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Feb. 12 2005 OCRS hails Black History Month, Feb. birthdates and club’s 3rd anniversary

An enthusiastic audience was on hand for the first OCRS meet of 2005 (Sat., February 12), as the society, founded in November of 2001, recognized its third anniversary. With 11 performers on hand, a total of 43 selections were performed – some of the best music ever heard at any of the club’s gatherings at Steamers Jazz Club in Fullerton.

In honor of Black History Month, the focus was on the tunes of America’s great black ragtime composers, with February composer birthdates getting the lion’s share of attention – James P. Johnson (Feb. 1), Eubie Blake (Feb. 7); and Joe Jordan (Feb. 11). Special attention to the music of James S. Scott, whose birthdate is Feb. 12. In addition, the club celebrated its third anniversary, which technically occurred in Nov. ’04.

Eric Marchese opened the proceedings with James Scott’s outstanding 1909 essay “The Ragtime Betty,” followed by two of Arthur Marshall’s best solo compositions, “The Pippin” (1908) and “Kinklets” (from 1906).

Bill Mitchell immediately jumped in on honoring James P. Johnson with a medley of some of the master’s greatest compositions. He opened with the romantic “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight,” then segues into “Old Fashioned Love” before ending with one of Johnson’s most rousing – and most universally known – compositions, “The Charleston.” To all, Bill added a smooth touch, style and flair.

Ron Ross contributed three originals, all of which can be found on his Ragtime Renaissance CD: the jazzy and contemporary “Digital Rag,” “Moscow Rag” (an interesting minor-key study) and “Sweet Is the Sound.”

Andrew Barrett chose two of Scott’s most intricate and difficult rags to honor the great Classic rag composer’s birthday, interspersing what is perhaps Joe Jordan’s most famous ragtime composition. He opened with Scott’s restless and lively “Efficiency Rag” from 1915, continued with “That Teasing Rag” (1909) and ended with Scott’s “Pegasus” (1920). Evidence of Andrew’s growing prowess at the keyboard: his penchant for adding intricate improvisational licks to already-difficult pieces such as “Efficiency.” His playing was equally deft on a slowed-down version of “Teasing Rag,” bringing out ehe piece’s beautiful harmonies.

Visiting the southland from her home in the Bay Area, Nan Bostick opened with the busy, lively “Sue,” by black Detroit composer Fred S. Stone (and noting that his late January birthday made him an Aquarian, and thus roughly fitting the performing theme of the day). Next was the rarely heard “Such Is Life” by Charles “Doc” Cooke, whose “Blame It On the Blues” is widely performed today; “Such Is Life” has a funky A theme, while the B theme is snazzy and jazzy. Nan ended her fine set with one of the few rags to be published in California during the vintage era: “Meadow Lark,” by black San Francisco composer Tom Pitts (and issued in 1916 by Nan’s great-uncle, Charles N. Daniels). Frank Sano followed Nan with a lively medley of “saloon songs” that included “Hello Ma Baby,” “Susie,” “Five-foot Two,” “Piano Roll Blues” and “Toot-Toot-Tootsie,” adding many a pleasing improvisation.

Bob Pinsker continued the James Scott tribute with an entire set of tunes by Classic ragtime’s “Little Professor”: “Great Scott Rag,” “Troubadour Rag,” “New Era Rag.” Seemingly derivative of the works of Scott Joplin and Charles L. Johnson, the lively “Great Scott” dates from 1909, from the composer’s prolific early period of 1907 through 1911, while “Troubadour” and “New Era,” both from 1919, are two standouts from Scott’s late working period (1914 to 1922), which features intricate, thickly textured studies. Bob created a funky improv for the last repeat of the closing strain of “Great Scott,” added the Scott “echo effect” to the ending of “Troubadour” and took “New Era” with a swinging rhythm and much verve.

In from Temecula, Brett Torres – now 17 and prepared to enter college – debuted four original compositions, all untitled. Each features what are now Torres signatures, including shifting time signatures, unpredictable bass lines and unusual harmonies. The first number meshed foxtrot and waltz rhythms and discordant harmonies, with a driving second subject. The second piece sounds like a rag written during the Jazz Age. The third piece shows Brett’s knowledge of the classics – a waltz that opens with a gentle, pretty theme, then turns stormy, with dramatic chords and harmonies out of the classical repertoire. Brett’s penchant for mixing tempos, styles and harmonies within individual compositions has caused many to herald him as the “next” Keith Taylor – a not unflattering comparison for the young man!

