RagFest Home | The Music | Schedule | Performers | Venues | OCRS | About Us

1911, Classics, Novelty and originals rule

A fairly small turnout in both the number of musicians and of audience members was the hallmark of the August, 2011, OCRS meet at Steamers – but the selections were of high quality and a certain amount of obscurity, and the emphasis was on the rags of Classic Ragtime’s “Big Three” (Scott Joplin, James Scott and Joe Lamb), Novelty rags, contemporary and original compositions, and the many fine pieces issued during the year 1911. We heard a total of some 40 pieces, only six of which were not either a contemporary and/or original piece, a Novelty, a product of Classic Ragtime’s Big Three or issued in 1911.

John Reed-Torres got things rolling with a Joplin rag that is for some reason rarely performed: “The Favorite.” Though published in 1904, it carries many of the compositional traits heard in the Joplin works of his early Sedalia years (1899 to 1901). John gives the piece a nice, light touch and creates some inventive embellishments, especially in the last two sections.

MC Eric Marchese offered “Come Across,” an outstanding yet obscure three-themed rag from 1915 by composer Mel B. Kaufman, whom Eric said wrote many one-steps during the teens in an effort to make easier-to-play ragtime available to the everyday consumer who owned a piano and wanted to play rags but found most of the current sheet music beyond their capabilities. All of “Come Across” is solid, but of note are the augmented chords in themes A and B and the thumbline countermelody in the trio.

Gary Rametta delivered “Waterloo Girls,” the first of three David Thomas Roberts pieces he performed for the day. He followed with “Top Liner Rag” from 1916, considered Joe Lamb’s masterpiece and generally regarded as one of the three greatest rags ever written (the other two are “Maple Leaf” and “Grace and Beauty”). From 1980, “Waterloo Girls” is surprisingly lively for Roberts, with a bubbly main theme (B) and a trio that’s also lively, yet also delicate and poignant. Gary notes that “Top Liner” has “all (of Lamb’s) characteristic touches,” with a plaintive opening theme, a typical Lamb B theme, a complex C that uses the “echo” effect, and a magnificent closing theme that overlays several ideas.

Vincent offered a wonderful, all-Novelty set of pieces written by German composer
Lothar Perl: “Hollywood Stars,” “Cowboy” and “The Grasshopper Dance,” all from 1932 or ’33. Vincent notes that Perl “paints pictures with his pieces,” and that’s how Vincent performs them. The opening theme of “Hollywood Stars” is soft and ethereal, evoking cocktail-music, and the trio is quiet and romantic. Vincent chose it, he said, because “Novelty piano isn’t always flashy and fast.” “Cowboy” is more charming than flashy, with an involved, lively bass part and a “dogfight” in the trio. “Grasshopper Dance” follows through on its title with numerous “leaping” motifs and an especially inventive trio.

Bill Mitchell picked up where Gary left off with one rag apiece from each of Classic Ragtime’s Big Three: Joplin’s “Original Rags,” Scott’s “Evergreen Rag” and Lamb’s “Bohemia.” “Original” has always been one of Bill’s best numbers, and he jazzes up the trio of the lightly charming “Evergreen.” “Bohemia” (1919) was the last Lamb rag Stark published, featuring a great trio and trio-interlude.

Having to make an early exit about halfway through the afternoon was string player par excellence Phil Cannon with “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Cottontail Rag” and Ron Ross’ “Joplinesque.” Phil transposes “Maple Leaf” down a half-step (to the keys of G and C), and it swings as well on guitar as on piano. Similar to “Top Liner,” “Cottontail” (Lamb’s original title for “Top Liner”) is intricate and pretty, the rag having remained unpublished until 1964. Phil gives “Joplinesque” (from 1999 and subtitled “A Gringo Tango”) a nice swaying rhythm.

Andrew Barrett opened his set with Charlotte Blake’s “Bridal Veil Waltzes” (1910) and continued with three great numbers from 1911: Julia Lee Niebergall’s outstanding “Horseshoe Rag”; the ragtime song “Summer Days, Those Good Old Summer Days,” by Al Piantadosi (music) and Joseph McCarthy (lyrics); and Charles L. Johnson’s “Cloud Kisser,” one of five rags he had published in 1911. “Bridal Veil” has a distinctively classical flavor. “Horseshoe” is a great hybrid of folk ragtime and popular ragtime. “Summer Days” offers endearing and humorous lyrics which Andrew sang before launching into a heavily syncopated instrumental (piano) break. Despite its relative obscurity, “Cloud Kisser” is certainly one of Johnson’s best.

