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 Thursday, 20 November 2014
Centennial Celebration for Albert Ammons in Chicago, September 22nd PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Tuesday, 18 September 2007

“Without boogie woogie, American music as we know it, would not be....as we know it! Just ask the Rolling Stones!” – Lila Ammons

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Albert Ammons,courtesy of Lila Ammons
A leading practitioner of boogie woogie piano, [[Albert Ammons]] would have been 100 years old in September 2007. To mark the centennial of this legend of American music, a series of celebratory events have been held throughout the United States, starting in February in Tarzana, California with a concert by Ammons’ granddaughter, vocalist Lila Ammons of Minneapolis. On September 22nd, the centennial will be celebrated in his birthplace with a concert in the historic First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, with the support of Cleveland Steel Container Corporation.

Albert Ammons

Born in Chicago on September 23, 1907, Albert Ammons was taught by his father to play the pianola, and also studied with future compatriot Meade Lux Lewis. With Lewis he played piano in Chicago clubs of the 1920s while also working as a cab driver, later taking gigs entertaining passengers on trains running between Chicago and the South.

Leading his own bands, he made his first recordings in the mid-30s, then moved to New York where he first played in duets with fellow boogie woogie master Pete Johnson. In 1938, Ammons, Lewis and Johnson first appeared together at [[Carnegie Hall]]. That concert, dubbed “Spirituals to Swing,” really launched the boogie woogie craze of the late 30s and 40s. Throughout his career, Ammons played in duo and trio formats with other pianists, particularly with Johnson and Lewis at Café Society, recorded for Blue Note with the Port of Harlem Jazzmen, recorded with Sippie Wallace, and later with his son, tenor saxman Gene Ammons. He died in 1949 at age 42, shortly after playing at President Harry Truman’s inauguration. His large discography keeps the spirit of boogie woogie alive today.

Lila Ammons and the Boogie Woogie Legacy

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Lila Ammons©Andrea Canter
Spearheading the celebration of Ammons’ 100th birthday has been granddaughter, vocalist Lila Ammons. Currently living in Minneapolis where she is gaining a reputation for jazz chops of her own, Lila admits that she knew very little of her grandfather while growing up. “We knew very little about Albert growing up. He lived to be only 42 and our parents always encouraged us to pursue alternative styles of music. We all studied classical. My eldest sister was a child prodigy on the piano - she was my earliest influence. I went on to follow that style. However, chance meetings with people like John Hammond - the great supporter of black musicians in the 30's in 40's and so on - convinced me that some day I would return to my roots and find a way to celebrate these legacies. I am quite certain that I have inherited the 'gene'. All of my brothers and sisters, and dad have, also. I've just been the messenger in all of this.”

Lila notes the importance of the “boogie woogie” era to the development of music in the 20th century. “First of all, it truly brought the piano to the forefront as a solo instrument,” she says. “Secondly, Boogie Woogie originated from and further expanded the blues form. It’s very rhythmic with consistently patterned bass figures (or ‘ostinato’ pattern in classical terms) and the use of 8 to a bar statements took the blues to a new height, eventually leading to rock and roll. Its steady left hand beat is unmistakably a precursor. In rock and roll, a rhythm section takes on the left hand (drums and guitar), accentuating the rhythm - which is the foundation of boogie woogie music. All this while the right hand took on a very improvisational role, which of course is very characteristic of jazz as we know it today. This is a very simplified explanation, but if you take the time to listen to Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and even Elvis Presley, you will recognize the 8 to a bar beat that was so prevalent in boogie woogie playing. I believe Ramsey Lewis, Earl "Fatha" Hines and many other well-known jazz practitioners were influenced in their early years by boogie woogie. Albert's approach was probably the purist form and he seemingly pushed the style to its absolute limit.”

