Rent Party Echoes: The Role of the Louisville, Dallas, Fort Worth, Evansville Piano Parties in the History of Boogie Woogie Piano - As Seen by Charlie Booty
- Public Interest In Boogie Woogie Before the Parties
- Origins of Louisville, Dallas, Fort Worth, Evansville Piano Parties
- The Role of the Piano Parties in the Revival of Boogie Woogie Piano
- What The Piano Parties Are Like
The increasing popularity of piano boogie woogie-blues is, in my opinion, due to the desire of the public to hear a simple, earthy music that has emotion and is dynamic but without a lot of social, political and anti-something-anything-everything baggage. This music has always had a core of ardent fans who have stayed true to it and who played it (or listened to it) regardless of its ups and downs on the popularity charts. A chance meeting of some of these fans in the 70's resulted in the piano parties, which in turn indirectly served to rekindle the public's interest in the music.
Public Interest In Boogie WoogieBefore the Parties
Before 1938, the general feeling of music educators and professional musicians was that this music was something that only crude, unschooled, itenerant musicants would play, that it would demean establishment music and musicians to even acknowledge its legitimacy and that the general public would not accept anything so unsophisticated.
After 1938, when the general public had the opportunity to hear it in Carnegie Hall, played by Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis, the entire concept of the music was turned upside down. Boogie Woogie was the "in" thing and the demand for recordings rose quickly. It didn't take long for commercial musicians, especially those close to the roots of jazz, to recognize that here was a new money-maker and latched onto it, evidenced by Tommy Dorsey's recording of "Boogie Woogie" and several hits by Bob Crosby, like "Yancey Special", "Honky Tonk Train", "Gin Mill Blues", "Boogie Woogie Maxixie" and others. In my opinion, Bob Crosby had the best track record with popularizing orchestral blues-boogie woogie recordings.
Pandora's Box had been opened and the stampede to get on this new money band-wagon began. EVERYBODY in the music performing business had to have at least one boogie woogie tune in their bag, no matter how little they might know about the music itself. The pattern was simple among pop-music groups; there's only three chords so just play it fast, use 8th notes in the bass and run the scale in the treble. Among the more serious, classically trained musicians, it was more sophisticated. They took an European style "classic" piece, re-did the bass lines into 8th note patterns and wrapped the treble lines around the 8th note bass patterns, all the while keeping the recognizable parts of the piece intact. Jose Iturbi went so far as to compose a new piece, "Boogie Woogie Etude", in the European classic style. Country music of that day lent itself very well to this style because there is an underlying relation between the early country music roots and boogie woogie-blues roots, though I must admit, a lot of the country adaptation to boogie-blues was just as overly commercial as anything in other adaptations.
As long as boogie woogie-blues performers stayed true, or somewhat true, to its origins, the general public interest held up. When the public began to be drowned in a sea of over-commercialized recordings, they rebelled and stopped buying - not because the music was no longer appealing but because they were sick of being fed such poor imitations of the real thing. By the late 1940's the romance was over.
A couple of groups began splintering off the boogie-blues form. One group wanted to make a complete break with its roots and began playing in unusual ways, using dischordant harmony and odd (for that day) progressions. This evolved into our current modern jazz as it became more intellectual in its approach.
Another group became the Rhythm and Blues style. It retained the original flavor of the boogie-blues roots, breaking up the form on occasion, using different instrumentation and writing new songs with a current theme. The boogie-blues roots were still coming through. Rock and Roll came out of the Rhythm and Blues and, before Rock and Roll evolved into "Pop Rock", "Acid Rock" and "Heavy Metal", the roots of boogie-blues could still be heard. I have found that many young Rock and Roll fans (some who had never even heard of boogie woogie) liked the music which they heard me play. I attribute that to the roots of "their music" showing up in "my music" which, to me, means that the appeal of piano boogie woogie-blues never died. It was just hidden under a blanket of music by another name, patiently waiting.
While piano boogie-blues music was, for the most part, publically dormant in the U S, it began bursting forth in Europe as a new, dynamic mode of expression. Ardent fans developed and excellent piano players diverted their talent to learning, not only the notes, but the feel, the emotion, and the expression of this new (to them) form. Over the years, European boogie-blues historians have emerged to rival any U S historian of piano boogie-blues. While record companies were trying to rid their vaults of the dead-weight piano boogie-blues "garbage", Europeans were in the U S searching them out, buying up entire vaults of material and individual collections. For several years, during the 1960's and 1970's, good piano boogie-blues recordings could be found primarily on European re-issues of the originals, and on new recordings by European performers. In the early 1970's, I was completely bowled over by the great performances of the European boogie-blues performers whose records I had managed to acquire. The European recordings were not always easy to find and the lack of public awareness still existed.
