Exploring Jazz Standards

In his book “The Jazz Standards,” Ted Gioia, a well-known American author, jazz pianist, and music historian, stated that during his own journey of learning jazz, there existed a core set of 200 to 300 compositions that “served as the cornerstone” of the jazz repertoire. By emphasizing the importance of these compositions, Gioia underscores their pivotal role in shaping the evolution of jazz music over time. He explains that a jazz performer needed to learn these songs the same way a classical musician studied the works of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.

Jazz standards are musical compositions that have gained widespread recognition and have been performed and recorded by jazz musicians over the years. One defining characteristic of jazz standards is their harmonic structure. They often have a simple, memorable melody that is accompanied by a complex, sophisticated harmonic progression. These progressions provide ample opportunities for jazz musicians to improvise and explore different variations of the melody and harmony.

This article explores the captivating universe of jazz standards throughout the decades and presents a few classic examples for your listening pleasure. I’ll include a playlist as a reference so you can enjoy the songs while you read through the article.

1920s and Before

The origins of jazz standards can be traced back to the American songbook of the early 1900s when musicians primarily intended their music to be used for dancing. Musical traditions of New Orleans at the turn of the century included brass bands, blues, ragtime, and spirituals. Many of the popular jazz standards from that time were influenced by these styles. For instance, jazz musicians frequently play ragtime songs such as “Twelfth Street Rag” and “Tiger Rag,” as well as blues tunes like “St. Louis Blues” and “St. James Infirmary.”

Record companies also played a role in shaping the selection of songs recorded by jazz artists. Recording executives pushed certain songs that quickly achieved a “standard” status. As a result, early jazz groups like King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and others incorporated a significant number of Tin Pan Alley popular songs into their repertoire, these are songs written by a collective of songwriters and publishers based in New York City.

A timeless classic from this era is the American blues song and acclaimed standard, “St. James Infirmary Blues.” It’s a traditional American folkloric song with an uncertain origin. The song includes phrases from early blues recordings and has over 120 versions by various artists, with more than 20 versions of the lyrics. The versions by Louis Armstrong (1928), King Oliver (1930), Duke Ellington (1930), and Cab Calloway (1930) are among the most highly regarded. Various musicians continue to record the song, and my preferred versions are those by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Hugh Laurie.

Another noteworthy inclusion is the traditional psalm “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which may have originated in the Bahamas in the 19th century and was frequently played by brass bands in New Orleans during funeral processions. Many artists have recorded the song, but it was Louis Armstrong who truly popularized it with his 1938 recording. Other noteworthy versions include those by Bunk Johnson (1945) and Sidney Bechet (1949).

Additional recommended jazz standards:

TitleRecommended Version
King Porter StompJelly Roll Morton
Tea for TwoArt Tatum
Blue SkiesElla Fitzgerald
Basin Street BluesLouis Armstrong
Ain’t Misbehavin’Billie Holiday

1930s and 1940s

Swing jazz emerged as the predominant musical genre in America during the late 1920s and early 1930s, producing plenty of renowned swing-era hits that have since become jazz standards. Among the most significant contributors was Duke Ellington, who either composed or collaborated on over one thousand compositions, including “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)“, “Sophisticated Lady“, and “Caravan“,

Also, the Broadway theater produced some of the most popular standards that remain widely recognized today. Compositions such as George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime“, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “My Funny Valentine“, and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “All the Things You Are” continue to be among the most frequently recorded jazz standards.

In the early 1940s, Bebop was introduced with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk taking the lead. This form of jazz was more distinctive compared to earlier versions, as it appealed to a more specialized audience due to its complex harmonies, fast tempos, and virtuoso musicianship. Bebop musicians frequently included songs from Broadway musicals, particularly 1930s standards, in their repertoire.

Numerous bebop standards have gained widespread popularity over the years. For instance, “Salt Peanuts,” a scat/bebop composition by Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie, “Take the A Train” by Billy Strayhorn, which gained critical acclaim and became the signature tune of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, “Scrapple from the Apple” by Charlie Parker, which is an improvisation over the chord progression of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “‘‘Round Midnight” composed by Thelonious Monk and Cootie Williams, which Miles Davis later performed at the Newport Jazz in 1955.

Additional recommended jazz standards:

TitleRecommended Version
Body and SoulColeman Hawkins
All of MeBillie Holiday
Autumn in New YorkElla Fitzgerald
Blue MoonBillie Holiday
In a Sentimental MoodDuke Ellington & John Coltrane
How High the MoonElla Fitzgerald
A Night in TunisiaDizzy Gillespie
Yardbird SuiteCharlie Parker
Autumn LeavesCannonball Adderley
Lady BirdTadd Dameron Sextet

1950s and After

The 1950s was a decade of significant evolution and innovation for jazz music. It was a time when jazz musicians broke free from traditional constraints and experimented with new sounds, rhythms, and structures. This period is often referred to as the “golden age of jazz,” and it saw the rise of several influential jazz musicians who composed or reimagined jazz standards.

At the forefront was trumpeter Miles Davis, whose cool and model jazz pieces quickly gained a standard status. “Milestones,” a composition he recorded in 1958 with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, is an early exploration of the model jazz style. The piece ultimately led Miles Davis to create “So What,” the most well-known example of model jazz, which opened his 1959 studio album “Kind of Blue.” The album, also featuring John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, is widely regarded as the greatest jazz album ever made.

The same year Miles Davis released “Kind of Blue,” The Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded and released their signature piece “Take Five.” In the jazz standard Take Five, composed by Paul Desmond, the quartet uses the uncommon time signature 5/4. It was the first jazz composition using another signature other than the standard 4/4 or 3/4 times. The song’s iconic drum and piano introduction, followed by the alto saxophone melody, helped it become a well-known and best-selling jazz classic of all time.

