From rags to Redford

Oct 13, 2004 at 12:00 am

Take yourself back a few years to a time when there wasn’t a silver-blue light to transfix us every evening. Back to a place when entertainment wasn’t something you ripped from cellophane-wrapped packages and stuffed into CD players and DVD machines and computer towers. It may be difficult to comprehend a reality where music sprang not from a set of speakers, but was personally delivered by someone who set up shop in your living room. The piano players and the crowd smoking and drinking and strutting their stuff was all you got back then if you wanted to enjoy some tunes.

Yes, there was a time when a piano wasn’t a piece of furniture you put your knickknacks on and chose for the way it accented your wallpaper and expensive couches. There was a time when pianos were prodded, pounded and caressed — there was a time when they were all you had to keep the night jumpin’. Back then pianos didn’t need an electrical outlet or amplifiers or subwoofers to hold sway. They just needed someone with a dexterous left hand and a host of syncopated riffs up his or her sleeves.

In the jam-packed apartment buildings of cities all across the country, piano players gave birth to something we now call boogie-woogie.

Nailing down the actual date of this musical genre’s inception is impossible, as it sprang from the earliest days of ragtime music and blues and jazz. Apparently, the boppin’ genre bubbled up at the rent-parties and cakewalks of early 1900s urban America. Not sure what a rent party or a cakewalk is? Think kegger. That’s the atmosphere this upbeat, get-down music was played in, and it only takes a few notes to feel the warmth and happiness of the boozed and swaying crowd, gathered to raise a few bucks for the tenant, or to win a cake determined by whose strut was the most inspired. This is boogie-woogie, and thanks to more than a few souls whose lives are dedicated to the music’s promotion, it’s coming back to Detroit with the Sixth Annual Motor City Boogie-Woogie Festival.

The gorgeously renovated Redford Theatre will once again host the auspicious affair. It is organized by American Music Research Foundation founder Ron Harwood. The ethnomusicologist/blues historian/music producer runs his foundation out of his bread-and-butter operation, Illuminating Concepts, in Farmington Hills. There he toils as a highly regarded lighting designer; past projects include work at the Holocaust Memorial Center and the Fox Theatre. More importantly, it is there where he and his small crew tend to his large archive of recorded material and roots music research library — much of which has been explored by the likes of contemporary blues women Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur. In fact, Muldaur’s fascination with early ’20s blues divas has led to her performance at this year’s festival.

Harwood’s work with roots music goes all the way back to conducting blues workshops at the Newport Folk Festival back in the ’60s, and his archives (including a massive collection of player- piano rolls, 78-, 45- and 33-rpm records, artifacts and photographs) have become an indispensable resource for musicians and historians alike. Additionally, his work with blues legend Sippie Wallace led to an award-winning album. Bands such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin have used his live recordings library, and he is credited with reviving and promoting the “second careers” of many black American blues artists. He’s a one-man revival machine whose Rolodex would be the pride of any music freak.

In years past, the Boogie-Woogie Festival has showcased primarily soloists on the keys, strictly adhering to “pure” boogie-woogie. Starting last year, however, the fest has loosened the reins a bit and included a full band to accompany the ivory ticklers. This year organizers are adding blues to their repertoire, with a performance from renowned singer Muldaur, who will be accompanied by the James Dapogny Chicago Jazz Band. Muldaur, within the concept of a “night of vaudeville,” will perform blues inspired by the great divas of the 1920s. She will be the first vocalist to ever participate in this event.

Also appearing this year will be the hard-rocking Jason D. Williams from Memphis, known for his Jerry Lee Lewis-worthy frenetic assault on the 88s as well as his ability to play the piano with body parts other than his fast-moving fingers. (Rumor has it that he once played for 10 minutes straight while using nothing more than boots.) Rounding out the bill are “Prairie Home Companion” piano wunderkind Butch Thompson and local legend Alma Smith.

The Sixth Annual Boogie-Woogie Festival will take place at the Redford Theatre (17360 Lahser Road, Detroit); call 313-383-0133 for more information. Saturday, Oct. 16, at 7:30 p.m.

Dan DeMaggio is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]