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Boogie Woogie

Boogie Woogie is a style for solo piano, which emerged in the USA shortly after the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. Later it was also played in larger formations. Its direct precursor was the Barrelhouse piano. This was a more rural style of music, created at the end of the 19th century, when numerous Blues musicians transferred the original instrumentations, mostly guitar, to the piano. Boogie Woogie is part of the Blues.

The Boogie Woogie came into existance at about the same time as the Stride piano. In contrast to Stride piano, Boogie Woogie is almost exclusively a Blues style. It received its name by a recording of Clarence "Pine Top" Smith, the "Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie". With this number, the term "Boogie Woogie" was used for the first time as a music title, in which "Pine Top" Smith played piano and gave spoken dance instructions.

Boogie Woogie became widespread by so-called house rent parties, where many of the pianists played. These parties were organized by tenants in their apartements, who provided alcohol and often live music. A small admission fee was charged, and by the earnings from the party, the rent was paid.

In the late 1920s, the development of the Boogie Woogie proceeded. Its driving swing increased. Clarence "Pine Top" Smith and Jimmy Yancey with their respective styles laid the base for the success of Boogie Woogie as pop music of the 1930s and 1940s. Music producer and critic John Hammond contributed a lot to its success by producing records and organizing concerts. In 1938, the legendary first "From Spirituals To Swing" concert was staged at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Its success was huge, causing rumors that some people from the audience had to be ordered to come down from the chandeliers onto which they had climbed in ecstasy.

By this concert, the pianists’ triumvirate of Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade "Lux" Lewis bedame famous. The breakthrough for Boogie Woogie was also caused by Meade "Lux" Lewis’ composition "Honky Tonk Train Blues". Lewis had recorded that number in 1927, remisicing his childhood days, when his family lived close to a railroad freight yard. At that time, the general audience in the USA was not ready for this music yet, but less than ten years later, Boogie Woogie hit the musical mainstream of the Swing era.

Meade "Lux" Lewis and Albert Ammons, both from Chicago, were friends since childhood. Besides playing piano, they made their living by many part time jobs, such as driving cabs. But often, together with other pianists who also were cab drivers, they would play piano instead of driving. The owner of the cab company solved the problem by providing a piano at the company’s social room, so the drivers wouldn’t disappear from work. At that time, Albert Ammons and Meade "Lux" Lewis lived at the same house as "Pine Top" Smith. Since only Albert Ammons had a piano, they all met at his apartment for jamming.

The third Boogie Woogie deity came from Kansas City. Pete Johnson only learned to play piano at the age of 18. Nevertheless, he became one of the greatest Boogie Woogie pianists of all times. He recorded "Dive Bomber", one of the most complex tunes in the history of Boogie Woogie. Already in the 1920s, he worked with singer Big Joe Turner. In 1978, Axel Zwingenberger and Big Joe Turner recorded their joint album "Let’s Boogie Woogie All Night Long", which was reminiscent of the partnership of Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner. This album was awarded with the German Record Award "Deutscher Schallplattenpreis" (equivalent to the "Grammy").

A quote of Big Joe Turner: "We was doin’ Rock and Roll before anyone ever heard of it."

Ammons, Lewis and Johnson had their greatest success at the end of the 1930s, when the economical crisis had been settled.

At that time, the USA were caught by the "Boogie fever". This was also owed to New York’s "Café Society", which was founded by former shoe shop owner Barney Josephson. Disgusted by the still prevailing racial segregation in music clubs, he decided to open a bar, where black and white customers were equally welcome. The café was opened in January, 1939, in Greenwich Village in New York City. One of its main musical attractions was "The Boogie Woogie Trio" of Ammons, Lewis and Johnson and singer Big Joe Turner. In 1940, a second "Café Society" was added, where racial barriers were abolished, both for the artists and for the public. Its motto was "The wrong place for the Right people". In more difficult times, producer John Hammond helped out, financially as well as with advice. The "Café Society" became a meeting point for mainly leftish intellectuals. Finally, it was closed down in 1950 during the McCarthy era.