John Coltrane’s hard bop masterpiece, “Giant Steps,” was released in February 1960 and is also regarded as one of the most influential jazz albums ever. It features various Coltrane compositions such as the opening and title track “Giant Steps,” which includes unusual harmonic chord patterns known as the “Coltrane changes”, and the homage “Naima,” named after his then-wife, Juanita Naima Grubbs.

Bobby Timmons, a prominent member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, composed “Moanin’“, which was recorded and released by the ensemble. The recording featured Art Blakey on drums, Lee Morgan on trumpet, and Benny Golson on tenor sax, along with Timmons’ piano. The song features a call-and-response structure led by Timmons’ piano. Jazz critic Gary Giddins has noted that “Moaning” was “part of the funky, back-to-roots movement popularized by Horace Silver, Mingus, and Ray Charles in different ways.

Additional recommended jazz standards:

TitleRecommended Version
Afro BlueDee Dee Bridgewater
The SidewinderLee Morgan
ImpressionsJohn Coltrane
BluesetteToots Thielemans
The Girl from IpanemaStan Getz & Astrud Gilberto
Blue TrainJohn Coltrane
My Favorite ThingsJohn Coltrane
Watermelon ManHerbie Hancock
FootprintsWayne Shorter
SpainChick Corea

Disclaimer: I would like to clarify that the jazz recommendations I provide are based on my individual taste and preferences. It’s important to note that the versions of the songs I suggest may not necessarily be the original recordings by the composer, but rather renditions by other artists.

Listen to all the songs from the article:

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The Album That Documented Ethio-Jazz: Mulatu Of Ethiopia

Ethiopian jazz musician and composer Mulatu Astatke had one important goal. He got inspired by jazz music and wanted to promote and actively use Ethiopian music in his jazz compositions. “The Nigerian and Ghanaian people living in London, they were very active in promoting it [their local music] so, I decided to start working more on our Ethiopian music.” he said, referring to his time in London during the 1950s. And so he did. Mulatu Astatke focused on fusing the Ethiopian 5 note scales against the 12 note scales of jazz. He created a different sound without losing the subtlety of both genres. The new sound got documented as Ethio-jazz, and Mulatu Astatke was its father.

Mulatu Astatke is the inventor of Ethio-jazz. The album Mulatu Of Ethiopia, recorded and released in 1972, is a well-documented proof of that. As a multi-instrumentalist, focussing mainly on percussion and the vibraphone, he brings moody rhythmical patterns influenced by jazz, funk, Latin and African music.

Mulatu Astatke got inspired by jazz music in the fifties while studying music in London. He continued his passion and, in 1958, he moved to the United States where he enrolled as the first African at the Berklee College of Music in Boston (whose alumni include vibraphonist Gary Burton and icon Quincy Jones). There he mastered the technical aspects of jazz music as a vibraphonist, and he learned how to arrange music as a composer.

After graduating, halfway through the sixties, he moved back to Ethiopia and introduced his people to the new sound. At first, his music was received with mistrust. Ethiopians, who have a history of occupation by European countries (the so-called “scramble for Africa”), tried to avoid cultural contamination of any form. Eventually, Mulatu Astatke convinced the people and, more musicians picked up the sound.

Living back in Ethiopia, Mulatu Astatke kept working in New York. The New York jazz scene compelled him, so he traveled between both cities regularly for years. In New York, he formed his Ethiopian Quintet. The group is an ensemble of Ethiopian, Latin, and African-American musicians. “There just weren’t many Ethiopian musicians in America 50 years ago,” he explained. The group would mainly play Latin jazz and western jazz. Mulatu Astatke explains during an interview with the founder of Strut records, Quinton Scott, that he noticed a strong connection between Latin and African music when he was visiting Cuba.

“New York in 1966 was a very interesting time. I was there at the same time as Hugh Masekela from South Africa and Fela Kuti from Nigeria. In our own different ways, we were all working to put Africa into the modern concept of jazz music”

Mulatu Astatke (interview by Quinton Scott)

His musical career matured during his time in New York. During the second half of the sixties, he spent time with other musicians who fused jazz with African music. Amongst them the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti (known from Africa ’70).

In New York, Mulatu Astatke recorded albums where different cultures are mixed. Including two volumes named Afro-Latin Soul (1966). These albums documented Astatke’s new-found directions for the first time.

Both albums got recorded before Mulatu Astatke began to develop his sound further. After their releases, he infused more native sounds into his compositions and, he started to experiment with seventies funk. In 1972, he recorded and released the album Mulatu of Ethiopia. The album became a landmark for African music and the first representation of Ethio-jazz.

When a coup d’état established Ethiopia as a communist state in 1974, the country’s culture collapsed. Ethio-jazz was considered a western product and got censored. Musicians left the country, and for one generation, Mulatu Astatke’s sound disappeared. In 1991 Ethiopia became a democracy, and Ethio-jazz went through a revival. Producers started to collect the old recordings and would supplement the archives by making new ones. The collected music got released under the name Éthiopiques and, the fourth volume focusses on Astatke’s work (Éthiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974). The popularity grew and, by the start of the new millennial, Ethio-jazz got known worldwide.

The album was never officially reissued and became hard to find. Today, you would pay three-digit sums for an original of good quality. In 2017, Strut Records decided to reissue the album officially for the first time on vinyl (although there is an unofficial 2003 reissue in circulation).

The vinyl reissue includes three discs: the original stereo release, the pre-mix mono master recordings, and unissued session outtakes.

The outtakes give a peek of what was going on in the studio. These behind-the-scenes recordings are a part of history. They give us an idea of how the album came to life and consequently how Ethio-jazz was created. In these outtakes, instruments would often be rearranged, causing some takes to be more focussed on percussion and others on wind instruments. You can hear Mulatu Astatke position himself as bandleader and arranger.

