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
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
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!