From Ammons to Zwingenberger: 

A Brief History of Boogie Woogie Piano

Why is it that the classic boogie woogie style of piano playing has maintained its popularity over decades, despite the enormous and varied competition it faces from today's modern media?

To find an answer to this question, all you have to do is find a venue where real boogie woogie music is played, and go there. Boogie woogie is a twelve-bar cure when you're feeling blue. Listeners have no choice but to submit to its mood-enhancing power. Even the most reserved audience will start tapping their feet by the time the first chorus has ended. In comparison, a real boogie fan will start cheering like a madman the moment he sees the pianist walk onstage. Audience participation is all part of the performance. You don't have to wait till the end of a piece if you feel like clapping, whistling or generally expressing your approval. No other kind of piano music is so infectious. The boogie mood is a unique mixture of swing, blues, power and freshness. It is highly rhythmic with a strong drive and sharp accentuations, occasionally dreamy or melancholic but never sentimental or kitsch.

The internet contains a wealth of discussions and articles on the subject of boogie woogie. The interested reader will find there all manor of angles, from musicological appreciations and background essays to spectacular biographies of former car cleaners, plate washers and taxi drivers, whose lifestyles were turbulent and unhealthy, who made absolutely no concession to convention and, sadly, often died far too young.

A twelve-bar cure for the blues

The Roots of Boogie Woogie: Its Socio-Cultural and Musical Origins

The roots of boogie woogie are a world away from the common, romanticised image of black slaves leisurely making their way across the white cotton fields, singing blues and gospel tunes as they sway in time.
Boogie woogie's origins have just as little to do with all-night barrelhouse piano sessions down at the bar, with a relaxed atmosphere and dapper, happy and peaceful listeners.

In its original form, boogie woogie was someone playing the piano as if it were a set of drums, fighting to make itself heard above the cacophonic din of poker and prostitution, knife-attacks and murder.

At this point, Carnegie Hall and boogie on three pianos was still a long way off. Pinetop Smith, Ammons, Lewis et al, were still in diapers when these first, anonymous pianists were knocking hell out of their simple pianos.

Texas, USA, circa 1900: the age of the railroad. More than anything else, the huge dark mechanical monsters that emit rhythmic roars and shrill whistles need one thing: wood. Wood for heating, wood for the rails, and wood for bridges. And wood is what the east of Texas has plenty of. Indeed, large areas of the state are covered with huge pine forests. Pines which supply not only wood but also the resin from which turpentine is made. Turpentine is obtained by tapping the trees and collecting the resin in barrels, which are then stored in so-called barrelhouses. The work is tough – the trees are still being felled by hand, cut into sections and towed by horse or ox to the nearest railway station. Although slavery was officially abolished in 1865, the white landowners of the southern states have developed a sophisticated legal system, known as black codes, which allows them to continue employing black workers as indentured labourers, in what amounts to just another cruel form of slavery. Ninety nine percent of the work in the logging and turpentine camps is done by black workers, watched over by white overseers. The only time off is at night and at the weekend. "Turpentiners" are regarded as scum. It is quite common for the camps to witness as many as two or three murders each weekend. Gambling, prostitution, stabbings and excessive drinking are the order of the day in the barrelhouses, which have been temporarily converted into rudimentary bars, where the people can forget the tribulations of the working week. And then there is the music. Self-taught black pianists riding the railroad from camp to camp, playing eight hours of piano for a pittance, considering themselves lucky to get through the night unscathed by the knives and the bullets – that's what boogie woogie is!

Impressions of the early days of boogie woogie:
The Blues Explained

The Start of the Beginning

The gradual spread of boogie woogie away from these fabled barrelhouses into the urbane north was to take the form as far from its origins geographically as it did musically. The historical "documentation" of this period is often no more than a collection of hypotheses and traditional tales. The standard method of communicating the music, in the absence of recording systems and musical manuscripts, was simply to pass it on from one musician to the other.

An article from a music history discussion explains the spread of boogie from Texas to Chicago as follows:

"Dr. John Tennison of San Antonio, founder of the Boogie Woogie Foundation, believes brothers Hersal and George W. Thomas were responsible for bringing the Boogie Woogie style from such barrelhouses in East Texas to Houston, and then to New Orleans and Chicago.
In Texas, the term 'Booger Rooger' was used by blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson as early as 1917-18. However, the earliest evidence of 'Boogie Woogie' as a descriptor of piano music was in the 1923 reprinting of George Thomas' 'New Orleans Hop Scop Blues', in which Clarence Williams wrote that while Boogie Woogie originated in Texas, it wasn’t called that until after George Thomas heard it, further developed the style, and first published 'New Orleans Hop Scop Blues' in 1916." (Bob Bowman: "How Boogie Woogie began": TexasEscapes.Com, Dec. 2005).

