13 May 2015


Today I am publishing this article which has been e-mailed to me by Chris Reilley. Chris is a traditional jazz pianist and boogie-woogie enthusiast from the English Midlands.
Playing Boogie Woogie

Before I start with the main work on this subject I would like to pay tribute to a very sadly-missed, long-standing and great friend of mine, Don Case, who died on the 25th August, 2013.
Don and I knew each other as school friends and from about 1950 played jazz together, firstly on the piano playing boogie-woogie and after that traditional jazz in a small band with Don playing trumpet whilst I played clarinet (and later still trombone).

He continued playing piano up until his death, composing most of his own tunes, continually advancing his style, but still maintaining a link to blues and boogie-woogie.

Although a fairly shy musician, Don did make the occasional public performance which was usually very well received. However I am the only person that I know of who recorded his playing which at some point in the future I hope to publish.

His work in this music has to be heard to be appreciated, but I personally rate him as one of the best English boogie-woogie musicians who have lived in the UK.

Among the most interesting things that Don did was to compose some tunes in non-standard keys. For example he would compose some boogie-woogie tunes in the keys of A, E and D Major and Minor as well as the more common keys of C, F and G. I think he decided to do this for the common reason that he found it easier to sing in those keys.

I, personally, found it difficult enough to play in the more common keys with some of the repetitive left-hand boogie patterns being required to be played throughout any tune, never mind playing in those other keys.

Don and I had many a long hour playing duets and playing each other's solo pieces, bouncing ideas off each other. One major benefit for me was to hone my ability to listen to what was being played at the same time as adding to it to get a great combined sound.

I miss Don very much.

Boogie-woogie has a long history dating back to the 1870's and the days when African Americans used to entertain themselves making basic instruments, playing and singing music. Derived from the standard 8 or 12-Bar Blues Pattern, it has been suggested that it started with piano playing in the lumber and turpentine camps where there was usually a piano available. However, as can be heard from many a well-known guitar blues player, a similar style was being used on that instrument at the same time. Who influenced who, is open to debate.

To play boogie-woogie well has the same demands as for playing any instrument – practice, practice and more practice! It is also very useful to learn all the correct fingering positions, the scales, arpeggios (as taught by piano teachers) and boogie patterns. Added to this it is absolutely imperative to maintain a steady rhythm, unless there is an intended change made which can be heard as being 'intended'.

One common error in my view is for the pianist to play too quickly. The early boogie-woogie piano players would make the tune 'swing' even at a 'walking pace'.

In my quest to aid and try and improve my performance, many years ago I purchased both books shown below. 
I do not know if these are still available. If they are, the reader would no doubt benefit from obtaining a copy of each.

The book on Chord Charts illustrates the notes used for many different chord shapes in each of the 3 inversions. This can be helpful in working out riffs, leading notes and phrases for the right-hand improvisation.

Reading music for me was a bane so I had to get help. In the book on boogie-woogie there are 25 different bass patterns shown. However, I learned more listening to recorded music and copying the bits I liked. For example some the tunes of the Greats of recorded Boogie Woogie, like Clarence 'Pine Top' Smith, Mead Lux Lewis, Albert Ammonds, Pete Johnson, Jimmy Yancey, Mary Lou Williams, James P. Johnson and many more are worth studying (see the YouTube link examples below).

Once a steady bass rhythm is mastered, the player can then develop the right hand using the 12-bar Blues as a basis for tune, then improvisation on the chords. This can be a variety of Blues patterns ranging from 8 to 12 Bars or even 11 or 13 Bars. There are also many recordings of standard boogie-woogie accompaniment given to pop tunes of the day.

Using sheet music as an aid for playing most forms of jazz, but boogie-woogie in particular, shows up the deficiencies of the scored music, which is usually accepted to be only a 'guide' and is open to the performer's interpretation. This is (in my view) a very serious drawback for the novice who has to rely on the recordings which nowadays can be accessed from the internet as there are very few teachers around for this genre.

I was lucky enough in my early years of learning to play boogie-woogie to come across the books shown above and also sheet music for the Mead Lux Lewis's 'Honky Tonk Train Blues' and Clarence 'Pine Top' Smith's 'Jump Steady Blues' as shown below:-
Whilst the sheet music might be helpful for those that are experienced in reading music, I believe it cannot accurately represent the performance in at least one respect and that is rhythmically. For example, the way the bass is played not only at a constant tempo but also with a 'lilt' (a very slight deviance from the beat) and at the same time as syncopating both left and right hands.

Another problem is that in some cases (I think) the music transcriber has not interpreted the recording correctly. For example in 'Honky Tonk Train Blues' on Page 2, (shown above) the first two bar triplets are not the same as the notes played in the recording! There is no doubt in my mind that in some cases in order to represent a recording accurately, it would be necessary to score it with so many very small notes that it would be too difficult to read, but without the score written in this manner, it is impossible to show very minor deviations in both rhythm and note lengths.

Except for when the bass rhythm is used to play along with a pop tune, 'learning the tune' as performed by one of the Greats becomes a matter of playing the recorded piece 'note for note', which for most Jazz musicians defeats the object of improvisation.

To resolve this dilemma, many boogie-woogie players use common 'phrases' (or 'licks') copied from recorded versions of a tune around which the performers build their own improvisation. So that although each performance may be slightly different, there are parts which are recognisable as a known tune.

In the case of musicians such as Don Case he composed virtually all the tunes he played with each unique and skilfully worked out in practice.

One of the most common errors with playing boogie-woogie for the first time is that both left hand and right hand end up playing the same notes. To overcome this common error, it is important to experiment with rhythm and 'cross rhythm' in order to syncopate the right hand with the left.

To achieve this, I suggest that the performer needs to practise playing the left-hand bass passage on its own without looking at the keyboard and hum or whistle the improvisation you would like to play with the right hand.

Hopefully, eventually. the player should be able to add his improvisation using the right hand without referring to his left-hand bass.

In composing a tune, the player should also take into account several other features:-
  1. The Introduction
  2. The Ending
  3. Choice of Key
  4. Change of Key (not common in this style of Jazz)
  5. Breaks
  6. Vocal (if valued)
Again listening to the well-known recordings will help the player to hear how these features have been used in the past.

I suggest the following to listen to from the wide selection on YouTube:-

Among these of particular note is the very famous Honky Tonk Train Blues by Mead Lux Lewis, Boogie Woogie Dream duet with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson as well as Yancey Stomp by Jimmy Yancey.

This is My Boogie-Woogie –- Don Case

Albert Ammonds – Boogie-Woogie Stomp

Boogie-Woogie - Pete Johnson

Boogie Woogie Dream - Albert Ammons with Pete Johnson

Meade "Lux" Lewis - Honky Tonk Train Blues

Jimmy Yancey - Yancey Stomp – 1939

Jump Steady Blues – Clarence 'Pinetop' Smith 1930 

Mary's Boogie Woogie – Mary Lou Williams

Boogie Woogie Stride – James P. Johnson
I offer this information based on my experience only and if others choose to differ from this, I quite understand. I am open to any suggestions which could improve this article which can be addressed to either Ivan or myself (care of Ivan's Blog) .

Chris. Reilley
July 2015.