Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Box Set Treasure of Boogie Woogie and Blues Piano

While it is not clear where the style of piano called Boogie Woogie originated, by 1928 it had clearly surfaced in Chicago where it was named by a recording Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie, by Clarence ‘Pinetop’ Smith. As Dan Morganstern writes in the booklet accompanying the new Mosaic Selects set, Boogie Woogie and Blues Piano, boogie woogie was a piano idiom rooted in the blues, “a rolling, romping an infectious approach to the keyboard … . Its chief characteristic is a forceful, repetitive (but by no mans unvaried) ‘walking’ bass line pitted against a blues melody line in the treble marked by cross rhythms, usually (but not always) at a fast tempo.” The Mosaic Selects 3-disc set collects 72 of the finest recordings in this idiom from the idiom’s peak period of popularity in the late thirties and early forties from recordings originally on such labels as Victor, OK, ARC, Columbia, Bluebird and Vocalion and includes such masters of the style as Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson, Jimmy Yancey and Cripple Clarence Lofton along with recordings by others including Harry James, Joe Sullivan, Benny Carter, and Red Allen. 

A thunderous boogie played with ‘"A Left Hand From God” (to cite the title of Peter Silvester's history of boogie woogie), can be heard from the opening moments as we are introduced to Meade Lux Lewis’ revival of his Honky Tonk Train Blues, one of the classic piano and train instrumentals of all time. Its followed by a couple more efforts by Lewis as well as fellow Chicagoan, Albert Ammons with two takes of his dazzling tour de force, Shout For Joy. In turn this is followed by the great Kansas City pianist, Pete Johnson accompanying the great shouter Joe Turner on Roll ‘Em Pete. These recordings, along with the appearance of the trio at the legendary Carnegie Hall concert, From Spirituals to Swing, helped launch boogie woogie into a National craze. As part of this craze, the Boogie Woogie Trio (Ammons, Lohnson and Lewis) along with Turner were booked into Cafe Society, the legendary Greenwich Village Club. The trio recorded the spectacular Boogie Woogie Prayer together, and were joined by trumpeter Harry James for several recordings. The first of the three discs concludes with eight heart pounding duets between Johnson and Ammons. 

The second of the discs is a bit more varied with some focus shifted to vocalist Turner who fronts Pete Johnson and His Boogie Woogie Boys that included trumpeter Hot Lips Page and alto saxophonist Buster Smith on Cherry Red and Baby Look at You. Then Turner shouts in front of Ammons, Johnson and Lewis on Cafe Society Rag, before singing in front of combos led by pianist Joe Sullivan and Benny Carter. After this, we are presented with three distinct takes of Down The Road A-Piece by the Will Bradley Trio with pianist Freddie Slack. This became a staple of piano led combos in the post-World War II period. Selections by Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Red Allen illustrate the spread of boogie woogie as it became a national fad (this set limits itself to small combos and does not include examples of the big band variations).

The final disc opens with a piano solo by Mary Lou Williams before presenting us with 17 tracks by the great Jimmy Yancey, one of the greatest blues and boogie pianists of all time. A former baseball player in the Negro Leagues, he was a groundskeeper at Comiskey Park as well as a pianist of great emotional depth and rhythmic vitality. His music eschewed flash for a lyrical, almost poetic quality with what Morganstern notes idiosyncratic harmonies although all of his numbers ends in the key of E. His boogies are not played at quite a breakneck as Ammons, Johnson or Lewis were capable of but his treble lines are perhaps more interesting and while his bass work is varied and propulsive if not as powerful as the others as can be heard on Yancey’s Stomp. Slow blues like Five O'Clock Blues were his forte as his subtle touch and treble embellishments lend a melancholy flavor to his performances. His poetic piano perhaps is stronger than his unmannered vocals, but his earnest delivery compensates for any vocal limitations, and one will not find any better examples of blues piano than his work here. Five tracks by Clarence Lofton, with Big Bill Broonzy on guitar, close this collection with touches of ragtime mixed in with boogie as on Strut That Thing, which echoes Speckled Red’s classic Dirty Dozens, and lyrics that would be echoed by Little Johnny Jones a decade later, with Lofton raggy boogie bass and while beating of his right hand lines. Also included is the marvelous Brown Skin Gal, which more great piano and lyrics and a commanding singing. 

Long-time collectors have many of these recordings, but some of the reissues of this material on the have been out-of-print for a number of years. Mosaic Select has put together this strong collection of music that belongs in any credible collection of blues and boogie woogie piano. Dan Morganstern’s essay also provides the historical context mixed with insights on the recordings and performers. Available from

This review appeared originally in the February 2008 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 301), although I have made some edits. I do not recall if I received a review copy or purchased this. If you are thinking of a gift for the blues piano lover in your Holiday Gift List, this is still available from Mosaic, Now here is a video of Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson.

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