This was the situation when a chance meeting occured that led to the piano parties and their resulting influence on the revival of boogie woogie.
Origins of Louisville, Dallas, Fort Worth, Evansville Piano Parties
"Chance meetings" are the stuff that can eventually entwines lives of many people in unimagined friendships and pleasures. In my opinion, these so-called "chance meetings" are not "chance", "coincidence" or "luck", but are a part of the long term workings of the unseen forces of our real nature (call them what you will) that seems to draw like-interests together. Take, for example, the group of boogie woogie-blues piano players who are a part of an on-going series of piano parties which resulted from a "chance meeting" back in 1970. Here is how it came about, and let me add here that these are NOT public events but are private parties, by invitation only.
The St. Louis Ragtime Festival began in 1965. I heard about it from a co-worker in Memphis, my home at the time. I was president (also a co-founder) of the Memphis Jass and Blues Club which organized in 1965. Through my correspondence with Vivian Oswald, then president of the St. Louis Jazz Club, I learned specifics about when and where the St. Louis Ragtime Festival was held. In 1970, I attended that festival. At that time, several ragtime and jazz bands were featured on a relatively loose schedule in the available venues on the Goldenrod Showboat and the Becky Thatcher, both anchored on the riverfront, just south of the Eads Bridge, at what is now referred to as the "foot of the Arch". A few open pianos were usually available during quite a bit of the festival for the multitude of piano players who came to hear other players and who just might want to play.
The St. Louis Ragtime Festival was THE "festival of all festivals" during those early years and those years were certainly "golden years" for me. While it was primarily a ragtime festival, there was not a strict code against playing something other than ragtime. The bands were primarily jazz bands which played some ragtime, and the piano players I heard (over a few short years) covered ragtime, stride and stomps - players such as Eubie Blake, Max Morath, Bob Green, Tom Shea, Dick Wellstood, John "Knocky" Parker, Trebor Tichenor, Terry Waldo, Kjell Waltman, Peter Clute, Robbie Rhodes, Mike Montgomery, to name only a few. I could play a few rags and stomps and I couldn't resist the inspiration to play.
In the main bar, between the theater, the front deck and the stairway to the smaller upstairs theater, there was a little bandstand with an old, upright piano. People sat in folding chairs in the center of the bar area and, because the bandstand was very narrow, the piano player had his back to the audience. To provide eye contact, a relatively large mirror was mounted above the piano, allowing the player and the audience to look each other in the eye. At what seemed to me to be the right moment (the piano stool was empty and they didn't stay that way very long), I mounted the bandstand and started playing.
After one or two non-boogie tunes, I turned to the audience to announce one of my own tunes, "Stompin' In Texas", with a few short sentences about the contribution of early south and central Texas piano players to the beginnings of the boogie woogie style. Al Stricker, banjo player with the St. Louis Ragtimers, was in the front row only a few feet away from my piano stool. I saw him nudge the guy sitting next to him and heard him say something like, "This is for you, Ben". I turned back to the piano and played the tune. Shortly after, the guy sitting next to Al Stricker was on the bandstand asking me what other boogie tunes I knew, had I ever done a 4 hand - 1 piano duet and would I try a duet with him right then. That conversation took only a few seconds and, placing himself on the piano stool beside me, he quickly explained how we could do a 4 hand - 1 piano duet without breaking any fingers, and away we went. All things considered, it came out pretty good and the audience loved it. We did a few more tunes, each a solo or two, another duet and then retired to a quieter corner of the boat to get acquainted. He was Ben Conroy from Austin, Texas, who had also decided to attend the festival that year, after not attending for a few years (he had attended only one early festival, maybe 1965 or 1966).
We were both elated to find another boogie player because we had each been living in a world with only 1 boogie woogie player. That festival was the start of the Ben Conroy-Charlie Booty boogie team. We did several more solo-duet performances that year and became a regular feature at the festival each year after that.
We stayed in touch after that meeting in the summer of 1970. In the fall of 1970, I was transferred to Nashville to manage a company office there. Occasionally, my duties took me to Louisville. Meanwhile, Ben pursued his duties with Communications Properties, an Austin-based cable TV company which he owned, and found time in his travels around the country to visit me in Nashville. He also found time to stay current with one of his other major interests, steam railroads, which started with his grandfather, a locomotive engineer on a Vermont railroad. In one of the railroad magazines to which he subscribed, Ben noted an article profiling an L & N employee, a Charlie B. Castner, Jr, of Louisville, Kentucky. That name rang a bell with Ben because he had a 10" Paramount LP, issued in the early 1950's, titled "Powerhouse Piano", featuring Charlie B Castner, Jr. and Tom Harris. Ben immediately got on the phone, found Castner's phone number and called him to ask, "Are you the Charlie B. Castner who.......?", and the answer was, "Yes!" During their conversation, Castner told Ben that Tom Harris was a buyer for Tandy-Radio Shack and was living in Fort Worth, just down (up) the road a piece from Austin.
