More wonderful ragtime
Though sparsely attended performer-wise
(7 pianists and 3 vocalists), the June 15 Orange County Ragtime Society
gathering brought a good-sized and enthusiastic crowd who were treated
to 3.5 hours of music and a total of 40 pieces emphasizing not just
vintage and contemporary ragtime, but a broad variety of later, ragtime-related
styles including Novelty piano and boogie.
OCRS founder and emcee Eric Marchese got things started with a stumper,
giving the audience a couple of hints before playing Percy Wenrich's
1907 rag "The Smiler." OCRS first-timer Andy Barrett figured
out that it was a Wenrich tune before yielding to Eric for the complete
answer. Next was "That Texas Rag," a two-fisted Texas rag
by lady composer Nell Wright Watson, issued in Dallas in 1914. Eric
wrapped up his set with a couple of original tunes: "Ramblin'
Through Town," one of his few folk-style rags; and "Rapunzel's
Regret," a delicate rag-tango. Both pieces were written in 1989.
Ron Ross opened his set with a light, cakewalk-style foxtrot by Joseph
Lamb, "Cleopatra Rag" (1915), then offered a 1998 composition
of his own, "Obediah's Jumpsuit" and a rag Ron has played
at OCRS frequently, the jazzy-sounding "Digital Rag."
Andy Barrett made his first OCRS appearance by performing Paul Pratt's
rarely-heard 1916 composition "Spring-Time Rag" and Charles
L. Johnson's "Crazy Bone" (1913). Though just 14 years old,
young Andy already demonstrates a very measured and light yet assured
touch and an entertainer's instinct when it comes to adding embellishments
of his own. He floored the Steamers crowd with his performance.
Also appearing at Steamers for the first time was Galen Wilkes, the
now-legendary ragtime composer, author, historian, researcher, conductor
and arranger. He opened with "Creeks of Missouri," his most
famous piece to date, explaining that he wrote it in 1983 after having
driven through Missouri and observing the large number of creeks.
Galen continued with two more outstanding originals: A ragtime waltz
from 1998 titled "Sweet Dreams" (so named for ragtime guitarist
Craig Ventresco's habit of saying "sweet dreams" whenever
calling it a night) and "Wisteria Rag," a springtime-themed
piece from the mid-1980s. Galen added a fuller sound and more emphatic
embellishments on the second strain repeat of "Sweet Dreams,"
while "Wisteria" is a jazzy late foxtrot.
Continuing the "springtime" theme, Eric returned with "Zephyrs
of Spring," a 2000 original. He then played Scott Joplin's 1902
march "Cleopha" in homage to the piece's centennial, and
wound up with an homage to his new baby niece: "Josie's Waltz,"
a ragtime piece in 3/4 time written in March of this year to commemorate
the birth of his sister's first child.
Non-ragtimer Glen Perelman stepped onto the stage to offer a jazzy,
improvisatory riff on the Buddy Holly tune "Every Day" ("the
flip side of 'Peggy Sue,' Glen informed us) and an equally engaging
arrangement of "Summertime."
Andy encored with one of the most difficult and least-performed Joplin
numbers, the 1912 opus "Scott Joplin's New Rag," to whose
trio repeat Andy added jazzy embellishments. He closed his set with
the George Cobb rag "Cracked Ice," with good command of
the B theme's tricky syncopations.
Brad Kay arrived with three beautiful songbirds decked out in flapper
gear in preparation for their upcoming performances of Jane Green
music. Brad gave a thumbnail bio of Green, a gifted singer who rose
from the lower depths in Los Angeles to fame in the 1920s. "Many
contemporary female singers," Brad said, "are now doing
He then brought up three of these in succession, each performing two
numbers popularized by Green. First was the troupe's newest cast member,
Miss Indira, whom Brad said is also an accomplished writer and playwright.
Indira sang the 1926 number "Hard-to-Get Gertie" (by Ager
and Yellen), a typical jazz age number with great double entendre
lyrics and some hot piano courtesy of Brad, followed by the 1928 Walter
Donaldson number "Because My Baby Don't Mean Maybe Now."
Next up was the endearingly eccentric and funny Mews Small, billed
by Brad as a "star of stage, screen, radio and crabgrass."
She opened with the ever-popular "He's a Cousin of Mine,"
a ragtime song by Chris Smith and Cecil Mack from 1906 that Mews did
part-singing, part in speak-song and which she qualified as being
"just a naughty little thing!" Accompanied by Brad's hot
jazz licks, she followed with the Jane Green song "Got No Time"
(written by Gus Kahn and Richard Whiting in 1925), with its wonderful
lyrics of optimism.
Third but not least was songbird Marea Boylen. Brad offered a bit
more Green biography, noting that as a teen she did the cabaret restaurant
circuit around Spring St. in downtown Los Angeles, where she came
to be known as "The Queen of Coon-ology." The lyrics Green
sang for the 1924 number "The Blues Have Got Me" (by Roy
Turk and Abner Silver) were apparently partly autobiographical. The
song, well-delivered by Marea, has tons of great syncopated lyrics,
including "I'm a synco-patriotic baby" (!) The duo's closing
number prompted Brad to remark with surprise that such a great number
as "You Went Away Too Far and You Stayed Away Too Long"
(written by Monaco and Bryan, 1926) could wind up in obscurity.
