It is characterized by a regular bass figure in the left hand (basso ostinato) and trills and decorations from the right hand. It is not strictly a solo piano style, but is also used to accompany singers and as a solo part in bands and small combos. It is sometimes called eight to the bar, but much of it is actually in common (4:4) time.
Typical boogie-woogie bassline
The origin of boogie woogie piano is uncertain; it was no doubt influenced by early rough music played in honky tonks in the US South. W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton both mentioned hearing pianists playing this style before 1910. According to Clarence Williams, the style was started by Texas pianist George W. Thomas. Thomas published one of the earliest pieces of sheet music with the boogie-woogie bassline, "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues" in 1916, although Williams recalled hearing him play the number before 1911.
Clarence Williams was also one of the first musicians to record boogie woogie on phonograph records in 1923, although Williams did not play the style all the way through but rather used boogie woogie style playing on individual choruses of blues as a change of tone. The boogie-woogie style was certainly already widespread by the 1920s in timber and turpentine camps and other job sites with large numbers of African American workers, as well as up north in the African American communities of cities like Chicago.
Professor Longhair, for instance, started out that way, but the style is not that different from the barrelhouse piano playing of earlier days.
In February of 1923 Joseph Samuels' Tampa Blue Jazz Band recorded the George W. Thomas number The Fives for Okeh Records, considered the first example of jazz band boogie woogie. Jimmy Blythe's recording of Chicago Stomps from April of 1924 is sometimes called the first complete boogie woogie piano solo record.
Two of the earliest recordings of pure boogie woogie to achieve popularity were "Honky Tonk Train Blues" by Meade Lux Lewis, recorded by Paramount Records; 1927 in music, first released in March of 1930, and "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by Pinetop Smith (1928 in music) recorded in 1928 and first released in 1929. Pinetop's record was the first boogie woogie recording to be a commercial hit, and helped established "boogie woogie" as the name of the style.
Boogie woogie came to widespread public attention in 1937 and 1938, in the From Spirituals to Swing concerts in Carnegie Hall promoted by record producer John Hammond. The concerts featured Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner performing Turner's tribute to Johnson, "Roll 'Em, Pete", as well as Meade Lux Lewis performing "Honky Tonk Train Blues" and Albert Ammons playing "Swanee River Rock'. ("Roll 'Em, Pete" is now considered one of the first rock and roll records.)
These three pianists, with Turner, took up residence in the Café Society night club in New York City where they were popular with the sophisticated set. They often played in combinations of two and even three pianos, creating a richly textured piano performance.
Their popularity meant work for many of the fellow boogie players and also led to the adaptation of boogie-woogie sounds to many other forms of music. Tommy Dorsey's band had a hit with "T.D.'s Boogie Woogie" as arranged by Sy Oliver and soon there were boogie players of many different stripes. The composer Conlon Nancarrow was also deeply influenced by boogie-woogie, as many of his early works for player piano demonstrate.
Although the boogie woogie fad lasted only a few years, boogie woogie made a major contribution to the development of jump blues and ultimately to rock and roll and is still to be heard in clubs and on records throughout Europe and North America.
See List of boogie woogie musicians for some more of the players in the style.
The origin of the term boogie woogie is unknown, according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word boogie was used for rent party as early as 1913.