Tom and Charlie were fortunate enough to have been invited to a July, 1954, party in St. Louis, courtesy of their long-time friend, John Steiner of Paramount Records, where Pete Johnson was the VIP guest. They were not only thrilled to guests, but were on Cloud 9 when Pete invited them to do duet-trio stuff with him. John Steiner recorded it all and the high points of the party have recently been issued on a Document Records CD (#DOCD1017) titled, "Pete Johnson, The 1954 St. Louis Parties". The CD booklet cover photo shows a very young, and beaming, Tom Harris and Charlie Castner with Pete.
Ben told Castner about me, then called to inform me of his discovery and to ask that I contact Castner on my next trip to Louisville, which I did soon after. Ben also phoned Tom Harris in Fort Worth and, suddenly, we each were living in a world of 4 boogie woogie piano players. There was no way that such an event could happen without a celebration and that occurred in Louisville in 1973.
The Louisville Parties
Charlie Castner and wife, Katie, hosted a party so that the 4 piano players could get together under one roof and get acquainted in person, with the piano being the main focus. Of course, a lot of memories were also shared at that party because Tom Harris, Ben Conroy and Charlie Castner all knew Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson . Both Albert and Pete were generous in giving help and inspiration to the young fans.
This 1973 party was the first of a series of Louisville parties, one or two each year, until 1991 when other parties and events ended that series of parties except for an occasional get together. A major factor was that L & N, now CSX, was moving its Louisville operation to Jacksonville, Florida, and Castner was spending a lot of time there, as well as having to consider moving to Jacksonville. Eventually, he opted for early retirement instead of relocation.
Meanwhile, other piano parties had been developing.
The Dallas - Fort Worth Parties
In 1978, in Dallas, Texas, Charlie "The Collector" Hager, a boogie woogie fan, though not a player, was co-hosting, with Jim Lowe, a boogie woogie radio program on a fairly regular basis. As the name implies, Charlie "The Collector" has a huge record collection, 78's, LP's, CD's and tapes, consisting of a variety of music styles but concentrating on boogie woogie. After hearing one of their programs, Tom called the radio station and talked to Charlie "The Collector", telling him about the 4 boogie players, alive and kicking. Charlie "The Collector" was very excited about the prospect of getting the 4 together and decided to host a party at this home. This party was the first of an on-going series of annual piano parties in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Since Tom lived in Fort Worth, we (the players) would meet at his home for a warm-up party (hosted by Tom and wife, Lynn) on Friday nights, then we would all drive the 100-plus miles (round-trip) to Dallas for the Saturday night party, hosted by Charlie "The Collector" Hager and wife, Pat.
Not long after, another piano party series was developing in Evansville, Indiana.
The Evansville Parties
In about 1971 or 72, Ben and I met another boogie fan at the St. Louis Ragtime Festival aboard the Goldenrod Showboat. His name was Phil Kiely, from Evansville who was also a boogie woogie player who had known, and visited, Jimmie and Mama Yancey, among other south side Chicago players. Phil was in and out of the Yancey home many times and managed to record (on a wire recorder) a party in 1951 at the Yancey apartment. The music on this wire recording has recently been issued by Document Records on a CD (DOCD-1007) titled "The Unissued 1951 Yancey Wire Recordings".
Phil and I discovered that we had another common interest - flying. We are both private pilots and we each owned a plane at the time.. It was no big deal for me to fly up to Evansville from Middle Tennessee, or for him to fly down to see me.
Around 1980 Phil started attending the Louisville and Dallas-Fort Worth parties and, in 1981, gave a small party at his home in Evansville. He and I were the only piano players there, but there were quite a few guests who really dug the music. As with the other parties, this one was the first in an on-going series of annual piano parties. Since about 1988 or 89, the Evansville party has become the Evansville-Newburgh party, with Dick and Barb Mushlitz co-hosting by presenting a big dinner, at their home in Newburgh, for the musicians (and other guests) early Saturday evening. After a short musical interlude, there is the short trip back to the Kiely home to resume the festivities begun Friday afternoon.
