Got Rhythm? — 2

By now, you are aware that I like at least some, maybe most, classical music, but there’s more to the story…

When I was a boy growing up in Hicksville, New York, I enjoyed going to the train station.  I was told back then that the Long Island Railroad ended in Hicksville.  I just recently found out that Mr. Hicks owned the railroad when he was alive.  So, it all sort of makes sense.  Nowadays it goes much further out on the Island.

Diesel engines were just starting to show up in the mix when I was a kid.  Most of what I saw at the station were steam engines.  There were no safety rails or fences, no yellow lines you had to stay behind, and no one looking out for a small boy who wanted to stand close to the tracks.  I remember standing there as a steam engine rolled in slowly to a stop.  The wheels were taller than I was.  The powerful rhythm of the engine was nearly deafening.  The motion of the linkages was complicated and fascinating.  It was a dance really, a dance of power. I was transfixed by it all.  I stood there willing myself not to move, taking in every noise, motion, and vibration I could.

Beholding a steam engine in motion conveys many things to your mind — power, strength, speed, distance.  And the one thing that holds all those experiences together is rhythm.  You don’t hear much of steam engines in music, certainly not the music of today.  However, there was a day when there was a music that had that same sense of rhythm, that same sense of unstoppable power, Boogie Woogie.  Sometimes referred to as Eight to the Bar, Boogie Woogie is music that was built for the solo piano.  It shows up in bands sometimes, but the piano is its home.  Four names come to my mind in this discussion, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Jim Yancey.  Certainly there are others both before and after these men, but these are the ones with which I am familiar.  Among these four, I would rate Albert Ammons as my favorite.

So, why do I like Boogie Woogie?  Because it sounds, for the most part, like train engines — the relentless left hand providing the rhythm that drives the train forward.  It has that sense of a machine with a purpose, an unstoppable one.

There’s plenty to read about Boogie Woogie, but listening to it tells you more than anything.  I would recommend two CD’s.  One is an early CD reproduction of recordings made by Albert Ammons.  On that CD, you will also find his version of “The St. Louis Blues,” written by W. C. Handy, and published in 1914.  Now admittedly it’s a blues piece not Boogie Woogie, but blues is a close cousin.  In a way, Boogie Woogie is blues without words.

The CD is titled, “Albert Ammons The Boogie Woogie Man.”  Also included on it are four of what I remember to be eight great duets featuring Pete Johnson with Albert Ammons. I like “Barrelhouse Boogie” and “Sixth Avenue Express” the best.  I’m a sucker for polyrhythm.  Here is the Amazon link.  See if you hear the same train engines I do.

A second CD I would recommend is called “Albert Ammons 1936 – 1939,” and it is another great source of the music.  “Chicago on My Mind,” is my favorite on that CD.  [I just noticed that the price shown on the link is $125.  On the Amazon site there are several options for price.  That is not the Amazon price.  That is from a separate source.  The Amazon price is around $27.]


We all wonder at the flight of birds, baseballs, and airplanes.  Well, I’m neither an ornithologist nor a pitching coach, but I am an engineer.  And I would like to tell you about the wonder of flying machines.  I’ve watched many airplanes takeoff while standing at ground level not too far away.  Besides commercial airplanes, I’ve flown in a fair number of  other planes, quite a few rides in C-130’s, once in a C-123 (and once was enough), once in a T-33 single engine jet trainer, once in a float plane, once in a biplane, a few other rides in small planes, and a couple rides in gliders.  They were all fun to ride in, but watching a takeoff while standing nearby in the open is something altogether different.

An airplane goes through many stages in its life — from a brief flash of an idea to real flying metal.  As each stage runs its course, any number of things can go wrong.  The initial concept itself changes rapidly as new ideas come to the forefront.  Some of those ideas are good, and some are not, but eventually some of each get incorporated.  Then the hard design gets going.  Calculations are made.  Schematics are drawn.  Parts are selected.  New part designs are developed.  And all through the design process mistakes are made.  They usually aren’t big, or else the plane would fail miserably somewhere in its development, or it would possibly turn out to be too expensive.  It is not uncommon to find better ways to do things, and many times those things cause changes to be made, but some “mistakes” become apparent  too late in the process, and we learn to live with them.

As the design progresses and corrections are made, finished drawings start to flow out of the engineering departments.  And, you guessed it, they also have errors in them.  So, they get checked, and the ones that are found get fixed.   As manufacturing goes on, other problems arise, and most of the mistakes that cause them are fixed, but not all.

One day a hanger door opens and a new plane is rolled out.  It won’t be perfect.  Perfection is always beyond reach.  And ultimately, there is only one way to be sure it will fly…FLY IT!

That first flight of a new design is an amazing thing.  I’m sure the Wright brothers were no less amazed than we are today when a new design takes flight for the first time.  I’ve seen it, and many others have seen it, but most people never do.  So, let’s see if I can make it real to you.

It will be a day of good, if not great weather.  It won’t happen at the crack of dawn.  It will be near midday, not too early to get the plane ready, and not too late to curtail the flight to come.  I’ve seen many airplanes takeoff, as I have said, but watching a design that has never flown takeoff for it’s first flight is especially breath taking.  I’ve seen new models of the 767 and the 747 takeoff for the first time, and I’ve seen the first takeoff of the ultra flexible 787.  They were all nail biters in their own way, and they were all spectacular.

So, don’t just watch an airplane takeoff from where you sit or stand at an airport waiting area window.  Find a place to watch either a large jet or a jet fighter takeoff, and be right there on the ground nearby.  Listen to it.  Feel the ground shake.  Ask yourself, how can this be possible?  How can a machine seem so alive?  And even if it isn’t the first takeoff of a new design, it will be new to you every time you see it.  And the imperfections will no longer matter.  No one ever asks a bird how it feels.