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What was "boogie-woogie" music, and how did Albert Ammons influence this genre?

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Boogie-woogie is a style of piano-heavy jazz whose origins date to the early 1930s.  Boogie-woogie enjoyed wide popularity throughout the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps because it actively involved the audience, getting them up on their feet and dancing to its contagious rhythms.  For example, here is an excerpt from an early boogie-woogie hit tune by blues pianist Clarence “Pinetop” Smith, called “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie”:

Now, when I tell you to hold yourself, don't you move a peg.

And when I tell you to get it, I want you to Boogie Woogie!

While Pinetop was popular, and others were as well: if you wanted to crown one person as the “king” of Boogie Woogie, that person would be pianist Albert Ammons. 

Ammons was born in Chicago, Illinois, on September 23, 1907.  His family was a musical one; both of this parents were pianists and Albert himself played well by the age of ten.  Albert didn’t stop at piano. By the time he was a teenager, he had mastered percussion and learned to play the bugle.  He began performing in the local club scene during his high school years.  In those venues, he was exposed to, and became interested in, the blues, primarily through influential people in his life like pianist Hersal Thomas. During these years,  Ammons developed the powerful piano style for which he would become well known.  Jazz and blues historian, Scott Yanow, (author of All Music Guide), calls Ammons “one of the big three of late-'30s boogie-woogie, along with Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis."

Of course, fame did not come immediately.  In the early 1920s, Ammons was a cab driver for the Silver Taxicab Company.  While picking up fares in Chicago, Ammons met another cabbie who also played piano, Meade Lux Lewis.  The two musicians hit it off and began playing together wherever they could find gigs.  Some of the places they played were called “house ‘kados.” These were underground establishments that served alcohol during prohibition.

House ‘kados could be dangerous gigs to accept, for they were frequently raided by the police.  In his book Jazzmen, William (“Bill”) Russell recalls that “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."  It seems that both Ammons and Lewis were good cabbies as well as sought-after musicians.  Their cab company eventually created a clubroom on the premises, so that the friends could be found when fares called for rides. 

In 1934, when Ammons was twenty-seven, he formed is own band at the Club de Lisa, where he remained for two years.  The band members were Guy Kelly, Dalbert Bright, Jimmy Hoskins, and Israel Crosby. In 1936, Ammons recorded “Albert Ammon’s Rhythm Kings” for the influential jazz label, Decca Records.  The gamble was a good one for Decca; the Rhythm King’s interpretation of “Swanee River Boogie” sold a million copies. 

Although he could have stayed in Chicago and enjoyed his success, Albert was ready for a new challenge and moved to New York City. Boogie-woogie was enjoying enormous popularity as the 1930s continued, and would continue, through the 1940s.  So popular was the style in general and Ammons in particular that he was invited to play at Carnegie Hall in 1938.  The program he appeared in was called “Spirituals to Swing,” an homage to the recently deceased “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith.

At Carnegie, Hammons took the opportunity to make a powerful political statement. He pointed out that the majority of the artists performing in the concert were forced to work menial jobs to make ends meet, and that most received very little compensation from the performance.  His frequent partner, Meade Lux Lewis, for example, continued to work in a garage and often made as little as nine dollars a week from his music. 

While Ammons assertion did not change anything for musicians at the Carnegie immediately, his words did garner much attentiton.  Jazz historian Colin Davey explains:  "Although this concert also included Count Basie, Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman ... and many other top jazz and blues performers of the period, the Boogie Woogie Trio, as they came to be called, stole the show. Almost instantly, they became international celebrities."  The attention brought more work to Ammons personally as well.  He worked with trumpeter Harry James and the two recorded for the Library of Congress.

Of all Ammons’ accomplishments, perhaps his most enduring is the label he help found, Blue Note records, a name that is now synonymous with jazz.  Ammons continued to play for many years, although in 1941, a freak accident with a kitchen knife sidelined him for a couple of years (while making a sandwich, Ammons accidentally cut the top of one of his fingers, and then suffered paralysis in both hands for some time). 

The boogie-woogie craze was dying out by 1945, but Ammons had no trouble still booking gigs.  He toured as a solo artist and recorded for Mercury records.  He was so successful that he was asked to perform for the Presidential Inauguration of Harry S Truman in 1949. 

Albert Ammons died suddenly following a performance in 1949 at age 42.  The exact cause of his death was never determined.

Source: Contemporary Musicians, ©2006 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved. 

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“Boogie-Woogie,” generally associated with the piano, wasn’t the sole form of blues or jazz inspired by ragtime, but it was arguably the most direct descendant of the compositions and style of Scott Joplin.  While usually categorized as a form of the blues, however, boogie-woogie is considerably more upbeat in mood.  What sets it apart is the division of hands that goes into its performance, with the right hand engaging in improvisatory movements while the left hand maintains a constant beat.  As it evolved during the early half of the 20th Century, it became more associated with “swing.” 

Albert Ammons (1907-1949) was considered one of the fathers of boogie-woogie, and became one of its best-known practitioners, many of whose recordings remain available, including on YouTube.  Performing primarily in his native Chicago, with a period in New York where he collaborated with Pete Johnson, Ammons was a gifted pianist whose up-tempo style detracted from the nature of the blues but succeeded in establishing its own genre of music.  In fact, so up-tempo was his piano playing that his style was given another moniker not traditionally associated with the blues: stomp.  So popular and respected did Ammons become, that he was given the privilege of performing the first recording for the newly established jazz record label Blue Note.  He died at the age of 42.

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