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Feb. ’06 meet: A new grand piano, a dearth of pianists, a huge turnout – and a great OCRS at OCRS

With Steamers Jazz Club undergoing somewhat of a renovation, a dearth of pianists and the skies threatening to rain but never actually doing so, the first OCRS meet of 2006, held February 18, 2006, proved one of the most unusual of recent memory.

MC Eric Marchese had intended to feature the works of Black-American ragtime composers, in honor of Black History Month; composers whose birthdates are in February; and anything even remotely related to Valentine’s Day. With a total of just six musicians and one singer, those aims were only partially met, yet the turnout was one of the most successful in OCRS history, with patrons continuing to arrive throughout the afternoon. Apparently, the society is no longer a well-kept secret, with fans coming from as far away as San Diego and Camarillo.

Eric inaugurated Steamers’ brand-new Yamaha C7 with “Fiddlesticks,” a rarely played 1909 rag by Al B. Coney; Bowman’s “Kansas City Blues”; and a pair of Joplins: the composer’s poignant, ultra-Classic “Reflection Rag,” published post-mortem by John Stark in December 1917, eight months after Joplin’s passing on April 1, 1917, and, as requested by a listener, the 1903 gem “Palm Leaf.”

Stan Long offered more Joplin in the form of the 1909 masterpiece “Solace,” and, from the composer’s Sedalia-St. Louis period, “Peacherine Rag” as well as Stan’s own down-home, Brun Campbell-ish original, “Haunting Accident.”

Commenting on the prolific year Joplin had in 1902, Eric performed the rarely played “A Breeze from Alabama,” noting its unusual structure and daring harmonic changes. As an ode to Valentine’s Day, he then offered Charles Johnson’s “Kissing Bug” before introducing vocalist Erika C. Miller to the growing crowd.

Erika gave beautiful voice to Irving Berlin’s hit “You’d Be Surprised,” a comedic little narrative Berlin wrote for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919; and the 1911 Al Turner song “Lovin’ Babe,” which received a sterling piano arrangement by the master, Scott Joplin. In case no one noticed, both songs have a sweetheart theme suiting the fact that Valentine’s Day was just four days earlier.

Pressed for time, Stan encored with the durable “Maple Leaf” and an original medley comprised of “Fur Elise,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and several more well-known tunes, including, as Stan noted, “the kitchen sink.”

Stalling for time until reinforcements could arrive in the form of additional piano players, Eric commented on Joplin’s talents as a composer of pieces other than ragtime, offering the lovely “Augustan Club Waltzes” from 1901, which was almost surely influenced by European classical piano music.

Eric then talked about Louis Chauvin’s legendary prowess as a pianist and his prolific work as a composer – work preserved in only three published pieces: “The Moon is Shining in the Skies,” “Babe, It’s Too Long Off” and “Heliotrope Bouquet,” the first two being ragtime songs and the latter a piano rag. Eric noted that Chauvin could seemingly only see something through to publication when a pal was involved to urge him to get something on paper; hence, “Moon,” co-written with Sam Patterson and issued in 1903; “Babe,” ditto with Elmer Bowman, 1906; and “Heliotrope,” beloved by ragtime fans as the sole piano rag bearing Chauvin’s name, preserved thanks to Scott Joplin. Eric then proceeded to play “Heliotrope” and, noting a similar diminished chord in the same key (G major), “Babe,” which is a lovely, slow-drag verse/chorus-style pop song in ragtime.

Ron Ross helped Eric to fill stage time by performing three originals: his jazzy “Digital Rag”; his moody waltz “Cloudy,” with its lovely shifting moods; and “Sunday Serendipity.” Frank Sano chimed in with a medley of tunes, mostly from the 1920s, including “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” and “Louise,” plus the 1899 hit “Hello! Ma Baby,” one of the first ragtime songs to score a hit.

Bill Mitchell made a belated arrival, profuse with apologies. None needed, Mr. Mitchell: Your set dedicated to James Scott, whose birthdate is Feb. 12, 1885, shone like a beacon, starting with the legendary “Frog Legs,” now in its centennial this year; “Sunburst,” which uncannily prefigures Herb Alpert’s “Spanish Flea” by decades; and the masterful “Grace and Beauty.”

As Frank Sano set up his electric ukelele, Eric stalled for time by playing a brief original (from 2000), the ragtime song “Found... and Lost.” Frank and Bill then duetted, with Frank on uke and Bill at the Yamaha, on three 1920s standards: “I Want to Be Happy” (from the mega-hit musical “No, No Nanette”); “Cakewalkin’ Babies from Home” (1925); and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.”

Again killing time, Eric played “Gladiolus,” then brought Ron back for an encore set that included two original songs: “Afternoon TV” and “Studio Sensation,” the latter a spoof of country-Western singers and songs with a wry, self-deprecating tone regarding singing off-key.

As promised, Eric offered a set of composers with February birthdates: “Pekin Rag” by Joe Jordan (born Feb. 11, 1882); Scott’s “The Ragtime Betty”; and with his own birthday being two weeks earlier, the original slow drag “Out of Time” (composed in 2003).

The stalwart Bill then continued the theme with two pieces by the legendary Eubie Blake (born Feb. 7, 1887): “Baltimore Todalo” and “Memories of You,” the former a signature Eubie rag, the latter an immortal work in the American songbook, a lyrical number played smoothly, and with a nice, jazzy feeling of improv on the repeat of the chorus. Bill then gave us a sample of James P. Johnson’s genius. Johnson, born Feb. 1, 1894 and known as “the Father of Stride Ragtime,” was one of the most versatile musicians and composers of his time. Bill created a medley of two of James P.’s greatest songs: “Old-Fashioned Love” and “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight.” Bill then wrapped up his set with Johnson’s 1906 hit “Dill Pickles,” yet another piece enjoying its centennial this year.

Eric took a request from the audience for “Pine Apple Rag,” then offered two outstanding Joplin tunes from 1909: “Solace – A Mexican Serenade,” with its distinct and haunting habañera rhythm; and the ragtime waltz “Pleasant Moments.”

Getting to Steamers just in time to wrap up the afternoon’s complement of music was Andrew Barrett, who warmed up with the Tom Brier novelty “One Too Many” before settling in for the “Romanza” segment of Zez Confrey’s 1923 opus “Three Little Oddities.” Andrew showcased the piece as something delicate and lyrical, and a genuine surprise for those who only know Zez as a novelty writer. Andrew then closed his all-too-brief set with the piano part from the song “I Know That You Know” from the 1926 Broadway musical “Oh, Please!” by the talented and prolific composer Vince Youmans and lyricist Anne Caldwell. Andrew announced that he would play the piece as written, verse-chorus, then repeat the chorus in a novelty style and, finally, play the chorus once more, this time as a Harlem stride piece. He did all of this and more, creating ever more intricate stylings on the final go-round of the song’s chorus.

The half-dozen pianists and one singer wound up performing 45 selections in all to a happy, relaxed crowd well-sated with good music. The sizable crowd lingered for quite a while, apparently reluctant to let go of the buoyant mood. New patrons mingled with fans of long-standing. See you back here at Steamers for the next OCRS on Sunday, April 9 (11:30 am to 2:45 pm).

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