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date: 17 January 2021


  • Peter C. Muir


A style of piano blues characterized by the use of driving ostinati in the bass (left hand). The genre first emerged in the 1920s and acquired mainstream popularity in the late 1930s. Regarded as one of the most significant styles of instrumental blues to emerge before World War II, it has continued to enjoy currency and from the 1940s has been a major influence on the development of various styles of vernacular music.

The essence of the boogie-woogie idiom is the ostinati, which typically continue throughout a boogie-woogie performance except for occasional breaks (usually two or four bars in length), and which provide the music with a strong rhythmic impetus. A wide range of ostinati is used. The most common and harmonically simplest is split eighth-note octaves (ex. 1). A harmonically denser approach is shown in the chord-based ex. 1b. Ex. 1c is sparser and simpler, but its rhythmical variety allows for subtle polyrhythmic interplay with the right hand. In the fully developed boogie-woogie style the pianist’s right hand makes frequent use of riffs, which play off against the left hand ostinati to create engaging polyrhythms, as well as other devices of blues piano-playing such as blue notes and tremolos (melodic or chordal). Boogie-woogie can be played at a variety of speeds, but is most commonly performed at a medium-fast or fast tempo. It is technically demanding, mainly because of the rhythmic independence required between the player’s hands. Its harmonic basis is most commonly a 12-bar blues chord sequence, although other blues structures (for example, 16-bar forms) are frequently employed, and the style has been successfully adapted to non-blues-related material such as popular songs....

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Journal of Jazz Studies