by William Russell
Until the publication of A Left Hand Like God in 1988, this article was the only existing history of boogie woogie piano. It originally appeared in the 1939 book Jazzmen, a compilation of essays edited by Frederic Ramsey, Jr. and Charles E. Smith.
William Russell is acknowledged as an important source for the books A Left Hand Like God, and Boogie Woogie Stomp. Russell was not only an important jazz historian, but also a composer in the western classical tradition, having a large influence on the composer John Cage.
This article is reprinted with the permission of William Russell's estate.
Even before Prohibition the house-rent party flourished in Chicago's South Side. When rent day drew near often the only way to pay the landlord was to throw a party, which was called "pitchin' boogie." That meant open house for the entire neighborhood. The only entrance fee was fifty cents and a sack of sandwiches, or a jug of gin. One person who never had to bring any half-dollar, nor even his own gin, was Jimmy Yancey. He was always welcome. Jimmy, a born comedian and an old vaudeville trouper, was the life of the party. Around five o'clock in the morning when almost everyone was knocked out and things were getting pretty dull and awfully quiet, someone over in a corner came to life and yelled out, "Let's have some blues." Then Jimmy obliged with his Five O'Clock Blues, known as the Fives for short. No one called it Boogie Woogie then, but it had all the peculiarities of the piano style known today as Boogie Woogie.
Aside from its immense vitality, the most striking characteristic of the Boogie Woogie blues style is the rapid, incessant rhythm of the recurring bass figures, usually of a jerky or rolling nature. In making full use of the resources of the instrument, the Boogie Woogie is the most pianistic of all jazz styles.
As jazz came up from New Orleans each instrument of the orchestra developed its own characteristic style, so suited to its total possibilities and limitations of sonority, timbre, and technique as to make even the most modern instrumentation of a Stravinsky or Varèse sound incomplete. For the first time the instruments were allowed to speak in a language of their own.
However, the piano, which had never found more than a temporary place in New Orleans orchestras, had developed no appropriate jazz style. Later, when it found a place in the orchestra, its players remained more or less under the influence of European classicists. Even Hines, great as he is, shows the influence of the music of Chopin, not to speak of Nevin, or Rube Bloom.
On the other hand, Jimmy Yancey developed a style so pianistic that it could not be imagined on any other instrument; yet it shows not the slightest resemblance to the piano music of the nineteenth century Europeans. In creating his style Yancey had, apparently, never listened to conventional piano classics. He tried to get out of a piano just what was in it, and not to give an imitation of an orchestra, a trumpet, a voice, or a hurdy-gurdy. He succeeded most admirably. The piano is, after all, a percussion instrument and one capable of producing more than one rhythm at a time, although it takes considerable ingenuity to accomplish this. Not an instrument for intoning legato melodies of long-sustained sonorities, the piano was well suited to Yancey's style.
Rhythmically the Boogie Woogie is rather more primitive than most African music, but it is still more complex and poly-rhythmic than the conventional piano style of Teddy Wilson or Fats Waller. The rapid patterns of the left hand which produce a hypnotic effect are often set against the ever-changing rhythms of the right hand, causing exciting cross-rhythms.
Melodically built of short scale-like figures, with many repeated notes and phrases emphasizing its economy of material, the Boogie Woogie style is nevertheless more chromatic than the ordinary blues. The most common motive seems to be a three-note descending scale passage. Sometimes, however, the melody for an entire chorus will consist of one note played with a great variety of rhythms and accents. The usual rhythm employed in this form of variation consists of a full chord in the right hand struck on the first beat and again a little before the fourth beat of each measure. The tremolo is a frequently used device. In heightening intensity, the tremolo has a percussive and rhythmic function rather than being used simply to sustain a tone.
The Boogie Woogie takes almost without exception the form of the twelve-bar blues, repeated with endless variation, but always in the same key. The harmony is principally tonic and dominant. However, there is no attempt at four-part harmony and the emphasis is often on the contrapuntal, with frequently only two parts used. In such cases the melody may be widely separated from the bass and progress in contrary motion. Throughout there is an ignorance of conventional harmony which amounts to a most refreshing disrespect for all rules. This is a music constructed out of the piano keyboard rather than a harmony book.
Jimmy Yancey has never played piano on the stage. Born in Chicago, he joined the Bert Earl Company as a boy of six and traveled across America singing and doing his "buck and wing" dances. He even made one trip to Europe and appeared before King George and the Royal Family in London. But his piano playing he saved for himself and for a few friends who liked the blues. On the piano, Jimmy just worked things out for himself. His brother Alonzo also played, specializing in rags and stomps, but Jimmy preferred the blues; that was all he ever tried to learn. When he left vaudeville in 1913 and went back to Chicago to settle down, he found more time to practice his blues. Playing in south side barrel-houses, or wherever he found a piano, Yancey soon became popular, especially with the ladies, and was in demand for house parties. All Jimmy had to do was to go in anywhere and sit down at the piano; the women flocked around and took care of him. He didn't have to worry about a job in those days.
