The Masters-of-Boogie-Woogie Documentary Project

by Paul Martin


Decisions, Decisions
In which we find out the wheres the whys and the hows of the beginning of a documentary

I want to tell you the story of the beginnings of a documentary.  But in order to do that I'm going to have to frame it with my own personal entry into the picture.

Early in 1999 I was out of work and looking for a new direction.  My wife, Carol, and I had just returned to Michigan from a couple of months of traveling, looking for another place to live; forced back into the cold North by back injuries and dwindling funds.  I was on the recovery from 10 years of government work.

Looking in the newspaper want ads, Carol found an ad for a lighting company looking for a marketing person.  It was the weekend, so I faxed my resume to the company and crossed my fingers.  I'm a public relations guy by training.  As well as a sometime professional musician, road manager, roadie, tour manager, record producer and sound engineer.  The idea of mixing a couple of the disciplines I had spent my life working in was exciting.

The following Monday morning I got a call from the owner of the company, saying, "I got your fax, but all I can read of it is the phone number.  And that was hard to decipher.  How did you send it?  Via Russia?"

"Ah," I thought to myself.  "That's an interesting reaction.  Just the right amount of humor.  Just the right amount of curmudgeon.  Interesting."

I was invited to interview. I did. I got the job.

"What," you may ask, "Has any of this to do with Boogie Woogie or a documentary?"

Well, it turns out that the owner of the company, Ron Harwood, was not only a lighting and multi-media designer, but also a music fanatic, a former professional musician, and a Grammy(c) nominated record producer who had managed the great blues singer, Sippie Wallace 'The Detroit Nightingale' for many years before her death in 1986.  He was interested in my becoming a part of his Illuminating Concepts team not only for my pr and marketing skills, but also for my experience in the music business.

One of the music-related duties I was given almost immediately upon my arrival at IC was the accomplishment of Ron's commitment to helping the great blues and boogie pianist Mark Braun (aka Mr.B) with his Second Annual Blues and Boogie Piano Orgy concerts at a fabulous venue in Ann Arbor, Michigan called the Ark.

As part of his patronage to the event, Ron had offered to pay for the cost of the air flight to bring the indefatigable Axel Zwingenberger to Ann Arbor from Frankfurt, Germany.  But he had also been talking to the Detroit public television outlet about filming the shows for a live broadcast.

So I took over working with Mark.  And with the TV station.

The latter presented some interesting problems, I thought, for the company I was now working for, and for the concert project.

First of all, I thought the idea of shooting the project for a live television broadcast was fabulous.  It fit the public television mission, it sounded like a wonderful marketing opportunity for the music genre--Boogie Woogie and Blues--itself, and it made a fabulous handle with which to lever media coverage for the event, which would fill the venue.  All around, a great idea.

The only trouble was that, because of the way the negotiations went, Ron would end up paying for the broadcast and lose the rights to the footage.  My questions, then, to Ron, became, "Do you want a simple, straight, public television underwriting opportunity; Company name on the front end of the programme. That type of thing?  Or do you want to expand your commitment to both your ethnomusicological/historical documentation and Mark's concerts by taking the project on yourself?  Thus, ending up with the rights to the footage and the possibility of a vastly expanded project at the same time."

Because the television station was still interested in the project, and would still be so if the show was produced by us, it would be possible, Ron and I discussed, to open up the video project from simply a record of one live concert to an attempt to chronicle the history of Boogie Woogie and to capture the great, living, players on video to establish a proper archive of both their lives and the music they play.

That's how it was decided we needed to do a documentary on Boogie Woogie.  

What's In A Name?
In which we find out what things are called and what things are filled with

Once we'd decided to do the thing, we had to talk to Mark about it.  And that's where my duties really began to take off, because at that point the project became my major responsibility.

Mark was very enthusiastic about the idea of a boogie documentary, and also very concerned that his audience would not be distracted from the music by a load of video lunatics running around and obscuring their vision.  So, on condition that the videographers' approach would be done in the least disruptive and most tasteful fashion, he agreed to let a company hired by Ron and Illuminating Concepts shoot the Second Annual Blues and Boogie Piano Orgy on April 3rd and 4th, 1999.  And all the artists involved in that concert agreed to become a part of any resulting documentary.

We decided we would video April 3rd and do digital audio recordings of both nights.

We also decided to get some candid stuff and interviews of each artist.  So on April 2nd we followed the group of players (Mark Braun, David Maxwell, Axel Zwingenberger and Bob Seeley) around as they did a publicity push at local radio stations.  And we also got some great footage of all of them talking, generally, about boogie and its influence on modern American music, down on some abandoned railroad tracks at the Detroit river.  Later, that night, we filmed everyone at a private party Mark threw at his farmhouse.  Everyone played.  The house rocked.  People danced.  We resurrected the spirit of rent-parties.

So our modus operandi were established and we proceeded, from the Orgy, to continue to get players on video in both interview format and performance format. As of today, we have Axel, David, Bob, Mark and Charlie Booty, Johnnie Johnson, Uncle Jessie White (the only man I ever met who actually knew blues legend Robert Johnson) and Big Joe Duskin in performance and interview.  And we have Harold McKinney, Liz Pennock, Ken Saydak, Rob Rio, David Keyes, Renaud Patigny, Rudi Blue Shoes, Tom McDeromott, Arthur Migliazza, and Ricky Nye in performance only (both in concert and in a party setting), and Charlie Castner, Dick Mushlitz, Phil Keilly, Phillip Lemming, James Crutchfield and Henry Townsend in interview mode only.

Plus, in the process, we have established a new boogie venue, The Motor City Boogie Festival which will be held over the Labor Day weekend every year in Detroit.  That's where we captured the great Johnnie Johnson, Harold McKinney, Uncle Jessie White and Big Joe Duskin in a concert setting last year.

We also shot at the boogie stage of the Queen City Blues Festival in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati festival is extraordinary.  It's a full day of boogie piano on a stage nestled under a huge archway supporting the highway that crosses from Cincinnati into Kentucky.  It's run by two doctors, Phil Lemming and Rob Cody, who do it for the love of the thing.  It is definitely worth a visit.  This year it'll be on July 8th.  

And Now?
Where do we go from here?

The documentary ground to a slow halt at the end of last year because of funding issues.  It is not going away, however.  And it is not permanently stopped.

We are establishing a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization to raise corporate funds for the project, and we have some serious donors lined up.[Editor's note: This article was written early 2000. Since then, the American Music Research Foundation has been established for the purpose of producing this documentary, among other things.]   Once that is done and the IRS (and state treasury) give us the go ahead we will be up and running, again, collecting what we hope will be a definitive video and audio-archive of living boogie players, as well as a collection of artifacts and interesting boogie- connected sheet music and piano rolls etc.,

If anyone wants to help by giving information on older players still living, or folk who had connections to the players who have passed and would allow us to interview them, or any person or organization who would like to contribute to the continuation of the documentary once we have an IRS ruling on the non-profit status, please call Paul Martin at (248) 478-2525, or e-mail him at