Boogie-Woogie Piano

boogie woogie land-photo-d-stewartToday, the 88th day of the year, is Piano Day. So CBC Radio q told me. One or another piano has kept me company almost all my life. And one very battered music book.

My sister bought Boogie-Woogie Land when she took piano lessons. So her playing was my introduction to boogie-woogie. That, and the book. There was a lot in it. The notes themselves – you could hear the music just by looking at them. Photos of glamorous people in Cafe Society nightclubs in New York City. And a short history of boogie-woogie and explanation of its techniques.

Many years later, on Holger Petersen’s Saturday Night Blues, I heard Meade Lux Lewis play Pine Top’s Boogie-Woogie. Wow. Lifted me right out of my music book. I didn’t know you could do that with ten fingers and 88 keys.

Sammy Price dedicated his music book “to all those who feel a tingle up and down their spines when the strains of boogie-woogie are to be heard.” Here’s some of its story that he told.

Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons at Cafe SocietyThe Birth of Boogie-Woogie

On many occasions I have been referred to as one of the third generation boogie-woogie pianists… The first song that I ever learned to play on the piano was a blues. Even before that I recall a strange melody… Its title was “The Livery Stable Blues.”

Perhaps the reader is wondering why I have mentioned the blues. Let me explain that this is the basic foundation of boogie-woogie… The same chord structure used in playing blues may be used in boogie-woogie fashion by utilizing a repeated bass movement in the left hand and playing the melodic strain of a composition with the basic chords of the blues as a guide…

I believe it was originated by a piano player named Clarence Smith, who was perhaps better known as Pine-top Smith… He knew that when he took a strain of the blues and played this repeated bass, a new effect would be achieved. This he called boogie-woogie.

I have talked to a man named J. Mayo Williams, who is particularly familiar with Pine-top’s recordings. Williams met Pine-top in the middle Twenties and soon realized that here was something new and important in the field of blues and jazz. A series of conferences were held and in 1928 the first records were waxed in Chicago. On this historic day Pine-top talked continuously during the recordings to a mythical character in a red dress…

pianists mary lou williams and hazel scottBarney Josephson then opened Cafe Society Downtown in New York City and with his customary foresight he engaged Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis and others who were top-notch at both the blues and boogie-woogie. Then came an event that thrilled some and shocked others; the first jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. Despite the fact that many of the critics were completely without understanding of this new music form, the recital was a success and boogie-woogie at last became respectable…

Here, thanks to YouTube, is that 1928 recording of Clarence Smith playing his Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie and telling the woman in the red dress to “shake that thing”. Oh yes, this is your grandma’s piano.