In the years that followed, Yancey composed many blues. Today he has a bigger repertory, as well as more technique, than most of the Boogie Woogie pianists. His first piece, the Fives, is probably the germ from which most of the piano blues of the Boogie Woogie type grew, and after a quarter of a century, it can still hold its own in dynamic interest and vitality when compared with later versions.
Although Yancey has worked for the last twelve years as a ground-keeper at the Chicago White Sox ball park, down on 35th Street, where he keeps the infield in trim and rolls down the basepaths, he can still roll out bass rhythms on the piano. In his home at 3525 South Dearborn he has no piano, but once a week he goes over to his sister's place and practices. If you should happen to be in a gin mill or in one of Chicago's many small clubs along South State Street when Jimmy wandered in, you would have a night of unforgettable music. One such time occurred on a cold windy night during Christmas week of 1938, at the 29 Club. Those were the nights when Johnny Dodds was leading his small band, which included Nat Dominique and "Tubby" Hall. Not more than a dozen customers were in the place, for everyone had spent all his money for Christmas, and night life was at low ebb. Dodds' old clarinet was on the bum and he couldn't play much, which didn't add to the hilarity. The joints of his instrument wouldn't hold together and he kept lighting matches to try to swell the cork.
Then Dodds got Jimmy Yancey up on the stand, and things began to happen. Waitresses who had stood like wall-flowers all evening began an irrepressible swaying. The small dance floor had been deserted, but now everybody felt the urge to get up and "shake that thing." Even the cook came in from the kitchen, to see what had occasioned this unaccustomed life and strange noise. One by one, the men in the band joined in, and soon Dodds forgot all about his clarinet not working and wailed the blues as he must have done back in the low-life days of Storyville. Such an exciting racket hadn't descended upon the 29 Club in years.
Although Jimmy Yancey has not yet received the credit and fame so long overdue to him, several of his "boys" have taken Boogie Woogie out of its hiding places in the dives of Chicago. The most famous of Jimmy's boys are Meade "Lux" Lewis and Albert Ammons. "Pine Top" Smith was another. Poor Pine Top never lived to see Boogie Woogie make its Carnegie Hall début. Several years ago, he was shot down in a brawl over "some ol' gal in a cheap West Side dance hall," according to Mayo Williams. And Pine Top died as he had lived. Probably the most erratic and flighty character of Chicago's jazzmen, he kept everyone guessing what he would do next. He slept all day, wandered from one club to another all night, and was apt to drive up to a friend's house at 5:00 A.M. in a taxi, and get the friend out of bed to pay his fare. Like Yancey, Pine Top had traveled the Theatrical Owners' Booking Agency circuit as a tap dancer in vaudeville. He was one of Maddy Dorsey's pickaninnies. When he outgrew the part, he settled in Chicago in the early twenties. Even then he didn't stay put and, at certain periods, was a well-known figure around the red-light districts of Omaha and St. Louis. About 1928, a short time before he was killed, Pine Top lived in a Chicago rooming-house at 4435 Prairie, where, by some fortunate coincidence, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis also lived. Albert was the only one of the trio who had a piano, and there were frequent cutting sessions in Albert's room when the three got together.
Luckily, Pine Top recorded several numbers and his music has exerted an ineradicable influence on many other pianists. His composition, Pine Top's Boogie Woogie, is not only the most widely copied of all piano blues, but gave its title to the style. The title, incidentally, has no special meaning; it was just something he got together at a house party in St. Louis, he told Ammons. A piano solo with talking, the Boogie Woogie's words explain what sort of dance accompanies the music.
From the first somber tremolo of Pine Top's Boogie Woogie, his first record, to the end of Now I Ain't Got Nothin' at All, his last in the Vocalion series, there is not a superfluous note. We can only admire Pine Top's sincerity and zestful spirit in these records. One cannot describe the effect Pine Top produces with the most direct simplicity. In the sixth chorus of the original version of his Boogie Woogie, he builds his entire solo by repeating a simple four-note scale motif. In the corresponding eighth chorus of the re-issued version, with even greater effect, he constructs his solo by repeating a single tone throughout over the primitive rumbling of the bass. The fourth variation of both arrangements further illustrates Pine Top's genius in making thrilling music without any melodic movement. As a blues singer, Pine Top was a folk artist of rare distinction, in spite of a peculiar high-pitched voice.