The Role of the Piano Parties in the Revival of Boogie Woogie Piano
The piano parties that grew out of that 1970 "chance meeting" of Ben Conroy and I (at the St Louis Ragtime Festival on the Goldenrod Showboat) has widened the audience to forge new musical bonds. A number of the people I've met in Louisville, Dallas, Fort Worth and Evansville had never really been exposed to the early styles of boogie woogie-blues, so they were not sure about how they felt about it until they heard it in person. In this respect, the piano parties of Louisville, Dallas, Fort Worth and Evansville have definitely played a roll in raising the overall public awareness of piano boogie-blues.
In addition, the group that formed around these parties were important sources of information for two major books: "A Left Hand Like God" by Peter Silvester (1988) of Budleigh-Salterton, Devon, England, and "Boogie Woogie Stomp - Albert Ammons And His Music" by Chris Page (1997), Hyannisport, MA, U S A. While I think that these books did more to re-new older fans than to produce "new" converts, their overall effect is still being felt, in the U S and abroad. These two books brought the picture of piano boogie woogie-blues performers into real life, with real people. The abstract was made material and I feel that this transformation is important to a better connecting between a player, the music and the fan. These books have apparently sold well, an indication of growing public interest.
Another result of the parties is my Piano Joys "Rent Party Echoes" CD series. Volumes 1 and 2 of this series contain music from the Louisville parties. (Piano Joys CD's, PJ003, "Rent Party Echoes, Louisville 1973 -1991, Vol 1" and PJ004, "Rent Party Echoes, Louisville 1973-1991, Vol 2".) Music from the Dallas-Fort Worth series of parties is currently being reviewed for inclusion on more volumes of the series. Selected music from the Evansville parties is next in line.
As far as I can observe, there are many new piano boogie-blues fans in the ranks of the general public. My Piano Joys CD's sales tell me that people still get excited over piano boogie-blues and many of the buyers are not re-newed fans of by-gone days, but are fans who have newly discovered the vitality of this great music. The main purpose of my Piano Joys endeavor is to make available good, earthy boogie woogie-blues with feeling and dynamics, to anyone who desires such music. After two years of producing Piano Joys CD's, I'm not setting any records (pun intended) but I don't want to set the world on fire, rather to kindle a flame in a heart that longs for this kind of inspiring music.
After quite a few of my Piano Joys "Rent Party Echoes" CD series had been bought by fans, I began to get inquiries about these "piano parties" that were the source of the music on the first two "Rent Party Echoes" CD's. Apparently very few people were aware that such a sub-culture existed, much less that piano boogie-blues was still very much alive.
What The Piano Parties Are Like
In general, the format of the Louisville, Dallas, Fort Worth and Evansville-Newburgh parties is pretty much the same - informal and unstructured. For the benefit of the hosts, it is important to re-state that these are PRIVATE PARTIES and are not open to the general public. These get-togethers are just parties and are not paid gigs for anyone. All the guests bear their own travel and lodging expenses. The party hosts usually persuade a near-by motel to set aside a certain number of rooms for guests, sometimes at a discount. Guests must still make their own reservations and arrange for guarantee if a late arrival is expected.
People are invited because of their love of boogie woogie, blues, stomps and ragtime, their overall compatibility with the other guests and their friendship with the hosts. People come because they have fun!!
The parties start with the first arrivals on Friday and last until departures on Sunday afternoon. The week-end is spent according to individual wants: some do a little sightseeing, some go "junking", some visit antique stores, but usually the days are spent visiting with each other. After all, some of these folks see each other only once a year or so. Snacks, light lunches and trips out to the local resturants are individual options. Needless to say, a lot of car-pooling takes place though there are plenty of cars for transportation. Some folks drive to the parties, some who fly in will rent a car and the hosts have cars. A Sunday brunch is usually standard fare for those who don't have early travel plans.
Of course, these are piano parties so any time during the day someone might be playing the piano, even if only a few people are around - or even if no one is around. As evening approaches more and more people began gathering inside and the local guests start arriving. Each party has at least two pianos. In Dallas and Fort Worth, the Harris' and the Hager's each rent a piano to place along side their own so that two piano duets can be played by those who feel that urge. In Louisville, the Castner's have had two piano in their living room since before I met them. The Kiely's have three pianos, two upstairs (one is a player piano) and one in the basement party room, making this a two venue party.
During the day is when most of the visiting and tall-tale telling goes on. The crowds are of a little different make-up at each party and, consequently, the conversations take on different aspects. This is particularly true in Evansville because Phil has a collection of piano rolls and these always generate investigation and some piano roll playing. There is also a greater number of non-piano playing musicians at the Evansville party which leads to more conversations about jazz and jazz bands than at the other parties.