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New Orleans Jazz in a Nutshell: From Bolden to Armstrong

New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and the home of many of its pioneers. New Orleans jazz is a forerunner of the many forms of jazz music we know today.

In this article, we will look back at the birth of jazz music in New Orleans. Who were the pioneers and ambassadors of the genre? And how did ethnicity play a role during the turn of the century?

Before we dig into the history of jazz music, we need to be aware of New Orleans’ history. The State Louisiana was bought from France in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase resulted in a lift of the trade restrictions and, the arrival of the steamboat enhanced commerce as New Orleans became an important hub for cargo. This economic boost made the city more popular what caused its population to grow exponentially.

The success of New Orleans did not last. The American Civil War, political corruption, and the arrival of the railroad had their impact on the city. Trading hubs in America start growing elsewhere and, it did not take long before New Orleans was in debt. By the time jazz music emerged, the city was in recession. The population, which was exponentially growing, started to decline. Tropical storms and hurricanes were frequent, and New Orleans began to flood. The city had no sewer system what caused an unpleasant and excessive number of insects. It was so bad that musicians reported they had to wear masks during performances. New Orleans’ problems caused its death rate to be 60% higher compared with other major American cities.

The neighborhood that is claimed to be the birthplace of jazz is Storyville, a red-light district in New Orleans. Although, not all music historians agree to this and studies have shown that jazz music emerged and developed all over New Orleans. There are records of the music being played at dancehalls, on boats, in parks, and on the street. Some claim that it would have even been more complex for the music to be played in Storyville as, according to reports, police raids happened there more frequently, and it were the African American musicians who were arrested first. Donald Marquis’ study of Buddy Bolden, an important and decisive figure in jazz music, shows that he and many other jazz musicians drew their inspiration from the church and not from the nightlife in New Orleans. Pastors who sang in Baptist Churches had a similar rhythm to the jazz rhythm of that time.

In New Orleans, concerts “on-the-move” happened frequently, for example, at funerals. Because of the high death rate, there was a high demand for these parading brass bands. Marching brass bands, such as Excelsior Brass Band or Onward Brass Band, were active during the 1880s. Their formation started with trombones in the front, followed by the bass, tubas, and baritones. In the next row, you find the alto horns and the clarinets followed by the trumpets. At the end of the parade, we find percussion instruments. These marching brass bands would play a variation of music genres including quadrille, polka, 2-step, mazurka, etc. Parades were common in America but what makes these New Orleans brass bands unique is that their performance was an invitation to dance. They would call it second-line parades, where the dance audience is the second line and the brass band the first. You became part of the community, a tradition that flew out of circle dancing at Congo Square.

At the turn of the century, ragtime music was popular in New Orleans, mainly thanks to the contributions of Scott Joplin. Ragtime is a form of piano music that uses syncopation of the weaker beats. Syncopation is a small interruption in the rhythmical flow by making some accents fall off-beat. In short, syncopation is created by the beats between the beats, and they are fundamental for the musical structure of ragtime (and boogie-woogie that emerged simultaneously in Texas).  A result of ragtime’s popularity was that musicians start using syncopation in traditional compositions to play them in a more “ragged” fashion.

Who played a key role in the birth of New Orleans jazz, and is considered the first jazz musician, is Buddy Bolden (born Charles Joseph Bolden). Buddy Bolden was an American cornetist who learned to play music at school and in church. Unique is that, unlike many other musicians, Bolden didn’t start his career by joining a brass band. Instead, he joined a string ensemble and earned money by playing at dancehalls.

At the end of the century, his band got noticed thanks to Bolden’s use of syncopation, his ability to improvise, and his use of blues structures. I like to think that Bolden’s focus on blues was the biggest contribution to jazz until Louis Armstrong changed the course of the genre. Bolden was an example for many other musicians and one by one all of them start experimenting with syncopation and improvisation. The growing pool of musicians doing this is described as the birth of jazz in New Orleans. This practice of using syncopation in melodies from different music genres caused styles to blur and blend. The music would get more similarities in rhythm and structure what was another important milestone in the creation of jazz.

Buddy Bolden was known for playing loud. He played so loud that he was not allowed to practice inside the house so instead, he practiced on his porch. Neighborhood children would gather around them to listen and start calling him “The King“. Hence the nickname Buddy ‘King’ Bolden. He would often play at a concert hall in New Orleans called Odd Fellows and Masonic Dance Hall (or Eagle Saloon). Before the concert, Bolden would stick out his cornet and do what he called “calling his children home”. He played so loud and, his reach was so far that people from the surrounding streets gather at the building to listen. This became his trademark and, the habit got also described in the lyrics of Buddy Bolden’s Blues (also called Funky Butt):

“Thought I heard, buddy bolden shout, Open up that window, and let that bad air out, Open up that window, and let that stinky air out. Thought I heard buddy bolden say”

Lyrics to Buddy Bolden’s Blues

Buddy Bolden’s career was short. He had a drinking problem and struggled with his mental health. He was arrested multiple times and was placed in an asylum after he was declared mentally insane. Unfortunately, there are no recordings in existence. There are some rumors that Bolden made some phonograph cylinder recordings. So far, none surfaced. Thirty years after his death, his music appeared in print and, musicians started to record his work. However, the sound of jazz evolved and, the question is if these later recordings correctly represent how Buddy Bolden’s music originally sounded.

If Buddy Bolden was the inventor or creator of jazz music is up for discussion but, we can conclude that he was an important and decisive figure in the transformation.

Buddy Bolden’s transformation was further built out by many musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, Joe ‘King’ Oliver, Willie Gary ‘Bunk’ Johnson, Edward ‘Kid’ Ory, and later Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong.