Pine Top didn't quite make his last recording date. Mayo Williams had him signed for another session with Vocalion. The morning of the date, his wife rushed in an hour late, and as Williams began to bawl her out for not getting Pine Top up in time, she calmly said, "Pine Top's dead. He was killed last night." Pine Top, it seems, had been "rambling 'round the town" once too often. When "the butcher finally cut him down," America lost an artist of the first rank.
By some strange premonition, a few days before he died Pine Top called Albert Ammons aside and said, "Albert, I want you to learn my Boogie Woogie." With what success Pine Top taught and Albert learned the piece everyone may witness today. For no one can approach Ammons in his performance of Pine Top's Boogie Woogie. Pine Top's naive and simple performance was splendid, but Ammons' greater power and imagination make his own version an astounding masterpiece. Chorus after chorus flows from his agile and tireless fingers; even the most intricate passages are played with clarity. As he piles up climax after climax, one thinks surely that in the next second the piano must fly to pieces. But there is always another chorus. The secret is, of course, in the joyful flame which burns within Ammons, for no one, not even Fats Waller, whom he admires, ever enjoyed playing the piano half as much as he. Only this indomitable joy has kept his creative spark alive and made him go on playing through many lean seasons in Chicago. This shows in his music. Without trying, he can arouse more enthusiasm than a dozen ordinary pianists.
Albert Ammons is younger than most of the Chicago blues pianists, but he was old enough to be a member of the Eighth Illinois Home Guards during the World War. In his early teens he joined the bugle and drum corps. They had fourteen buglers and fourteen drummers; Albert was one of the drummers. Both his parents played piano. Not long after the war, he started to learn the blues and soon knew two or three good pieces. He listened to the Yancey brothers and to other Chicago pianists, including Hersal Thomas, another remarkable musician who never gained more than local fame. Hersal played all the favorite blues and was known especially for his own Suitcase Blues. In those days if a pianist didn't know the Fives and the Rocks he'd better not sit down at the piano at all. Whenever Hersal Thomas, who made a deep impression on young Ammons, came to a party, the other pianists were afraid to play; so he became unusually popular and got all the girls.
It was about this time, around 1924, that Ammons, working for the Silver Taxicab Company, met another driver, Meade Lux Lewis. Lux was also learning the blues, as were a few of the other drivers, and occasionally they went over to someone's house and had a Boogie session. Once when the Silver manager couldn't find a single company cab on the streets, he decided to fit up a clubroom with a piano for the boys, so he'd know where to find them when they got a call.
Albert and Lux began to make money playing for club parties and house "kados." Those were the big Prohibition days, and with several jugs on hand, everyone, including the pianists, got stewed. When a house party was raided, Albert and Lux hid outside on the window sill; after the Law had cleared out the mob they climbed back inside and finished the unemptied jugs.
Ammons, although strictly an "ear" man, has always been an excellent orchestra pianist, as well as a blues soloist, and has organized some of Chicago's best small orchestras. One of his first jobs with one of these combinations was on the Illinois Central Railroad excursions to the South. A baggage car was fitted up as a dance hall and the orchestra played for the passengers during the trip. Albert went as far as New Orleans, where his Boogie Woogie astonished local musicians. Although some of the same bass figures were used in the blues as played by early New Orleans pianists, their use was not so continuous throughout a composition as it was later in Chicago and the Middle West, and therefore not Boogie Woogie in the stricter sense.
Back in Chicago, after a few seasons with the Louis Banks Orchestra, Ammons got his own band into the Club De Lisa late in 1934. For two years he played there with a picked five- piece band, including Guy Kelly, Dalbert Bright, Jimmy Hoskins, and Israel Crosby, which packed more power than a fifteen-piece outfit. By 1936 he had lost his men to larger commercial orchestras, and the next season found him playing alone for "cakes and coffee" at the It Club. By the fall of 1938, Ammons had again assembled a band for the Claremont Club, when he got his chance to go to New York for the Carnegie Hall concert and a long engagement at the Café Society. In New York he was at last given ample opportunity to make solo discs. His Shout for Joy (Vocalion), Boogie Woogie Stomp (12-inch Blue Note), Bass Goin' Crazy and Monday Struggle (Solo Art), are outstanding.
It was Meade Lux Lewis who first made Jimmy Yancey's name known with his Yancey Special. Meade Lux was born in Chicago in 1905. Although his father was musical and had played guitar and composed a bit, Lux did not start to learn music until he was about sixteen. Then his father began to teach him violin. One night, about a year later, Meade happened to hear Jimmy Yancey play. He knew that was "the real thing." Lux resolved then and there to give up the violin and learn to play blues on the piano. Although he heard plenty of good music around Chicago, by "Cripple Clarence," Jimmy Blythe, Lem Fowler, and the Yancey brothers, Lux was self-taught on the piano. For four or five years he played nothing but blues.
