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"
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
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.