Boogie Backbone

Jazz historians tend to see America as an integrated society, but that wasn’t the case for a long time. (Perhaps our country is still not integrated to this day.) A corrective to the narrative can be found in Soul Jazz: Jazz in the Black Community, 1945-1975 by Bob Porter. I’m learning a lot from this excellent book.

In the post-war era, as the big bands faded away, the black musicians that wanted to experiment with abstraction went into bebop while those that wanted a steady paycheck went into R&B. All the musicians essentially knew the same information, and there was plenty of interplay between the two styles. Bebop groups could still play dances and R&B groups had plenty of virtuosity. Someone like John Coltrane could work in both idioms proficiently: two of Coltrane’s early jobs were with Dizzy Gillespie (bebop) and Earl Bostic (R&B).

Porter discusses Hal Singer as a key figure. Singer turned one hundred late last year in Paris; according to Wikipedia, “He is the last surviving male survivor of the Tulsa race riot.”

Singer’s “Cornbread” was a no. 1 Race Records hit for the Savoy label in 1948. It’s one of the earliest “honking sax” pieces and proved to be wildly influential. You can hear all of ’50’s rock and roll coming out of “Cornbread.”

R&B owes a lot to the driving left hand ostinatos of boogie woogie. Collecting examples of jazz piano greats playing boogie woogie is one of my hobbies, so I was delighted to learn the groovy shuffle powering “Cornbread” is performed by Wynton Kelly, all of 16 at the time.

Tootie Heath told me about playing house parties and dances in Harlem with Mal Waldron in the ’50s, where they dealt in exactly the same style as “Cornbread.” “We played that shuffle all night,” Tootie said. (Walter Davis offers this kind of two-handed lope on “Greasy” from Jackie McLean’s New Soil in 1959; thanks to Mark Stryker for the tip.)

Back to 1948, Elmo Hope gets more of a piano feature with Joe Morris on “Boogie Woogie March.” The band is stocked with major modern jazz stylists including Johnny Griffin, Percy Heath, and Philly Joe Jones.

(If you are wondering why the ’50s Miles Davis groups with Philly Joe Jones had such superlative feel, the drummer’s immaculate shuffle with Joe Morris may provide part of the answer.)

I’d never guess that as Elmo, but I’d have at least a tiny shot at guessing that it was Sun Ra playing boogie with Wynonie Harris in 1946. Herman Blount is just a little “out” on “Dig this Boogie.” (“Out” in good way, of course.)

Hank Jones might have played in some R&B bands, I’m not sure. At any rate Hank recorded a distinctive minor-key boogie (replete with train effects) for his otherwise conventionally great 1958 jazz LP The Talented Touch, “Let Me Know.”

By 1958, boogie had pretty much had its day, gone the way of ragtime and Harlem stride. Oscar Peterson might have been the only major jazz practitioner to steadily keep some boogies in rotation, although Keith Jarrett has occasionally glanced at the style.

Benny Golson gave us a rare exception when he and Art Farmer re-formed the Jazztet in the 80s. Golson’s surreal “Jam ‘n Boogie” featuring excellent pianist Mickey Tucker is on the Jazztet’s 1983 album Nostalgia. Tucker also recorded a version on Blues in Five Dimensions. On both recordings, Tucker plays a few “straight” choruses at the top before the modernist hard-bop ethos kicks in.

At the height of the pre-war boogie craze, back in the late ’30s and early ’40s, the acknowledged specialists of the style included true masters like Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Jimmy Yancey. Yet most of the name jazz pianists played and recorded at least one boogie, including Earl Hines, James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner (whose 1944 “Boogie Woogie Boogie” includes some bebop harmony) and the rest.

A particular favorite of mine is “Little Joe from Chicago” by Mary Lou Williams from 1939. Last week for my socials I casually tracked a “play along” with the track slightly sped up (117%) and the pitch lowered 12 cents.

(Thanks to Hyland Harris for recommending the Bob Porter book and for finding the Wynonie Harris/Sun Ra track.)