After a few odd jobs, including taxi-driving and a little traveling to Michigan and Kentucky, Lux made his first phonograph record in 1927. It was the Honky Tonk Train Blues, one of the earliest and most famous of all Boogie Woogie records. Meade's father had been a Pullman porter, and for a while they had lived over on South La Salle, near the New York Central tracks. A hundred times a day the big expresses roared by, whistling shrilly, making the entire house quake. So it was natural for Meade Lux to work out a train piece. The result proved to be the most phenomenal Boogie Woogie solo ever composed. For a while it had no special name; then one night Lux tried it out at a house party. When he tore into it, some fellow who had just dropped to hear the new music exclaimed:
"What kind o' man is that! What do ya call that thing?"
Lux said, "That's a train blues."
The other guy said, "Well, we're all together here. You ought to call it the Honky Tonk Train Blues."
"Well, all right! Let's call it the Honky Tonk Train Blues."
The original record was made for Paramount, a small company in Wisconsin. It was recorded even before Pine Top's Boogie Woogie, but not released for two years. A short time later, the Paramount Company went out of business when the depression struck, and Lux's record was unobtainable. Lewis dropped back into complete obscurity; even his friends almost forgot that he played piano.
The story of his re-discovery has often been told. John Hammond, an ardent collector, who had a "beat-up" copy of the Paramount record, couldn't find a clean one or have more copies made; so he began to search for Meade Lux. For almost two years he had no success, although he asked everyone he knew, and advertised in the papers. Finally in the fall of 1936, he met Albert Ammons in Chicago's Club De Lisa. Ammons was the first person who had ever heard of Lux. In a few days Meade Lux was located in a south side garage washing cars. He thought he could still remember the Honky Tonk, and after a few days' practice was ready to record it again for release on Parlophone in England. The next spring he got a job with his three-piece band, known as Lux and His Chips, at Doc Higgins' Tavern. A few weeks later he was working by himself at Bratton's Rendezvous. During these days Lux had his Decca and Victor recording dates, and made a third version of the Honky Tonk.
The descriptive qualities of the Honky Tonk Train Blues, with the suggestion of latent power in the introduction, the signal to the engineer, the wheels clicking over the rail joints, and the furious journey as the train rushes through the various stations, are remarkable in themselves, but not as unusual as are the purely musical qualities of the piece.
The skill with which Meade Lux can improvise for twenty or thirty minutes on a theme such as the Honky Tonk is astounding. His ideas seem unlimited; in developing them, he always gives an unexpected twist to the melody. A new technical idea is used for each chorus; one composed of high tremolos and repeated chords is followcd by a variation based on light glissandi, and that in turn by one strongly rhythmic, with heavy bass figures for contrast. Dynamic variety and cross-rhythms have been employed to a much greater extent by Meade Lux than by any other pianist. From the drive and complexity of rhythm one might imagine that the Honky Tonk Train Blues was played by two pianists; when one sees it performed, one wonders how such simplicity of technique can produce torrents of tone from a very small range of notes. Many passages which sound like three or four hands are played in the old pre-Bach hand position without even using the thumbs, thus aiding relaxation. The recurring bass figure does not suggest monotony or lack of invention, but holds the listener. In common with other self-taught pianists of this school, Meade Lux does not use the damper or any other pedal, except to strike with his foot for the percussive effect.
Whether all honky-tonk music should be played and recorded only on broken-down, out-of-tune pianos is a debatable issue, but even the most dilapidated pianos found in Chicago's barrel-houses failed to dampen Lux's inspired improvisations. Boogie Woogie men usually prefer an upright to a grand piano, the action of which is too stiff for their gymnastics. They need "a real limber piano," and when they find one, it's "just too bad."
So fabulous a reputation did Meade Lux gain from the Honky Tonk that many think of him as a "one tune" pianist. The falsity of this view is shown by the variety of Meade Lux Lewis' recordings, which appear on nine different labels. Further, his repertory is constantly growing. More remarkable is the large variety of styles he has at his command.
Yancey Special has been the vehicle for some of Lux's most inspired improvisations. After the spectacular Honky Tonk this blues seems rather sedate, but is equally great in its own quiet way.