The Albert Ammons Centennial

Lila’s interest in pursuing a centennial celebration for Albert Ammons “started with a conversation with one of the world's foremost boogie woogie pianists, Axel Zwingenberger of Germany. Last September (2006), he mentioned, in passing, that 2007 was the centennial year for Albert. It was then that I had my ‘ah-ha’ moment, she recalls. “This is what my life has been leading towards since 1985, when I called and introduced myself to the great impresario, John Hammond. Axel provided names - some of which I knew - and the response was overwhelming. I began receiving phone calls from as far as England - from musicians and television personalities in Europe, thanking me for developing this concert. And asking to be included…My mission is to celebrate my grandfather, who achieved so much in his short life. He played at the White House for Truman's inauguration, played Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall in Boston, The Apollo Theatre, Cafe Society - which was the first truly intergrated nightclub of its type. He was a generous spirit whose playing exemplified the joy that he experienced while playing.”

Lila also notes the importance of bringing this music to public attention, “to support and expose to the public all the dedicated players who have championed this music and its creators and exponents… There exists a fascinating group of devoted America players - some of whom are not professional performers, but whom have dedicated their lives to keeping the music alive. I am so grateful to these individuals and honored to know them.”

The kick-off event for the Albert Ammons Centennial was held in Tarzana, CA at the St. James Presbyterian Church on February 18th. The program featured jazz standards sung by Lila Ammons and a tribute to Albert by contemporary boogie woogie master Carl “Sonny” Leyland. Leyland has performed many of Albert Ammons’ solos at festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe. The Chicago concert however is the culminating event, held in Albert’s hometown. Notes Lila, “Albert was a native of Chicago - he traveled a lot, but always returned to his roots. I understand that when he was at home, he enjoyed playing hymns and was rather quiet and low key. Quite the opposite of the very outgoing persona that he displayed while performing -- which I believe is common for artists.”

The Chicago concert brings together several of the finest boogie-woogie music masters in the world: tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson; five pianists including Axel Zwingenberger of Hamburg, Germany, Erwin Helfer of Chicago, Carl “Sonny” Leyland of Los Angeles, Bob Seeley of Detroit and Butch Thompson of St. Paul; and descendents of Albert Ammons, his son, Bishop Edsel Albert Ammons of Evanston, Illinois and his daughter/Albert’s granddaughter Lila. Mike Price, editor, author and critic-at-large from Fort Worth, Texas, will serve as host.

Lila notes that among the highlights will be the music itself, which “will be totally refreshing for the audience. Many people know the term boogie-woogie and snicker at its mention, but they don't really know what it is. For so long, the style has been trivialized and nearly mocked as a simplified, and even "primitive" form of music with very little merit. I believe that myth will be dispelled upon hearing the many diverse talents who will be presented at the concert September 22nd… I believe the audiences will become increasingly more familiar with the importance of the style and how it lead to rock and roll, jazz, and modern blues.”

She also notes that the pianists who will perform are “a very impressive group” and that the concert provides a “rare opportunity to hear such stars under the same roof at the same time. We are also honored to have 94-year-old jazz saxophonist Franz Jackson on the program. His first gig in 1929, at the early age of 16, was with my grandfather, Albert, who of course was one of three of the great second generation boogie woogie players.”

The Chicago concert will be divided into three parts: The Early Years (1907-1920s); The Boogie Years (1930s-1940s); and Beyond Albert (1950s to Today). Classic selections include “Pineapple Rag,” “Georgia Camp Meeting.” “Boogie Stomp,” “Chicago in Mind,” “Honkey Tonk Train,” “Foot Pedal Boogie,” “Sixth Avenue Express,” “Alligator Crawl,” “Ain't Misbehavin,” “Bedroom Blues” and the finale “Cavalcade of Boogie.”

For jazz singer Lila Ammons (who also counts among her relatives the great tenor saxophonist, great uncle Gene Ammons), the Chicago Concert is one more opportunity to share her grandfather’s legacy with American audiences. “I am interested and devoted to reminding people that boogie woogie is an art form - an American art form. Boogie woogie is immensely popular in Europe. I would love to see it brought back to the consciousness of America - its birth place.”

In Chicago, don’t miss the celebration on Saturday, September 22nd at 4 pm at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington Street; www.chicagotemple.org; 312-236-4548. The downtown location is directly across the street from Daley Plaza and the Picasso sculpture. Tickets are $25.00 at the door, in advance at PayPal or by check payable to the Albert Ammons Concert and mailed to the church. Proceeds will go to the Jazz Institute of Chicago - Jazz Links Program, an education program providing training and opportunities for students in public schools in Chicago.



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