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Joplin leads Classic Rag parade at June OCRS

Besides your intrepid MC, only six musicians appeared at Steamers for the June 2009 OCRS – but the seven of us delivered a show of which the small crowd was vocally appreciative. Of the total of 42 selections, 11 were Scott Joplin compositions – perhaps the most Joplins we’ve ever seen at an OCRS.

Audience member and Joplin lover Jeffrey Hartman got things rolling with Joplin’s 1903 opus “Weeping Willow.” Marilyn Martin unveiled a new tune – Harry Puck’s “Foot Warmer,” which the composer published himself in NYC in 1914 along with veteran Tin Pan Alley-man Bert Kalmar. She followed with Galen Wilkes’ modern classic, “Creeks of Missouri.”

Each of the three sections of “Foot Warmer” is distinct, with an opening theme in the minor key, a light, delicate second subject featuring flowing melodies, and a lightly jazzy trio with creative bass lines.
Stan Long offered “Haunting Accident,” one of his originals, which has a funky, down-home sound and an active bass. Eric Marchese followed Stan with George Botsford’s “Texas Steer,” a 1909 rag with an unusual bass figures and a catchy A theme that recurs in the middle of the piece and as its conclusion.
Stating that she was “still on a birdcall-rag kick,” Shirley Case performed an outstanding set of that wonderful subgenre of ragtime: Lamb’s “Bird-Brain Rag” and Scott’s “Ragtime Oriole,” with Glenn Jenks’ “The Ragtime Hermit Thrush” in-between.

The Lamb piece opens with a gentle legato subject, a second theme that uses the “echo” effect, a gently jazzy trio and a final theme with tangy dissonances. Shirley said that Jenks said his piece was “inspired by a walk through the woods” in his native New England. It’s a sweet, delicate, sometimes haunting rag that swells with emotion and uses a recurring four-note motif that trades off between hands and whose changes to the trio on its repeat are actually scored.. Shirley said that orioles frequently visit the yard of her Laguna home, prompting her to dust off Scott’s “Ragtime Oriole.” When playing the repeats on all three rags, Shirley improvises brilliantly.

Vincent Johnson followed Shirley with a superb set of vintage Novelties: Harry Jentes’ “Tricky Trix,” Arthur Schutt’s “Piano Puzzle,” and Pauline Alpert’s “Dream of a Doll.” “Trix” is intricate and jazzy that demands great keyboard work – and receives it from Vincent. “Puzzle” is played from the Andrew Fielding transcription, with an intricate, inventive, part-minor-key B theme and inspired embellishments throughout by Vincent. From 1934, the virtuosic pianist Alpert’s rarely-played “Dream of a Doll” was, according to Vincent, “her theme song.” It’s soft, delicate, pretty and indeed dreamy, with many touches that could be described as Gershwinesque.

Eric then delivered a second Botsford rag that’s 100 this year and that is rarely performed: “The Pianophiends.” As a nod to the first day of summer, Eric played “A Summer Breeze,” James Scott’s first published rag. In recognition of the Los Angeles Lakers having just won the 15th NBA title in the franchise’s history, Eric closed his set with “Winnin’ Time,” an original he composed in the late 1980s that’s dedicated to Magic Johnson (the Laker who coined the phrase “winnin’ time”) and to all Laker teams of all time. Like many Botsford rags, “Pianophiends” uses the three-over-four device in its opening theme and has a B theme where both hands descend the keyboard, playing in parallel. Eric said one reason the Scott piece was so rarely played is that almost all of Scott’s subsequent rags were much better (and far less imitative of Joplin’s work, in this case, “Elite Syncopations,” “The Easy Winners,” Marshall and Joplin’s “Swipesy” and a few other 1901-’02 rags). “Winnin’ Time” is partly modeled on the optimism found in “Pine Apple Rag” and has a second theme that uses the broken-chord figure of the second theme of “Maple Leaf Rag.” The device was widely copied in Joplin’s day but Eric said that “Winnin’ Time” is his only rag that uses this concept.

Doug Haise had three rags whose titles begin with the letter “P”: “Powder Rag,” “Peaceful Henry” and “Pick a Chicken.” Most of the audience was only familiar with E. Harry Kelly’s “Peaceful Henry.” “Powder” is a terrific march-style rag by Charles L. Johnson, writing under the pseudonym of Raymond Birch, while “Pick a Chicken,” a late ragtime-era one-step by Mel B. Kaufman, a talented yet obscure ragtimer with a penchant for selecting unusual titles such as “Taxi!,” “ME-ow,” “Introduce Me,” “Listen to This” and “Come Across.” Doug provided brilliant, crisp playing for all three pieces, being especially careful to note the dynamic markings.

