Meade Lux Lewis
by Joel Simpson
The driving left-hand blues style known as boogie-woogie was probably invented around 1900 (Eubie Blake's broken octave, descending bassline in the "Charleston Rag" from 1899, is highly suggestive of a boogie pattern). It began to surface in saloons, honky-tonks, bawdy houses, and "barrelhouses" in the South and Midwest around 1912.
A barrelhouse was a rural dance hall in which the beer was served out of barrels. "Barrelhouse" became synonymous with boogie-woogie. Music was generally supplied by a single pianist on an instrument in a questionable state of repair. The strongest possible expression of rhythm was therefore necessary, and the boogie bass supplied it perfectly. Primitive, gutsy, driving, it could be heard above the noise of the crowd and would work, at least in some keys, if the piano was missing a few keys.
Boogie-woogie spread more rapidly in the black community in the 1920s, became a national fad from 1938 to about 1945, then rapidly faded from view. Yet it has remained a permanent favorite in the repertoire of most intermediate to advanced pianists, with some specialists still around. The first major popular recording artists to emerge from the field were Clarence "Pine Top" Smith (1904-1929) and Jimmy Yancey (1898-1951). The next generation of famous boogie players included Albert Ammons, Mead Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson (see also biographies of these others).
Meade Anderson Lewis was born September 4, 1905, in Chicago and died June 7, 1964 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in a car accident. He came from a musical family. He acquired the nickname "Lux" because as a child he would imitate the excessively polite comic strip characters Alphonse and Gaston, calling himself the Duke of Luxembourg.
His father, a Pullman car porter, insisted he play the violin as a child. At age 16, when his father died, Lewis switched to the piano after hearing local boogie-woogie pianist Jimmy Yancey. Lewis was entirely self-taught on piano. He was a boyhood friend of Albert Ammons. Together they studied the music of Jimmy Yancey and other Chicago blues pianists. They also drove taxis together around 1924.
In 1927, Lewis recorded "Honky Tonk Train Blues," a driving boogie based on the sounds of the trains that rumbled past his boyhood home on South La Salle Street in Chicago as many as a hundred times a day. The record was released 18 months later in 1929, but attracted little attention. The recording company, Paramount, went out of business, and the record became almost impossible to obtain. Lewis did various things to survive at the time, the beginning of the Depression: he dug ditches for the Works Progress Administration and he returned to taxicab driving.
In 1933, jazz promoter/producer and record collector John Hammond (heir to the Hammond organ fortune) obtained a beat up copy of Lewis's recording. He was so impressed with it that he embarked on a two-year search for the pianist. Hammond found Lewis in 1935, through Albert Ammons. Ammons was playing in Chicago's Club De Lisa, and he was the first person Hammond met who had ever heard of Lewis.
Hammond found Lewis washing cars in a Chicago garage. After a few days practice, Lewis got "Honky Tonk Train Blues" back up to speed, and Hammond arranged a recording session to re-record it. The following year Hammond recorded Lewis's other classic, "Yancey Special" and booked him in a concert in New York. Following the concert, Lewis performed at Nick's in Greenwich Village for six weeks, then returned to Chicago and applied for relief as an unemployed car washer.
Then, in 1938, Hammond invited Lewis back to New York to perform in his legendary Carnegie Hall concert From Spirituals to Swing, along with boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. The performance was an enormous hit, setting off a minor riot among the fans and spawning a flood of boogie-woogie imitators. The boogie-woogie craze was on. The three pianists got together with blues singer Joe Turner and held down a long-term engagement at the Cafe Society Downtown.
Lewis had the most pianistically complex style of the three major boogie pianists. He had a vast repertoire of bass patterns and right hand riffs and figures. He was more intense and quicker than his mentor Jimmy Yancey, and he frequently varied his left hand by going into stride. He had a fertile musical imagination and technique to match.
He could keep a single boogie going for 20 or 30 minutes by careful use of his material: each chorus would be based on a single technical idea, which he would conclude with an unexpected twist. He used the whole range of the piano. Sometimes choruses would be linked developmentally and sometimes by dramatic contrast. He utilized dynamic variety and cross-rhythms much more than the other boogie pianists.
Lewis was an excellent whistler and could whistle the blues with the ease of a trumpet-like style. He recorded "Whistlin' Blues" in 1937. He also recorded blues played on the celeste and the harpsichord.
After the Peak
In 1941 Lewis moved to Los Angeles, where most of his appearances were relatively low-paying solo gigs. He made a number of short films in 1944, and appeared with Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film NEW ORLEANS. He made frequent appearances on television during its early years.
In 1952, along with Pete Johnson, Erroll Garner and Art Tatum he did a series of concerts on a US tour entitled "Piano Parade." In his later years he became frustrated at being identified purely as a boogie-woogie pianist and his playing was frequently rushed and perfunctory.
Lewis's weight hovered around 290 pounds until he underwent medical treatments, gave up alcohol and restricted his diet. He died in a car accident June 6, 1964, in Minneapolis after a performance. Rear-ended at 80 miles per hour, his car was thrown into a tree, and he was crushed to death. The driver of the other car was seriously injured but survived.
Carles, Philippe, Andre Clergeat and Jean-Louis Comolli. Dictionnaire du Jazz. Paris: Editions Robert Lafont, 1988.
Kernfeld, Barry. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988, rpt. 1996.
"Meade Lux Lewis: A Blues Man's Story." Down Beat, February 19, 1959, 16-17. Ramsey, Frederick, Jr. and Charles Edward Smith.
Jazzmen. 1939; rpt. New York: Limelight Editions, 1985. "Boogie Woogie" by William Russell, 183-205.
This biography appears in DICK HYMAN'S CENTURY OF JAZZ PIANO CD-ROM, a multi-media reference work on jazz piano. Dick Hyman plays "Honky Tonk Train Blues" and "Yancey Special" by Lewis among the 103 tunes he performs to cover the entire history of jazz piano. The program also includes extensive documentation, 30 minutes of historical videos, 90 min. of lesson videos, photos and stunning graphics taking the user on a virtual jazz club tour through time. Recommended by Billy Taylor, Scott Yanow, JAZZ TIMES, PIANO TODAY, and THE NEW YORK TIMES, among others. It can be ordered at 800-557-7894. Check out the website demo at www.jssmusic.com.
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