At all the parties music starts in earnest by, or a little before, dark. Someone starts it off, plays a while, gets up and someone else sits down to play, and the change goes on. Duet partners come and go as the urge hits. In Louisville, Dallas and Fort Worth the parties have always been piano oriented and, consequently, solo and duet piano performances are the norm. The Evansville-Newburgh parties will sometimes have the St Louis Ragtimers playing a while; other times, the Elite Syncopaters might be playing. At other times members from each of these bands might be playing in totally different groups, or playing behind a piano player. The make-up of a group, as well as the tunes played, can always be a surprise.
In a nutshell, these parties are gatherings of friends who have a common interest in boogie woogie, blues, stomps and ragtime, whether solo or duet piano or a ragtime ensemble. They like each other, they like to share thoughts, ideas, stories, idle chit-chat and they like to hear each other play this music. They accomodate each other musically, without complaint or fanfare, and no one player tries to dominate the party. That is what keeps it fun, keeps guests coming back and makes it a worthwhile effort for the hosts and hostesses.
So, beginning in 1973, there have been 4 locations where major piano parties were serving as a gathering place for boogie-blues-stomp-ragtime players. The inevitable result has been an ever-widening circle of piano playing friends which now encompasses the U S and Europe. Over the years a number of pianists have attended one or more of the party events in Louisville, Dallas, Fort Worth or Evansville and, on occasion, the parties have taken on an international flair. There are the hosts and hostesses, who frequent the each other's parties; Charlie and Katie Castner, Louisville - Tom and Lynn Harris, Fort Worth - Charlie and Pat Hager, Dallas - Phil and Kaye Kiely, Evansville, with co-hosts Dick and Barb Mushlitz, Newburgh.
From Europe, there is Dr. Martin Pyrker and Dr. Gunther Straub of Austria; Axel Zwingenberger and Hans Ewert of Germany; George Green and Peter Silvester of England; and a couple of transplants from England, now U S citizens, Carl Sonny Leyland and Geoff Matthews.
From the U S there is Bob Seeley, Gerry Vondy, Jim Badzik, Jack Yates, Rich Laniewski, Chris Page, Colin Davey, Trebor Tichenor, Marty Eggers, the late Ken Greene, Terry Parrish, Virginia Tichenor Eggers, Jim Williams, Joyce Plank, Russ Gilman, Mike Montgomery, Mike Price, the late John Bentley and others whose names escape me at the moment - I beg the forgiveness of those whose names I have omitted. Incidentally, this list includes only piano players (except for the hostesses).
Also present at the Evansville parties has been a variable array of cornet, trumpet, tuba, guitar, harmonica, drum, banjo and washboard players, depending on who didn't have a paying gig that interfered (what a nuisance, that money). A variety of music is presented by various players, particularly in Evansville, while the emphasis is mostly on piano boogie woogie-blues in Dallas-Fort Worth, with stomps and ragtime following. Most people in attendance have a range of musical tastes that enables them to enjoy, and appreciate, all the players.
In conclusion, let me refer back to my opening remarks about "chance meetings". Several years ago, Richard Bach wrote a book titled "Nothing By Chance", one of my favorite books. Its primary message is that events don't just happen, but are brought about, more or less, by our interests and desires so that, if we choose to take advantage of the opportunities presented, we might realize some achievement, or fulfillment of desires, down the road of life. We attract these events by that invisible force that exists within us (but not yet quantifiable) from a vast array of possibilities. Bach laid out these ideas by relating events (flying events, which made it even more interesting to me as a pilot) from a particular period in his life.
To tie this idea to my narration about how these piano parties started, just picture the isolated, lifetime events that had to happen so that each of the originators of the particular piano parties was in the right place, at the right time, ready, willing and able to make contributions that produced, almost suddenly, relatively speaking, a long-lasting impression on people on two continents: Tom Harris from Chicago; Ben Conroy from Vermont; I started life in Louisiana; Phil Kiely from Evansville; Charlie Castner from Louisville and Charlie "The Collector" Hager from Dallas. Within a relatively short period of time, and at the right time, we all came together so that these events could burst forth, like flowers in the spring, and continue to enlarge the circle of friends. NOT BY ACCIDENT!!
Promoting piano boogie woogie and blues is not a task to be finished overnight, in a few days, months or even years, but has been a lifelong endeavor with me. Fortunately, there is a relatively large group of people who made the same committment when they were younger and we support each other every way we can in this task. It is most gratifying to see positive results from our lifelong efforts.
Long live piano boogie woogie-blues!!
As they say in New Orleans, "Laissez les bon temps rouler!!"