Attorney-turned-pianist trades Michigan Bar for musical bars

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 29, 2015

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GROSSE POINTES — For most audience members, music festivals are a chance to hear their favorite artists and enjoy time away from the stresses of everyday life. But for Matthew Ball, one particular music festival changed his life.


The Detroit-born Ball, of Clawson, was working as an attorney when he attended a local boogie-woogie festival in 2001. The lifelong pianist was so enamored with the lively music, he sought out Detroit boogie-woogie legend Bob Seeley to teach him how to play it, and within a couple of years, Ball had quit his law firm to become a full-time musician.


“A lot of people think becoming an attorney is going to be a great solution to your financial situation, but today the market is flooded,” he said. “For me, I was returning to (my roots).”


Ball, who majored in music and history in college before getting his law degree, will be playing two concerts in May for local audiences, who first saw the artist known as the “Boogie Woogie Kid” last year at VillageFest in Grosse Pointe City.


Ball, who is the author of two illustrated children’s books — “Minnie and Melvira” and “The Worm and the Caterpillar” — will be performing boogie-woogie nursery rhymes for the young and young at heart during an appearance at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 3 at the Woods Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library, located next to Parcells Middle School at Mack and Vernier.


He’ll be performing for the other end of the age spectrum as part of the Grosse Pointe Public Library Senior Symposium, playing a concert of classics from the 1920s and 1930s from 1:30-2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 13, at the Ewald Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library, located next to Grosse Pointe Park City Hall. Other Senior Symposium programs, also from 1:30-2:30 p.m., are “Out on the Town: Drinking and Dining in Detroit Since 1920,” a historical presentation May 6 that spans the speakeasies of the 1920s through fine-dining hot spots in the 1970s; and an informative presentation May 20 on the importance of sleep for energy and overall health that will cover how to best optimize sleep.


“Seniors frequently face so many serious challenges, I wanted one of the three Senior Symposium programs this year to be strictly entertainment — a chance to kick back, relax and listen to some good music,” said Grosse Pointe Public Library reference librarian Priscilla Burns by email. “Catherine Ricard, youth services librarian at the Woods Branch, had seen Matt perform at the Oak Park Library and highly recommended him for his high-energy performance and extensive knowledge of the swing era and all things boogie-woogie.”


Like modern pop music, boogie-woogie has “very broad appeal” and toe-tapping rhythms, Ball said.


“The kind of jazz that I play is jazz for everybody,” he said. “It’s dance music. It holds a 3-year-old’s attention as well as a 60-year-old’s attention. It’s very accessible. It’s very fun. It’s very upbeat.”


He may have come to boogie-woogie later in life, but Ball started taking piano lessons as a child, and at Oakland University he studied with internationally renowned classical pianist Flavio Varani, who can trace his pedagogical lineage back to Chopin.


While he doesn’t play classical music anymore, Ball said the skills and discipline he gained from that training still apply, even though the music he performs today is stylistically very different.


Still, he admits that becoming versed in boogie-woogie “was kind of like starting over” musically.


“The classical tradition is one that’s written down,” Ball said. “This music does not have a written tradition, so you learn by ear.”


After his informal apprenticeship with Seeley, Ball became a boogie-woogie star and educator in his own right, and he now uses Skype to train students across the country and in places as far away as Great Britain and Germany in this most American of musical forms. Also known as ragtime, boogie-woogie has never gotten the respect that Ball feels it deserves from the academic community, so he and other boogie-woogie practitioners pass along the tradition themselves.


“A lot of the music comes out of the Prohibition era,” Ball said. “It was the music of the counterculture.”


Videos of Ball’s performances have gotten more than 3 million hits on YouTube, and he’s earned rave reviews from audiences and critics who’ve seen him.


In a review of one concert by Clayton Hardiman for The Muskegon Chronicle, Hardiman wrote, “Ball played boogie-woogie like a two-fisted orchestra, with rich, athletic melodies streaming from his right hand and deep, thumping chords from his left. His 90-minute performance was a dizzying cab ride through time.”


At 43, Ball acknowledges that his “Kid” moniker might not be entirely fitting, but as a musician in a genre populated by more than a few seasoned seniors, maybe it’s not so off-base. Now married — wife Lisa co-owns a children’s and mothers’ wellness center — and the father of a 4-year-old son, Owen, Ball has the life he always wanted, thanks to music. For a guy who gave up a law career to play piano, “It’s very validating,” he said.


The library programs are free, but reservations are required and can be made by calling (313) 343-2072 or using the online calendar at www.gp.lib.mi.us. For more about Ball, visit www.boogiewoogiekid.com.

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