johnson Story]. Do you know him?

A:  Hans Maurer? No. He died in the early 1970s. A lot of the stuff that belonged to Hans Maurer later on went to Hans Werner Ewert, who was putting on the first Cologne concert.

C:  Oh, he . . .

A:  He knew Maurer.

C:  So, he would have information about The Pete Johnson story?

A:  Yeah. I bought a copy of The Pete Johnson Story, rather torn up and filled with marks, back in 1974, and at that time I got a special price on it; it cost me $50.

C:  Wow. Do you know how many were printed?

A:  Something around 300 or so.

C:  Is that right? Only 300?

A:  Yeah. A little while ago, I ran into someone who knew Maurer and some of the people who were involved in the Pete Johnson story, and he told me it had been selling very slowly at the time. There was a lot of enthusiasm for it, the group had wanted to support Pete Johnson, but in the end, they had it printed and could not get rid of it.

C:  That's amazing.

A:  But in 1974, barely nine years after it had been introduced, it was practically impossible to get one because those people who had it had a firm grip on it. One of the contributors to The Pete Johnson Story is still around, he's in Zurich: Johnny Siemmen. He's in his 80s now, a very nice guy.