It’s hard to believe that the music recording industry got started a little over a hundred years ago. It’s not that much time when you think about it. It’s also amazing to think that the birth of the recording industry just happened to coincide with the rise of jazz in the 1920s. Surely there must have been plenty of good music that we missed out on prior to the arrival of physical recordings. While jazz rippled around the world via gramophone pressings and radio, the original American bass line was slowly stewing and bubbling up in the backwoods and back alleys of the American South.
Boogie woogie is a musical phenomenon which seemed to come out of nowhere. The details are sparse but at the very least we know that it emerged from Northeast Texas as early as the 1870s. Trains were involved and played an influential role in the music’s dissemination. Sharp whistles, driving rhythms, and a hulking bass engine can all be found in a typical boogie woogie tune. There’s ample evidence to suggest origins in the Marshall, Texas area just across from Shreveport, Louisiana. The extraordinary New Orleans piano performer, Professor Longhair, championed the boogie woogie sound.
Boogie woogie is perhaps a perfect example of what author, Albert Murray, referred to as “stomping the blues”. There’s nothing sad or blue about it as it’s played at a faster dancefloor-friendly tempo in a loud and rowdy fashion. Some claim that it was formerly known as “Fast Western” or “Fast Texas” blues before being labeled boogie woogie (and later subsumed under the umbrellas of blues and rock & roll).
The major achievement of this music is that it brought us the first assortment of original American bass lines. Despite its mysterious origins, it’s commonly acknowledged that boogie woogie is an African American invention. The strong 4/4 pulsing bass line is a defining characteristic of West African music, a concept known to the Western world as the main beat or primary beat. The polyrhythms expressed by the right hand are essentially secondary rhythms juxtaposed against the primary beats expressed by the left hand. This audible effect of cross rhythms tantalizes the listener’s ears and elicits people to dance.
African musicians are more inclined to have a rhythmic monophonic approach to their musical instruments instead of a polyphonic approach. Whether it’s the thumb on the E-string of the electric bass to emphasize the bass drum, or the finger style plucking of the electric guitar, or note-for-note syncopated horn licks, there are many examples of this cultural approach to music. The treatment of boogie woogie piano is no different. It’s more of an exercise in finger drumming on the piano, and creating mesmerizing cross rhythms which is a different perspective altogether when compared to the Western world’s approach to harmonic composition.
Once you get the perspective of ‘drumming at the piano’ embedded in your mind, you may never look at another keyboard the same way again. It can be a game changer in terms of music perspective and creation. We intend to expand on this topic in the near future.
What about the influence of boogie woogie on the 4/4 walking bass line used in numerous recordings? Looking back in history, it isn’t difficult to connect Walter Page’s prominent 4/4 bass lines with the Count Basie Orchestra to boogie woogie bass. The Count was certainly no stranger to the boogie woogie format. Mary Lou Williams, Pete Johnson, and Jay McShann all played boogie woogie piano in Kansas City around the same period. Page credits Wellman Baud out of New Orleans for the plucked walking bass, although Pops Foster likewise out of New Orleans, lays claim to influencing the 4/4 bass. The in-your-face sounds produced by the plucked bass tones are reminiscent of the pounding bass of boogie woogie. The soaring tempos of boogie woogie can also be compared to the accelerating pace of swing/bebop. It’s not a stretch to draw that comparison considering boogie woogie reached its height in popularity in the early 1940s just before Bebop was unleashed upon the world.
We could go on and on about the widespread impact that boogie woogie had on modern music. Popular genres such as rhythm and blues, rock and roll, ska and reggae have elements of boogie woogie interspersed throughout. These genres have been hugely influential in their own way, and the soul of boogie woogie bass can be heard in newer styles of music wherever bone-throbbing basslines are involved. Many modern styles not only owe a debt to jazz, but to boogie woogie as well.