Boogie Woogie Festival Debuts at SFJAZZ

Some consider it the tap-root of American popular music -- the propulsive rhythm which helped shape not only jazz and swing, but the blues and rock 'n roll.

In fact, its eight to the bar line marked all manner of American music, including early country and western, gospel, and even the strident avant-garde compositions of composer Conlon Nancarrow.

The music is known simply as boogie woogie. It's meant to make you dance.

On November 17th, a festival dedicated to this historic American form of piano-based blues debuts at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. The event, the "1st Annual SF International Boogie Woogie Festival," features five of the world's leading players, including legendary Bob Seeley, an instrumentalist considered America's greatest living boogie woogie pianist.

The Festival is the brainchild of Eliel Redstone and Wendy DeWitt, and is being produced in association with The Golden Gate Blues Society. Redstone is an architect and serious music lover. DeWitt, a popular local performer, is known as San Francisco's "Queen of Boogie Woogie."

The two set out to produce their Festival in the hopes of bringing greater attention to what they see as an under-appreciated musical form. "I want to bring recognition to this original, unique and seminal American music," Redstone stated. "Together with Wendy Dewitt, my co-producer, we are on the path to make that goal a reality."

Boogie woogie is more popular in Europe than in the United States, and consequently, the 1st Annual Festival features an eclectic, worldly mix of gifted performers. Each will show their stuff one at a time, with the second half of the event given over to the performers playing in pairs. Paired playing is part of the boogie woogie tradition.

On the bill is British-born Carl Sonny Leyland, a fixture on the UK jazz scene who for a number of years had been resident in New Orleans and more recently in Southern California. In the past, Leyland has performed at the Sacramento ragtime festival. Silvan Zingg, "the Boogie Woogie ambassador from Switzerland" and the creator of the Lugano Boogie Woogie festival, is set to play, as is international festival favorite Lluis Coloma, from Spain. DeWitt, who organizes the popular "Queens of Boogie Woogie" annual event at Yoshi's in Oakland, will also perform.

Seeley, who learned to play as teen by watching and befriending many jazz greats, rounds out the event. Now in his mid '80s, Seeley grew up in Detroit not far from the city's jazz district. His proximity to Detroit's nightclubs brought him into contact with touring musicians, including Meade Lux Lewis. The great jazz pianist helped shape the "boogie woogie" sound.

Seeley met Lewis at a house party in the late 1940s, and their friendship continued until Lewis' tragic death in 1964. Seeley, an all-around pianist whose repertoire spans ragtime, stride, blues and boogie woogie, readily admits his playing was influenced by Lewis. When he was 21, Seeley got to play for Art Tatum. The legendary pianist heard Seeley and exclaimed, "The boy is playing Lux! He's playing Lux."

As a young boogie woogie enthusiast, Seeley also befriended the renown Detroit pianist Pat Flowers, knew prodigy "Sugar Chile" Robinson, and once competed against Motown founder Berry Gordy in a competition sponsored by bandleader Frankie Carle. Seeley sought out just about anyone passing through Detroit -- including greats Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Big Joe Turner. Later, because of his innate feel for earlier styles, Seeley accompanied the likes Eubie Blake and Sippie Wallace.

Seeley has performed at Carnegie Hall and other large venues, as well as entertained at restaurants in metro Detroit, where he lives most of the year. The Boogie Woogie Festival marks his first ever San Francisco concert.

In a recent interview, Seeley regretted that Boogie Woogie wasn't as appreciated as it once was. "It was one of the most popular forms of music during World War II. Now, you don't hear much about it. In a way, it is America's forgotten music. I first heard it when I was a teen -- and for me that was it."

"The Festival is the realization of a dream to celebrate music that has changed my life," DeWitt added, echoing Seeley's comments. "Everywhere I go, people love boogie woogie. I found that out traveling and talking with fans and other artists around the world. It's high time San Francisco is on the map as a home for this influential and addicting vehicle for spreading joy and love."

The 1st Annual SF International Boogie Woogie Festival takes place at 4 pm on Sunday, November 17th at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco.

Prior to the festival concert, there will be a Master's Class covering the different styles of boogie woogie, where it came from, who helped create it, and how boogie woogie influenced both jazz and popular music. Festival ticket holders are asked to RSVP to reserve a spot at the Master Class, which runs from 12:30 to 1:30 pm.

Thomas Gladysz is a Bay Area arts and entertainment writer with a love of music and music history. He grew up in the Detroit area, once saw Sippie Wallace perform, and has been writing for the Huffington Post for three years. His most recent piece was on the silent film star Louise Brooks.