SAN FRANCISCO, CA – The Motor City and its rich musical history is at the heart of this year’s San Francisco International Boogie Woogie Festival. The annual event, now in its third year, features enthusiastic audiences and a line-up of some of the world’s best performers. Bob Seeley and Deanna Bogart, two musicians at the November 15th event, have Detroit roots, as does the Festival’s co-founder.
Boogie woogie, considered the tap-root of American popular music, got its start in the American South and Southwest, and soon spread north to cities like Chicago and Detroit. Its propulsive rhythms helped shape not only jazz and swing, but also blues, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n roll. In fact, its eight to the bar line marked all manner of American music, including early country and western, barrelhouse piano, and gospel. Whatever its lineage, the music is meant to make you move.
The San Francisco Festival International Boogie Woogie Festival was co-founded by Eliel Redstone, who grew up in northwest Detroit in the 50’s and 60’s. “We were surrounded by Motown,” recalls Redstone, who now lives just north of San Francisco in Marin County. “Aretha Franklin, Berry Gordy, and Stevie Wonder all lived in the neighborhood. Marvin Gay lived next door to us, sharing a common backyard. My friends would come over, drag lawn chairs out and hang out listening to the jam sessions at Marvin’s house until the late hours.”
Though Motown was the dominant music of his youth, Redstone also loved the sounds of Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. “I didn’t know it at the time, but they were playing boogie woogie 12 bar blues.”
Redstone, a University of Michigan graduate, has long made his living as an architect. In the last number of years, however, he has gotten back in touch with his love of music and learned to play the piano. “I wanted to play like Jerry Lee Lewis, at first.” Inspired by his mother, a pianist who accompanied films during the silent era and raised Redstone on a diet of ragtime, show tunes, and stride, Redstone’s musical interests shifted. Now, Redstone says, he is deep into “classic”, pre-WWII boogie woogie pianists like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. In fact, he’s so deep in that he found a festival.
Meade Lux Lewis was also a big influence on Bob Seeley, an 87 year old pianist widely regarded as one of the world’s great boogie woogie players. Seeley, who has performed at the prior two San Francisco Festivals, learned to play as a teen by watching many of the early greats. Seeley grew up in Detroit not far from the city’s jazz district, and his proximity to Detroit’s nightclubs brought him into contact with touring musicians, including Lewis, the jazz pianist 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 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 Art Tatum, another jazz great. The legendary pianist heard Seeley and exclaimed, “The boy is playing Lux! He’s playing Lux.”
As a young enthusiast, Seeley also befriended renown Detroit pianist Pat Flowers, knew local child 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 Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Big Joe Turner.
Seeley has played Carnegie Hall, the Motor City Boogie Woogie & Blues Festival, and for three decades, piano at Charlie’s Crab in Troy. Because of his feel for earlier musical styles, he has also accompanied the likes of Eubie Blake and blues vocalist Sippie Wallace, the latter another musical legend from Michigan. Among Seeley’s roster of fans are members of the Rolling Stones and fellow Detroiter Kid Rock. Seeley can be found in John Milan’s excellent 2009 book, Detroit Ragtime and the Jazz Age.
Deanna Bogart is the other Detroit connection of this year’s San Francisco International Boogie Woogie Festival. This award-winning bandleader, recording artist and pianist/saxophone player combines contemporary blues, country, jazz and boogie woogie into a blend she calls “blusion”. Downbeat magazine said Bogart “… possesses a gift for approaching blues, soul and R&B material with warmth and firmness. Her originals …. sound as fresh as if she’d magically plucked them out of the air.”
Bogart was born in Detroit and lived in Livonia until the age of two. Her family moved around the country, but she returned every summer to Metro Detroit and spent her junior year at West Bloomfield High School. Like Redstone, Bogart’s family loved all kinds of music. “I am a musical sponge. Music was a big part of my growing up,” Bogart stated. She notes that her father once saw another famous pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff, give a concert in Detroit. As a teen, Bogart attended all manner of Pine Nob and Pontiac Silverdome concerts. Among them was local hero Bob Seger.
Bogart now lives near Washington D.C., and tours the country playing her singular blend of music. Her individualized approach has garnered her three consecutive Blues Music Awards, and a 2013 nomination as the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year. She also has 22 Wammies (the Washington D.C. music awards). Bogart has played for U.S. troops as part of the “Blues on the Nile” tour, including a historic concert at the Great Pyramids.
The 3rd annual San Francisco International Boogie Woogie Festival is set to take place on Sunday, November 15th at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. The event features three other outstanding players — Frenchman Jean-Pierre Bertrand, Hungarian Balázs Dániel, and local native Wendy DeWitt, co-founder of the Festival who is known as San Francisco’s “Queen of Boogie Woogie.” Tickets and more information are available at SFJAZZ.org and www.SFBoogieWoogieFestival.com.
One-time Harper Woods resident Thomas Gladysz is now a San Francisco arts and entertainment writer. While attending Michigan State University, he wrote about popular music for The State News alongside the noted music critic Mark Deming. He counts Chubby Checker as his first concert (at Eastland Mall) and once saw Sippie Wallace at the Michigan State Fair. Gladysz is also the director of the Louise Brooks Society, an online archive and international fan club devoted to the legendary silent film star.