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September 2008 OCRS: Plenty o' Zez, lotta Cobb, too much Johnson?

Steamers Jazz Club hosted our final OCRS of the year on September 20, 2008. It was a terrific show and a terrific lead-in to RagFest '08, which arrives at the end of next month, and the presence of Stan Long's "Bozodoerfer" allowed the musicians to deliver duets.

A dozen musicians – 11 pianists, one banjoist – made it a memorable afternoon, with a total of 45 selections. Precious little Classic ragtime was heard this time around, but quite a bit of Novelty was heard. Composer-wise, the emphasis was on Charles L. Johnson and Zez Confrey – a total of 10 pieces written by the two, or nearly one-fourth of the day's output – and there were two compositions apiece by George L. Cobb, James Scott, Arthur Schutt, Pete Wendling, Spencer Williams and Ernesto Nazareth. A total of nine contemporary pieces were also featured, meaning all but 14 of the selections were by Confrey, Johnson, Cobb, Scott, Schutt, Wendling, Williams, Nazareth or OCRS pianist-composers Ross, Long, Barrett, Hoeptner and Marchese.

Ron Ross launched things with his "Digital Rag" and his lovely ragtime waltz "Cloudy." Vincent Johnson followed with two great Zez Confrey tunes – "Greenwich Witch" and "Sunshine from the Fingers," the latter a light, parlor-style Confrey tune from 1937 that's rarely performed or heard. Exhibiting his light, fluid style, Vincent closed his set with the 1926 piece "Bluin' the Black Keys" by Arthur Schutt, which is developing into one of Vincent's specialty numbers.

Eric Marchese offered one of the earliest great rags to come out of Nashville, Thomas Broady's "Whittling Remus" from 1900. Eric notes that after two semi-, cakewalk-style rags in 1898 and 1899, Broady followed with this, a full-fledged rag full of terrific harmonies and syncopations, only to disappear from the ragtime scene.

Marilyn Martin introduced the first of the day's many Charles L. Johnson rags, the venerable "Crazy Bone" from 1911. Stan Long offered a Cobb, a Confrey and an original: "Feedin' the Kitty," "Dizzy Fingers" and "Short Boogie."

Bill Mitchell aimed for an all-Johnson set but wound up doing two out of three: "Porcupine Rag" and "Beedle-Um-Bo." The former is one of Johnson's liveliest and happiest, from 1909; the latter, subtitled "A Slow Drag," was written under the pen name of Raymond Birch, with a sweet, unassuming main theme and a second strain with unusual rhythms and a trio with unusual harmonies. Bill wrapped up his set with James Scott's lovely waltz "Suffragette" (1914), which Bill said "could have easily been written by a Viennese composer."

Jumping on the Johnson bandwagon, Eric offered the composer's 1911 rag "Cum-Bac." Eric noted that the rag was named for a popular child's toy which, when rolled away, swerved around and rolled back.

Bob Pinsker delivered an eclectic set featuring Clarence Williams' only published rag; a rare piece that goes back to the late 19th century and which was preserved thanks to Eubie Blake; and a popular syncopated song about jazz written by a great ragtime composer-performer-piano roll artist.

The Williams rag was "Wild Flower." From 1916, its opening section has a funky sound and uses the three-over-four device, the second theme has a strong Jelly Roll Morton flavor and the trio employs more funky harmonies and a break. Bob's repeat of the trio showed his skill at improvising. "The Dream" (or "The Dream Rag") is a rag tango attributed variously to John Wilson – aka "Jack the Bear" – and to Jesse Pickett. No one really knows. The piece, however, is first rate, as was Bob's rendition of it. He closed with the Pete Wendling song "Take Me to the Land of Jazz," which is featured on the Heliotrope Ragtime Orchestra's brand-new, hot-off-the-shelf CD "That's Going Some." Bob explained what that phrase meant in the vernacular of 1910 (something like "That's putting it mildly!" or "Ain't it the truth!"), then played, and sang, the popular piece, offering an outstanding interlude on the piano.

Randy Johnson delivered "Atrevedinha," an 1889 polka by Nazareth, followed by Lew Pollack's "That's a Plenty" from 1914 and another Nazareth, "Brejeiro." Rob Thomas followed with "Mississippi Shivers," which is one-third of Confrey's 1924 "African Suite," then Artie Matthews' "Pastime Rag No. 4" – minus the repeats – and Nazareth's tango "Matuto."

Frank Sano soloed on Wenrich and Madden's "Red Rose Rag," showing a decidedly light touch on the piano, then duetted with Bill Mitchell on Fred Fisher's ever-popular "Chicago" and Jimmy McHugh's "I Can't Believe That You're In Love with Me."

Andrew Barrett offered a 1916 Novelette by Cobb titled "Drift-Wood" which he said was issued in a silent movie folio published by Walter Jacobs. The piece has a gentle mood and, as Andrew noted, quite modern-sounding harmonies, especially for its time. Speaking of advanced harmonies, Andrew then followed with Fred Hoeptner's gorgeous, and harmonically advanced, "Audacious Harmonies."

Andrew and Vincent duetted on Bargy's "Sweet and Tender," the composer's first piece but among the last to be published. Eric then offered one of Pete Wendling's solo piano pieces, "Honky Tonk," a sweet foxtrot from 1916, followed by an original, "An Autumn Memory," among his earliest rags (1989). Deciding to play "name that tune," Vincent gave us two solos, giving only the years as 1921 and 1922. Stan and Eric guessed Zez Confrey on the 1921 piece but not the title (it was "You Tell 'Em Ivories"). No one came up with the second piece – Arthur Schutt's "Syncopating' the Scale" – or its composer, despite the piece's repeated use of the scale for its melody lines. Vincent and Andrew wound up this mini-set duetting on Max Kortlander's "Red Clover," with Andrew switching the Bozodoerfer to bells, electric organ, etc., for special effects.

Stan encored with his "Long Boogie," complementing his earlier "Short Boogie" and also incorporating his name in the process. The trio of Bill Mitchell (piano), Jimmy Green (banjo) and Andrew Barrett (washboard) delivered "Dill Pickles" and a medley of the great songs of Albert Von Tilzer – "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," "Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey," "Oh, By Jingo" and "I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time."

Ron encored with two original songs, "Studio Sensation" and "All-Inclusive Tour." Eric and Vincent duetted on Charley Straight's "Hot Hands," with Andrew on washboard. Noting that it was exactly six years ago this month that he met bride-to-be Lisa Richardson at Steamers at one of the earliest OCRSs, Bob encored with two of the pieces he played on that Saturday afternoon in September, 2002, both by Spencer Williams: "My Little Moonlight Maid" and "Shimmie-She-Wobble," the latter having an intro. identical to Roberts' "Pork and Beans." Bob closed his set with Willie the Lion Smith's "Music on my Mind," copyrighted in 1940 and later used as the title of Smith's autobiography.

Andrew brought the glorious afternoon to a close with Scott's immortal yet rarely played "Troubadour Rag" and his own recent masterpiece, "Humanitaur – A Remarkable Drag." The former, from 1919, is pretty and lyrical; the latter, from 2008, is harmonically daring. Everyone is now primed for RagFest '08, and ready for 2009's six scheduled OCRS musicales at Steamers Jazz Club and Mo's Fullerton Music.

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