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Scott, Blake & JPJ's birthdays, and a lotta terrific piano-playing, at Feb. 2009's OCRS

Scott, Blake & JPJ's birthdays, and a lotta terrific piano-playing, at Feb. 2009's OCRSSteamers Jazz Club hosted our first OCRS of 2009 – sparsely attended at first, it gradually attracted more and more listeners as musicians dribbled in one or two at a time. A baker's dozen of musicians (12 plus your MC) provided the music for one of our best performances ever.

Vincent Johnson got things rolling with "Daintiness Rag" by James P. Johnson, one of three major ragtime composers whose birthdates we celebrated today – James Scott and Eubie Blake are the other two. The birthday boys' birthdates are Feb. 1 (Johnson), Feb. 7 (Blake) and Feb. 12 (Scott). Vincent followed with Arthur Schutt's "Bluin' the Black Keys," a great score that has become one of the pianist's signature selections, and closed his set with Zez Confrey's "Romanza" from the composer's "Three Little Oddities" (1923).

Stan Long delivered two Charles N. Daniels tunes, the composer's perennial "Hiawatha" and "Indian Summer," a lovely number that mixes minor tonalities with major and whose trio quotes Foster's "Swanee River." Marilyn Martin opened with "Ode to Vince Guaraldi," her own version of the music used by the jazz pianist in the "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1966). She followed with Galen Wilkes' rag- tango "Spanish Moss" (1984) and Joplin's "Weeping Willow," the latter taken at a pleasantly moderate tempo.

Noting the recent inauguration of President Barack Obama, Eric Marchese offered a ragtime song by Robert B. Joplin, Scott's less-famous younger brother, who was, among other things, a singer, actor, comedian and theater manager. The piece, titled "Since Emancipation Day," includes lyrics by the composer which essentially predict (or, perhaps, wish or hope for) the election of a black president. The prescient piece was issued by John Arnold out of Cincinnati in 1910 – astonishingly, Eric noted, almost exactly a century ago and exactly 99 years prior to Barack Obama's inauguration. Giving the audience the gist of the lyrics, Eric played the piano portion, which was arranged by Sam Patterson, a friend and colleague of the Joplin brothers, Turpin brothers, Louis Chauvin and Arthur Marshall.

Bob Pinsker offered selections from all three of the February "birthday boys": "Ophelia Rag" (Scott, 1910); "Loving You the Way I Do" (Blake) and "Scott Joplin's Dream"; and "Twilight Rag" (Johnson). "Loving You" is from the 1930 musical "Hot Rhythm" given pleasing vocals by the performer. Bob said that "Dream," which Eubie arranged, was "supposedly by Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb" but is actually "mostly sort of Broadway" according to Bob, who demonstrated with some characteristic Blake phrases from the piece, which has a lyrical opening theme, a sweet second theme and a more rhythmic trio.

Bob also gave some historical background on "Scott Joplin's Dream": Lamb's widow possessed many notebooks containing "scraps of tunes," of which this was one; Eubie was hired by Bob Darch to arrange this and many others. Blake filled out the bass and chose chords that Bob said are "clearly Broadway" in sound and milieu. Johnson's "Twilight Rag," meanwhile, was performed by Bob as transcribed by him from the 1917 piano roll, with a lively main theme and a dense second subject.

Robert Wendt made his OCRS debut with two classic Joplin rags: "Easy Winners" and "Elite Syncopations." He lent the former a soft volume and restrained tempo, playing the D theme echo phrases 8va and returning to the A theme as the piece's ending, and played the latter by adding triplets and octave leaps in the treble.

As commentary on these two Joplin rags, Eric Marchese offered "Wall Street Rag," a Joplin masterpiece that's 100 years old this year and which ties in with the current concerns regarding the U.S. economy. Eric noted that the piece is a program rag in which each of the four sections musically describes four different moods experienced by brokers on Wall Street.

After a long absence from OCRS, former Disneyland pianist Alan Thompson – explaining that he was given the nickname "Clueless" by his colleagues for being "unaware of my surroundings" – offered a lengthy and intricate medley that includes "Bumble Boogie", the "Haunted Mansion" theme, "Chim Chim Cheree", classical, waltz, other Disney film themes and the last two themes of Joplin's "Solace." His second selection was an arrangement of a Johnny Hodges boogie, "the only boogie woogie I've ever learned." Both selections were virtuoso displays of skill, talent, and command of the piano and of diverse source material – which, if you consider it, is pretty much the definition of the great itinerant ragtime pianists of 100 or more years ago.

