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April brings ragtime flowers

The April 14 meeting of the Orange County Ragtime Society brought a sizable crowd (some 45-50 at its peak) to Steamers Cafe in Fullerton, and though club stalwarts Bill Mitchell and Carl 'Sonny' Leyland had performance obligations elsewhere, several other musicians pitched in to fill the void. The meet was also notable in that it attracted several regular performers from Pasadena's monthly Rose Leaf Ragtime Society gatherings.


OCRS founder and emcee Eric Marchese kicked the afternoon off with a set of tunes dedicated to the spring season. He opened with a nod to Easter in Harry DeCosta's 1912 "Bunny Hug Rag." Three tunes with this title, Eric noted, appeared in 1912 and 1913, including one by George L. Cobb; DeCosta's was the earliest of the three. Next up was Eric's own piano piece from 2000, "Zephyrs of Spring." With a nod to the romance usually in bloom at this time of the year, Eric closed his set with the 1911 ragtime song "Lovin' Babe," written by New York City resident Al R. Turner with the assistance of Scott Joplin, who was credited as the piece's arranger. Turner's lyrics narrate a boy-meets-girl tale in which the song's narrator meets the girl of his dreams while strolling in the park on a fine spring day. After declaring himself, he discovers that the romantic feelings he feels towards her are mutual. Eric said the piece, whose verse opens in the minor key, was most likely a vanity publication, with Turner identified on the title page as the copyright holder. Undiscovered until 1974, "Lovin' Babe" is a rarity.


Next up was Orange County pianist Terence Alaric. Although a performer in each of the first two Orange County ragtime festivals, Terry had never appeared at an OCRS. He treated the audience to the middle section of the 1930 composition "Transatlantic Sonata," in which, Terry said, composer Alexander Tansman superimposed elements of spirituals and blues upon a classical framework. (The piece's other sections reflect the influence of jazz, foxtrots and the Charleston.) Terry followed up with George Gershwin's Second Prelude (1926), a more blues-oriented piece than the raggier and jazzier First and Third Preludes.


Ron Ross wowed the crowd with his "Studio Sensation," complete with enjoyably comical lyrics, and "Ragtime Song." Banjoist Phil Cannon then joined him on two more Ross originals: "Sunday Serendipity" and "Digital Rag." The title of the former was especially apt, considering this was the first time OCRS had been scheduled for a Sunday. The large turnout, though, did indeed turn out to be serendipitous.


Eric offered up one of Joplin's most famous piano rags, "The Entertainer," in observance of the 1902 piece's centennial, before yielding the piano to OCRS regular Bob Pinsker. Bob's set of obscurities included Arthur Lamb's 1900 mega-hit "Bird in a Gilded Cage," the 1912 song "Stop That Bear Cat, Sadie" (referring to the Grizzly Bear craze of 1910-11), Willie the Lion Smith's 1935 tune "Passionette," and the well-known "Complainin' ." Bob said the latter has often been mistakenly credited to Jess Stacey but that its appearance in a 1924 folio of Irving Berlin dance tunes credits the piece correctly to Alex Rogers (lyrics) and Luckey Roberts (music).


Bob ended his terrific set with yet another rarity: a piano performance of the circa 1927 Jimmy Blythe tune "Sugar Dew Blues."Ê Bob said the piece only exists on a ten-tune 'A roll' issued by the Chicago firm Capitol. Such rolls were used in coin-operated orchestrion player pianos. Bob's transcription of this roll for solo piano was completed within the last month.


Taking his cue from Bob, Eric delivered one of the earliest published blues tunes, the 1912 "Dallas Blues" by Hart Wand. He followed up with Clarence Woods' "Sleepy Hollow," a "Unique Rag Novelty" published in Kansas City in 1918.


Patrick Aranda then blew the crowd away (when does he ever not?), selecting Morton's taxing and lively "Shreveport Stomp" as his warmup piece, then delivering an original tune from 2001, "Hay Fever" and another Morton favorite, "The Pearls." Finally, Pat offered a brand new original composition that has yet to be titled but which, as its composer observed, has four sections reflective of such emotions as "misery" and "rage." This inventive piece was chock-full of novel rhythmic and harmonic devices, offering a surprise at every turn. Pat closed his set with one of his favorites, James P. Johnson's "Caprice Rag."


