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Classic and Novelty rags rule the May 2008 OCRS

On a scorching hot day, with record-setting heat for a May 17th, many sought the cool, air-conditioned Cave at Mo's Fullerton Music for an enjoyable afternoon featuring a dozen pianists who showcased the works of Joplin, Scott and Lamb as well as Confrey, Straight, Bargy and their fellow Novelty composers. Because of a late start, the meeting ran till nearly 5 p.m., with a total of 48 selections featured. Some pianists did just one or two pieces while others did six or seven, but the per-pianist average was four pieces or selections, and we thank Mo and Roger for giving us the time to complete our musicale.

While waiting for the hall to fill up, Vincent Johnson and Eric Marchese worked up two of their Charley Straight duets, "S'More" (1916) and "Blue Grass Rag" (1918) as well as Harry Jentes' "Bantam Step" and Marshall and Joplin's "Swipesy." Vincent then began the formal program with more Novelty – Jesse Greer's "Flapperette," followed by Les Copeland "French Pastry."

Preparing to compete in the 34th annual World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest in Peoria, Ill., later this month, Andrew Barrett unfurled three of the selections he'll be entering: "Efficiency Rag," "Omeomy" and "Sidewalks of New York." The first, one of Scott's masterpieces, included such Barrett touches as walking bass, bluesy slurs, hesitation, and a generally jazzy sound. Switching from the Howard (Baldwin baby grand) to the Hobart cabinet grand (full upright), Andrew gave Bargy's great 1920 piece a bluesy/jazzy sound. He then transformed "a pop song from 1894" into ragtime by first rendering the piece straight, then switching keys and ragging it, then repeating the rag version, only this time as if interpreted by a Harlem Stride master.

Eric noted that throughout the year he'd be performing each of Joplin's 1908 works, having played "Fig Leaf" at last month's meeting. He described the instructional manual Joplin issued that year, titled "School of Ragtime." Taking up only three pages, the booklet offered six exercises by Joplin along with his comments on each and a third staff showing how the treble would look unsyncopated. Five of the six exercises are only four measures and one (No. 5) is eight, so Eric played all six as one continuous piece, beginning with No. 6 (all single notes, much like a rag intro.) and proceeding with 1 through 6, playing each twice. Apparently, only one or two audience members were familiar with the publication, and although perhaps simplistic for advanced pianists, it offers an interesting insight into Joplin's thoughts and attitudes toward ragtime.

Eric then did a set of three rags published in the city of Chicago, having just completed a performance the previous weekend as a ragtime pianist at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (part of a Pacific Symphony Orchestra fundraiser's salute to the city of Chicago). He opened with Theodore Northrup's "Louisiana Rag," published in 1897 by Thompson Music Co. and regarded as the first rag composed specifically for piano. In the odd keys of D major and A, as well as G major and E minor, its rhythms are quite sophisticated, especially for its position in early ragtime. Eric then proceeded with two 1904 Chicago pieces: Theron Bennett's "St. Louis Tickle" and Joplin's "The Sycamore," the former published by Victor Kremer and the latter, Will Rossiter. The "Tickle" was a huge hit even before it was heard at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and "Sycamore," whose first half looks back and "Maple Leaf" and second half forward to "A Real Slow Drag," is an underplayed masterpiece and one of only three Joplin rags issued in Chicago.

Stan Long played his original "Haunting Accident," followed by Robin Frost's "Uncle Herbie's Rag," a very bluesy piece that doesn't sound as tough as Frost's Novelty tunes. Stan ended his set with the "Colonel Bogey March," taking this utterly familiar tune and ragging it up.

Marilyn Martin played "The Bell Hop," a terrific rag from 1914 by Frederick Bryan, followed by the theme song from "Bonnie and Clyde" and a terrific version of the chorus from the poetic, elegiac "September Song" (Weill-Anderson, 1938).

Making his OCRS debut, Jared DiBartolomeo opened with James P. Johnson's "Mule Walk," with its slurs and cross-the-bar syncopations, then Lamb's "Ethiopia," emphasizing the gorgeous counterpoint on this rarely played Classic Rag and giving it a grand finale, and closed his set with Eubie's "Baltimore Todalo," with numerous creative embellishments. Jared is studying at nearby UCI, so we hope he'll avail himself of the club again in the future.

Bill and Eric did the afternoon's first two-piano duets, offering two more rags that have a connection to the city of Chicago. Perhaps Charles "Doc" Cooke's most well-known piece to ragtimers is his "Blame It on the Blues." Though Cooke was from Chicago, the piece was issued by Remick in New York in 1914. Bill had just heard a bluesy, slow-tempo rendition and suggested the piece be taken in that style. Bill and Eric did so, thereby lending the piece a nearly different sound, mood and feeling. They closed with an old favorite: Percy Wenrich's "The Smiler" (Arnett-Delonais, Chicago, 1907), which lends itself nicely to four-handed arrangements such as theirs.

Bill continued his set solo, with Harry Belding's "Good Gravy Rag," James Scott's "Suffragette Waltz" and Chauvin and Joplin's "Heliotrope Bouquet." The Scott piece shows the Classic Rag composer's classical training, a beautiful, delicate waltz, and Bill noted that the Chauvin-Joplin collaboration is "a favorite" of his, adding, "I have many favorites" ("Good Gravy" among them!).