One receives a new surprise on hearing the celeste played by Meade Lux for the first time; for a more apt and natural style cannot be imagined for a celeste. Such a variety of beautiful and delicate shadings of tone as we find in the Celeste Blues is entirely unknown in Western music, and has been produced before only by the Balinese gamelan. To those who have heard Balinese music, this analogy is no fabrication of the imagination. Balinese and Boogie Woogie music are both intensely dynamic and full of joyous vitality. Both make effective and idiomatic use of percussion instruments in producing a variety of nuances and maximum sonority. In Bali, where music is also an integral part of the life of the people, it is used for dance accompaniment, and to precipitate a state of trance. Both Balinese music and the Boogie Woogie derive their strength and sureness of form from the fixed solidarity of the 4-4 meter which somehow is no hindrance to variety of rhythm. In Bali, too, music is strongly syncopated, with the rhythm often seeming ready to lose its balance in the rapid patterns of shifting accents.
A common observation of novices, even intelligent ones, is that the Boogie Woogie has no melody. Aaron Copland, in Modern Music, writes of the "lack of any shred of melodic invention." Granted that there is no tune in the Irving Berlin manner and that no one goes down the street whistling the Honky Tonk, there is nevertheless unusual melodic charm.
As in Balinese music, the melodic development consists of simple and logical yet satisfying patterns of notes in a limited range, usually proceeding conjunctly. Often in the more elaborate melodic texture there is incessant arabesque and figuration based on the essential notes of the melody.
Lux had never seen a celeste until the day in February, 1936, when he walked into the Decca Studio in Chicago. He was intrigued by the small box that looked like a toy piano, sat down to try it, and was soon absorbed in its strange sounds. So were the astonished engineers, who finally told Lux to let it cool off a moment and then try making a record. The result was the Celeste Blues.
For years Meade Lux has shown remarkable talent for whistling which resembles somewhat the early cornet style of Armstrong. Evidently he did not sit in vain at the feet of King Oliver's Creole Band at the Sunday matinées held at the Lincoln Gardens. In the Whistling Blues, we have the arhythmic phenomenon of swing exemplified in its anticipatory aspect rather than the more common one of retardation. Boogie Woogie pianists, more than most jazz musicians, tend to use anticipation. Repetition of this device produces an inner reaction of cumulative energy which strives to break its bonds. As with Bessie Smith's tiger, one has the feeling that Lewis is "ready to jump." The Whistling Blues is unusual in that the regular pulses, the heavy chords which mark the tempo, are all played just a little before the beat, which is indicated only by Lux's stomping.
The first appearance of Meade Lux Lewis in New York was at the "first swing concert" at the Imperial Theatre in May, 1936. Amid all the confusion, he had to play on a new grand and was not at his best. Hardly anyone knew who he was or paid any attention to him. A year later, Lux was engaged at Nick's old basement tavern in the Village, but the Boogie Woogie was still too far ahead of the times. Bad management and the usual summer slump may have contributed to forcing him out; anyway, after six weeks, Meade returned to Chicago and went on relief. In December, 1938, Meade Lux made his third try in New York; this time, he clicked. With Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, the Kansas City Boogie Woogie artist, Lux was the sensation of the Carnegie Hall concert of American Negro music, which was held in December. Coast-to-Coast radio network appearances, night-club jobs, and recording dates followed for the trio. National magazines and newspapers carried their story, and at Café Society, the three became the latest rage in swing. New York had finally caught up with the Boogie Woogie.
In "Cripple Clarence" Lofton, Chicago still has a character as picturesque and eccentric as Pine Top. An almost savage crudeness and intensity more than compensates for what he lacks of Pine Top's subtlety and refinement. Down on South State Street, a little above 47th, is a saloon, lately known as the Big Apple, which might well be called "Cripple Clarence's Boogie School." Here many young aspiring blues players meet to hear and learn from Lofton and one another. Sometimes a fellow who is only a beginner comes in and Lofton shows him a few things, and before long he can play a piece or two. As Cripple Clarence says, "I gotta help these boys along, so when us old fellows are gone there'll be some more comin' up."
Such a situation is hard to imagine in one of America's modern cities, when we consider how radio, the common leveler, has killed the blues throughout the country, and most youngsters, if they play at all, are seeking to copy Teddy Wilson or Eddie Duchin. Some nights there may be seven or eight piano players in the joint at one time, and occasionally other old-timers drop in. There was one evening when Jimmy Yancey, Meade Lux, and Clarence engaged in a cutting session and Clarence came out a poor third; but on other nights he has reversed the decision over the same men.
No one can complain of Clarence's lack of variety or versatility. When he really gets going he's a three-ring circus. During one number, he plays, sings, whistles a chorus, and snaps his fingers with the technique of a Spanish dancer to give further percussive accompaniment to his blues. At times he turns sideways, almost with his back to the piano as he keeps pounding away at the keyboard and stomping his feet, meanwhile continuing to sing and shout at his audience or his drummer. Suddenly in the middle of a number he jumps up, his hands clasped in front of him, and walks around the piano stool, and then, unexpectedly, out booms a vocal break in a bass voice from somewhere. One second later, he has turned and is back at the keyboard, both hands flying at lightning- like pace. His actions and facial expressions are as intensely dramatic and exciting as his music. Clarence likes to work with a drummer. Last winter, one night, he had two of them and was trying his best to keep at least one sober.
