PETE JOHNSON: JUMPIN' WITH PETE JOHNSON
The Kansas City Boogie Woogie Star’s rare “Solo Art” recordings
Jazz Archives #1000(10”)
(Recorded in Chicago; probably August, 1939)
1. Climbin' And Screamin' (3:20)
2. Let 'Em Jump (3:01)
3. Re-Pete Blues (3:08)
4. B. And O. Blues (3:15)
5. Shuffle Boogie (3:13)
6. Pete's Blues (3:02)
7. How Long, How Long (2:49)
8. Buss Robinson Blues (2:39)
These eight piano solos are among the most exciting examples of that particularly stirring jazz specialty known as "boogie woogie." The work of one of the acknowledge masters of this style, they are also part of a group of piano recordings that are, in their original-label form, among the rarest of jazz performances, accurately to be termed "collectors items."
That original label was the aptly-named Solo Art, which during its brief life-span (circa 1939) was devoted exclusively to the efforts of soloists in the hard-driving vein that goes by the overall name of barrelhouse piano. Included on its roster were the most notable names in boogie woogie. And among these were the three men who had just begun a swift surge to fame as night club and concert stars, eventually contributing heavily (though with no such intention on their part) to the conversion of this rugged jazz style into a commercialized nationwide fad. These three were, of course, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and the enthusiastic artist to be heard on this LP: PETE JOHNSON.
Johnson is, rather strangely, just about the only well-known boogie woogie performer to come from Kansas City. Strangely, because that city is one most frequently thought of in connection with this style, and it was certainly among the most important of the places in which the style developed. The background of this musical form is discussed more fully in the notes to two previous Riverside albums that reissue late-1920s performances by some outstanding Pioneers of Boogie Woogie (RLPs 1009 and 1034), but it can be summarized here by pointing out that it belongs within the general framework of barrelhouse piano: originally a rough-hewn and primitive style that seems to have sprung up, in the very early years of this century, in several Southern areas - among them the work camps and honky-tonks of Texas and Mississippi. The blues are an important part of its pattern, and particularly that fast-blues variation, with its steady, rolling left-hand bass figures, which is boogie woogie.
Kansas City was an important stopping-off place for much of jazz as it gradually traveled northway: the bars and dance halls of the riverfront city, for so long one of the country's most notorious wide open towns, made it a fertile field for the music. The actual shaping of boogie woogie into its well-defined "eight to the bar" form took place to a considerable extent in Kansas City. Nevertheless, most celebrated performers in this idiom have belonged to Chicago, which was the real jazz hub of the '20s: men like the aforementioned Ammons and Lewis; and Jimmy Yancey, from whom virtually all of his contemporaries learned more than a little.
But Pete Johnson is - as this album should demonstrate - quite capable of upholding the honor of his home town single-handedly (or, t be strictly accurate, two-handedly). Born in 1904, he started out as a drummer, and reportedly didn't get around to playing piano until he was eighteen. But within three years he was an established professional, and for more than a decade thereafter he worked in a variety of local spots, often in association with blues-shouter Joe Turner.
The Kansas City pattern would seem to have been largely a matter of shifting about from one to another of the very many jazz joints of the city: these apparently opened, closed and reopened in an irregular sequence that, particularly in Prohibition years, undoubtedly was primarily a reflection of the owners' standing with the local Pendergast political machine, Johnson's stomping, rocking style developed in this setting, in which the one really constant factor for him was obviously the firm and relatively unchanging sound of his blues piano, as it was heard in a series of clubs with those typical, wonderfully irrelevant names: the Lone Star, the Hawaiian Gardens (!), the Sunset.
Finally, in 1938, Pete moved on (largely as the result of a sporadic touch of reformism that introduced a midnight closing law). That December, Johnson, Ammons and Lewis turned up together at a jazz concert at New York's Carnegie Hall. That turned the tide, turned the three pianists into big successes (for a while, at least), and provided a brand-new gimmick for a great many commercial band leaders and even more pianists, both the professional and fraternity-house varieties, who proceeded to develop the all-too-well-known, insipid, and distressingly smoothed-out imitation of the real thing.
Pete Johnson and his colleagues, however, kept their own music very much the same rugged item it had been before they were 'discovered'. Certainly these recordings, made in the Summer of 1939, offer the same sturdy fare that Johnson's Kansas City listeners had known. These were made by Dan Qualey, the ex-bartender jazz fan who operated Solo Art, and - as noted - they were part of fairly substantial group of material in much the same vein. (Having acquired the rights to this label, Riverside has brought out previously unissued solos by Jimmy Yancey and Cripple Clarence Lofton, and plans to release still more LPs from this definitive stockpile of boogie woogie performances.)
This album offers a solid cross-section of Pete's powerful rhythm, demonstrating once again that the boogie woogie technique can be just as effective in a mournful blues as in the more customary up-tempo leaping. All but one of these are his own improvisations (the number now titled Re-Pete Blues is actually a quite different number-two version of Pete’s Blues). How Long, a longtime favorite of blues singers and pianists, is a tune credited to Leroy Carr.
Other examples of barrelhouse and boogie woogie piano in Riverside’s “Jazz Archives” series include:
Pioneers of Boogie Woogie, Vol. 1 and 2, featuring Meade Lux Lewis, Cow Cow Davenport, Jabo Williams,
Wesley Wallace, and others (RLPs 1009 and 1034)
Boogie Woogie: Classic Blues Accompaniments – Meade Lux Lewis, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Leroy Garnett
Jimmy Yancey: a lost recording date (RLP 1028)
Cripple Clarence Lofton: a lost recoding date (RLP 1037)
Will Ezell’s Gin Mill Jazz (RLP 1043)
LP produced by Bill Grauer
Notes by Orrin Keepnews
Cover art by Robert J. Lee; typographical design by Gene Gogerty
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIIONS
418 West 49th Street New York 19, N.Y.