Eric unveiled a surprise piece he said neatly tied together Black History Month, Abraham Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves, and ragtime: “Since Emancipation Day,” a 1910 song by Robert B. Joplin, Scott’s younger brother. Eric noted that the piece has its own character quite apart from anything by Robert’s more famous brother; that Robert’s otherwise mundane lyrics make startling use of the phrase “equal rights bill” with respect to blacks, and allude to Booker T. Washington’s visit to the White House and to a black someday being elected president of the U.S.

Citing Ed Berlin’s research, Eric noted that Robert Joplin had sung bass in Scott Joplin’s early vocal group, the Texas Medley Quartette, that Robert carved fame for himself as a theater manager and stage director; writer of several vaudeville musical shows; and as a singer, dancer and comedian. As interesting is the fact that “Since Emancipation Day” was arranged for publication by Sam Patterson, Louis Chauvin’s partner and best friend and also a friend of Tom and Charlie Turpin, Joe Jordan and Scott Joplin. Eric followed with “Augustan Club Waltzes,” one of Scott Joplin’s non-ragtime waltzes, then closed his set with “Rag Sentimental,” a late (1918) James Scott rag and one of the few that’s in a more melodic vein.

Rick Friend, a pianist at The Silent Movie theater in Los Angeles, made his first OCRS appearance with a raggy, jazzy arrangement of “Dixie,” which he said he uses to accompany Buster Keaton’s classic “The General,” and a lyrically slow, bluesy, dreamy rendering of Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.” He closed things with Joplin’s 1908 masterpiece, “Pine Apple Rag.”

Toting his banjo, Phil Cannon delivered a slow-tempo rendition of Ted Snyder’s 1908 hit, “Wild Cherries” and Lamb’s intricate 1909 rag “Ethiopia” before adding to the Scott tribute with “Ragtime Oriole,” Scott’s 1911 entry into the birdcall genre. He took “Wild Cherries” at a modest tempo, emphasizing the prominent flatted sixth of the trio while adding a twangy sound, handled the intricate “Ethiopia” with apparent ease and added grace notes to “Oriole’s” first and last themes. In between, Phil explained that all of his performances are based on his own transcriptions, for banjo, of the original piano scores – a daunting task in itself, not to mention the difficulty of trying to play these things on so compact an instrument!

Phil’s playing of “Ragtime Oriole” kicked off seven consecutive James Scott pieces: one by Phil, three by Bill Mitchell and three more by Fred Hoeptner. Bill tore off “Frog Legs,” “Sunburst” and “Kansas City Rag” (including a creative arrangement on the opening theme’s bass), all from Scott’s earlier working period; Fred dove into “Grace and Beauty,” the 1909 rag considered by many to be Scott’s masterpiece, before tackling the intricate, challenging “Victory Rag” from 1921. Though from 1915, “Evergreen Rag” has a thinner texture and is more lightly syncopated, providing a pleasing contrast to “Victory.”

Nan encored with “Echoes of the Snowball Club,” the first-ever ragtime waltz (1898) by black Detroit composer Harry P. Guy, playing the piece with grace and elegance. A late arrival, composer-pianist Doug George made his first OCRS appearance with three parody songs: “Hey Saddam Hussein-ey” (sung to tune of “Honolulu Baby”); “I’m Doin’ What I’m Doin’ for Cash”; and “Got No Time” (by Gus Kahn).

Brett Torres encored with yet another original, which he jokingly referred to as “Blues Improv. Number One,” and indeed, the number was both bluesy and jazzy. Andrew Barrett encored with one of James P. Johnson’s many great Stride pieces, “Mule Walk,” and Bob Pinsker followed with “Harlem Strut,” another great Johnson tune, making the piece’s triplets, intricate fingerings and drop-bass appear easy. Bob then closed the afternoon with the only Eubie Blake piece to be heard, the immortal “Charleston Rag.”

While the afternoon brought too little of Blake, Johnson and Jordan, the surplus of James Scott – a total of 14 Scott tunes, nearly half of the composer’s entire ragtime output – was impressive, and the entire afternoon a fitting display of versatility by the society’s various pianists.

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