Clarence's joint is no high-class place; beer and sandwiches are five cents, other drinks ten. There's no checkroom; you park your coat and hat on top of the piano, or leave them on, and pull up a chair beside the piano and get your ear full of the crudest and most honest-to-goodness piano playing you ever heard.
They close up early, about 1:00 A.M., and then Cripple Clarence is off to make his nightly round of South Side spots. Almost as soon as he walks in a place, he takes over the show and is sitting at the piano strutting his stuff. Or else he has found a girl, and is tearing up the dance floor. In spite of being lame, he could probably win a "shag" contest. Soon he leaves, and wanders down Chicago's dark streets until he comes to the next tavern or club that has a piano. Finally the dawn catches up with Clarence and he hurries home to bed to be ready for another big night.
One always has the feeling when Clarence sings the blues that he is really moaning his own troubles. For he not only sings the blues, but lives the blues. Sometimes, if you happen to meet him on a street corner, he'll stop you, and with outstretched arms, sing his latest blues.
Years ago his prize piece was Strut That Thing. Now, remodeled a little and even better, it's called I Don't Know. One night recently he had a brilliant new number called Streamline Train. The next night, when a "pupil" wanted to hear it again and even tipped him a dime, Cripple Clarence couldn't recall ever having played it. A week later he again announced the Streamline Train, and out came the Cow Cow Blues, note for note.
Cow Cow Davenport, another pioneer of early Chicago days, came originally from Alabama. After playing in honky-tonks and houses of prostitution in the coal-mining districts, the T.O.B.A. circuit booked his vaudeville act in Negro theatres throughout the South. The act consisted of comedy numbers, as well as singing and playing blues. Cow Cow was a prolific song-writer. The lyrics were written by his wife, a snake-charmer. They still have the snakes, which they keep in their bathroom. The most popular of Cow Cow's songs is You Rascal You, which, however, was published under the name of his friend, Sam Theard, a member of the troup.
About 1920, Cow Cow went to Chicago, where he greatly influenced many younger musicians, and later made a large number of phonograph records. In recent years he has lived in Cleveland, appearing rarely as a musician, since he and his wife have opened a small restaurant on Central Avenue. In the front room is an old upright on which Cow Cow occasionally plays. Although he complains that his fingers are stiff, he can still knock off the Cow Cow Blues and a few of his other old tunes, including the widely copied Chimes Blues. His best known piano solo, Cow Cow Blues, is notable for its melodic treatment of repeated notes. Another outstanding characteristic of Cow Cow's style is his development of the "walking bass," an effect much used today by string bass players, consisting of a rapid movement of single bass notes up and down the chords. Before it became a purely instrumental piece, the Cow Cow Blues started out to be a train number, and even Cow Cow's name came from the words, which were about a cow-catcher.
Many other great early Boogie Woogie pianists have dropped out of sight altogether. Romeo Nelson is one of the ones who have disappeared. Apparently no one in Chicago has ever heard of him. Yet, about 1929, he made a record of a piano solo, Head Rag Hop, a masterpiece which alone places him in the front rank. With the spirit of "Man, I'm gonna ruin this piano," he plunges into his solo. His playing has brilliance and his crude but prodigious technique is used with startling and dramatic effect. The backing of his record, a vocal number, Gettin' Dirty Just Shakin' That Thing, contains piano passages which in their unrestrained enthusiasm equal the work in Head Rag Hop. It is certainly pitiful that a musician who could make so wonderful a record remains unknown, unappreciated, and entirely forgotten. But the Boogie Woogie is the most non-commercial music in the world, in the best and worst sense of the word. Since those who play it make no concessions to popular tastes and trends, the pianists have seldom been able to earn a living from their art, nor have they been able to fit into the conventional dance orchestra.
Head Rag Hop has fortunately been reissued recently (Hot Record Society, release #8) but what we need is the opportunity to enjoy Romeo in person. When he made his record Romeo lived down in the district between 37th and 39th Street, near Cottage Grove. This section was leveled to the ground about 1936 in a slum clearance P.W.A. project, and Romeo might as well have been buried beneath one of the enormous piles of brick, for all the chance there is of finding him today. Some time ago, after a long search, Meade Lux Lewis thought he had located Nelson; he heard of a Romeo who hung around a saloon at 43rd and South Parkway. We went to see him, but he turned out to be Romeo Briggs. He was a pianist too; evidently there's a Boogie Woogie pianist in almost every house on Chicago's South Side; Briggs's Detroit Special was very good.
