GIANTS OF BOOGIE WOOGIE
ALBERT AMMONS, PETE JOHNSON AND MEADE LUX LEWIS
Jazz Archives #100(12”)
(all selections recorded in New York; 1939)
St. Louis Blues (3:51)
Mecca Flat Blues (3:54)
Bass Goin’ Crazy (3:36)
Monday Struggle (3:54)
Meade Lux Lewis:
Closing Hour Blues (3:51)
Messin’ Around (3:32)
Meade Lux Lewis:
Deep Fives (3:58)
Blues ‘de Lux’ (4:02)
Let ‘em Jump (3:01)
Pete’s Blues #2 (3:08)
B & O Blues (3:15)
Climbin’ and Screamin’ (3:20)
The term “boogie woogie” is just one of those things. Almost everyone knows in general what kind of music it refers to; the words have been firmly attached for many years to a way of playing jazz piano; and in the last analysis they have probably done a great deal more harm than food to the music. For this single inanely catchy phrase is used to cover a bewilderingly wide range of musical intentions and performances: everything from the crude, savage style with which it began to the most effete and coy ricky-tick; from one man pounding the hell out of the blues to ornate big-band over-arrangements. There have been “boogie woogie” recordings by Tommy Dorsey and even (if memory serves me) Guy Lombardo; Jose Iturbi used to include it in his repertoire, and I once (quite inadvertently) heard Liberace going everyone one better and playing something he described as “sixteen to the bar.” But if you feel a need to cut through all the confusion and get at what kind of jazz lies buried beneath all this, you could do nothing better than to listen to the three men represented here: AKBERT AMMONS (who died in 1949), MEADE LUX LEWIS and PETE JOHNSON.
The exciting and rugged jazz that hey play here makes it unnecessary to apologize for boogie woogie, despite all the sins committed in its name. But, having been so buffeted about by wordage, fate, and commercialism in the past couple of decades, the music does at least seem to deserve some words of explanation in its behalf.
The trouble, largely, is that boogie woogie once was extremely, fantastically popular. In the late 1930s and very early ‘40s, it was a national fad, and nothing can wreak more havoc than that with an honest jazz form. It was unusual enough that a rough-hewn and originally crude music like this could fascinate so wide a public. It was perhaps even stranger that the fad began with the real article – specifically, with legitimate boogie woogie piano as played by the three men heard on this LP. Of course, when they were plucked out of obscurity to perform at jazz concerts and in nightclubs (solo, in pairs, even all three at once), it succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. This at least meant that they were able to share in the cash and the glory. But it went on far beyond them, on to Tim Pan Alley exploitation, to the tricksters and the fraternity-house pianists and worse, until finally the fad wore itself out and most people decided that boogie woogie was limited, montonous, and something of a bore.
This, of course, was judging it most unfairly, and almost entirely on the basis of the dubious imitations. The real thing, as recorded and played by Ammons, Lewis and Johnson (and by such earlier and less spotlighted pianists as Jimmy Yancey, Cripple Clarence Lofton and Cow Cow Davenport), was something else again. For one thing, it had vastly more variety and imagination and jazz creativity. Take, as notable examples, the twelve selections played here. All but two (Albert Ammons’ versions of Handy’s St. Louis Blues and of the Jimmy Blythe-‘Rob’ Robinson Chicago jazz standard, Mecca Flat Blues) are original compositions, most probably improvisations worked up at the recording studio. They cover a full range of mood and tempo, although the emphasis is on the steady, rolling, “eight to the bar” bass figures laid down by the left hand.
As these numbers should make clear, boogie woogie is actually a part of the blues, sharing in the rich emotional impact of that aspect of jazz. Although the name can be traced to a late-1920s Pinetop Smith record (which was probably merely the first song-title use of a familiar phrase, and which also suggests that this was at least partly a wild sort of dance music), the origins of the style are rather vague. It would seem to belong within the general framework of barrelhouse piano: a rough and primitive music that apparently sprang up, in the very early years of this century, in several Southern areas – among them, the work camps and honky-tonks of Mississippi and Texas.
The style gradually made its way northward, and by the 1920s was firmly accepted part of the scene in several midwestern cities, most notably in Chicago. By then, it had solidified into a well-defined, rather stylized pattern; and among its foremost exponents in the dives and at the free-wheeling rent parties of Chicago’s South Side were two young men named Ammons and Lewis. Albert Ammons had been born in that city, in 1907; Meade Lewis, born two years earlier, had come north from Louisville, Kentucky. Both had been influenced by “Papa” Jimmy Yancey, who was the unofficial teacher of just about all the boogie woogie pianists of his day (and who can be heard on two ten-inch Riverside LPs: RLPs 1028 and 1061). Both had their troubles in the Depression years of the ‘30s, although Ammons hung on in music, leading a small group at the Club DeLisa for several years. Lewis, however, was working as a cabdriver and garage attendant until jazz enthusiast John Hammond located him, in 1936, and arranged for a record date at which Meade re-cut his classic Honky Tonk Train Blues (the original version of which can be heard on Riverside RLP 1009), which was undoubtedly the first step towards the subsequent renaissance of boogie woogie.
Kansas City had been an important stopping-off place for the piano form, as it was for so much of jazz. Pete Johnson, born in 1904, was the only really outstanding boogie woogie performer to develop there, but Pete’s rocking, stomping style was easily capable of upholding the city’s honor in this field. Kansas City was a wide-open town throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, and Johnson worked steadily at a variety of clubs there until a midnight closing low tightened things up a bit in 1938. That led him to move on to New York, in time to take part in the Carnegie Hall concert of that year that really launched the Big Three.
For these men, boogie woogie always remained the kind of jazz it is on these recordings: essentially driving, leaping, intensely powerful. Neither time nor the watered-down efforts of pallid imitators can ever do much to lessen the impact of music like this.
All these selections were originally recorded for the short-lived Solo Art label and (despite their being comparatively young, as traditional jazz records go) original label copies of them have already achieved the status of collectors’ items. Only four of the dozen have previously appeared on Riverside: the Pete Johnson numbers, which are in RLP 1054.
Several ten-inch Riverside “Jazz Archives” albums offer the work of outstanding boogie woogie pianists:
Pioneers of BOOGIEWOOGIE, Volumes 1 and 2 (RLPs 1009, 1034)
BOOGIE WOOGIE: Classic Blues Accompaniments (RLP 1052)
CRIPPLE CLARENCE LOFTON: a lost recording date (RLP 1037)
JIMMY YANCEY: a lost recording date (RLP 1028)
YANCEY’S GATEWAY: more previously unissued solos by Jimmy Yancey (RLP 1061)
Recent twelve-inch LPs presenting major figures of traditional jazz include:
Young LOUIS ARMSTRONG (RLP 12-101)
“N.O.R.K.” – New Orleans Rhythm Kings with Jelly Roll Morton (RLP 12-102)
FATS WALLER: Rediscovered Early Solos (RLP 12-103)
JOHNNY DODSD: New Orleans Clarinet (RLP 12-104)
LP produced by Bill Grauer
Notes by Orrin Keepnews
Cover by Gene Gogerty
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS
418 West 49th Street New York 19, N.Y.