A short history of Boogie-Woogie & Blues Pianos

How is it possible that, despite today's flood of media, the style of the classical boogie piano still finds such a large fan community? Anyone who has ever experienced a real boogie concert will understand:

"Boogie is a twelve-bar antidepressant that automatically puts the listener in a good mood. Boogie-woogie is considered to be the hottest music ever invented for the piano," is a quote from Boogie-woogie King Axel Zwingenberger.

Even a reserved audience thaws at the latest after the first chorus. The real boogie fans, on the other hand, are already "out of the woods" when the boogie pianist appears. They pull along directly: Applause, whistling and swinging are the order of the day. Piano music can hardly be more contagious. Boogie mood is created by the unique mixture of power, swing, freshness and blues, very rhythmic, directed forward and sharply accentuated, dreamy in between - melancholic, but never kitschy or sentimental.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator

 

The beginning

 

USA, Texas, around 1900: It is the age of railways. Black, rhythmically booming and garishly whistling monsters that need one thing above all else: Wood. Wood for heating, wood for rails, wood for bridges. The east of Texas has wood. Huge pine forests cover large parts of the country. Pines, which not only supply wood, but whose resin also forms the basis for turpentine oil, are tapped off here, filled into barrels and temporarily stored in so-called barrelhouses. The work is hard. Trees are still felled by hand, cut up and transported by horses and oxen to the next railway station. Free time is only available at night and on weekends.

 

As compensation they had gambling, prostitution, alcohol and of course music. At night these "barrel houses" turned into cheap dives where people celebrated until the early hours of the morning. The pianists moved from camp to camp, earning their modest living for eight hours playing the piano.

 

In the noise of these mostly overpopulated pubs, it is said, the pianist, who had to take care of the entertainment of the guests, had always had difficulty asserting himself loudly. For this reason a special style had been invented, Barrelhouse, which was distinguished by a rigid, hammered bass and equally hammered, loud staccati of the right hand. The name boogie-woogie did not exist at that time. This kind of music was called "Barrelhous-Piano".

 

How the genuine "Southern piano style" should sound was shown to the big-city musicians by the siblings Thomas, who brought the origin of boogie from Texas to Chicago: George Thomas, Hersal Thomas and their sister Sippie Wallace. History was particularly marked by the child prodigy Hersal Thomas, who in 1924, at the age of 14, played a piano role with a groundbreaking piano piece "The Fives". Piano rolls are perforated paper tapes in which the music is "stored". These were used for the automatic playing pianos and were very common at that time.

 

In "The Fives", the train and its rolling forward movement are the focus for the first time. The theme "train" finds some more variations in the course of boogie-woogie history (e.g. in "Honky Tonk Train Blues" by Mead Lux Lewis). Hersal Thomas, a promising young musician who was celebrated in Chicago as "King of House Rent Boogie Parties", unfortunately died of food poisoning at the age of 18 under never fully clarified circumstances. His sister Sippe Wallace belonged to one of the most famous blues singers and became known in Germany through the collaboration with Axel Zwingenberger, who dedicated the "Blues for Sippie Wallace" to her. She reached a high age and died in 1986 at the age of 88.

 

If one looks for the result of the early development, one could agree on the simplified musical formula for Boogie "Ragtime plus Blues ergibt Boogie Woogie". Typical of this is the twelve-bar blues form, in which the left hand plays a fixed bass figure, while the right hand is responsible for the melody. In any case, it was first generation pianists like Cow Cow Davenport, Clarence Pinetop Smith, Jimmy Yancey, Jimmy Blythe, Montana Taylor, Cripple Clarence Lofton who combined ragtime and blues and laid the foundation for the "classical" piano boogie woogie.

 

One of the first boogie woogie pianists to become famous with his own music was Charles Edward Davenport (1894-1956). Already at the age of twelve he wanted to become a musician against the will of the family. So he was sent to the seminary where he was thrown out for playing ragtime. In the 20's he gained his first fame as an accompanist of the blues singers Dora Carr and Ivy Smith. With his piece "Cow Cow Blues", in which he imitated a train with the piano, he created both his nickname "Cow Cow" and one of the most played boogies of all time. The economic crisis and a stroke interrupted his career in the 1930s and he had to work as a dishwasher for some time until he was rediscovered and rehabilitated by jazz pianist Art Hodes in 1938.

 

His song "Cow Cow Blues" was the foundation stone for Ray Charles' big hit "Mess Around".

 

In the mid 1920s boogie woogie came to the east coast of the USA. Chicago and New York became the secret capitals of piano virtuosos. But boogie-woogie became really popular in a somewhat unusual way through the so-called "House Rent Parties".

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Chris Conz

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© 2019 by Chris Conz - Boogie Woogie, Blues and Jazz Piano - Switzerland