Blues Piano – A Brief History

The blues piano genre is arguably the root of much of modern American music. After blues, ragtime evolved, followed by jazz, and on down to boogie woogie and eventually rock ‘n roll. Although the genre has seen many trends come and go, in contemporary times blues piano is no different that it was 100 years ago.

The blues genre first came about just before the start of the 20th century. Black farmers, levy workers, and lumberjacks combined their gospel tunes and folk music to come up with a new style. The first recorded instance of blues piano came around the start of the 1900’s in logging and turpentine areas of the deep south. Back then, almost every bar or public place had pianos. Many of these haunts were little more than sheds or lean-to’s with plenty of warm beer and other drinks. These eventually were known as “barrel houses.” The air was ripe with energy and sound, and the pianos were often crude at best. For that reason, the piano man had to be able to play loud and quick. Loud to overcome the sound of the patrons ranting and socializing, and quickly to negate the flatness and sharpness of the out of tune instrument.

Since the piano man was usually unaccompanied, the genre developed into the sound of a one-man show. The player was responsible for creating all parts of the music: bass, rhythm, and melody. This type of playing became labeled as “boogie woogie” or “barrelhouse piano.” Blues became a larger part of the greater consciousness upon the release of brass player W.C. Handy’s “The Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” in the early 1900s. The genre quickly made its way into the night spots of big cities, and boogie woogie became the genre of choice for parties in New York and Chicago, among others.

The genre continued to get more popular throughout the roaring twenties, but a decade later big bands were all the rage. However, boogie woogie was resurrected in the late 30’s, thanks in part to a legendary performance by Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and blues pianist Pete Johnson and Carnegie Hall.

In the thirties, blues piano music was often played by swing bands such as Count Basie’s. By the time the forties rolled around, smaller outfits centered around the piano developed a new twist on the blues. Known as “jump blues,” this genre was the among the most popular dance music after the World Wars, and historians recognize it as a precursor to the tidal wave of rock ‘n roll. Out west, a more mellow, down-tempo blues style became popular due to musicians such as Charles Brown.

Here is Mary Lou Williams Playing Blues Piano In 1980: