Boogie woogie master Albert Ammons taught himself to play using his mother’s player piano. He’d put on a piano roll, slow the mechanism way down, then place his fingers on the keys as they played. He said he learned chords by marking the keys with pencil.
Ammons was childhood friends with another boogie woogie master, Meade Lux Lewis. They grew up together in the early ’20s on the South Side of Chicago, and for a while lived in the same apartment building as Clarence “Pinetop” Smith, the most influential of the first generation of boogie woogie pianists.
Debuting on stage at Carnegie Hall for John Hammond’s 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert, Ammons and Lewis were the big hit of the night, playing with another boogie woogie master, Pete Johnson. By January 1939 the trio of Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson had “arrived” on the New York celebrity scene. Appearing with the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman, on his Camel Caravan radio broadcast sealed the deal.
Playing barrelhouse boogie at Café Society, the trio sparked a boogie woogie craze that swept the country in the late 1930s. Throughout the years of World War II, boogie woogie saturated pop music with hits like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” by the Andrews Sisters. Every swing orchestra from Count Basie to Woody Hermann had at least one boogie woogie number in their play list.
The hot blues piano style known as boogie woogie was around long before it became a national fad in the 1940s. In the early 1900s “juke joint” piano players in the logging camps of east Texas were expected to be one-man dance bands. The irresistible beat and characteristic rolling bass line they used to get loggers dancing poured out of the piney woods over to the Gulf Coast and on up to Chicago.
This week Riverwalk Jazz celebrates the rocking rhythms of Albert Ammons and his partnership with Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson. Frequent guest artist Dick Hyman teams up with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band and former band member pianist John Sheridan, for an evening of classics of the boogie woogie piano genre.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: Albert Ammons & Meade Lux Lewis Rent Party. Photo by William Russell from Boogie Woogie Stomp, Albert Ammons & His Music by Christopher Page
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2011