Boogie Woogie Piano: From Barrelhouse to Carnegie Hall

by Colin Davey

This article originally appeared in the program book of the August, 1998 Oregon Festival of American Music. The topic of the two-week festival was Rags, Jazz, Blues & Boogie Woogie. Colin gave the Boogie Woogie Presentation for the festival at Eugene's Hult Center.



Boogie woogie piano is a dynamic, colorful music form with an equally colorful history. Beginning as dance music for poor southern blacks, boogie woogie became a national craze when Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis performed at Carnegie Hall in 1938. It has had a major influence on blues, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, and pop, yet it has been widely neglected in the history books and is frequently misunderstood.

Boogie woogie is often confused with ragtime and stride piano. However, unlike these early jazz styles, it is defined by its blues structure, fast pace, and driving, repetitive eight-to-the-bar bass line. Although boogie woogie has been played by big bands and small ensembles, at its heart, it is a solo piano style.

The Roots of Boogie Woogie: Barrelhouse and Cathouse

In the early decades of this century, poor, southern, rural African-American laborers entertained themselves in rough shacks known as barrelhouses. Here, unschooled blues singers accompanied themselves on the piano. The music we now refer to as boogie woogie began to take shape when these musicians developed a faster, purely instrumental form of blues for dancing.

In the decades between World Wars I and II, many African-Americans migrated to the cities of the North, such as Chicago and Kansas City, to find better jobs and to escape the harsh racial prejudices of the South. Many barrelhouse pianists made the move as well. In these urban locations, they would perform at bars, rent parties, and houses of prostitution. These pianists were the first generation of boogie woogie players. They include Jimmy Blythe, Hersal Thomas, Cow-Cow Davenport, Little Brother Montgomery, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Jimmy Yancey, and Pinetop Smith. The last two deserve special mention because of their association with Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.

Jimmy Yancey (1898-1951) was a major influence on Chicago blues and boogie woogie piano. Yet for 30 years, until his death, he supported himself as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox. His apartment was the scene of many gatherings in which the top Chicago pianists performed, including Ammons and Lewis, with whom he was very close. He began learning piano at the age of 16, after retiring from a career as a singer and dancer in vaudeville. His vaudeville career included a performance for the King and Queen of England at Buckingham Palace.

Pinetop's Boogie Woogie, by Clarence "Pinetop" Smith (1904-1929), is probably the single most influential boogie woogie composition of all time. Recorded in 1928, Pinetop's Boogie Woogie was the first recorded piece to use the term "boogie woogie" in the title. Its distinctive theme appears in many other boogie woogie, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll compositions up until the present day. In 1929, Pinetop was killed by a stray bullet when a fight broke out in a Chicago dance hall. By all accounts, he was an innocent bystander.

Boogie Woogie: The Next Generation

The next generation of boogie woogie performers carried the music to a new level of refinement; especially Albert Ammons (1907-49) and Meade Lux Lewis (1905-64) in Chicago, and Pete Johnson (1904-67) in Kansas City.

Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis grew up playing piano together in Chicago. Around 1925, Ammons, Lewis, and several other piano players were cab drivers for the Silver Taxicab Company. They would frequently disappear for long periods to play the piano, to the consternation of the owner. He finally installed a piano in the drivers' dispatch office so he would be sure to find them when a taxi was needed.

In 1927, Meade Lux Lewis first recorded Honky Tonk Train, his most famous boogie woogie. Inspired by a childhood surrounded by trains, Honky Tonk Train's melodies and cross rhythms cleverly depict a train's engine, whistle, and wheels.

In 1928, the year before his death, Pinetop Smith moved to Chicago, where for a time he lived in the same apartment building as Ammons and Lewis. The three would meet at Ammons' apartment, which was the only one that had a piano. During this time, Pinetop taught Pinetop's Boogie Woogie to Ammons. Ammons later recorded his own dynamic version of the piece under the name of Boogie Woogie Stomp.

Kansas City had its own dynamic jazz and boogie woogie scene in the 1930's. During this period, Kansas City was known as the capitol of sin. Liquor was openly advertised during the prohibition era, and the bars were open all night. It was here that Pete Johnson developed his style of boogie woogie. It was also here that he formed a long lasting partnership with blues singer Joe Turner. His most famous boogie woogie is called Roll 'Em Pete, which he would often use to accompany Turner's improvised blues lyrics. According to Turner "we was doin' rock and roll before anyone ever heard of it." Other Kansas City boogie woogie players from the period are Jay McShann, Mary Lou Williams, and Sammy Price.

The Boogie Woogie Craze: Carnegie Hall and Beyond

In the mid 1930's, the famous jazz impresario John Hammond took an interest in promoting boogie woogie. As a result, it finally caught the attention of white audiences. From his autobiography, John Hammond On Record:

Ever since 1928 when I first heard Clarence 'Pinetop' Smith's original boogie-woogie piano, I had been fascinated by this eight-to-the-bar left-hand blues style, which had never been recognized by white audiences. And when I heard a record of 'Honky Tonk Train Blues' in 1931 I knew I had found the ultimate practitioner in Meade Lux Lewis. But no matter where I looked, or whom I asked, I couldn't find him. Now years later in Chicago, I raised the question again while chewing the fat with Albert Ammons. 'Meade Lux?' said Albert. 'Why sure. He's working in a car wash around the corner.' And so he was!

Combining his passion for jazz with his crusade against racial discrimination, John Hammond arranged the Spirituals to Swing concert in Carnegie Hall in 1938. He brought Ammons, Lewis and Johnson together for the first time at the rehearsals for this concert. Hammond had discovered Pete Johnson while visiting Kansas City to audition the Count Basie band. At the concert, they played boogie woogie solos, duets, and trios, and they accompanied Joe Turner on some songs. Although this concert also included Count Basie, Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman, James P. Johnson, Sonny Terry and many other top jazz and blues performers of the period, the Boogie Woogie Trio, as they came to be called, stole the show. Almost instantly, they became international celebrities. Thus began the national boogie woogie craze.

Shortly after the concert, a high-class jazz club named Café Society opened in Greenwich Village, New York City. It was the first racially integrated New York night spot. The Boogie Woogie Trio and Joe Turner presided there for several years. For the first time, they were able to earn a comfortable living from their music.

During this period, boogie woogie became highly commercialized. It was virtually required for all jazz bands to feature at least one boogie woogie. There was also a proliferation of pop boogie woogie songs, like The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B and Scrub Me Mama, With a Boogie Beat. Boogie woogie arrangements were made of popular tunes such as Blue Moon, and even classical music, for example, Chopin's Polonaise in Boogie.

The boogie woogie craze died down with the end of World War II. But its lasting influence can still be heard in rock and roll, and rhythm and blues, particularly in the piano styles of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.