Jelly Roll Morton (born in New Orleans as Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe) was an American ragtime and jazz pianist, composer, and producer. He is considered one of the greatest jazz arrangers and many claim his contributions exceed Buddy Bolden’s. Morton’s jazz gave it a sense of itself via his melodic constructions using improvisation and musical breaks. His first income was as a producer but, in the 1920s he started to focus more on his own music. Jelly Roll Morton’s career peak around the time the jazz age began. He brought together musicians, including Kid Ory, and they called themselves Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers. They made several well-rehearsed recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1924, he recorded his composition titled King Porter (A Stomp). The song was recorded together with the iconic New Orleans musician King Oliver and features a duet between King Oliver’s cornet, and Jelly Roll Morton‘s piano.

Other recordings he made during that decade were in partnership with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, an influential jazz band featuring white musicians. Their recordings are of historical importance as they countered segregation of African American and white musicians in the recording studio.

Jelly Roll Morton’s career declined during The Great Depression in the 1930s but grew again in 1938 thanks to a letter he wrote to Downbeat Magazine (an American magazine devoted to jazz and blues). The letter they published opened with Morton’s words: “It is evidently known, beyond contradiction, the New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, and I myself happened to be the creator”. He continued the letter by listing his contribution and emphasis on how challenging it was to record his compositions. He would mention that after him, many imitated his music. If his statements are true, is up for discussion. However, it is a fact that his legacy lies in his unique compositions, recordings, and commerce. He earned his place as one of the most influential pioneers for the New Orleans jazz style.

As recording technologies progressed, it became easier and more popular to record music in the 1920s. Not everyone from the early generation of jazz musicians had the luxury to record their music. The first band to record jazz music in 1917 was, surprisingly, an all-white ensemble called the Original Dixieland Jass Band (later revised to Original Dixieland Jazz band). The group attracted a global and wider audience by playing at dance halls in Chicago and New York City. The American recording industry was fundamentally positioned in the northeast, and mainly in New York City. They were offered a recording contract by label RCA Victor (Victor Talking Machine Company) and recorded “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step” in 1917. We can ask ourselves if the band are key contributors and if their importance was based on merits. Critics called out that the band is playing stiff and unconvincing, some even claim they are not playing jazz. It’s my opinion that, although they were not the best jazz musicians of their generation, they did play an important role in the commercialization of the music. They did not shape or help create the music as pioneers but instead, spread it like ambassadors.

Despite the fact that the music originated in New Orleans, and that most musicians were born there or elsewhere in Louisiana, a lot of its further development took place in Chicago and other Northern cities. Louisiana-born musicians, with strong musical roots in New Orleans such as Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong, would all move to the north at some point in their lives. The reason was not directly related to musical opportunities but to the fact that northern cities were more tolerant of African American communities. Over almost 7 decades, starting in 1916, millions of African Americans moved from the south to the north in search of a better life. This event is known in history as The Great Migration (also called The Great Northward Migration or The Black Migration). Another example of musicians that moved north are the Thomas Brothers, they moved to Chicago where they influenced a whole new generation of boogie-woogie pianists. Also, “white” jazz bands from New Orleans moved or traveled to the northern cities. Their intentions have nothing to do with tolerance of African American communities but, are based on commerce. Record companies in northern states were more interested in the music genre and provided more recording opportunities.

The Great Migration had without a doubt influence on the distribution, development, and importance of African American music.

Who had the biggest impact on the development of jazz music is without a doubt, Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 in New Orleans. As a young boy, he was good at two things, singing and getting into trouble. This last one had to do with his background, he was born into a troubled family. A life-changing incident in Armstrong’s life was his arrest in 1913. He was arrested on New Year’s Eve for firing a gun in the air to celebrate. His punishment, what would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, was 18 months in the Colored Waif’s Home for boys, a reform school in New Orleans. Armstrong would not look back to his time there as a bad experience, on the contrary, he credits this time for turning him into a musician. Before his arrest, Armstrong already played the cornet but the school offered structure and discipline. He joined the school’s brass band and toward the end of his stay, became its leader.

By the time he was released, The Great Migration caused many New Orleans-born musicians to leave the city. The lack of musicians created opportunities for Armstrong to earn money as a musician. He joined several celebrated bands, including Kid Ory’s group where he replaced Joe ‘King’ Oliver who moved to Chicago. Armstrong grew as a musician and started to make a name for himself. King Oliver took an interest in him and in 1922, he invited Armstrong to join his band in Chicago. Armstrong joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and Oliver became a mentor for the young Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong was the second cornet in the band, Oliver was first. His job was to provide supporting harmonics for Oliver. A job where perhaps Armstrong was not the best choice. It became clear that his powerful tone and rhythmic sensibility would unwillingly overpower Oliver’s cornet. Oliver did not allow for instruments to dominate the collective ensemble. This couldn’t be an easy task for a young cornetist who would later become the greatest soloist in jazz music.

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band made several recordings and although these recordings have poor sounds quality (because of recording technology limitations), they are representing a perfect example of the New Orleans Jazz style.

Louis Armstrong would later close the book on the traditional New Orleans Jazz style when he transformed and changed the course of jazz music.

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Boogie-woogie: An Invitation to Dance

Boogie-woogie is, without doubt, one of the most complex piano styles developed in America. The pianist needs to demonstrate exceptional hand-independence skills and an excessive sense for rhythm and timing to play syncopated right-hand licks and riffs on the left-handed base patterns.

Boogie-woogie piano music was often played at barrelhouses and later, at so-called “House-Rent Parties“. At a house-rent party, communities would gather at one’s house and, pianists got hired to play. African-American communities were depending on each other for support during the high unemployment rate of the thirties and forties. Therefore, a small entrance fee was charged to cover the rent.