Nan Bostick, who also hadn't dropped in on OCRS in a long while, played Harry P. Guy's "Pearl of the Harem," Fred Stone's "Sue" and Tom Pitts' "Meadow Lark Rag." Her playing of "Pearl" was soft, gentle and assured. Nan gave the final repeat of the last theme of "Sue" a slow rideout, followed by a one-step tempo, and she nicely improvised on the second theme of "Meadow Lark" while making the trio more forceful.

Frank Sano offered "Louise" and "Doin' the Raccoon," two lively pop pieces from the 1920s, followed by Shirley Case, who delivered two terrific Billy Mayerl pieces, "Marigold" and "Sleepy Piano," then ended her set with "Sleepy Lou" by Irene Giblin. "Marigold" shows Mayerl's skill at mixing pretty melodies with innovative harmonies, rhythms and structure. "Sleepy Piano" has a funky, bluesy second theme featuring consecutive right-hand tenths and a more mellow trio and the piece is, overall, intricate and challenging. "Sleepy Lou" is an unassuming and pretty folk rag with a gentle second subject and a semi-tango trio that's dramatic and arresting.

Like Bob, Bill Mitchell served up a set featuring works by Scott, Johnson and Blake: "Sunburst Rag"; a James P. medley ("The Charleston," "Runnin' Wild," [though that tune is not by JPJ] "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight," "Old-Fashioned Love"); and Eubie's "Baltimore Todalo." In all three selections, Bill served up beautiful variations of tempo and dynamics, eliciting wild whoops of enthusiasm and applause from the audience.

Randy Johnson opened his set with Confrey's "Yokel Opus," continued with a rare James Scott rag, "Dixie Dimples," and concluded his set with "the original ragtime version" of "Johnson Rag." "Yokel" is from the "Wisecracker Suite." Randy gave "Dimples" a slow tempo and loads of rubato and expression. For "Johnson Rag," Randy invited Nan, Marilyn, Robert, Kathryn Ryan and Rob Thomas as his rhythm section, the quintet offering inspired time-keeping via maracas, washboards and more.

For his set, Rob Thomas performed "Golliwog's Cakewalk," a Claude Debussy piece inspired by American ragtime; Joplin's "A Real Slow Drag" (accompanied by Randy Johnson on the melodica); and "Matuto," a tango by Nazareth. "Golliwog's" is from the composer's "Children's Corner Suite" from 1908 and resembles (and precedes) his "General Lavine" and "Minstrels," both from 1910. Rob said the Eric Marchese and Sharon Evans' performance of "Slow Drag" at RagFest '08 "inspired this bit of mayhem," as Randy soulfully rendered the vocal line, plus countermelodies and harmonies, on the rare instrument (Randy mentioned it was $29 at Target) known as the melodica. For "Matuto," Rob invited Randy to stay onstage with the melodica while Nan, Marilyn, Kathryn, Robert and Vincent made up a full rhythm section. The sextet not only did that but provided cheerful rhythm and some melody as they ragged and rolled (and Randy danced!) to Rob's steady hand at the piano.

Lack of time prevented all of the musicians from being invited back up for encores, so Eric selected the quartet of Vincent, Nan, Bob and Alan for such honors. Vincent encored with a fast and funky version of Les Copeland's "French Pastry Rag," complete with creative embellishments. Nan's encore was George Gould's "Whoa! Nellie!" – a like "Meadow Lark," a rarely played Bay-area rag. Bob offered a pair of encores: An "Untitled Eubie Blake Foxtrot" whose manuscript he discovered among Eubie's manuscripts at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore; and Fats Waller's "Wildcat Blues" (1923). For the latter, Bob dished up a wicked and wild handling of the demanding Stride bass.

Alan wrapped up the wonderful afternoon with a "Medley of American Tunes" ("The Godfather" theme, "As Time Goes By," "It Had to be You," "Walking My Baby Back Home," "Aloha Oe," "Carolina in the Morning") and "Coney Island Washboard." Alan invited Kathryn, Marilyn and Stan to provide rhythmic accompiment to his spectacular pianistics, which garnered the most enthusiastic reception of any of the day's outstanding musicians.

This was really a terrific and wonderful day of fine musicianship from one and all, so we can only hope that this level of skill is maintained in the upcoming OCRS sessions.

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