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Boogie Woogie

Boogie Woogie was the first and to date the only exclusively piano music to issue from the blues. Boogie Woogie, a term used to describe the blues piano playing that thrived roughly between the years 1920 and 1945, was a highly popular music in tenements. The very name Boogie was another name for the "house rent party." Both terms describe a phenomenon that took place in the crowded tenements of Chicago, Detroit, New York, and virtually every city with a large black population. Because poverty was a way of life, black people learned quickly to depend on each other to band together and to work toward common goals. One such goal was that of simply being able to pay the rent. With unemployment at a normally high level (at least for blacks), men long accustomed to surviving under the most adverse conditions ingeniously devised a technique that served the combined purposes of raising the rent and providing a means of social intercourse.

The "House Rent Party" ("The Parlor Social," "The Boogie") was a party given by a tenant as a means of raising his rent. For the nominal sum of "two bits" or "four bits," the tenant's neighbors were treated to an evening of boogie woogie piano by some local hero, some southern culinary treat such as catfish and Kentucky oysters (bring your own drinks), as well as some "hangin' out." Of course, such parties were reciprocal - "you come help me pay my rent and I'll come help you pay yours."

The blues pianist, unlike most other instrumentalists, had a great deal of mobility mainly because he didn't have to carry his instrument with him. For this reason, the blues pianist was somewhat of a cosmopolite, traveling when the mood, or the local Sheriff, struck him.

Some of the more famous boogie woogie players were Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Jimmy Yancey, and Sugar Chile Robinson.

Logically enough, the first generation of blues pianists who were born in the 1890's were influenced by ragtime, but the second generation were exclusively blues players.

Some of the characteristics of boogie woogie are:
  • It was born in gin mills, lumber camps and rent parties.
  • There was not much subtlety to the music - poor to bad instruments and unschooled instrumentalists.
  • Volume was produced by physical strength.
  • Form was always a blues; songs had no real beginning or ending, much like African music.
  • Emphasis on rhythm rather than melody.
  • Return to breaks to create tension and to rest the left hand.
  • The left hand, which never varied, could have been an outgrowth of "stride" piano.
  • Boogie Woogie patterns were personalized much like the field hollers and hawking cries.
  • The left hand ostinato (a repeated figure) served as a forerunner of rhythm and blues.
  • Unpianistic music.
  • Percussive and rugged.
  • Uneven and unpredictable.

In recent years, there has appeared a lot of pretentious nonsense about the unconventional length of the "conventional 12 bar blues." Those who rave about this unusual folk pattern would have a tough time explaining Clarence's peculiar phrase and period lengths. In his version of "Pinetop's Boogie," his first three choruses are respectively eleven, ten, and twelve measures in length. In the latter part of the piece, Clarence favors a fourteen bar construction, with a final chorus of 14 1/2 for good measure! Odd phrase lengths were likewise in his previous solo art recording of "Streamline Train" and "Had A Dream," as well as "I Don't Know" (in which pairs of 19 and 20 bar choruses are followed by one of 19 1/2). Quite evidently, Clarence did not set out either to make his music screwy, or mathematically complicated; he just played the notes to express what he felt, and couldn't be bothered to count out the number of beats. After all, Clarence did not even regard himself as a pianist, but simply as a singing entertainer who made good money in his day. "Man I've made as much as $3.00 a night," he has said.
  • Eight-eighth notes to the bar or at least an eighth note feeling.
  • Use of octaves, trills, etc.
  • A two voiced music.
  • Rhythm and color were more important than chords.
  • Right hand embroidered and supplied filigree
  • Blues scale with chromaticism.
  • Many other melodies transformed to boogies. (i.e., "Bumble Bee Boogie," "Begin the Beguine Boogie," "Chopstick Boogie").
"The piano was one of the last instruments to be mastered by the Negro performers, and it was not until the advent of boogie woogie that Negro musicians succeeded in creating a piano music that was within the emotional tradition of Negro music." (LeRoi Jones, Blues People, p. 90)

The music declined because of commercial limitations and refinements on the one hand, and on the other, when it got too far from the environment that spawned it. It is axiomatic that refinement and elaboration in any art are accompanied by a corresponding decline in vitality, ruggedness, spirited abandon, ingeniousness and intensity of expression.

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