Boogie Woogie Kid keeps uniquely American music alive

May 30, 2013

Matthew Ball aka The Motor City Boogie Woogie Kid
Credit Matthew Ball

Matthew Ball, also known as The Motor City Boogie Woogie Kid, will play Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. Boogie-woogie is a type of blues that came out in the U.S. during the early 20th century.

Ball started playing in 2001 after he went to the Motor City Boogie Woogie Festival and got swept away by the sound.

“It captivates a demographic I think is wider than a lot of other jazz forms," says Ball. "Because, for example, I have a two year old and my two year old and other two year olds will dance to boogie-woogie music. Whereas, you know, the modern jazz that you hear predominantly on radio today is more sophisticated for them. So I think it’s just a fun and captivating music and it…it’s a music that works for so many people.”

Four years later at the Cincinnati Blues Festival, Ball was playing alongside many of the performers that inspired him at Motor City. Before that, Ball was a classically trained musician and actually went into law. But it wasn’t for him.

“I didn’t like the people. I didn’t like the lifestyle. And it didn’t seem to me…you know if you’re spending that much time in the office, how do you have success at a relationship or a parental relationship?" he says. "It’s hard to find time to have a balanced success if all your energy goes into just one thing."

Ball now has a wife and a two year old son. He even started teaching via Skype to do some work while he stays home with his son.

“And on Skype I teach around the world. I have clients in Australia, in Spain, Monaco, the U.K., Mississippi, the west coast, the east coast—so I have them all over," says Ball. "It’s an extraordinary tool. And I probably wouldn’t have them however if I didn’t have a Youtube account. Because it’s…I have over 2.3 million views on my Youtube account of past performance video and at-home footage. And it’s through that Youtube that those people have become acquainted with me.”

One of the biggest characteristics of boogie-woogie is how much the pianist uses his or her left hand. The left hand is constantly going and acts as the bass of the entire song. Regardless of what the right hand is doing, the left hand keeps the rhythm of the song. Pianists like Ball also have to play by ear because most of the original boogie-woogie songs weren’t written down. Ball says teaching this style of music to younger generations is so important to keep the tradition alive.

“It is a uniquely American art form. Traditionally when you take piano you’re studying the classics, which means that you’re studying music that is almost entirely music of European import. And you know here we have in terms of boogie-woogie and blues, we have an art form specifically for the piano that’s hard to match in its uniqueness and its vibrant quality. And it’s unfortunate. I can tell you this as a teacher of twenty-some years now, that when I get teenagers that come in the door and they only know the word ‘boogie’ you know from the 1970’s disco era, it’s unfortunate that institutional learning hasn’t embraced this art form in the same way that it’s embraced music of European import or even the more modern jazz forms.”