Another Boogie Woogie artist who has disappeared is Montana Taylor. No one can tell what happened to him. His early record of Detroit Rocks employs the well-known "rocks" variety of bass, similar to that used in Honky Tonk Train Blues. His Indiana Avenue Stomp also shows that Montana was a pianist gifted with great rhythmic solidity and fertile melodic invention. Taylor, who lived in Chicago for a while, has also spent some time in Indianapolis and Detroit.
Another pianist lost somewhere between Chicago and Detroit is Charlie Spand, who was known principally as a fine blues singer. About 1929 he made an old Paramount record with guitarist Blind Blake titled Hastings Street, in which there is a rhythmic background played by xylophones, rattles, and a whole battery of tom-toms. Throughout is a dark and ominous quality not found in so great a degree in the works of others.
Spand plays his Soon This Morning on another unusual Paramount record called Hometown Skiffle, an all-star affair which gives realistically a scene at a house party. A similar Vocalion record entitled Jim Jackson's Jamboree presents the exciting "Speckled Red" doing his best to "hit that Boogie Woogie." He attempts to play Pine Top's solo, but it's his own old favorite, variously known as Wilkins Street Stomp, The Dirty Dozen, or St. Louis Stomp.
Speckled Red belongs to the group of pianists, including Cripple Clarence and Romeo Nelson, notable for abundance of power. Notwithstanding his apparent crudeness, he has amazing virtuosity. In Speckled Red's playing we find the simplicity of Pine Top, plus the sparkling brilliance and contagious enthusiasm found in Romeo's Head Rag Hop. He is one of the rare artists who seems to get better as he goes along, such is his abundance of ideas. Despite his zestful, almost frenzied style, he always gives a great impression of ease.
Will Ezell, one of the best and most popular of Chicago's pianists during the early twenties, fell into obscurity with the coming of the depression and the repeal of Prohibition. Before he faded into oblivion, Ezell made a great record for Paramount, Pitchin' Boogie, in which he had the help of a rhythm section and a somewhat wheezy cornet. This sensational record, labeled a piano solo with instrumental accompaniment, shows just what can happen when a small band gets "in a Boogie groove." For low-down, gut-bucket music with barrel-house atmosphere, this disc could hardly be excelled.
Chicago was not alone in its cultivation of blues pianists. One day during the World War, Doug Suggs blew in from St. Louis with his Mr. Freddie Blues, and after his legendary stop at a 31st Street saloon, the Chicago Boogie men had another classic on their "must list." The Mound City had been developing its own Boogie Woogie and Suggs left behind him a number of young pianists who carried on. After the disgraceful "race riots" of 1919 the blues continued to be played and sung in dives along the Mississippi, especially over on the other bank, in East St. Louis. The Paramount Company, intent upon recording the best blues, sent for several pianists to come up from St. Louis, and thus we have preserved a few examples of the best of the St. Louis school of Boogie Woogie.
Wesley Wallace's No.29, which depicts a free ride on the railroad running from Cairo up to East St. Louis, is another train piece, entirely different in type but in its own way almost as great a tour de force as Honky Tonk Train Blues. Musically and descriptively, both these unaffected solo compositions are more stimulating and successful than Honegger's pretentious Pacific 231. Rather than featuring polytonality, No. 29 stresses polyrhythm, using a juxtaposition of 3-4 and 4-4. With his left hand playing throughout in 3-4 meter, Wallace demonstrates convincingly that it is possible to swing in other than duple time. The reverse of this exciting record is Fanny Lee Blues, similar to the sparse style of Ezell's early work but with all the sobriety and drive of Pine Top.
Henry Brown, another talented member of the St. Louis group, has several good compositions to his credit, the most interesting being Deep Morgan Blues, Stomp 'Em Down, and Henry Brown Blues, which resembles the style of Cow Cow.
Jabo Williams also made the trip up from St. Louis. He is a pianist of great imagination. Uninhibited by the restrictions of classical form, his enormous vitality leads him to the most unconventional modes of expression. His Jabo Blues, played at an incredible speed, sounds at times like a player-piano roll gone on a rampage.
Some two hundred miles up the Missouri River there early developed in Kansas City another center of American music. Pete Johnson, the ace Kansas City Boogie Woogie artist, remembers 'way back when the best blues were played by Slamfoot and Booty. In those days, the Four O'Clock Blues was popular at house parties. They must have passed out an hour earlier in Kansas City than they did in Chicago during Yancey's time.
Pete Johnson, whose uncle Charles was one of the old-time pianists, was born in 1904 in Kansas City. He started out as a drummer in a school band and didn't take up piano until he was eighteen. Even then he had no lessons, but in three years he could really play. Before long he was working in the small three- and four-piece bands which spring up like mushrooms in Kansas City.
