The word of the day is "terpsichorean," or better still, the "terpsichorean urge."
In other words, the desire to shake that thang. And that's what boogie-woogie, the subject of today's podcast, is all about.
Loren Schoenberg explores the history of boogie-woogie and gives a first listen to two boogie boogie tracks from the Savory Collection, Vol. 3, out on Apple Music this Friday, May 26.
Hear the complete tracks, plus more favorite boogie-woogies, by adding our Apple Music playlist to your library. (Note: The boogie-woogie tracks from the Savory Collection will be added to our playlist on May 26, our release date.)
This is Loren Schoenberg, Founding Director and Senior Scholar at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. And we’re going to be talking about boogie-woogie, because boogie-woogie is featured on two selections of volume three of the Savory Collection, which the museum is issuing through Apple music. And boogie-woogie is one of the most intoxicating and swinging jazz styles of all time.
It started as a piano style and features a driving left hand rhythm in eighth-notes that never stops. In the right hand, you’ve got these swinging, bluesy riffs that go against the left hand. And together, they create a locomotion, a driving beat that definitely (as Duke Ellington used to put it) encourages the terpsichorean urge. That’s a fancy way of saying it makes you want to dance, tap your feet, shake something. It’s a driving rhythmic style.
Boogie-woogie first showed up on records in 1929 in Chicago. There was the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North throughout the early 20th Century. And in Chicago all kinds of music were being recorded. Next to New York, Chicago was a major record center, and record companies were increasingly trying to reach African American audiences.
Some people trace boogie-woogie back to Beethoven. This is a bit hyperbolic. But they say if you listen to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 you’ll hear the roots of boogie-woogie. And we’ll listen to that shortly. But let’s get back to the Savory Collection.
One of the giants of Chicago boogie-woogie, literally and figuratively, was pianist Albert Ammons. He was captured playing his “Boogie Woogie Stomp” at a nightclub in New York City called the Café Society. Café Society was founded and run by Barney Josephson. And it was very significant when it opened in 1938/39 because not only did it admit interracial audiences, but it encouraged them. This great accomplishment was underlined by the high class of people they got there. All kinds of folks came. Eleanor Roosevelt attended the club. As did Paul Robeson. So it was really an amazing place that deserves a major space in the telling of American History.
Albert Ammons played there. He was the father of the great tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. Albert Ammons led bands in Chicago for many years. After he came to New York he toured as part of a two-piano team. He actually shows up in a movie with his partner Meade Lux Lewis playing with Teddy Wilson’s band and Lena Horne in 1941.
He had quite a moment of popularity. Bill Savory recorded him playing there in 1939, and we’re going to give you a sample of this never-before-heard recording.
Albert Ammons playing Boogie Woogie Stomp.
I couldn’t stop tapping my feet, even with that short sample we heard.
I mentioned before about Beethoven. And it’s ridiculous to think that Beethoven was actually playing boogie-woogie piano. But it’s not ridiculous to think that Beethoven, like Brahms and Mozart, was a great piano improviser, that’s sitting at the piano, and wound up playing figures that share something in common with the figures that eventually morphed into boogie-woogie. So, we’re going to listen to the very first boogie-woogie recording ever made, Pinetop Smith’s “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” from 1929. And then just a sample of boogie-woogie “master” Ludwig Von Beethoven and his Sonata No. 32.
“Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” then “Sonata No. 32”
Well that was something! The original boogie-woogie, “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” recorded in Chicago in 1929. And a little bit of Ludwig “Boogie” Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in which some people say they hear in the driving rhythms of the piano. The same kind of thoughts that may have gone through Pinetop’s head many years later. That was played by Arthur Schnabel in the 1930s. And it’s just a cute way of showing the wide range of musical associations with jazz. There’s only so many notes, and so many rhythms. And musicians all around the world toy with these ideas. The African American genesis of jazz in American in the late 19th/early 20th century is linked to many traditions from Africa and from Europe and the connections are always fascinating.
Well, there is another boogie-woogie piece in the Savory Collection, and this is arranged for John Kirby’s Sextet. In 1935, another Chicago pianist, Meade Lux Lewis, recorded “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” reminiscent of a locomotive. This became quite popular.
Within months, Tommy Dorsey’s big band recorded an orchestral version of it called “Boogie Woogie.” It was a huge it that spawned big band boogie-woogie.
Mary Lou Williams, the great pianist and arranger for Andy Kirk’s band wrote “Roll ‘Em” for Benny Goodman’s band in 1937. And boogie-woogie became ensconced at that point as a popular dance craze. It was all over the place.
One of the most tasteful adaptions of this genre was done by the John Kirby Sextet. We will hear his never-before-heard broadcast version from 1940 featuring Billy Kyle on the piano. Billy Kyle name may not be recognizable to you, but you have heard him because he played with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars on every record they made, virtually, from the mid-1950s for about ten years. He was a master. And this version really is so typical of the Kirby band. They have a sense of humor. They approach things sometimes almost like classical music with an ironic detachment. They swing. They do all these things, and it’s really music for the ages. This is a sample of John Kirby’s “Boogie Woogie” from the Savory Collection Vol. 3.
John Kirby Sextet’s “Boogie Woogie”
John Kirby Sextet’s “Boogie Woogie.” The underlying theme here is what happened to boogie woogie piano. It started as a piano style. We have that in the album with Albert Ammons. We have the bigger band version with John Kirby. We also heard a few historical moments from Pinetop Smith and Ludwig Von Beethoven. How many times do you hear those names in the same sentence? But it just goes to underline the great range of music that revolves around one of America’s greatest creations, jazz. That’s what we’re dedicated to at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. This is Loren Schoenberg. See you next time.