In this article, I’d like to invite you for a brief but thorough overview of the music’s origin, development, and influence. We will have a look at the music’s characteristics, its structure, and its purpose.

Barrelhouse Pianists

Music Characteristics and Purpose

There is no doubt that boogie-woogie music has strong connections to the blues. In early blues music, African-American communities combined plantation songs with religious spirituals and African rhythms. In this early form, the music was slow and emotional. It got characterized by sad melodies and simple harmonies. As the blues evolved, it gained popularity. By 1920 it reached its peak thanks to the contributions of Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson.

Boogie-woogie piano music is following the many traditions of the blues. The music is using blues scales, is adding syncopation to emphasize weak beats, is usually played in a 12-bar blues, and the performer improvises over the chord progressions. The most important characteristic of boogie-woogie piano music is that musicians would emphasize rhythm over melody. To establish this, both hands need to play something dissimilar but at the same time, keep a musical connection. The left hand plays steady and repeating base patterns that will keep the rhythm during the songs. The right hand has the freedom to improvise by playing counter-rhythms, ostinato, riffs, licks, or short melodies. The harmony created by both hands is an invitation to move and dance.

In boogie-woogie, the syncopation of the weaker beats is essential. Syncopation is a small interruption in the rhythmical flow by making some accents fall off-beat. In short, syncopation gets created by the beats between the beats, and they are fundamental for the musical structure of boogie-woogie.

In a 4/4-time signature, which is common for blues and boogie-woogie, we have four quarter notes in each bar. Each quarter note represents one beat or down-beat. If we want syncopation in the rhythm, we need to add off-beats before each down-beat. We create a swing shuffle rhythm containing eight beats in one bar, four down-beats, and four off-beats (eight to the bar). Imagine counting one bar as followed: “and1-and2-and3-and4“. The numbers are down-beats and are twice as long, the word “and” represents the off-beats. They are played shorter and are responsible for the syncopation in the rhythm.

Parallel with the origin of boogie-woogie, a different yet similar form of piano music got formed along the Mississippi River. The style of playing was named ragtime. As in boogie-woogie, ragtime music also emphasizes rhythm over melody by playing different patterns with each hand. The musician’s left hand creates non-stop march-like base patterns by rapidly altering between base notes and chords. Base notes were used to mimic base instruments used by marching bands, and the chords represent drum patterns that bring harmony to the song. While boogie-woogie derived from the blues, ragtime originated from both European classical music and African syncopated music. Ragtime’s rhythm is created by playing syncopated melodies in a ragged fashion.

It is already mentioned that in both genres the left hand plays a significant role and is often referred to it as “the left hand of God”. It is said that left hand boogie-woogie and ragtime patterns were developed to keep the piano and rhythm going. Musicians developed this skill so, that they can use their right hand to eat, drink, and smoke without ending the songs. Most early boogie-woogie and ragtime compositions do not have a defined start or end.

Boogie-woogie music was all about telling a story with on-the-spot improvisation. The music was intended to make people dance what in a way separates the genre from the blues. The first published boogie-woogie hit that cemented “boogie-woogie” as the name of its entire genre was ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith. Clarence Smith would characterize the genre as intended to dance when he included dance instructions into the lyrics, and rhythmic breaks into his composition.

“I want everybody to dance ’em just like I tell you. And when I say “Hold yourself” everybody gets ready to stop. And when I’ve said “Stop”, don’t move a peg. And when I say, “Get it”, everybody, do a boogie-woogie”

lyrics to ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith
Clarence “Pinetop” Smith – Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie

Origin and Development

According to music historians and their research, the story of boogie-woogie music starts in the 1870s with the African-American communities from Texas. In the archives from the Library of Congress, you can find sheet music and literature published before the start of the 20th century that would list the term “boogie”. A good example is the sheet music of ‘The Boogie Man’ published in 1880 (Shaw W. F.). The first recording of the term “boogie” happened more than three decades later. In 1913, The American Quartet recorded the song ‘That Syncopated Boogie-Boo’. Although the term “boogie” was used, the music was not yet identified as boogie-woogie. It would take a couple of years more before the left-handed base patterns that shaped the genre got introduced.

“Anonymous black musicians, longing to grab a train and ride away from their troubles, incorporated the rhythms of the steam locomotive and the moan of their whistles into the new dance music they were playing in jukes and dance halls. Boogie-woogie forever changed piano playing, as ham-handed black piano players transformed the instrument into a polyrhythmic railroad train.”

– Alan Lomax 

Boogie-woogie music was first known as fast western or fast blues. Although, in this early form, the repeating boogie-woogie base patterns played with the left hand were not yet used. How the music developed is a big question for music historians but, there is one thing we can be sure of, the development was strongly influenced by the construction of the railroad and the arrival of steam locomotives.

The American train network caused a cultural change as more people traveled between the American cities of the south. The railroad would also connect the many logging camps so workers could travel between the camps via freight trains. They would jump off and on empty wagons, also called blinds, and traveled between states to find work. This practice would become common and train conductors became used to travelers climbing aboard the train and share their stories, play music, and dance. During the day, these travelers would work in logging camps, and during the night, they would dance and play music at cheap or disreputable bars called barrelhouses. For that reason, early boogie-woogie music is sometimes referred to as barrelhouse-music.

Steam Locomotive in Texas

Boogie-woogie music and trains share a connection. It were these traveling workers and musicians who are responsible for the spread and later development of the music. Different techniques of playing got mixed as different musicians encountered each other on the train.

The music would first spread within Texas and later, it would conquer its neighboring states. Many musicians praised the train rides in their songs. Think about Meade “Lux” Lewis’ best-known instrumental work named ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’, or Mabel Scott’s ‘Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train’.

