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Classics, Novelties, lady ragtimers and non-ragtime dominate June 2010’s Steamers OCRS

The June 2010 OCRS featured an interesting and somewhat eclectic mixture of Novelty piano, Classic ragtime, rags written by women composers, and pieces that are pretty much outside the lines of pure ragtime. A total of 25 out of the day’s 37 selections by our 10 musicians fit these four categories.
The ragtime society started more than an hour later than usual due to another Steamers event’s overlapping with us. Bill Mitchell opened his set with Stride composer Luckey Roberts’ Luckeyesque-sounding “Music Box Rag,” then continued with Ford Dabney’s “Georgia Grind” and closed his set with “Original Rags,” Scott Joplin’s first published rag. As usual, Bill’s playing was pleasantly swingy and jazzy.
Marilyn Martin delivered Harry Jentes’ wonderful “Bantam Step” (1914) and the Chauvin-Joplin collaboration “Heliotrope Bouquet,” taking both at a comfortably slow and steady pace.

Vincent Johnson lined up three contemporary Novelties: Tom Brier’s “Treble Trouble” (1997) and two originals, “Ticking Julie” (2008) and “Sweet Pea” (2010). One of Brier’s best rags, the wildly imaginative “Treble Trouble” received a nice rendering from Vincent. This was the first public performance of “Tickling Julie,” which offers a fresh approach and fresh ideas to the Novelty genre, including the many “tickling” triplets. “Sweet Pea,” by contrast, is soft and dolce, clearly inspired by the works of Mayerl.

Shirley Case brought us the second of several Classic rags – this time, Joe Lamb’s “Cottontail Rag,” inspired by Shirley and husband Storm’s having seen cottontail bunnies while walking at the Montage city park walkway along the ocean bluffs near their Laguna Beach home. The intricate rag is, of course, a Lamb masterpiece.

Next up, “Sun-Kissed Roses,” a non-ragtime waltz by Nat Johnson (“Calico Rag”) from an original sheet Shirley had just acquired. Featured on its back cover is the 1911 classical waltz “At the Ragtime Ball,” which was the third number in Shirley’s set. The final number has cute lyrics about a big ragtime ball which Shirley sang while accompanying herself.

MC Eric Marchese continued the non-ragtime waltz theme with the rarely heard “Augustan Club Waltzes,” a non-syncopated 1901 opus by Joplin dedicated, like “Maple Leaf Rag,” to a social club in Sedalia – presumably one that, like the Maple Leaf Club, was for blacks only.

John Pool, a friend of Marilyn’s visiting from Texas, brought two delightful vintage Novelties: Roy Bargy’s “A Blue Streak” and Charley Straight’s “Wild and Wooly,” which Vincent Johnson had just transcribed for Frederick Hodges. “Blue Streak” is a very bluesy Novelty, a great Bargy piece outstandingly played here by John. In the unusual (for ragtime) keys of E and A major, “Wild and Wooly” has Straight’s distinctive sound (eg. breaks, dissonances, minor tonalities) and, in John’s hands, sounds like its origin is a piano roll.

Robert Wendt delivered quite an eclectic set, starting with J. Bodewalt Lampe’s 1901 cakewalk “Creole Belles,” one of the big hits of the early ragtime era. Next was the 1906 edition of Joplin’s “The Ragtime Dance” that John Stark issued to recoup his losses on the piece’s 1902 publication, which ran nine pages and included Joplin’s lyrics and dance steps. Robert gave this version an aptly slow tempo and a pretty sound.

Robert closed his set by introducing us to a new instrument. Called the “Xaphoon,” it’s essentially a miniature clarinet. Robert’s selection was the non-ragtime song “What a Wonderful World,” the piece he said was originally written by George Weiss and Bob Thiele for Tony Bennett; Bennett passed on the song, which wound up becoming associated with the great Louis Armstrong. Robert played the melody line, with Eric providing piano accompaniment.

Andrew Barrett played Albert Gumble’s “Chanticleer Rag,” which turned 100 this year, and two more Nat Johnson pieces – the non-ragtime waltz “Hesitation” (1914) and, from 1913, the wonderful “Gold Dust Twins” rag. “Chanticleer” sounds like a cross between Tin Pan Alley ragtime and the works of Ford Dabney. “Hesitation” is soft and pretty. “Gold Dust,” named for the famed twins (depicted on the cover) whose name and image were used to sell detergent and baking products, was, besides “Calico Rag,” perhaps Johnson’s only other hit.

Bill Mitchell and Jimmy Green (banjo) pounded out five Jelly Roll Morton tunes: “Grandpa’s Spells”; “Frog-I-More” rag; a slow, bluesy medley of Morton’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” and “Winin’ Boy”; and “The Pearls.” They closed their set with Joplin’s 1908 classic, the “Pine Apple Rag.” Jimmy’s amazing banjoistics added considerably to each of these great pieces.

Eric kept Jimmy on stage just long enough for the duo to perform Joplin’s earlier hit, “Maple Leaf Rag.” Frank Sano then gave us a nice piano rendition of “Hello! Ma Baby.” Returning to Joplin, Eric gave us the rarely performed “A Breeze from Alabama” from 1902, noting that the entire piece is built upon the concept of modulating to the flatted sixth of whatever key the piece is in at that point. Finally, Eric took the bass and Shirley the treble for four-handed arrangements of Adaline Shepherd’s 1906 hit “Pickles and Peppers” and Charlotte Blake’s 1908 rag “That Poker Rag.”

John Pool encored with a terrific rendering of Mayerl’s wonderful “Hollyhock.” This complex Novelty is fun to hear and to watch, and John’s playing was clean and rock-steady. Vincent Johnson brought us yet two more vintage Novelties: Schutt’s “Piano Puzzle” and Confrey’s “Poor Buttermilk.” “Puzzle” implies a tango rhythm in its first section and has a tricky second theme; “Buttermilk’s” second theme is searing, with complex cross-rhythms and its trio offers a sort of tango-style bass. Vincent added the newly rediscovered D theme, though the piece concludes with the flag-waving C.

Andrew wound up the afternoon with two more pieces by Charlotte Blake, whom he said lived in Santa Monica while working for Douglas Aircraft and later as a retireein Southern California, a fact apparently unknown to local ragtimers during that time (the 1960s and ’70s). Blake’s “Missouri Mule March” isn’t ragtime, but it’s a delightful piece, with a minor-key A theme, soft trio and raggy finale. Andrew gave a nicely steady approach and soft, gentle aura to “Wish Bone,” a terrific Blake rag.

Andrew closed out the afternoon with Calvin Woolsey’s 1909 rag “Funny Bones” – the first time the piece has ever been performed at an OCRS and most certainly the first of any of the many fine rags by the “ragtime doctor” who wrote “Peroxide Rag,” “Medic Rag,” “Poison Rag” and “Mashed Potatoes” and who often referred to himself as “Dr. Funny Bones.” Calling the piece Woolsey’s “symphony in ragtime,” Andrew highlighted the delicate trio and the D theme’s circle-of-fifths, giving the final reprise of D a wonderfully showy performance.

While we featured just over three-dozen selections (far fewer than our usual 42+), all were outstanding. We’ll see everyone at Mo’s Fullerton Music in mid-August (Aug. 21), when OCRS hosts its first Ice Cream Social! Please be prepared to spend a few bucks on ice cream to help support our upcoming RagFest, and please invite all your friends to come by and enjoy some tasty musical and sweet dairy treats! (We will also have canned sodas and snacks for those who wish to skip the ice cream!)

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