Pioneers: The First Generation of Pianists

Among those pianists to demonstrate to the city musicians how to play real southern-style boogie woogie were the Thomas family, who were the first to bring the style out of Texas and into Chicago. They were two brothers, Gorge Thomas and Hersal Thomas, and their sister, Sippie Wallace. It was above all the prodigious Hersal Thomas who went down in boogie woogie history, when in 1924, at the age of 14, he recorded a piano roll of a groundbreaking piece of music called The Fives (piano rolls for use in electrically operated pianos were commonplace at the time). The Fives is significant for being the earliest boogie woogie piece whose subject matter depicted the motion of the train on the track. Many variations on the train theme would follow as boogie woogie developed (e.g. Honky Tonk Train Blues by Lux Lewis).

This promising young musician, who was celebrated in Chicago as the "King of House Rent Boogie Parties" was to die of food poisoning at the age of 18, under circumstances that were never completely investigated. His sister, Sippie Wallace, went on to become one of the best-known female blues singers in history, also achieving fame in Germany through her association with Axel Zwingenberger, who dedicated his Blues for Sippie Wallace to her. She reached a ripe old age, and passed away in 1986, at the age of 88.

Lem Fowler (1900-1960) was another pianist who helped to shape the form in its formative years. Known as the "mystery figure in jazz history", he recorded a total of 23 piano rolls.

The original form of mature, popular boogie woogie can be described as an amalgamation of ragtime and blues. Its typical features are the twelve-bar blues form, in which the left hand plays a fixed bass figure and the right hand picks out the melody.

It would be correct to say that it was the first generation of pianists, musicians such as Cow Cow Davenport, Clarence Pinetop Smith, Jimmy Yancey, Jimmy Blythe, Montana Taylor, and Cripple Clarence Lofton, who first combined ragtime und blues, to lay the foundations of what would become classic boogie woogie piano.

One of the first boogie woogie pianists to achieve fame with his own music was Charles Edward Davenport (1894-1956). Even at the age of 12, it was his wish to become a musician, but his family had other plans. He was sent to a religious seminary to become a priest, but he was soon thrown out for playing ragtime music on the seminary piano. His first claim to fame followed in the 1920s, when he accompanied blues singers such as Dora Carr and Ivy Smith. His tune Cow Cow Blues, in which he imitated a train with his piano, gave rise to his nickname, Cow Cow, which went on to become one of the most frequently played boogie tunes of all time. His career was brought to a halt in the 1930s when he suffered a stroke and hit hard times following the Wall Street crash. He even had to earn a living as a plate washer for a time, until he was finally rediscovered and reinstated by the jazz pianist, Art Hodes. Davenport was a prolific songwriter, but like so many others, he gave away the publication rights to his songs for a nominal fee. He never received a cent of the considerable royalties that were collected for his popular hits.

What was the main topic on everybody's lips in 1930's Chicago (apart from the Depression of course)? It was, of course, the prohibition, which went on from 1919 until 1932. Although in itself an unpleasant fact of life, one of its positive effects was to advance the popularity of boogie woogie music. While the prohibition reigned throughout the United States, in Chicago, one of the country's biggest boogie and blues centres, not only was the consumption of self-distilled and smuggled alcoholic beverages rife down at the speakeasies and house or rent parties, the whole scene was played out against a backdrop of driving piano boogie. It was at one of these parties that a self-taught player from Alabama, Clarence Pinetop Smith (1904-1929), played his Pinetop's Boogie for the first time. His tune was based on the piece Jimmy's Blues, published in 1925, and written by Jimmy Blythe (1901-1931), one of the most influential boogie pianists, who died of meningitis at the age of 30. It was Davenport who had strongly recommended that Pinetop move from Pittsburgh, where he was working with the singer Ma Rainey, who was known as the "Mother of the Blues", to Chicago.
The pianist of whom no photograph exists became a legend for being the first musician to officially release a gramophone record of boogie woogie music, entitled Pinetop's Boogie Woogie, recorded five months after Cow Cow Blues. Over a period of three weeks, he recorded a total of eight pieces, before the label finally approved Pinetop's Boogie Woogie for release on December 29, 1928.
Even without this, his name would still have been legendary, because it was at the age of 24 that he was shot and killed in an exchange of bullets in which he was not involved – the day before he was due to return to the studio to record his second session. It is clear that such stories create legends, and the majority of boogie woogie pianists in the generations that followed would have their own "Pinetop's Boogie" in their repertoires.