Bill Mitchell offered a trio of Joplin’s best early rags: “Original Rags” from 1899, “Elite Syncopations” from 1902 and “The Easy Winners” from 1901. Bill creates his own style bass playing for “Original Rags” while adding octaves, slurred notes and a generally Dixieland-sounding style to the melody. Unlike many a pianist, he took “Elite” at a nice, slow tempo while allowing the audience to hear the second theme Eric mentioned in his description of the last strain of “A Summer Breeze,” which essentially lifts the melody line of “Elite” verbatim.

Having to make an early exit, Shirley encored with Theron Bennett’s “Sweet Pickles,” a folksy rag with blues touches and atypical bass figures made even more dramatic by Shirley, who blended boogie-style bass work with what’s scored. Eric then invited Marilyn to perform “Foot Warmer” again, this time with more listeners on hand than 90 minutes earlier; ditto with Stan, who offered “Swipesy” with a boogie-style bass and a performance of “Original Rags” he said was “my version” of the piece.

Continuing with the afternoon’s apparent Joplin theme, and with his promise to perform all of Joplin’s 1909 output (six pieces total), Eric delivered “Solace,” Joplin’s only rag to use tango rhythms; the ragtime waltz “Pleasant Moments”; and “Country Club.” “Solace” was given considerable emotion beyond what’s written into the piece, the tender “Pleasant Moments” was given a classical reading by Eric, who noted that with its ABACD structure, “Country Club” alternates dance-style sections (themes A and D) with songlike ones (themes B and C).

Doug had four more “P” rags, each one unusual-sounding and two of which are quite obscure: “Panama Rag” by Cy Seymour, Axel Christiansen’s “Press Club Rag,” Euday Bowman’s “Petticoat Lane” and Percy Wenrich’s “Peaches and Cream.” “Panama Rag,” a first-rate, creative early rag, was crisp and lively in Doug’s hands. After giving us a quick, mini-biography of Christensen (after advertising in a Chicago newspaper that he could teach ragtime piano, he attracted hundreds of would-be students, prompting him to open dozens of ragtime “schools” across the U.S.), Doug said the then-dubbed “Czar of Ragtime” also “composed very fine rags,” the rare and unusual “Press Club” being one of these. “Petticoat” has A and B themes that use the typical Bowman three-over-four, yet A is ingenious and both sections are active and lively, while the trio is unusual all around, with no ragtime cliches in sight and a strong closing section that uses continuous 16th notes to build a sense of excitement.

Marilyn encored with “Spanish Moss,” a gentle tango by Galen Wilkes. Vincent offered yet more pieces by Novelty composers, starting with Billy Mayerl’s “Marigold,” which he called “the British ‘Maple Leaf Rag’.” His second tune, “Romanza,” is by Zez Confrey, but instead of the lively, playful tunes we associate with the composer, the piece is soft and sleepy. Vincent then dusted off one of his favorites, Jesse Greer’s “Flapperette,” which he said was “an ode to that quintessential ‘20s girl, the flapper.” Saying that Mayerl often rushed through “Marigold” because he had grown so tired of being asked to play it, Vincent took the beautiful piece at the correct, moderate tempo, which showcased his excellent touch and technique. “Romanza” is part of a suite by Confrey called “Three Little Oddities” (we have to wonder if the other two pieces are similar to or in contrast with this pretty one). Similar to “The Doll Dance,” which it precedes by a year and a half, “Flapperette” opens with both hands executing a busy rhythm near the top of the keyboard and a second theme offering interesting harmonic shifts.

Bill Mitchell encored with a sparkling rendition of Morton’s “Grandpa’s Spells,” including his own version of the score’s published “crash bass” figure, then two more Joplins: “Pine Apple Rag” and a second helping of “Weeping Willow.”

Vincent ended the formal OCRS session by literally giving us cats and dogs – “Kitten on the Keys” and “Putting on the Dog,” that is; he sandwiched “Bluin’ the Black Keys,” his specialty number, in-between. “Bluin’” is by Arthur Schutt (1926), “Kitten” by Confrey (of course) and “...Dog” by Ted Shapiro. Of the latter, Vincent noted that Willie Eckstein, a Canadian ragtime- and jazz-era virtuoso pianist, recorded the piece; while playing all three pieces, Vincent demonstrated his own virtuosity as a Novelty pianist.

The afternoon was capped by Vincent’s impromptu performance of at least a half-dozen additional selections. It ended the way it began, with an audience member taking his place at the piano, this time providing everyone a stylish exit: Ryan Rush, from south Orange County, gave us a knockout, up-tempo rendition of “Baby Face,” replete with dazzling, player piano-style licks and tricks.

Have a great summer, everyone, and we’ll see you all at Mo’s Music Store on Saturday, August 15.

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