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Axel Zwingenberger: A stage. A man at the piano. The music: boogie woogie
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Boogie Woogie

Boogie Woogie history


Boogie woogie is part of the blues music, one of the most important roots of jazz, thus stemming directly from the rural folk music of the U. S. Boogie woogie is perhaps the most pianistical of all blues forms. The piano, being an outstanding instrument of European classical music, changed its role completely by the combination of »black« and »white« musical elements. This converted it to a percussive rhythm instrument which could only be adjusted to the sliding blues harmonies, moving between major and minor, by using a lot of refined but unconventional playing techniques by the pianists.


In contrast to the slightly older ragtime style, whose compositions were widespread by sheet music, boogie-type piano stylings developped in regional circuits at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, mainly in the Southern parts of the U. S., by oral transmission. The early blues piano items, also known as »barrelhouse style«, have been a lot simpler than the later, often quite virtuoso boogie woogie tunes. The style got its name from a 1928 recording by Clarence Pine Top Smith, called »Pine Top's Boogie Woogie«.


»Pine Top's Boogie Woogie« featured a spoken dancing instruction, with piano accompaniment in a fast eight-to-the-bar rhythm. This dance soon became popular in blues- and boogie-centres like Chicago. During prohibition time, many clubs in these centres were dominated by alcohol bootleggers and gangsters. The favourite music style of these speak easies and honky tonks as well as of the so called house rent parties (set up by families in order to minimize the rental burden by selling food and self-made alcoholic drinks) was often boogie woogie.


Besides Pine Top Smith, who died tragically in 1929, Jimmy Yancey, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Wesley Wallace, Cow Cow Davenport, Montana Taylor, Romeo Nelson, Hersal Thomas, Charlie Spand and Speckled Red were some of the boogie woogie kings.


After the big depression in 1930, boogie woogie largely faded into obscurity, leaving its protagonists working in other professions. With the raise of swing during the mid-1930s, boogie woogie was rediscovered, since the orchestras were in need of new, attractive musical material. Boogie woogie as a rousing dance style seemed to fit this need perfectly, promising great success at a period of time, when swing combined both the most recent jazz form and the latest dancing style. The big bands of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby were among the first ones to include boogie woogie into their repertoires.


In 1938, jazz critic and producer John Hammond organized his »From Spirituals To Swing« concert at New York City's Carnegie Hall, the first great concert of African American jazz musicians for a white audience. Participating in this event were boogie woogie pianists Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson, together with the great blues shouter Big Joe Turner. Their performance was the big sensation of the concert. The powerful, exciting playing of the Boogie Woogie Trio led to a renaissance of authentic boogie woogie piano playing and helped to create a true boogie woogie fever in the U. S. The enthusiasm which was triggered by their Carnegie Hall performance led to the acknowledgement of boogie woogie as a musical form in its own right. It also provided acceptance, success and popularity to many of the pianists who until then had only been playing in the ghetto.


The boogie woogie wave took the swing orchestras to an even greater degree. Some »white« bands like Will Bradley's, featuring pianist Freddie Slack, produced a number of boogie woogie hits. Tommy Dorsey's arrangement of »Pine Top's Boogie Woogie« became a world hit. Everywhere the swing afficionados danced their breathtaking boogie figures. On the other hand, this development led to the decline of the style by increasing commercialisation, until the boogie woogie wave came to an end during the late 1940s.


Nevertheless, the boogie woogie rhythm survived in changing habits. The blues musicians utilized its rolling drives, and in many jazz tunes its bass grooves showed repeatedly. With the 1950s rock'n'roll, the boogie rhythm was back to the limelight. Boogie woogie as one of its roots was present at the cradle of the musical revolution called rock'n'roll which swept the world, and still today it can be traced in modern pop music.


Until today, boogie woogie evokes unbroken fascination by its originality and freshness. With its sharply accentuated, rolling bass figures, which require a left hand of an almost machine-like precision, and the improvised, constantly changing blues variations of the right hand with trills, tremoli and counterpunctual melodic figures the style wins over piano players and listeners alike.


Meanwhile, dedicated boogie woogie pianists around the world have entered into this heritage, taking care of the boogie woogie tradition with passion and dedication. The old boogie woogie masters have passed, but their art lives on unbrokenly, florishing in the hands of a continuously growing community of piano artists.


© Axel Zwingenberger 2008



The Magic of Boogie Woogie

The Magic of Boogie Woogie

Axel Zwingenberger in trio with Charlie Watts & Dave Green
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