14 - Is Boogie Woogie “Jazz?” Yes! Absolutely!
by John Tennison — History of Boogie Woogie
There is a war of words in which some want to co-opt the word “jazz” to apply only to the music that they own, promote, play, or otherwise stand to benefit from. Sometimes this approach results in “defining” Boogie Woogie outside of the scope of “jazz.” However, when analyzed carefully, there is no question that Boogie Woogie has historically been considered a form of Jazz in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and should still be regarded as jazz in present times.
Not only has Boogie Woogie traditionally been considered as a form of jazz, Boogie Woogie has been considered one of the most impressive forms of jazz. For example, in 1936, English jazz reviewer, John Goldman wrote the following in Swing Music Magazine about Meade Lux Lewis’s recordings37:
“I believe that Meade Lux Lewis is not only the most interesting musician in jazz today, but of yesterday also. Moreover, unlike the others, he will not date: unlike any of the others, he is as much of any other age as this age.“37
“You will probably be immediately struck by Meade Lux Lewis’s curious left hand. I was. I hadn’t heard anything like it in jazz before.“37
These John Goldman comments are quoted in Chapter 7 (page 133) of Peter Silvester’s book, The Story of Boogie Woogie: A Left Hand Like God9.
Not until the 1950s, did Boogie Woogie start to lose some of its identity as Jazz when Boogie Woogie gained widespread exposure and re-labeling as “Rock and Roll.”
However, even in 1987, The Smithsonian still included Meade Lux Lewis’s “Honky Tonk Train Blues” in the “Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz.“38
Moreover, there is no question that Boogie Woogie should still be considered a form of jazz, especially in improvisatory forms as practiced by modern-day Boogie Woogie composers. Furthermore, Boogie Woogie easily falls within modern definitions of jazz. To see why, consider this following analysis:
In Chapter 2, “What is Jazz” in “Jazz Styles: History and Analysis”15 (Seventh Edition) by Mark C. Gridley, the following is written on page 4:
“Many different kinds of music have been called ‘jazz.’ So it is no surprise that people cannot agree about how to define it.”
However, Gridley enumerates the following possible definitions of jazz, all of which are satisfied by Boogie Woogie (page7-8)15:
1. “For many people, music need only be associated with the jazz tradition to be called jazz.”
2. “For many others, a performance need only convey jazz swing feeling in order to be called jazz.”
3. “For some people, a performance need only be improvised in order to qualify as jazz.”
4. “The most common definition for jazz requires that a performance contain improvisation and convey jazz swing feeling.”
Clearly, improvisatory Boogie Woogie easily satisfies all four of these definitions of Jazz. Thus, Boogie Woogie, especially when involving improvisation, is a form of Jazz. In fact, improvisatory Boogie Woogie in some ways is more truly “jazz” than what is being taught as “jazz” in formal school programs around the world. That is, to the extent that any music can be taught, it has lost some of its improvisational freedom, is being produced according to a set of rules, and is therefore less jazz-like, because its practitioners are not making up the rules as they go. The best Boogie Woogie players, however, improvise not only the specific notes they play, but also their harmonic progressions, and the number of bars for a given harmonic progression. Such broad improvisational freedom is greater than that in most music that is called “jazz,” and can make it hard for jazz musicians who play pitched instruments to follow these Boogie Woogie performers, because the other jazz musicians playing pitched instruments are following the teaching of restricting themselves to a non-improvised number of bars, and non-improvised chord changes. In contrast, Jazz musicians who play non-pitched instruments, such as percussionists, can typically follow and sound good with an advanced Boogie Woogie player, while avoiding all of the unintended dissonances that result when players of two pitched instruments are unable to synchronize their improvised chord and other harmonic changes.