Meade “Lux” Lewis – Honky Tonk Train Blues

Boogie-woogie piano music would always remain a Texas tradition, but its music hub would become Chicago. In 1921, George Washington Jr. Thomas and Hersal Thomas moved to Chicago and, they introduced the north to the boogie-woogie piano. The two brothers were both acknowledged pianists and composers with a strong influence on other musicians. Their composition ‘The Fives‘ was an inspiration for many musicians who would further shape the genre.

George Washington Jr. Thomas moved from Texas to New Orleans in 1914. There he continued his musical career by playing at different parties, where he gained the nickname Gut Bucket George. Two years after arriving in New Orleans, he composed ‘The New Orleans Hop Scop Blues’. This 12-bar blues song got coupled with a left hand playing grace notes for the lower tone, and so, he created his first early boogie-woogie piece.

Following the death of his father, George Thomas became the head of the Tomas family and, he decided to move to Chicago. He was joined by his sister Beulah Belle Thomas (who would later record under the name Sippie Wallace) and his younger brother Hersal Thomas. When George Thomas arrived in Chicago, he recorded his earlier compositions together with his sister, brother, and some local musicians.

In 1922 he published his most influential work called ‘The Five’s’ (now-a-days written as ‘The Fives‘). The copyright was registered in 1921 and both George and Hersal Thomas are credited as the composers. The song was officially published by George Thomas’ own publishing company.

The lyrics, written by George, are about a train ride between Chicago and San Francisco. According to Peter Silvester’s research for his book ‘A Study Of Boogie-Woogie‘, the number refers to the arrival time in San Francisco. Although, it could also refer to the walking baseline for which the first and fifth fingers are used predominantly.

Publication of The Fives (1922)

The cover, upon publication, features a picture of the blues singer Lizzie Miles assuming she would feature on the recording. However, no recordings with her were discovered. A possible explanation could be that these recordings were never released and got lost. The photo was kept solely for marketing and sales purposes. In those days, pianists were rarely displayed on the cover.

Hersal Thomas (piano roll) – The Fives

The song is considered the first published representation of boogie-woogie piano music. Although it was written as a ragtime dance rhythm, it contains pronounced boogie-woogie interactions. It features various boogie-woogie base patterns, including walking baselines or walking octave chords. Also, the quivers used in the composition are typical for boogie-woogie.

The Fives‘ established the genre thanks to the effect it had on many Chicago-based musicians. Boogie-woogie pioneers Albert Ammons and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis both credit the songs as their source of inspiration while learning to play piano and further shaping the genre. Still today, musicians are using the many boogie-woogie base patterns from this song.

Hersal Thomas (left) & George Thomas (right)

Another milestone in the development of boogie-woogie was the recording of ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ by pianist Clarence “Pinetop” Smith in 1928 (released March 1929 on Vocalion Records). It was the first published boogie-woogie hit and had a great deal of influence.

Clarence Smith was born in Troy, Alabama. During his childhood, he enjoined climbing trees, and so, his friends gave him the nickname “Pinetop” (often written as “Pine Top”), which he used during his future music career.

In 1920, Clarence Smith moved to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where he worked as an entertainer. He sang and played the piano and became known thanks to his comedy performance. Eight years later, he moved to Chicago and recorded ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’. He was credited by many other boogie-woogie pioneers to be one of the main influencers of the genre. His lyrics would also include the phrases as “the girls with the red dress on”, “shake that thing”, “don’t move a peg”, and “mess around” that were used in the lyrics of ‘What I’d say’ and ‘Mess Around’ by Ray Charles.

Clarence “Pinetop” Smith

To conclude, the two biggest milestones in the development of Boogie-woogie were the arrival of the railroad and, the introduction of the music in Chicago by the Thomas brothers. The North, with Chicago as the midpoint, would bring a different emphasis to the music. Boogie-woogie figures would not only be used as a party-tool but, the music would start to support blues singers. It would keep gaining popularity after the music became part of the blues and jazz scene. Even movies starring boogie-woogie pianists got filmed. In the independently short film ‘The Boogie Woogie Dream’ (Hanus Burger), Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson are starring alongside Jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and actress Lena Horne.

Short film ‘The Boogie Woogie Dream’ featuring Albert Ammons , Pete Johnson, Teddy Wilson, and Lena Horne.

The Pioneers of Boogie-woogie

When looking back at the development of boogie-woogie piano music, three pianists stand out. Their names are Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. They are responsible for getting the attention of the public and consequently increasing the music’s popularity.

The first one on the list, Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, was born in 1905. His birthplace is not confirmed, and some sources claim he was born in Louisville, Kentucky. However, most literature about his life states Chicago, Illinois, to be his birthplace. His father played the guitar and originally introduced Lewis to the violin. At the age of 16, Lewis traded the violin for the piano. His piano work got strongly influenced by the Thomas brothers – whose composition The Five’s established boogie-woogie as a genre – and pianist Jimmy Yancey. Lewis already had a close friendship with Albert Ammons during his childhood and, they would practice the piano together. 

Lewis had the habit to imitate characters from the comic strip Alphonse and Gaston, a duo of Frenchmen with a tendency of good manners and etiquette. For that reason, his friends, among them Albert Ammons, would start calling him The Duke of Luxembourg. And so, the nickname “Lux” was born. 

During his adolescent years, Lewis would combine performances at bars with different jobs such as driving a cab and washing cars. In 1929, he published his debut ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’, one of the most exciting boogie-woogie piano compositions ever recorded. The work was recorded in 1927 and would only become known in mid-1935. As a result, many other artists would play the song during the second half of the 1930s. In 1938, Lewis got invited to play at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ festival at Carnegie Hall where he was joined by Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Joe Turner, and many more. The festival was a real game-changer for him personally and for the craze of boogie-woogie.