Local pianist Phil DeBarros, another performer from RagFest 2001, made a surprise appearance (his first OCRS), treating the audience to a creative medley of George M. Cohan tunes (including "Grand Old Flag" and "Give My Regards to Broadway") and, for his encore, that tried-and-true tune "The Sheik of Araby."


Also making her first OCRS appearance was "the little old rag lady from Pasadena" herself, Nancy Kleier. As a treat on her birthday, Nancy's husband brought her to the gathering, where Nancy wowed the crowd with Lamb's "Sensation," Hunter's "Tickled to Death" and Tad Fischer's "Encore Rag." In honor of Nancy's birthday, Bob Pinsker then played The Birthday Song on the Kawaii grand while the audience serenaded Nancy.


Eric then announced a happy occasion in his own life: The birth of his first niece to his sister and brother-in-law in Connecticut. They had named her Josephine several months ago, so in anticipation of her birth, Eric wrote her a ragtime waltz, "Josie's Waltz," which he premiered for the OCRS crowd.


Rose Leaf regular Gwen Girvin then played and sangseveral jazz tunes, both as a soloist and in duets with Phil Cannon, including "Hard-Hearted Hannah" and Handy's 'St. Louis Blues.' Ron Ross encored with his rag-tango "Mirella," and Phil treated the crowd to a couple of banjo solos: Joplin's "Solace" and Scott's "Frog Legs Rag." It takes intricate fingering to execute these masterpieces on piano, let alone on banjo, and Phil showed the audience why he's one of the best.


Pat encored with Charley Thompson's 1914 tune "The Lily," noting that the piece lends itself to all manner of interpretation and embellishments, which Pat demonstrated in a performance that creatively reprised the piece's three brief themes. He followed with a song popularized by (but not composed by) Fats Waller, "Your Feet's Too Big," and by Eubie's "Charleston Rag." Pat prefaced this 1899 masterpiece by playing the opening bars of Joplin's 1899 hit "Maple Leaf," explaining the vast difference between the sedate two-beat of Joplin's Midwestern music and the intricacies of Blake's eastern seaboard compositions, adequately demonstrated in Pat's intricate rendering of the Blake showpiece. Pat wrapped up his set with Jelly Roll's "Kansas City Stomps," named not for the cities in Missouri and Kansas, but for one of Jelly's favorite bars in Tijuana.


Bob's encore set consisted of a raft of rare and obscure show songs by Luckey Roberts, most of them "probably unheard of for some 50 years," according to Bob, who played and sang his way through "Heart Beat"; "Princess Nicotine," whose lyrics, Bob noted, are "probably a now politically incorrect ode to a product" (cigarettes, of course); the rarest of the bunch, "Struttin' the Blues Away" from the 1923 show "Go-Go"; and that show's title song, the "Go-Go Bug." Bob said this last tune is "pretty darn obscure," with cute lyrics about that "cute little bug, the go-go bug."


Bob prefaced his final selection by noting that, during the '20s, Luckey was probably too busy writing the scores for shows to create many hand-played piano rolls; he only did five known rolls. Only two of these were for QRS: One was the anything-but-obscure "Rose Time and You" from "Go-Go"; the other, Bob said, is "one of the era's most famous hand-played rolls." The tune is "Mo'Lasses," and Bob said that though Shapiro-Bernstein printed the plates for the song, they apparently never issued it, or, if they did, failed to make the legally required deposition of the work as a published one with the Copyright Office, making Bob's copy of the unpublished tune (obtained on a trip to the Library of Congress eight days before the meeting) something of a rarity. He proceeded to play the piano part, deliberately avoiding the piece's lyrics, which he said are repetitious and "really silly." His version was based on a hybrid of the printed arrangement and Luckey's own piano roll arrangement.


Inspired by Pat's choice of "Your Feet's Too Big," Nancy encored with a set dedicated to the theme of clumsy dancing feet that included Joseph Gearen's "Big Foot Lou," an 1899 Chicago publication; the 1901 Witmark piece "Lumb'rin' Luke," by J. A. Silberberg; and Harry Puck's "The Foot-Warmer," published in 1914 by Kalmar & Puck Music Co. in New York City.


Continuing the "dance" theme, Eric wound up the nine-performer, 50-number, 3-hour-and-45-minute musical extravaganza with Fred Irvin's early foxtrot, the 1914 piece "Doctor Brown." He promised that OCRS would convene again on a Saturday in mid- or late-June. Check the website periodically for the latest on the exact date!


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