The history of jazz piano is an interesting one, and it benefits from being told separately from the history of jazz music in general. The piano was, in many ways, an instrument in search of its jazz voice in the 1920s and ‘30s, and even in the 1940s and ‘50s, because its best performers didn’t always fit into the prevailing styles of the time. Since the piano is unique in that it is primarily a percussive instrument that nonetheless can play both melody and harmony, it makes sense that a great deal of pianists’ best work is often a solo affair.
When jazz was developing in, among other places, New Orleans, the piano really didn’t have a place in the new music. Bands like those led by Buddy Bolden and Joe “King” Oliver either didn’t have pianos or relegated the instrument to the basest support role. Of course, there were pianists who developed their own style of playing, using the framework of ragtime as a basis. Pianists such as Tony Jackson and, most infamously, Jelly Roll Morton, incorporated ragtime, show music, and European classical styles in their pianistic styles and in their compositions. Their development presaged the work of the Harlem stride piano giants, including James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. These men were able to read music and were often formally trained, with the result that they had prodigious technique and understood the building blocks of European harmony. But they also understood, and played, the blues, something that ragtime players had not done.
Boogie-woogie piano developed largely in the Midwest, particularly Chicago, with the result that its practitioners were sometimes referred to as “western” pianists in order to distinguish them from the New York piano professors. Some players in this style developed in St. Louis or Detroit, but there is no question that this blues-based form of pianistic endeavor was centered in Chicago, for it was there that the great Jimmy Yancey (who was rarely recorded until his later years, when he worked as a groundskeeper at Comiskey Park) developed this style and influenced many other pianists. Naturally, that means that Delmark Records, another Chicago institution, has had a leg up on recording and reissuing some of the stars of the genre. In celebration of their 50th anniversary, Delmark has released, as part of its “Saver Series” this excellent collection of boogie-woogie pianists.
The disc leads off with Speckled Red’s 1956 recording of “Wilkins Street Stomp”, one of his own compositions that defines what classic boogie-woogie piano is all about. Red, along with Big Joe Williams, was one of the first artists to attract listeners to the Delmark label. Delmark recorded the still-available album The Dirty Dozens, named after Red’s famous composition, which he had originally recorded for the Brunswick label (but which had long been out of print). At the time of the recording, Red was playing St. Louis bars; Delmark owner Bob Koester’s recordings brought the pianist a broader audience and allowed him to record and tour again. The repeated right hand figures, the steady yet bouncing left hand, the cascades of blues notes, and the occasional slower, more mannered ragtime influence all define the genre. Red (whose real name was Rufus Perryman) impresses largely through the power of his playing rather than through a demonstration of amazing dexterity, whereas the second performer, Meade Lux Lewis, a devotee of Albert Ammons, has some tricks up his sleeve. Taking his “Bear Cat Crawl” at a faster tempo, Lewis contrasts a walking bass with some real right hand acrobatics. Recorded in 1939, at the height of the boogie-woogie craze, this piece gives a good idea of the excitement that a boogie pianist could generate despite the relatively simple elements of the music.
You might think that our connection with the boogie-woogie piano masters is lost, but there are still some performers left who can not only relate the history, but play it. In a 2000 performance at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase, Sir Charles Thompson shows how boogie-woogie influenced Count Basie’s early piano style as well as providing thematic material for his famous recording “One O’Clock Jump”. While Thompson is better known for his bebop and post-bop work with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Stitt, he goes back to the intersection of swing and bebop with Lester Young, an alumni of Basie’s original Kansas City swing band. Following Thompson’s career you can see that bebop, far from being a renegade music, evolved from the original concept of swing, which in turn drew from the source material of boogie and blues.
Roosevelt Sykes was one of the best-known blues pianists around. Born in 1906, Sykes moved to St. Louis at the age of 15, where he began to blend blues with the ragtime he encountered in the Midwestern city. In 1929, he cut a recording, “44 Blues” for the Okeh label. On the strength of that recording, which was a hit, he moved to Chicago and began working there. He was popular well into the mid-‘50s, when jump blues and rhythm and blues rendered blues and boogie-woogie old-fashioned. Sykes moved to New Orleans where he was able to continue to find work until his death in the ‘80s. “North Gulfport Boogie” features his highly blues-inflected vocal style, but his piano work on this tune bears the unmistakable mark of boogie-woogie.
Most traditional boogie sides were cut by solo pianists, but there are some good examples here of work done with a rhythm section, such as Pete Johnson’s “66 Stomp”, which features a guitarists as well as bass and drums. Even when the guitarist takes a solo break, Johnson continues to provide the repetitive left hand boogie pattern, though his style on this particular number veers much closer to the traditional Harlem stride piano style than most of the others in this collection. Ken Saydak is a current Chicago blues performer who can ply the boogie style very well, as his version of his own “Clo Clo Boogie” demonstrates. Accompanied only by minimal drum work on the track, Saydak not only recalls the great boogie pianists of Chicago’s 1930s and ‘40s, but also of some of the piano-based Chess blues recordings of the 1950s.
Albert Ammons is, of course, one of the biggest of the originators of the boogie-woogie piano style (others include Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson, and Jimmy Yancey), and his “Hersal Blues,” (named after another of his influences, blues pianist Hersal Wallace) recorded in 1939, demonstrates why. Ammons is able to offer a rich variety of left-hand figures, including some that roll from note to note. So, while no one would mistake this number for anything other than boogie, it has a fresh sound that differentiates Ammons’s playing from the other pianists of the time.
Other pianists here will be familiar only to blues and boogie piano buffs as well as collectors, but they are no less impressive and often it will be worth the listener’s while to seek out complete discs by these artists, which Delmark has readily available. For example: Curtis Jones, whose “Curtis Jones’ Boogie-woogie” is perhaps the least impressive track on his Lonesome Bedroom Blues CD. Jones starting recording in the 1920s, though the material on this album was recorded in 1962. His playing contains elements later heard in the stride-influenced piano styles of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, while his vocal work comes from the best rural blues tradition.
Another such performer is Robert McCoy, who comes from Birmingham, Alabama, a distinction he shares with Pine-top Smith and Jabo Williams, both excellent performers in their own right. His performance of his own “Bye Bye Baby” included here is a perfect example of why boogie belongs as a sub-classification of blues or piano blues rather than an orphaned instrumental curiosity. Unfortunately, McCoy was little recorded save for a number of sides done by Birmingham producer Patrick Cather. Cather, who spent much of the ‘60s and ‘70s dealing with depression and substance abuse problems, was hired to write the liner notes when Delmark reissued the sessions he’d done with McCoy in 2000. In addition to these landmark sessions there are several bonus tracks, some taken from a 1958 session, the rest from unreleased mid-‘60s duets recorded with drummer Clarence Curry.
If you’re seeking an introduction of this musical style or want to sample both the best known and some lesser-known performers, Masters of the Boogie Piano will certainly point you in the right direction. All you need is this disc, some ears to hear with, and some spare cash, because first-rate boogie piano is addictive, and you’ll almost certainly want to hear more.