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It’s Straight and Scott for February ’04 OCRS

At Steamers Jazz Club and Café in downtown Fullerton, OCRS members and fans met for the second time this year – this time on Saturday, February 28. The seven performers offered some 35 tunes in a compressed schedule of just two-and-a-half hours.

Noting that the anniversary of James Scott’s birthdate (Feb. 12) had just passed, Eric Marchese opened things with one of Scott’s most characteristic rags, “Quality” from 1911. Observing the centennial of several of Scott Joplin’s best compositions, Eric then offered “The Sycamore,” issued in 1904 by Chicago publisher Will Rossiter, which would issue only one other Joplin rag (“Eugenia” in 1906). Before playing the piece, Eric demonstrated how the trio of this rag, subtitled “A Concert Rag,” prefigured the chorus of “A Real Slow Drag” by seven years. Eric closed his set with “The Kangaroo Hop,” a popular foxtrot of the “animal fad dance” variety written by Melville Morris and published in Detroit in 1915.

Bill Mitchell opened with Abe Holzmann’s hugely successful 1899 cakewalk, “Smokey Mokes,” giving it his usual swingy, jazzy feel. Contributing to the Scott derby, he then gave us not one but two wonderful Scott compositions: “Evergreen Rag” from 1915 and “Suffragette Waltz” from a year earlier. “Evergreen” has a light cakewalk flavor and some lovely harmonies typical of Scott, and Bill accentuated the strong counterpoint in the left hand of the B theme, especially on the final run-through. “Suffragette” has three very pretty sections, with a trio that seems especially influenced by light classical music.

Shirley Case delivered an entire set of rags by William Bolcom. The first two pieces, “Old Adam” and “Through Eden’s Gates,” are from the four-rag “Garden of Eden” suite, while her third selection, the ever-popular “Graceful Ghost,” is from Bolcom’s suite of “Three Ghost Rags” from 1970-’71. “Adam” is a rollicking piece with a great finale featuring call-and-response. Though titled a “cakewalk,” “Eden’s Gates” is actually a graceful, melodic piece in the Classic Rag style and one of Bolcom’s many masterpieces. Probably Bolcom’s most well-known piece, “Graceful Ghost” is a most dramatic example of ragtime. Its second theme offers dark, weird and somewhat “spooky” sounds, and the entire composition features rich harmonies. As Shirley played the final reprise of the opening theme, she slowed down the tempo to increase the dramatic emphasis. As always, her playing of all three pieces was exemplary.

Bob Pinsker started his set with “The Dream Rag,” an early rag-tango which he said was credited by Eubie Blake to Jess Pickett, but which Bob said James P. Johnson credited to the pianist known as “Jack the Bear,” whose real name was John Wilson. As Bob noted in his remarks, the opening strain also resembles Matthews’ “Pastime No. 5” (or vice-versa). Bob’s precise fingering and dynamics made the piece really sing. Next up was “Penthouse Romance,” a 1934 piece by Rube Bloom that sounds reminiscent of Rodgers and Hart’s music of the same period, and even more strongly of Gershwin’s groundbreaking hybrid compositions from the ’20s. Bob ended his set with Luckey Roberts's tune “Railroad Blues,” which he transcribed from Pete Wendling’s 1919 QRS piano roll. Accordingly, Bob played the piece, which features many typical Wendling licks, with a piano roll-style sound and jazzy feel. Notable is the piece’s trio and Bob’s handling of the final refrain: a tango bass, treble high up on the keyboard, and flourishes in the treble that suggest the whistle of a railroad train.

Eric returned to the piano to deliver “Black Jack Rag,” a Charley Straight composition which he learned from a transcription by Tom Brier, from Straight’s own hand-played roll from 1917. Frank Sano then soloed on Harry Warren’s “Million Dollar Baby,” a 1931 pop standard he said was written for Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Next, Frank invited Bill Mitchell up to the piano. The two shared the bench and keyboard on two numbers, “The Girlfriend” and “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind,” with Frank on the bass and Bill on the treble. On the first number, Bill improvised on the melody line, throwing in interesting licks and tricks. On “Mandy,” both guys emphasized the tune’s melody line and its jazzy foxtrot rhythms. Bill then soloed on Luckey Roberts’ “Music Box Rag,” embellishing the trio, lent a gentle, relaxed feeling to Morton’s “The Pearls,” and closed his set with more Scott in a swingy, jazzified version of the 1909 masterpiece “Sunburst Rag.”

