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Winds can’t stop Kawai grand during Feb. 2002 OCRS meet

On a blustery, windy Saturday afternoon, a cadre of outstanding pianists brought a very eclectic mixture of pieces and performing styles to Steamers Cafe for yet another Orange County Ragtime Society gathering. To honor Black History Month, many of the performers focused on the pieces of black composers (although not exclusively), packing an amazing 45 pieces and an 11-number medley into the three-and-a-quarter-hour time slot.

OCRS founder Eric Marchese got things rolling with a pair of pieces by Arthur Marshall. Marshall had a distinctive style that featured numerous elements of black-American folk music, showcased in the classic rag format of his mentor, Scott Joplin. Marshall's well-crafted rags reflect his schooling with Joplin, yet retain a strong folk flavor well evidenced in his very fine 1908 rag "The Pippin" and his 1906 composition "The Kinklets." Eric played both before turning the Kawai grand piano over to ragtime veteran Bill Mitchell.

Bill offered a set of tunes by Ford Dabney, who was one of the most well-educated black musicians of his day, an accomplished musician who worked with the great bandlead James Reese Europe. His six published rags demonstrate a strong Caribbean influence. Bill's renditions of two Dabney masterpieces, "Georgia Grind" (1915) and "Porto Rico" (1910) were flawless, precise and expressive. He then essayed the first hit of the February-born black ragtime composer James Scott: "Frog Legs Rag," from 1906.

Before bringing up the ever-popular Patrick Aranda. Eric offered Scott Joplin's masterful, non-ragtime waltz "Augustan Club," from 1901, as a palate-cleanser, with its busy opening sections, minor-key trio and stately finale. With a very tight schedule including weekend rehearsals as musical director of "Kiss Me Kate" and "Oklahoma!" productions, Pat offered a set of tunes by three of ragtime's greatest black masters — James Scott, Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson. This point in the afternoon began to reflect the fact that three of ragtime's greatest proponents — Scott, Johnson and Eubie Blake — were all born in February: Scott on the 12th, Johnson on Feb. 1, Blake on Feb. 7.

Pat warmed up with Morton's "Grandpa's Spells," with its "crash-bass" left hand in the trio. Pat then provided an improvisatory take on the '20s hit "Sugar." "I'm allergic to sugar," someone called out from the crowd. "This will be Sweet 'N Low," Pat countered. He followed up with Scott's "Hilarity" and finished with James P.'s masterpiece, "Carolina Shout," considered one of the cornerstones of Harlem stride piano.

Carl Sonny Leyland then offered a set of his distinctive brand of boogie, blues and barrelhouse, starting with his own composition "Gin Mill Jazz." He followed with Joplin's "Original Rags," "played my way," Sonny explained. Next was Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport's "State Street Jive" (alternately known as "Fifth Street Blues" on the piano roll/instrumental version) and Meade Lux Lewis' "Tell Your Story."

Bob Pinsker gave a detailed exposition of Eubie Blake's career, with Noble Sissle, as a writer of Broadway shows. The team's first big hit show, "Shuffle Along" contained, as Bob noted, a backlog of five years' worth of songs by the pair. Witmark published a medley containing "only 11" of the show's "enormous" number of songs (20 or more, Bob said). Bob gave a terrific rendition of this medley, "arranged by George K. Trinkaus and rearranged a little by me." It included "Bandana Days," "Gypsy Blues," "Honeysuckle Time," "Baltimore Buzz," "I'm Just Wild About Harry" (still one of the most recognizable of Blake's songs even today), and what Bob said was essentially the show's theme song, "Love Will Find a Way."

Still in a Blake mood, Bob followed with one of Eubie's earliest attempts at ragtime composition — an untitled foxtrot which Bob found in manuscript form in the Blake archive in Baltimore. Bob said the manuscript, which was never published, simply has the words "by J. Hubert Blake" across the top of the title page, along with the year "1913" (but Bob said that Blake wrote the year on years later, and that the piece was most likely composed in 1914). After a flawless rendering, Bob wryly stated, "I feel like singing," treating the crowd to "Blake's most famous single song" -- "Memories of You." The piece's gorgeous, sublime harmonies were beautifully played and sung by Bob.

Brad Kay bounded onto the stage and gave a quick discourse on the basic chord progression that propels the Blake song, offering off the top of his head four or five other great pop songs of the era using the same progression, "which insinuated itself into the popular psyche." Brad then offered another great song which he said was the only one he knew of to offer its unique series of progressions (which, evidently, never caught on with the public): Woods & Alter's "Just Like a Butterfly that got Caught in the Rain." Brad noted that the piece will be on the next album by Janet Klein and her Parlour Boys.

Brad then switched to the King of Ragtime Composers, offering the 1906 edition ("the Reader's Digest version," Brad quipped) of "The Ragtime Dance," complete with stoptime claps from the audience, and a very up-tempo rendering of "The Easy Winners." Next was Clarence Williams' "Midnight Stomp," with Brad providing his inimitable brand of scat-singing, and Hoagy Carmichael's "Boneyard Shuffle." Finally was "The One I Love Just Can't Be Bothered with Me," a 1930 song of unrequited love, with music by Harry Warren, given a wry-and-dry comic treatment by Brad.