Jimmy Yancey (1898-1951), was born in Chicago, and is one of the outstanding figures of boogie woogie history. Although he was the idol of such stars as Ammons, Lewis and Johnson, he himself had never sat at a real stage piano. He preferred to play privately, with friends. The members of Chicago's boogie woogie scene would congregate at his home, among them Albert Ammons and Lux Lewis. It took the public relations activities of this duo to direct music producers' attention in his direction, until finally, the musician recorded Yancey Stomp in 1939. One of the greatest events in the life of this musician, who would have preferred never to leave the city limits of Chicago, was when he travelled to Europe, and performed for the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace. Yancey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the 1980s.

YouTube -  Boogie Woogie History Part II

The most eccentric entertainer personality of the Chicago boogie and blues scene was most certainly "Cripple" Clarence Lofton (1896 -1957). His audiences loved his undisciplined playing style and powerful stage presence. He sang with wonderfully expressive facial expressions, clicked his fingers like a Spanish dancer as he played, moving in the blink of an eye from the piano to the drums, and even shining as a tap dancer – despite the fact that he walked with a limp. He often began playing a new chorus before he had finished playing the old one. He sometimes reduced the number of bars in his tunes from the standard 12 to 9, 10 or even 11.5  (e.g. in I Don’t Know). His most famous pieces are Strut That Thing, Monkey Man Blues, I Don't Know and Pitchin' Boogie.

Excursus:  Boogie Woogie Pianists and House or Rent Parties

It was around this time that boogie woogie pianists achieved a certain social status. They were often invited to play at parties, where specialities like chitlin, boiled okra, fried fish and egg punch were served. Their services were highly in demand, and they were able to attend such parties, which usually required guests to pay an entrance fee, for free.
The father of stride piano, James P. Johnson told the story, "if you could play good piano, you got passed around from one party to another, and everybody made a fuss of you, and fed you ice cream, cake, food and drink. Indeed, some of the best talents we had around were also the best eaters. The parties would go on all night, and you would start to play at around one in the morning. At around four o'clock you would get your second meal. Many of us came to suffer from food and drink related ailments later on that came from our younger days spent partying (from LeRoi Jones: "Blues People", p. 156)

Even Pinetop Smith tells the following story in his song "I'm Sober Now":

"I don't mind playin' anytime y'all can get me drunk,
But Mr. Pinetop is sober now.
I been playing the piano round here all night long
And y'all ain't bought the first drink somehow"

Boogie Piano and the Great Depression

Before boogie piano reached the high point of its development in the second half of the 1930s, the economic crash ushered in a period of unemployment and meagre earnings, which also affected the boogie pianists.
The Great Depression began with the Wall Street Crash on October 29, 1929 (Black Tuesday) and continued well into the mid-1930s. Many factories and offices were forced to close and 15 million people became unemployed. Average wages fell by 60% and sidewalks were lined with people queuing up for work or food. The music industry was also shaken by the events, and many nightclubs, jazz cellars and cabaret halls were forced to close or release their artists. The record industry was all but destroyed with a single blow. The majority of musicians, in particular the African-Americans, now had to work in poorly paid jobs, to be able to feed themselves and their families. One musician who shared this fate was Meade Lux Lewis:
"Meade Lux Lewis found great difficulty in obtaining work as a pianist and spent some time on relief working on a Works Progress Administration (WPA) shovel gang. These government projects gave work to the millions of unemployed and involved them in laboring or construction work on community-service or public-service projects. Lewis also worked on relief washing cars." (P. Silvester: “A Left Hand like God: A Study of Boogie Woogie”, p. 95).

The Golden Years:  Carnegie Hall and Cafe Society

The golden age of boogie piano came about when the music industry finally shook off the great economic crisis in the mid-1930s. But it was also the activities of the talent scout, John Hammond (1910-1987), that played a major role in the recovery of music.
John Hammond was not only rich but he had also enjoyed a good level of musical training. His family expected him to undergo formal training in classical music. But ever since he was a young boy, he had always been interested in the music that the black servants who worked in his family home used to listen to. Eventually, he dropped his studies of the viola at Yale University and became a music promoter, record producer, and oft-feared music critic.

It was down to his efforts that boogie woogie become socially acceptable. In December 1938 and into 1939, he organised the legendary From Spirituals to Swing concerts, which showcased the developments taking place in Afro-American jazz music. According to legend, after one particular concert, the venue's security men had to ask ecstatic fans to make their way back down from the chandeliers!
Another factor that created boogie fever was the establishment of the Cafe Society night club in New York by former shoe salesman, Barney Josephson. Infuriated by the racial segregation which was still in force in the music clubs, he opened his club in Greenwich Village in 1938, followed by a second mixed-race club in 1940, both of which were aimed at artists and audience. The motto was "The right place for the wrong people". Again, John Hammond provided important assistance and financial support when times became hard. The Cafe Society soon became a meeting place for intellectuals, but it was gradually destroyed by an extremely negative press campaign during the McCarthy era, culminating in its ultimate closure in 1950.
The three greatest musicians in the next generation of pianists performed both in Carnegie Hall and in the Cafe Society:  Albert Ammons,  Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson. They developed such a level of technical perfection and musical refinement, that they became the most famous pianists of their time.