Fred Hoeptner contributed even more Scott with the piece most widely regarded as the composer’s masterpiece, “Grace and Beauty.” Also from 1909, it’s truly a great rag, and well-played by Fred. Next, Fred tackled the ambitious “Ragtime Nightingale,” one of Lamb’s many masterworks. Fred played the opening theme as quiet, the second theme as deeply romantic, and brought out the trio’s countermelodies while handling that section’s demanding fingerwork. The final reprise of B was handled with an air of triumph. Fred closed his set with one of his original masterpieces, “Aura of Indigo,” which captured first prize during one of the many Scott Joplin Foundation composition contests held in the 1990s. The piece’s intro is quiet and melancholy and its opening strain delicate and introspective. The second theme features numerous key changes and parallel motion between both hands. The trio sounds demanding, with a Gershwin-style sound reminiscent of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Fred brings the opening strain back at the piece’s finale to give the rag a quiet, low-key ending.

Young Andrew Barrett opened his set with a nice, steady, smooth version of “Scott Joplin’s New Rag,” offering many intriguing embellishments. Andrew not only gets the piece’s beat but also communicates the swing of its many complex cross-syncopations. Next up: Harry P. Guy’s “Echoes of the Snowball Club” which, from 1898, is the first ragtime waltz ever published. Andrew told us that Guy, from Detroit, was classically trained on violin and was founder of the African-American Musician’s Union. In playing this fine piece, Andrew works in all the waltz’s trills while adding many of his own touches. He closed his set with Bowman’s famous folk-style rag, “Twelfth Street Rag,” relating how Bowman had bet a pal who ran a pawnshop that if the friend could make money with three balls hanging in his pawnshop entrance, Bowman could make money writing a rag that used “only three notes.” This rendition, which Andrew said was “slightly simplified,” was played slow and steady, with pleasing embellishments including treble tremolos in the third section.

Eric encored with Joplin’s classically-oriented “Augustan Club Waltzes” from 1901. He was followed by Bob, who gave us “Whisper Sweet,” from a 1931 James P. Johnson show, and yet more Charley Straight in “Sweet Pickin’s.” The former was full and romantic sounding, while the latter created an exciting sound from the very full score published by Forster in Chicago in 1918, with numerous licks and tricks in the trio.

Shirley encored with another theme set of two Novelties – a contemporary piece by Galen Wilkes called “Puppy on the Piano” followed by Confrey’s immortal “Kitten on the Keys.” The Wilkes piece has some exciting downward runs and phrases written in the minor key. Shirley showed a great touch and feel for Confrey’s classic, with its tangled-sounding treble notes and Impressionistic harmonies.

Frank encored with “Dill Pickles” and a medley comprised of his original “Pet Dander Rag” and the vintage tune “Coney Island Washboard.” Andrew came back up for an encore, offering even more Charley Straight with the masterful 1918 piece “Blue Grass Rag.” Both jazzy and bluesy, the piece exemplifies the composer’s ingenuity, and Andrew served up embellishments that suit the piece quite well.

Bob Pinsker returned to the piano, bent on working in one last Charley Straight tune – and one that, to our knowledge, has never been played prior to this because it’s never been transcribed: “A Dippy Ditty,” an unpublished Straight wonder that Bob very recently transcribed directly from the roll (the only existence of this piece up to now). The piece is typical Straight, with a demanding bass part, loads of jazz-style “breaks,” and many licks and tricks characteristic of the composer in his other pieces. Bob ended his set and the afternoon with “Fowler’s Hot Strut,” another piece he transcribed from a piano roll. This jazzy foxtrot is most interesting to hear, with a drop-bass that attests to the influence of Harlem Stride upon its composer, Lem Fowler. At one point in the trio, Bob plays the melody in the bass with crossed hands – and, upon switching back, he plays the melody in the treble in the keyboard’s uppermost registers.

On the whole, the compressed meeting yielded some of the most interesting music we’ve heard at an OCRS function in quite a while!

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