Most of Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis’ work and recordings got unfortunately destroyed in The 2008 Universal Studio Disaster. An event described by The New York Times as “The day the Music burned”. It was one of the biggest disasters in music history as many original recordings, from which all subsequent copies are obtained, got destroyed.

Meade “Lux” Lewis – Honky Tonk Train Blues

Albert Ammons was also born in Chicago, Illinois (1907). Both Ammons’ parents were pianists and, he learned to play at the age of ten. He became interested in boogie-woogie piano thanks to his friendship with Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis. It doesn’t come as a surprise that also Ammons was influenced by the same group of people. Like Lewis, Ammons would combine his performances in bars with regular day jobs such as driving a cab. 

Albert Ammons and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis would often perform together during the early days. At the start of 1936, Ammons would record with a supporting band under the name, Albert Ammons and The Rhythm Kings. Their songs, Swanee River Boogie and ‘Boogie Woogie Stomp’ had success and got played by many other jazz bands during the late-1930s. Following this success, Ammons moved to New York City, where he teamed up with Pete Johnson. They performed and got often joined by Benny Goodman and his clarinet. Just as Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Ammons was selected to perform at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. What set his success because weeks after the concert, he got approached by Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records. He got signed for a couple of recordings where he got the support of Lewis.

Albert Ammons and The Rhythm Kings – Swanee River Boogie

Finally, we have Pete Johnson (born in 1904 as Kermit H. Johnson). Johnson was born in Missouri, Kansas City. He came from a poor background. His father deserted him at a very young age. Because of financial issues, his mother placed him in an orphanage when he was only three. He, however, ran away and started living back home. To contribute financially, he sought out work at a very young age. 

Johnson started his musical career as a drummer in 1922. He simultaneously learned to play the piano and, from 1926, he became a full-time pianist. His known work is mostly in cooperation with Big Joe Turner. His most-celebrated contribution is ‘Roll ‘em Pete’ (1938), with Johnson on the piano and Turner on the vocals. The song is credited to be one of the first rock-and-roll recordings made. Pete Johnson got also invited to perform at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. Also for him, this was a game-changer.

Pete Johnson & Big Joe Turner – Roll ‘em Pete

Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson would often perform boogie-woogie together. They are referred to as the six-handed boogie-woogie trio. The setup would be three pianos, six hands – three right and three left. They caused the upswing of boogie-woogie during the swing era and elevated the genre.

The Upswing of Boogie-woogie and Influence of The Swing Era

The wider public discovered boogie-woogie in 1938 during a concert at Carnegie Hall – a venue in Midtown Manhattan – called ‘From Spirituals to Swing’. The show got presented by talent scout and record producer John Hammond. 

Hammond had the idea for a concert that brings together the many forms of African-American music that developed over time. The show started with spiritual music and ended with swing and big bands. During the evening, the audience got exposed to the rich music history via gospel, blues, boogie-woogie, Dixieland, ragtime, and swing. The lineup included among others: Count Basie, Benny Goodman, James P. Johnson, and of course, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Joe Turner to represent boogie-woogie. The concert had a big success in the following year a second edition was taking place on New Year’s Eve.

It was the peak of the swing era and the success of boogie-woogie music in America was a direct result of the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concerts. Big bands started using boogie-woogie patterns in swing music. They would no longer limit the music to a piano as they start playing the patterns on the different instruments used in swing music. By the 1940s, every swing band would use boogie-woogie in their music. Original boogie-woogie compositions were covered and became more popular than ever. Tommy Dorsey’s version of ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie‘ was an instant success, and Will Bradley’s ‘Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar’, a song written in 1940 by Don Raye, Hughie Prince, and Ray McKinley, truly follows the boogie-woogie traditions.

“From Spirituals to Swing” event poster

The Living Dance Community and The Swing Revival

The boogie-woogie trend lasted until the early 1950s and, I’d like to think that its popularity never declined. The music inspired many other genres, and so, boogie-woogie contributed to the development of jump-blues, rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-roll, and many more.

During the eighties, a group of original swing dancers, amongst them Frankie Manning, would reintroduce swing dance to the world. They started teaching and performing, and this led to what is known as the Swing Revival. By the end of the millennium, they brought the dance back to life. They didn’t limit themselves to swing and big band music as they also included boogie-woogie and other blues genres.

What was known as barrelhouse dancing in America is now called boogie-woogie dancing in Europe. The dance styles, however, cannot be compared to each other. Boogie-woogie dance is a form of swing dance and is danced socially across the world with its hub in Europe. The dance got inspired by rock-and-roll and lindy hop.

 It’s a playful dance filled with music interpretations and improvisation. It is danced commonly in couples and has fast and advanced footwork. The music supporting the dance finds inspiration in the rhythm of boogie-woogie. The rhythmical breaks allow for improvisation. Apart from boogie-woogie tunes, you will encounter rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-rolldoo-wop, and jump-blues on the dance floor.

Boogie-woogie Dance Nowadays

Be invited to listen and discover the many great compositions out there. There are many original recordings available to the audience. You can listen to them digitally or attend live concerts and dance events for a better selection. Still today, you have many great pianists who are playing older compositions and even composing their own.

In my Spotify playlists, you can find a compilation of great songs I discovered during the years.

Johan Blohm from The Refreshments performing Jb’s Boogie/Blohms Boogie (Live)

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The Origin And Influence Of Doo-wop music

The sound of doo-wop music was born out of the creativity of the African American youth who dealt with the impact of segregation during its peak in the late 1940s and 1950s. The development of the music had a great deal of influence on other music genres such as soul, rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-roll, pop, and surf-rock.

