Boogie Woogie Stomp:
Albert Ammons and his Music
by Christopher Page Cleveland
Northeast Ohio Jazz Society
1997. 282 pp.
Reviewed by David Simpson
According to the great African-American novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, the phrase "boogie woogie" began life as a black slang term for secondary syphillis. It was something you risked by visiting a boogie joint, or whorehouse, where "to boogie" meant "to copulate." Just how the expression became the name for a jazz piano-playing style is unclear— though it may have something to do with jazz’s supposed origins in a New Orleans bordello.
Whatever its original meaning, "boogie woogie" eventually became the technical term for a distinctive style of piano jazz: a blues-based style with the left hand delivering a sturdy bass figure concocted of eighth notes ("eight to the bar") while the right hand wanders off in search of elegant variations. With its hard-driving bass line, this style is immediately recognizable even to non-specialists, and for a period (late 30's to mid 40's) boogie woogie was arguably the most popular piano style in the country, with charms delighting both the sophisticated jazz buff and the casual listener.
The boogie style was popularly associated with a number of South Side artists, including Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson, and the legendary Clarence "Pinetop" Smith. But according to author Christopher Page its pre-eminent practitioner was Smith’s disciple—and Lewis and Johnson’s pal and soulmate—Chicagoan Albert Ammons. In a new biography and critical appreciation, Page argues that it was Ammons who effectively perfected the boogie idiom, raising it to sparkling new levels of grace, power, and versatility.
"Boogie Woogie Stomp: Albert Ammons and his Music" is an absorbing and unusual book. Its unusualness stems largely from the fact that the author is neither a musicologist, a professional musician, a professional critic, or a jazz historian. He is instead, in the proper sense of the word, an amateur—i.e., a "lover" rather than a specialist. Page fell in love with Ammons’s music at the age of twelve and has been a devoted fan and secret protégé (he is an avid boogie-woogie pianist himself) ever since. As a result, his book is from the first and throughout a labor of love, written with a true lover’s tact, passion, obsessiveness, and curiosity.
Page’s book is also unusual in that it was produced not by a regular publishing house but by the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society. Like the Jazz Institute of Chicago, the NOJS is an organization dedicated to jazz promotion, preservation, programming, and education. "Boogie Woogie Stomp" is only its second book-publishing venture, and in this case the organization has done itself proud.
The book is solidly bound with bright glossy pages and an abundance of beautifully reproduced photographs, many in full color. Typography and page design are generally excellent and eye-grabbing, though the text format (leaded almost to the point of producing a double-spaced effect) creates a lapidary appearance that slows down natural reading speed. In effect, this makes the volume seem more like a skim-and-look album of memorabilia or a coffee-table book than a smooth-flowing historical narrative. The lack of an index is the only other design flaw in an otherwise stylish publication that includes copious illustrations, a bibliography, and a complete discography.
Interestingly, for all its high-quality production values, "Boogie Woogie Stomp" didn’t start out as a major project. Instead, Page’s original purpose, he declares in his preface, was simply, "...to improve my piano playing in Albert Ammon’s style: [I] thought that getting to know the man, his personality, and his views, would help me further my understanding of his music."
Little did he suspect that his search for improved technique—for that glimmer of insight that might give him an edge as an Ammons imitator—would lead to a five-year research enterprise and enough material for a biographical and critical study. Such are the rewards, and tribulations, of true love.
Jazz lovers should be grateful for Page’s efforts. His diligence and devotion will undoubtedly help place a once celebrated, now seemingly forgotten master of jazz back in the public spotlight. I confess that before I read "Boogie Woogie Stomp" the name of Albert Ammons had no special meaning for me. I knew he was a jazz pianist and the father of tenor star Gene Ammons, but I had no idea that he had been a stylist of wide influence and international acclaim. Kudos, then, to Page (and to the NOJS) for honoring his memory and illuminating his career.
It’s possible that this book will also revive interest in Ammons’s music. As I write this review, I’m listening to an Ammons CD along with some contemporary (1939) recordings by Count Basie and Teddy Wilson. As is often the case among first-rate artists, the influence seems to flow both ways: I can detect a firm underpinning of left-hand rhythms (seemingly straight out of South Side blues and boogie) in the light swing of Basie and Wilson and a feathery righthand (characteristic of Wilson and Basie) counterpointing the basic boogie patterns in Ammons.
Whether this analysis is correct or not—i.e., whether Basie, Wilson, and Ammons really did influence one another—is not important. The point is, exposure to Ammons can make anyone a more alert, more technically aware listener. To know his style is to understand everyone who came after him a little better, which is one of the hallmarks of a classic.
The only criticism I have of "Boogie Woogie Stomp" is that the book gets off to a painfully slow start. The opening chapters are devoted to genealogies and family history and end up generating about as much excitement as the comparable passages in Genesis ("...And Jared lived a hundred sixty and two years and begat Enoch,..." who begat Methuselah, who begat Lamech, and so on.) This information should probably have been placed in an endnote or appendix, allowing the far more engaging material on Ammons’s early career to come to the fore.
A hard critic might also pan Page’s habit of injecting personal anecdotes and stories relating to his experiences while doing research for the book into his narrative. But I think most readers will find this practice more endearing than annoying. After all, Page makes it clear from the outset that his purpose was never to produce a warts-and-all critical biography or a dispassionate scholarly opus, but instead he describes his effort from the very beginning as a kind of "pilgrimage."
In short, this long-overdue chronicle of a master pianist is the product of a four-decade-long love affair and the journalistic record of a personal quest. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, an additional meaning of boogie woogie is "to enjoy something to the fullest," i.e., to give a project or activity everything you’ve got. In this sense (still in popular use among jazz musicians) Page and his publisher have produced a fitting tribute to the all-time monarch of boogie woogie jazz.