Eric unveiled one of his newest rags. Written in March and titled
"The Silver Lining," it's a classic-style rag in which each
theme contributes to the telling of a musical story. In this case,
the rag's cautious, self-protective opening strains gradually give
way to a more daring trio and, finally, to a finale that speaks of
self-confidence yet ends on a cautionary note: a mood that tempers
the two approaches (of taking action and holding back).
Bob Pinsker related a tale of how he tracked down a piano roll piece
he heard out of an elaborate piano-shaped music box which credited
the 1916 foxtrot "Havanola" to George Gershwin. Though Gershwin's
May 1917 piano roll performance is the piece's most famous rendition,
the composer is Hugo Frey [the piece's subtitle is "Have Another"
Foxtrot]. Its interesting harmonics and key changes do indeed sound
Next up was a '30s piece by Rube Bloom, who wrote Novelties in the
'20s and, later, pop songs. Bob gave a strong voice to the 1934 piece,
"Penthouse Romance," which spins a romantic aura via advanced
harmonies that sound poignant. The piece bears similarities to the
works of Cole Porter and seems to have been influenced by the works
of Bix Beiderbecke.
Bob then got into Jimmy Blythe territory, explaining how among the
first true boogie recordings was Blythe's "Chicago Stomps"
from 1924. But when Bob tracked down the manuscript for the piece,
he discovered that the handwritten manuscripts, made for copyright
deposition purposes, for the piece and for "Armour Avenue Struggles"
are the reverse of the tunes heard (and so labelled) on the Paramount
record. Bob then played the piece, which is "Armour Avenue Struggles"
according to the record label but "Chicago Stomp" according
to the manuscript. The piece is loaded with the stylistic devices
of boogie, from triplets and tremolos to walking bass figurations.
Bob then wrapped up his set with J. Lawrence Cook's contemplative
"Modernistic Reverie" from 1930.
Eric explained that the reason for his purple-and-gold necktie was
to honor the Lakers' winning of its third consecutive NBA Championship
earlier in the week. He then played his 1991 rag "Winnin' Time,"
which was then dedicated to Magic Johnson and "the winning spirit
of the Los Angeles Lakers."
Ron encored with his "Sunday Serendipity," chock-full of
the composer's typical use of the minor key, parallel work between
the two hands, and clever dissonances. He followed up with the 1999
piece "Retro Rag."
Brad returned to the stage and, through the encouragement of the audience,
delivered a solo, Fred Rose's 1926 foxtrot called "Deep Henderson"
that Brad said was named for "a little town called Henderson."
Brad's wonderful arrangement of this band tune featured some very
cool left hand work that includes cross-handed playing and a very
deep walking bass. Mews then returned to the stage and, with a voice
that's perfect for the song and for evoking the era, gave us "Mine,
All Mine." Marea encored with "It Won't Be Long Before He
Belongs To Me." Brad then ended his encore set with the '20s
tune "The One I Love Just Can't Be Bothered With Me," which
Brad jokingly said befits any romantic stalker and which he punched
across with some very nice, '20s-style crooning.
Bob wrapped up the relaxed and enjoyable afternoon of ragtime and
related surprises with an exposition about Chicago musical enterpreneur
Axel Christensen, who launched a school of ragtime instruction and
whose vaudeville work in the teens landed him the title of "The
Czar of Ragtime" (which, Bob is certain, "he must have changed
after the Russian Revolution!")
"The progression of his work from 1910 to 1927 is fascinating,"
Bob noted, zeroing in on a self-published collection of Novelty piano
pieces called "Syncophonics." Christensen, Bob reveals,
didn't write any of the pieces but, rather, lifted "bits and
pieces" of them from various Jimmy Blythe piano rolls. After
Blythe's death in 1931 at age 30, Christensen republished and retitled
some of the Blythe numbers, dropping Blythe's composer credit.
Bob opened his encore set with "Syncophonic No. 6"(1929),
followed by "Let's Go, Joe," the 1942 song usually credited
to Cab Calloway. The tune, Bob said, was written by Willie "The
Lion" Smith; Calloway's contribution are the piece's lyrics.
The song, Bob noted, is now owned by the music publishing giant "MPL
Communications." After asking the audience if they knew what
MPL stood for, he then told us: McCartney-Paul-Linda. Sir Paul is
the owner of the company.
Bob closed his set and the afternoon with "Syncophonic No. 4,"
whose main theme was taken from the climactic section of the Jimmy
Blythe nickelodeon roll of George Thomas's "Underworld Blues."
The tune has loads of sizzling boogie licks, played to perfection
by the man Eric has dubbed "the West Coast Alex Hassan."
Eric bade the audience farewell and announced that the next OCRS would
be a Saturday in mid- or late-August. Check this website periodically
for the latest on the exact date, and on OCRS news in general!