The Great Trio: Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson

Boogie Woogie History: Albert Ammons, "Lux" Lewis, Pete Johnson

Albert Ammons, born in 1907 in Chicago, died in 1949 in Chicago aged 42.

Made Lux Lewis, born in 1905 in Chicago, died in 1964 in Minneapolis in a car accident.

Pete Johnson, born in 1904  in Kansas City, died in 1967 in Buffalo.

The musical friendship between Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis came about through their employment at the Silver Taxicab Company in Chicago. Around 1925, they were both working there – as were other pianists – but these two would regularly disappear together to play the piano, whenever the opportunity presented itself. At a loss as to how to control them, the boss of the company finally put up a piano in the office of the taxi headquarters, so that he could keep his "boys" ready for work. At this time, Ammons and Lewis lived together with Pinetop Smith (who gave Lewis piano lessons) in the same tenement. Since Ammons was the only one who actually had a piano, his apartment became the preferred meeting point for their regular boogie sessions.
As early as 1927, Lewis recorded "Honky Tonk Train Blues" for Paramount: the tune was an echo from his childhood, since he heard it when he was growing up near the local railway freight station. However, America, which was in the throes of the Depression, was not ready to embrace that kind of music.

You Tube:
Honky Tonk Train Blues

The third great boogie pianist did not hail from Chicago. Pete Johnson was from Kansas City, and since he originally played the drums, he didn't start playing the piano until he was 18. But this did not stop him from becoming a virtuoso boogie player and an esteemed all-round jazz pianist. Johnson composed Dive Bomber, one of the most complex boogie pieces ever written.

Dive Bomber

By the late 1920s, he was already working with the singer, Big Joe Turner (1911-1985). In 1978, Axel Zwingenberger resumed the project when he produced the album Let's Boogie Woogie All Night Long, together with Big Joe Turner. The album won the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis awarded by the German Phono Akademie.

Big Joe Turner
Quote from Big Joe Turner: "We was doin' rock and roll before anyone ever heard of it."

Ammons, Lewis and Johnson enjoyed their greatest success in the second half of the 1930s, once the Great Depression had subsided.

Lewis was washing cars until 1935 to supplement his meagre earnings. It was only when the promoter John Hammond personally took him under his wing and brought him to New York that he finally achieved his breakthrough. In 1935, he made a new recording of Honky Tonk Train Blues. In 1934, Ammons formed his own band, the Rhythm Kings, with whom he recorded the famed Boogie Woogie Stomp in 1936.

Boogie Woogie Stomp 2

In December 1938, Ammons, Lewis and Johnson appeared with Big Joe Turner in one of the groundbreaking From Spirituals to Swing concerts in Carnegie Hall. The golden age of boogie had begun, and a veritable boogie woogie fever could be felt everywhere. In the years that followed, the three self-taught master pianists were finally able to establish themselves firmly, both financially and musically, and they regularly recorded in solo, duo and trio formations. They formed the Boogie Woogie Trio in New York, quickly advancing to the house band at the Cafe Society. In the 1940s, Johnson and Ammons performed regularly as a piano duo. To this day, their perfect interplay is still regarded as the reference point for all boogie woogie piano duos.

Boogie Woogie Dream Albert Ammons & Pete Johnson

Ammons was described by his contemporaries as a fun-loving man. He also played with Benny Goodman, Harry James and Lionel Hampton in the 1940s. Just before his death, he even performed at the inauguration of the US president, Harry S. Truman. To mark what would have been his 100th birthday, Axel Zwingenberger gave several performances together with his granddaughter, Lila Ammons. His son, Gene Ammons, was also a famous tenor saxophone player.

Johnson lost a finger in an accident in 1952, which brought his career to an abrupt end. Despite his regular income during the golden years, he spent the last years of his life in relative poverty. In 1965, a German jazz fan by the name of Hans Maurer published "The Pete Johnson Story", in a bid to raise money for the musician. The book is now a collector's item and it can now only be found at very few booksellers around the world, at a correspondingly high price. Johnson died in 1967.

Here is an extract from the book:
"My Man...Pete Johnson"


To be continued shortly!


Hans Maurer: The Pete Johnson Story, 1965

Christopher Page: Boogie Woogie Stomp: Albert Ammons & his Music. Cleveland: NE Ohio Jazz Soc., 1997

Peter Silvester: A Left Hand like God: a history of boogie woogie piano, 1989 (the "bible" for boogie historians)

John Tennison:
History of Boogie Woogie, 2007
(currently only available in the internet); John Tennison is the founder of The Boogie Woogie Foundation -    

Selection of boogie woogie articles in the internet:
Boogie Woogie Articles