There has often been a close correlation between political corruption and the development of hot jazz. The jazz band has always been an urban institution and flourished only in shady places of amusement which could support it, such as dance halls, houses of prostitution, gin mills, gambling joints, and other underworld spots. It was no mere accident that jazz first sprang up in the South's largest city, New Orleans, which was then the most wide open, vice-ridden and corrupt city in the history of the New World. Kansas City has also provided abundant proof of the long-recognized fact that the quality of American government reaches its lowest ebb in the cities. The notorious Pendergast machine had been well greased for over a score of years, and by the time Prohibition was introduced it was really humming. With the attending graft and laxity in enforcing closing hours and other regulations, Kansas City's night life grew by leaps and bounds. Dozens of small clubs, all employing musicians, were opened.
Pete Johnson got a job playing in the Hawaiian Gardens. That was before it was finally raided and closed. There he met Joe Turner, and a partnership was started which has lasted over ten years. Joe was a bartender and occasionally did a little blues shouting on the side. He was a large, tall young man with a powerful voice; when he sang, he didn't need a microphone. For that matter Pete's piano playing didn't sound any weaker than Joe's voice. So when they teamed up they had dynamite. Pete Johnson can hold his own as a soloist with any pianist, and as an accompanist is almost unrivaled. The Boogie Woogie has often been found in conjunction with vocal blues and is ideally suited as a style to the accompaniment of the blues.
This pair worked in many a tavern along 18th Street and finally landed with their small orchestra in the Sunset, on 12th Street, one of the town's famous spots. When the Sunset closed in 1937, they moved across the street to the Lone Star, one of the gayest of Kansas City's Negro night clubs. When one of these Kansas City clubs gets roaring full blast there's nothing comparable to be found in New York's Harlem or even on Chicago's South Side.
The garden of the Lone Star was out-of-doors under a tent, back of a big doublestore building which housed a barroom on one side and a poolroom on the other. In one back corner of the crowded barroom was a barbecue stand and up a few steps was the garden cabaret. Gaily decorated, the place was full of rickety wooden tables and benches crowded with carefree people. Almost everyone drank beer, ten cents a bottle, and paid the waitress when they got it, or else they didn't get it.
Over at one end, on the other side of the small dance floor, was the orchestra shell with barely room for an old upright, the drum set, a bass, a few chairs and the omnipresent slot-kitty. Most small Kansas City orchestras depend on customers' feeding the kitty with tips to make up their night's pay. No one seemed to know just who was in the orchestra; its size and personnel were constantly changing. It started out each night about ten o'clock with Pete and his drummer Merle playing together; one by one others came in and dropped out. By one or two o'clock there might be six or seven in the band, and before closing time it had simmered down again to Pete and the drummer. There was a 1:00 A.M. closing law but no one paid any attention to that. Although practically outdoors, they kept up the racket until about four.
At midnight the first floor show went on, which was the signal for everyone from the poolroom and even persons out on the street to rush in and jam the place. They stood all over the seats and on top of the tables to get a view of the show. If the orchestra wasn't too crowded and you wanted to sit down you could sit on the stand while others stood on the seats. It sounds like a topsy-turvy mad-house and that's just what it was. After the show there was no lessening of tension, for almost before it was over a concerted yell went up, "Roll 'em, Pete," and Pete let go with a torrent of notes as everyone made a scramble for the dance floor. The fellows put on their caps to dance; there was no place to check them. With Joe shouting and whipping the crowd to a wild frenzy, the place literally "jumped for joy." There was hardly room on the floor for the dancers to do more than stand in one spot and "roll 'em." Once Pete and the band got started "rolling 'em," they were good for half an hour or longer without stopping.
Today the cabaret back of the Lone Star is closed as Kansas City attempts a house cleaning. A 12 o'clock closing law was clamped on and it looks as if Kansas City jazzmen will have a hard time for a while. Anyway, the Lone Star had seen its most glorious nights. Pete Johnson and Joe Turner have at last gone on to success in New York, where with Meade Lux and Ammons, they took the big city by storm.
Since the Boogie Woogie has finally arrived, the future looks bright for piano blues. There is no need to look backward for the golden age, as in the case of orchestral jazz; not when Jimmy Yancey, the Buddy Bolden of the Boogie Woogie, is still in his prime, and a dozen others are active throughout the country.
The Boogie Woogie has made its influence felt in present-day orchestration, and many leading orchestras have their version of the Boogie Woogie. But it is fundamentally a piano style and is most effective when played on this solo instrument. Although the Boogie Woogie was originally dance music, it transcends any secondary function as mere accompaniment to words or movement and today has come to be recognized in its own right.