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February 2007 OCRS: Black History Month & February-born composers

Returning to Steamers on February 17 for the first time since last year's RagFest, OCRS saw a smaller than usual crowd but a fine complement of musicians who arrived ready to perform pieces saluting Black History Month and the February birthdates of numerous vintage ragtime composers. The afternoon saw seven pianists deliver some three-dozen pieces in roughly three hours – an efficient clip of one tune every five minutes.

MC Eric Marchese got things rolling with the perennial "Sunflower Slow Drag," a Joplin-Hayden collaboration from 1901 that at one time reputedly rivaled "Maple Leaf Rag" in popularity. As a salute to James Scott, whose birthday is February 12 (1885), Eric capped his set with Scott’s first two rags, "A Summer Breeze" and "The Fascinator." Both pieces were issued by Dumars in 1903, when Scott was just 18 – and the influence of such 1901-1902 Joplin rags as "A Breeze from Alabama," "Elite Syncopations," "The Strenuous Life" and "Peacherine Rag," as well as Joplin's first published rag ("Original Rags"), is evident in nearly every measure of both rags.

Vincent Johnson opened his set with another early classic rag, Marshall and Joplin's "Swipesy," favoring a relaxed, measured tempo and nice embellishments on the final strain. He then dished up what is widely considered Scott's masterpiece, the graceful and beautiful 1909 rag "Grace and Beauty," in a smoothly polished rendition. Vincent closed his set with “Painted Lady,” a swingy yet pretty original composition intended as one-third of a "butterfly" suite of rags he’s in the process of completing.

To honor the February 7 (1887) birthdate of the great James Hubert Blake, better known as Eubie, Shirley Case dished up three terrific Blake rags along with fine improvisations: "The Chevy Chase," "Baltimore Todolo" and "Tricky Fingers." "Chevy Chase" is familiar to ragtime audiences but the other two may not be. "Todolo" was composed around 1910 but not copyrighted until 1962 nor published till 1975. The aptly named "Tricky" was likewise composed during the vintage era (circa 1907-09) but not copyright nor published till much later (respectively, 1959 and 1971).

Carl Finkel, a young Fullerton resident studying ragtime piano, treated the crowd to "The Cascades" and "Maple Leaf Rag," the latter, of course, Joplin’s all-time masterpiece and the former being Joplin's 1904 tribute to the spectacular display of gushing fountains, waterfalls and lagoons at the St. Louis World’s Fair. With the opening theme of "Cascades," Carl provided contrasts between soft (first time around) and forceful (on the repeat), a swingily rhythmic handling of B, a nice job on the challenging trio and a soft, melodic closing strain. Skipping the "Maple Leaf" repeats, he gave the rhythmic trio section a good amount of punch.

Noting how frequently Joplin re-used the basic framework of the 1899 "Maple Leaf," Eric proceeded to demonstrate with one of Joplin’s least-heard yet most outstanding rags, "The Sycamore." Like "Cascades," Eric said, "Sycamore" is from 1904 – and like that piece, its opening two themes reflect their "Maple Leaf" counterparts. However, the last half of "The Sycamore" looks forward seven years to "Treemonisha" – specifically, to the chorus of the 1911 opera's closing number, "A Real Slow Drag."

Bill Mitchell treated us to piano arrangements of two of the popular song hits of James P. Johnson, the "Father of Stride Piano" who was born in Brunswick, NJ, on Feb. 1 of 1894: "Old Fashioned Love," from 1923, and "If I Could Be With You," published 1926 but not a hit until four years later.

Following Bill’s lead, Bob Pinsker delivered another Johnson song, "When I Can't Be With You," a "sequel" to "If I Could Be With You," treating us to the Andy Razaf lyrics. He followed with a piece he guaranteed we'd never heard: "Blue Classique," an "extremely rare" Eubie Blake composition featured in the 1937 show "Swing It." With its ever-shifting rhythms and harmonies, the piece appears highly experimental, with various sections recalling stride, boogie, and the blending of classical, jazz and blues pioneered by Gershwin in "Rhapsody in Blue" – and this was years before Eubie studied the Schillinger system with Professor Rudolph Schramm at NYU. Bob's obtaining this rarity and performing it for us was impressive, as was his rendering of it.

Continuing the afternoon-long parade of rags by composers born in February, Fred Hoeptner delivered "Victory Rag," an underperformed masterpiece issued in 1921, among the last handful of James Scott rags published by John Stark. Fred followed with one of his own masterworks, the intricate, delicate "Aura of Indigo," whose fluid harmonies are alternately pretty, haunting and melancholy.

Eric’s encores were "Eugenia," an example of a Joplin rag copyrighted in February (Feb. 23, 1906) which Eric recorded on his 2004 CD "The Silver Lining," and "Gladiolus Rag," one of several great Joplin rags enjoying its centennial this year (and yet another whose first half follows the "Maple Leaf" structure).

Vincent encored with "Five Foot Two," played as a bluesy slow drag with Stride licks. Noting his fondness for the music of Billy Mayerl, Vincent offered "Lime Swallowtail," one of the two partially completed rags from his butterfly suite, referring to it as "an improvisation on 'Painted Lady' with Billy Mayerl touches." He closed his set with "the piece I play most often at home," a swingy version of the Confrey Novelty masterpiece "Kitten on the Keys."

Bill encored with two terrific pop rags and a great classic rag: Henry Lodge's rag "Tokio," George Botsford's "Grizzly Bear" and Scott's "Pegasus." Intended or not by Bill, all three composers were born in February (Lodge Feb. 9, Botsford Feb. 24, Scott Feb. 12). The 1912 "Tokio" opens by quoting a famed Japanese folk song and has a decided Japanese flavor throughout. This rarely heard piece, never previously performed at OCRS, was a real treat. Bill gives the great Botsford rag, which was also a dance craze and a hit ragtime song, a jazz-piano feel. He likewise gives the wonderful 1920 "Pegasus" a nice swing, including the boogie-style bass of the B theme.

Shirley's encore combined authentic Blake with Blake tribute, starting with "Eubie's Classical Rag," a complex piece full of intricacies Shirley long ago mastered. Eubie composed this remarkable creation in 1972, when he was 85 years old, proving what an inspiration ragtime music can be regardless of chronological age. Galen Wilkes' "Baltimore Rag" is an homage to Eubie using stylistic devices similar to Blake. Shirley closed her set with the humorously named, bluesy "Proctology Rag," a great rag by Blake protege Terry Waldo, who during the 1960s transcribed many of Eubie's earlier composed yet unpublished rags.

Bob Pinsker closed out the enjoyable afternoon with five outstanding selections skillfully played. He opened with the piano version of "Monkey Hunch," a 1917 verse-chorus James P. Johnson song Bob transcribed from the piano roll for his as-yet unpublished Johnson folio. His next selection was Johnson's "After Hours." From 1923, the piece’s opening theme is reminiscent of Blake’s "Charleston Rag" and its first two themes darkly sinister. A walking bass is prevalent throughout, with Bob's rendition of the C theme utilizing a drop-bass figure (not in the printed score).

Next up: Blake's groundbreaking Eastern Stride rag "Charleston," given lots of snap and pep by the pianist. For contrast, Bob then offered a nicely sung vocal selection of Blake's (with lyrics by the ubiquitous Andy Razaf), "I'd Give a Dollar for a Dime," then closed his set with what is considered James P. Johnson’s "Maple Leaf," the immortal "Carolina Shout," a hot 1914 Stride piece which Bob gave tons o' licks and tricks.

Due to popular demand, the next OCRS will be held next month, on March 24th, at Mo's Music Center, followed by our May 19th meet at Steamers.

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