Doo-wop music originated in America in the late 1940s. It was in the bigger cities, such as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York, where young African American teenagers would gather to sing in public places.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, American segregation was at its highest point. Young African American musicians were often too poor and could not afford musical instruments. Because of that, they had to be creative. They would meet together, mostly as a group of 4, and start producing sounds by only using a wide range of vocal parts. They would sing a capella and simultaneously generate meaningless onomatopoeiae to imitate musical instruments (e.g. “doo doo-wop” or “do wop de wadda”).

Jazz dominated in America and, most radio stations would broadcast popular swing music. This music was an inspiration for the early form of doo-wop music. In the early stages of doo-wop, no instruments got used. It was in its purest form and, the only sounds were produced by the voice, usually from bass to falsetto.

The Mills Brothers was a band who brought the genre to life. They had a major influence, especially when it came to the use of onomatopoeia, rhythmic punctuation, and multi-layered harmonies. The songs were slow and jazzy, and they had a spiritual influence. The lyrics were quite ordinary, usually about love and addressed to a beloved.

Another doo-wop group with an important influence on the genre was Sonny Til And The Orioles. They were the first to gain nationwide fame. Bandleader, Sonny Til, was even considered a rock star and, he was loved and adored by the audience. The group named themselves after the Baltimore Oriole, the official state bird of Maryland. Using a bird in the naming became a trend among doo-wop groups. Examples of this are The Ravens, The Penguins, The Flamingos, The Crows, and The O’Jays.

Sonny Til And The Orioles

The term “doo-wop” was not used until the early 1960s. In 1961, an article appeared in The Chicago Defender calling the music style doo-wop. The author may have gotten his inspiration from previous hits in the genre. “Doo-wop” itself is a meaningless expression that was initially recorded in 1945 by The Delta Rhythm Boys. In their song ‘Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’, you can hear it in the backing vocals. Almost a decade later, in 1954, it was recorded again by The Rainbows. They used the phrase “do wop de wadda” in their successful hit ‘Mary Lee‘.

Although, many music experts agree that the first group to intentionally use the wording “doo-wop” were The Turbans. In their recording of ‘When You Dance‘ (1955) the wording “doo-wop” is more clearly present as it was used in the refrain. I do, however, also need to mention that there are indications that “doo-wop” was already used to archive music in the late 1950s but, there is no information available to support this.

In the mid-1950s, early doo-wop music would evolve in the so-called “mid-era doo-wop”. In early doo-wop, the vocals would sometimes get support from a guitar or a single drum. In mid-era doo-wop, instruments start playing a bigger role. We’re starting to hear the double bass, saxophone, piano, and even the electric guitar. In some cases, a full orchestra would be present. Many bands recorded songs before and after 1955. If you compare both recordings, you can hear the difference in the number of musical instruments used.

The doo-wop sound spread nationwide and soon it would also reach white American teenagers. Because the sound of doo-wop music became popular with the white audience in America, mixed-race groups were formed and black and white vocalists would sing harmonically together as equals. The most famous example is The Dell-Vikings. Soon even all-white doo-wop bands, such as The Crew Cuts or Danny & the Juniors, were formed.

It was not only the male vocal groups that came into existence. Starting in 1952, groups as The Platters became widely known. They consist of both male and female singers and so, they brought another vocal dimension to the sound of early-doo-wop music. Strictly female doo-wop groups were unusual in the early 1950s but, halfway through the decade, they started to gain popularity and got recorded. Famous examples are The Hearts, Pattie Labelle & The BluebellsThe Bobbettes, and The Chantels.

A big name that needs mentioning when talking about the history of doo-wop music is Bill Kenny, often referred to as “the Godfather of doo-wop and rhythm-and-blues“. What made him so unique was his high-tenor singing capabilities that had a range spanning over four octaves. He was the lead tenor of The Ink Spots and had a very successful full solo career after leaving the band in 1954. During the late 1950s and 1960s, Kenny would record and perform worldwide. In 1966, he hosted his TV show on CBC called ‘The Bill Kenny Show’. 

The Ink Spots with Bill Kenny on the left

Maybe the most famous and influential band in doo-wop music history is The Teenagers, led by singer Frankie Lymon. The band is most celebrated for its contribution to the early success of rock-and-roll music. They introduced the world to a new brand of doo-wop music by speeding up the tempo.

Frankie Lymon (left) – The Teenagers (right)

The Teenagers got formed at a high school in Manhattan under the name The Coup De Villes. The group changed their name a couple of times (The Ermines and later The Premiers) before they officially changed it to The Teenagers. In 1954 a 12-year-old boy, Frankie Lymon, joined the group. Together they wrote and composed the song ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love‘. The song became an instant success.

Thanks to Frankie’s success, the group got renamed Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers in 1957. This name change was not well received by some band members what caused Frankie to leave and start recording solo. The Teenagers continued under their original name but with a new lead singer what they came to regret. The band had to hire female singers to replicate the unique high “boy” voice of Frankie Lymon.

Frankie Lymon’s life was short. He passed away when he was 25 from an overdose of heroin.

‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ live on The Frankie Laine Show in 1956

Doo-wop music evolved into various genres, among them rhythm-and-blues and rock-an-roll. Although, doo-wop music is better categorized as a less instrumental and more vocal version of the genres. It has its unique history and origin. One main difference is the band formation. In doo-wop music, this is most often a quartet, like in a barbershop quartet. And like in gospel music, doo-wop music would use harmonies in a slow and medium tempo. The lead voice would sing higher than the other band members and interacts with them by leveling out the vocals.

Doo-wop music peaked in 1962 and became dominated by rock-and-roll music and a phenomenon that is known in music history as ‘The British Invasion’. Bands as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Animals became very popular with the American youth but, there is no doubt that doo-wop music had a great deal of influence on their music style and way of performing.

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