Eric returned with yet another Scott piece, the composer's self-styled "Great Scott" rag of 1909, followed by a pensive rendering of the Chauvin-Joplin masterpiece, "Heliotrope Bouquet" — the only published example of the ragtime of Chauvin, one of the genre's most prolific and impressive composers.

Ron Ross took to the stage, noting that "I don't play any music by black composers and I don't know anything by anyone born in February," nonetheless offering his 1987 piece, "Small Town Private Eye," the theme song Ron composed for a small student film in which he was also the star. Next was Ron's 1999 "Digital Rag," which prompted a series of jokes from the audience about digital versus analog and so forth. Of course, the title refers to the pianist's digits (fingers). Ron concluded his wonderful, brief set with his tango-like "Sweet is the Sound."

Glenn Perelman, a once-longtime attendee at Maple Leaf Club functions, surprised everyone by attending his first OCRS meet, and was welcomed onto the stage. In self-deprecating manner, he stated that he barely plays on the fringes of ragtime, then wowed everyone with his playing of the '60s hit "Never on Sunday," which Glenn gave a decidedly raggy and jazzy flavor.

Bill Mitchell gave a mini-dissertation on the great black composer Shelton Brooks, whom Bill said lived till 1975, to the age of 89. Brooks, Bill recollected, attended a Maple Leaf meeting in 1968, just a year after the club was formed, and was strictly an audience member at that point, declining to play.

Brooks, Bill said, never really wrote any rags, yet wrote many pieces that were influenced by ragtime. Bill said that "A Cosey Rag," Brooks' only published piece branded a rag, is actually a song without lyrics — an instrumental with a verse and a chorus. Banjoist Hal Groody then joined Bill on stage, and the duo gave some rollicking versions of Brooks' two greatest works: "Some of these Days" and "Darktown Strutter's Ball," plus his "Walkin' the Dog." They ended their duet set with Scott's masterpiece of Classic ragtime, "Grace and Beauty."

Sonny Leyland encored with a rare Cow Cow Davenport tune called "Hurry Up and Bring It Home." Sonny said that the piece was never published, and that the only recording of it is the Alabama pianist-composer's own rendering on piano roll. Sonny said he obtained the roll and, to his dismay, discovered that the piece was in the key of G-flat. Undeterred, he said he painstakingly learned the piece off the piano roll, giving us a rouser of a rendition. Next, "to relax," he improvised a blues number in the key of C, a piece that was indeed very relaxed and ultra-bluesy.

Being joshed by the audience about his accent, Sonny, who came to California from Southampton, England, via New Orleans, said that one advantage to his coming to the U.S. was that "I learned to pronounce the letter 'R' ." He wrapped up his encore set with his own "Juke Joint Jump," which indeed has a jumpy, driving rhythm.

Impressed with Sonny's playing, and wanting to "keep the energy flowing in the same direction," Brad delivered a smashing, masterful, version of Meade Lux Lewis' "Honky Tonk Train." He then gave us another tale of unrequited love, "Too Busy," speaking some of the lyrics ("my lover's too busy to be in love with me" etc.) in typical Kay fashion. Brad then delivered two treats: Duke's "Jubilee Stomp," which has the quintessential Ellington sound, and Fats Waller's "St. Louis Shuffle," one of the many, uncounted compositions from Fats' so-called "hamburger" suite.

Bob told an amusing story about how Fats once received some new recording equipment for his birthday in 1937, and interviewed his various pianists pals. When he got to Eubie Blake, and asked him what his thoughts were, Eubie unwittingly said to Fats, "I think that the greatest pianist of our race is... James P. Johnson!" (yeah, happy birthday, Fats!). Bob then gave us a capsule view of Eubie's post-ragtime career, including his immersion in show tunes, his premature "retirement" in the 1940s, and of his career's many revivals, the first being in the '50s. He played "Baltimore Todalo," which Bob says Eubie probably wrote around 1908 but didn't revise, polish and publish until 1962, carrying the tune around in his head (and his hands) for 54 years!

Bob then treated us to "Dicty's on Seventh Avenue," which he says was Eubie's "term paper" for a course he took in 1942 during his early retirement. The number, Bob notes, does seem to approach certain harmonic progressions with a definite system in mind — perhaps the Schillinger system under which Eubie was studying in the course at NYU, (with professor Rudolph Schramm)? — and that Blake even subtitled the piece "A Modern Rag." Indeed, parts of it do seem to have unusual tonal ideas, while others are distinctly Eubie.

The song "Loving You the Way I Do" from the show "Hot Rhythm," from 1930 (with lyrics by Jack Morrissey).

Bob closed off his wonderful Blake seminar-set with the versatile master's seminal masterpiece "Charleston Rag," which Eubie said he composed at age 16 (!), and recorded by Eubie in the '20s as "Sounds of Africa." Bob says the piece, like many others of Blake, evolved a great deal from 1899 to the version we know today.

Sonny Leyland then closed out the enjoyable afternoon of great, diverse black (and white), February-born black (and other) ragtime with one of his own great boogie compositions, "Argyle Avenue Breakdown." See you all next OCRS, which will probably be held in late March.

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