For good reason, the San Francisco International Boogie Woogie Festival describes itself as an "international" event. The 2nd annual Festival - which takes place Sunday, November 9th - once again features an impressive line-up of performers from Europe, Canada, and the United States, including the Bay Area.
The Festival is the brainchild of locals Eliel Redstone (an architect and music lover) and Wendy DeWitt (San Francisco's "Queen of Boogie Woogie"). Last year, the two set out to produce a music festival in hopes of bringing greater attention to what they see as an under-appreciated musical form. And they succeeded. Last year's festival was a tour-de-force sold-out event.
Though it got its start in the American South and Southwest (and helped shape other intrinsically American musical forms like the blues, jazz, and rock 'n roll), boogie woogie is today more popular in Europe than in the United States. And that explains why two of the five scheduled performers at this second annual event hail from overseas, with a third from Canada.
For the 2014 Festival, four of last year's five performers return to the stage of the Robert N. Miner Auditorium at SFJAZZ. New on the bill is Kenny Wayne, a "monster pianist" based out of British Columbia who is known as the "Blues Boss" of Canadian keyboards. Influenced by the likes of Fats Domino, Johnnie Johnson, and Amos Milburn, Wayne hammers out rockin' boogie woogie, putting a fresh spin on rhythm & blues and rock 'n roll. Wayne tours frequently, has been seen on PBS television, and has a new album out on the Stony Plain label. An earlier CD, An Old Rock on a Roll, earned a Blues Foundation nomination for the Pinetop Perkins Piano Award, and a 2012 Living Blues Awards for "best new contemporary blues recording."
Silvan Zingg, "the boogie woogie ambassador from Switzerland" and the force behind the Lugano (Switzerland) Boogie Woogie Festival, is also set to play. Influenced by vintage recordings of black pianists, Zingg started playing as a child. He has performed in over 30 countries, and in 2011 performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival as special guest of B.B. King. Zingg has also appeared on stage with the likes of Ray Charles, Memphis Slim, Champion Jack Dupree, Tito Jackson, Pinetop Perkins, and Chuck Berry. The latter said, "Silvan plays as if he were from St. Louis - he could be my blues brother!"
Also flying in for the Festival is recording artist and international favorite Lluís Coloma, from Spain. Born in Barcelona, Coloma is one of the most in demand pianists on the Spanish blues scene. Influenced from early age by recordings of Jerry Lee Lewis, Roosevelt Sykes, and Alan Price, Coloma has moved away from his classical training to dedicate himself, in a self-taught way, to American roots music. Coloma has performed across Europe, and serves as artistic director of the Barcelona Blues Festival, and in collaboration with the Barcelona Blues Society, organizes the Boogie Woogie Jubilee in Barcelona, Spain.
Representing the United States is Bob Seeley, widely considered America's greatest living Boogie Woogie pianist. Seeley learned to play as a teen by watching and befriending jazz greats. Now in his mid '80s, Seeley grew up in Detroit not far from the city's vibrant jazz district. His proximity to the Motor City's nightclubs brought him into contact with touring musicians, including Meade Lux Lewis, who helped shape the "Boogie Woogie" sound. Seeley met Lewis at a house party in the late 1940s, and their friendship continued until Lewis' death in 1964. Seeley, an all-around pianist who has performed at Carnegie Hall and whose repertoire spans ragtime, stride, blues, and boogie woogie, readily admits his playing was influenced by the legendary Lewis. When he was 21, Seeley got to play for the also legendary Art Tatum. The nearly-blind pianist heard Seeley and exclaimed, "The boy is playing Lux! He's playing Lux."
Wendy DeWitt, a recording artist and popular performer who organizes the "Queens of Boogie Woogie" annual event at Yoshi's in Oakland, will also perform. DeWitt is a gem. She grew up in Glen Ellen, California to become a piano player and singer; her influences range from Otis Spann and Memphis Slim to Professor Longhair and Albert Ammons. Hank Ballard, with whom DeWitt toured, called her his "favorite piano player." She has also appeared with Charlie Musselwhite and Otis Rush.
Reflecting boogie woogie itself (a musical genre better experienced than defined), the thing about the five performers set to perform at the SF Boogie Woogie Festival is the fluidity of their influences and performance styles. They are ranging and democratic. They are a little musical bit of this and little musical bit of that. They are blues, jazz, and rock 'n roll - coming and going. They are American. They are international. They are not to be missed.
Sponsored by the Golden Gate Blues Society, the 2nd annual San Francisco International Boogie Woogie Festival takes place at 4 pm on Sunday, November 9th at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco (201 Franklin Street).
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, and has seen such legendary blues performers as Sippie Wallace, Koko Taylor, Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins, and John Lee Hooker. Gladysz has been writing for the Huffington Post for four years.