Another newcomer to OCRS was Randy Johnson, who attended Maple Leaf meetings years ago when the meetings were being held at Old Town Music Hall. Randy opened with Harry Jentes' "Bantam Step," lending it a jazz-Stride feel and shifting to a slower tempo for the trio. He then switched to Classic ragtime with an aptly slow-tempo verison of "Weeping Willow" and a beautiful rendition of what is considered James Scott's all-time masterpiece, "Grace and Beauty." Randy attacks the piano with gusto and an obvious enthusiasm for, and love of, ragtime music.

Randy's friend, Robert Thomas, made the most of his first showing at OCRS by performing what is considered Joseph F. Lamb's all-time great, "Top Liner Rag" (1916). Taking the piece at a measured tempo that allowed it to breathe, Robert emphasized its many dramatic flourishes by careful use of rubato. He played the piece lovingly and with a tremendous degree of expression.

Eric added to the afternoon's trend toward Classic ragtime with his performance of Joplin's 1908 rag "Sugar Cane," initially derided by John Stark as simply a "rehash of ‘Maple Leaf'." The piece is, in fact, an inspired improvisation on the first three themes of "Maple Leaf," with elements of poetry (first section), dance (second), song (the lilting trio) and dance againg (in the stomping closing theme) mixed in for good measure.

Ron Ross performed his newest masterpiece, the quiet, melancholy, syncopated "West Coast Tango." He followed with Joplin's "Rose Leaf Rag" and his own "Orange County Rag," which is part rag, part tango. Ron's newer compositions display an increasing sophistication and a deep understanding of pieces by composers like Joplin, Lamb and Jelly Roll Morton.

Fred Hoeptner played most of his beautiful and wonderfully intricate "Dalliance," then switched to Classic ragtime. His performance of Lamb's "American Beauty" (1913) completed a trifecta of great, intricate Lamb masterpieces started by Jared and continued by Robert. Fred ended his set with Scott's "Victory Rag" (1921), a rarely played late-era Classic rag with a magnificent B theme and a Broadway-esque trio. Fred has performed this before, and he's one of the few ragtimers out there to recognize what a triumph "Victory" is and to make it a permanent part of his repertoire. Like most of Scott's late rags, you either have to play them frequently to keep them under your fingers, or simply avoid playing them altogether – sort of a "use it or lose it" condition.

Frank Sano took to the baby grand and Bill the upright piano and, with Andrew on washboard, delivered "Chicago"; Wenrich and Madden's "Red Rose Rag"; Fats Waller's "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling" (1929); and Zez Confrey's "Stumbling (Paraphrase)," from 1922. This was a nice set, neatly balancing ragtime with '20s standard pop tunes.

Vincent offered up three Novelties: Zez's "Nickel in the Slot"; Arthur Schutt's rarely-if-ever played 1922 piece "Bitter Sweets"; and Harry Jentes' "The Cat's Pajamas" (1922), the latter with Andrew on washboard. Andrew then took to the Howard for a four-handed version of Les Copeland's bluesy "Rocky Mountain Fox." These two young gents approach some of the more challenging tunes with aplomb, and both have done a nice job of working up pieces by the eccentric Copeland, many of whose best pieces only made it to piano roll and had to be transcribed decades later so that the likes of Barrett and Johnson (and others) could trot them out for our benefit.

Randy encored with "Johnson Rag," written by dance band leader Guy Hall and his pianist pal Henry Kleinkauf in 1917. The duo kept the piece alive throughout the northeast in the '20s and '30s before selling a new arrangement of it to Robbins in 1939. Jack Lawrence was hired to write lyrics; he slimmed the piece down to just the A theme, adding the now-famous one-note pickup. In its new form, the piece idled for a decade, but in 1949, bandleader Russ Morgan made a recording of "Johnson Rag" which made it into the Top 40. It stayed there through 1950, when a second version, this one by Jimmy Dorsey, hit the Top 40, followed by versions from Claude Thornhill and the Jack Teter Trio. Thus "Johnson Rag" became a huge national hit more than 30 years after it was originally composed, one of the main reasons it's still performed today.

Jared encored with Confrey's 1921 Novelty "My Pet," a rarely played masterwork (and certainly played far less than "Kitten on the Keys") and James P.'s "Snowy Morning Blues" (1925). Andrew then joined him for a four-handed version of Joplin's masterful 1908 rag "Pine Apple." Andrew encored with Jimmy Blythe's "Farm House Blues" from 1928. Unpublished, this terrific piece was issued on piano roll only, from which it was transcribed by Bob Pinsker.

This terrifically diverse musical afternoon ended with a 14-handed version of the granddaddy of all rags: the "Maple Leaf Rag" (of course!), with Andrew and Jared on the Howard, Vincent and Eric on the Hobart, Stan on the digital piano, and Randy and Robert each on his own spinet located at the back of the hall. We may actually have set a Guiness Book World Record, under the category "Most Ragtime Pianists to Simultaneously Play Maple Leaf Rag." Next OCRS is at Steamers on June 21st, where we will try to top this wonderful meeting!

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