Eric also offered an all-1911 set starting with Ethel Earnist’s “Peanuts,” subtitled “A Nutty Rag.” For a long time, Earnist was thought to have been one of Charles L. Johnson’s pen names (along with Raymond Birch and Fannie B. Woods), but it was later proven that she was an actual composer of the day. The rag was issued by the newly formed Johnson Publishing Co. (Kansas City, MO), and it certainly sounds like something Johnson himself might have written. Continuing his OCRS presentation of the many 1911 rags by Harry Austin Tierney (there were nine in all), Eric offered “Black Canary Rag,” one of seven Tierney rags issued by Ted Snyder that year, noting that the rag’s opening theme is its most memorable. Eric closed his set with “A Real Slow Drag,” the finale of Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha,” which was completed in 1911, proving how well the piece works even without a vocalist to serve up Joplin’s lyrics.

After a brief break and the raffle of a ragtime LP (Lu Watters), a ragtime CD (Charles Templeton) and two RagFest tee-shirts, the performance continued with each musician offering encores. Gary took the stage with three selections: a Duke Ellington tune sandwiched between two 1979 pieces by David Thomas Roberts. The Roberts works are “Roberto Clemente” and “Camille” and the Ellington work “Reflections in D.” “Roberto Clemente” is perhaps Roberts’ best-known ragtime piece and is poignant and wistful throughout; Gary personalized it with stories of his own family’s Pittsburgh roots and support for the Pirates (Clemente’s team) and Steelers. From circa 1953, the Ellington piece is strikingly modern-sounding, and though carefully crafted, has an improvised sound and feel to it. Subtitled “A Slow Drag,” “Camille” features typically (for Roberts) complex passages and is among the composer’s most poignant and heartfelt essays, and Gary noted that Roberts was only 24 when he composed “Roberto Clemente” and “Camille.”

Ron Ross delivered a pair of originals: “The Rose Leaf Combination Tango,”a fine, introspective rag-tango with an intense, minor-key trio and a great coda, and “What Next?,” with a brisk, almost one-step-type tempo and featuring Ron’s characteristic, distinctive use of the minor tonality.

John delivered an all-Joplin and Scott set starting with Joplin’s programmatic “The Great Crush Collision March” from 1896. He continued with “Maple Leaf” and closed with Scott’s “New Era Rag” (1919). John related the back-story of “Crush,” which was Joplin’s first published instrumental, one of three published pieces from 1896 (along with “Combination March” and “Harmony Club Waltzes”). John’s performance is capped by an especially raggy closing theme. As creative is his four-bar opening for “Maple Leaf,” using the last four measures of the D theme. A wonderful classic rag along the lines of “The Cascades,” “New Era Rag” is rarely performed by ragtime pianists. As usual, John wove interesting improvisations and his own ideas into all three pieces.

Bill encored with a diverse set: Chas. Hunter’s “ ’Possum and ’Taters,” Joplin’s early “The Easy Winners” and Ford Dabney’s “Georgia Grind.” From 1900, “’Possum” is only Hunter’s second published rag, containing many of his compositional hallmarks. “Easy Winners” was reputedly Joplin’s favorite from among his many rags; most of his true masterpieces occurred after 1906, but from among Joplin’s work of 1895 to 1906, “Easy Winners” rightfully deserves a place right alongside “Maple Leaf.” “Georgia Grind” has an easy, swingy feel preserved by Bill in his performance, with all three pieces being lightly swung.

Eric delivered two originals of contrasting moods: the optimistic “Clambake Capers” (2005) and the more poetic, introspective “Out of Time” (2003). Eric noted that the title of “Clambake” reflects a summertime tradition in his native New England, where many a coastal town will hold a clambake. The piece draws musical inspiration from many sources such as “Easy Winners” and “The Favorite,” yet retains original touches such as the trio’s unusual bass pattern. Still unpublished, “Out of Time” carries a notably plaintive, nostalgic sound in each of its three themes, ending with the rag’s intensely melancholy B theme.

Ron offered yet another original, “Orange County Rag,” a wonderful paean both to
the OCRS and to Fullerton’s (and O.C.’s) annual RagFest.

Vincent Johnson continued with another outstanding set of three Novelty rags, noting that many of the pieces reflect a 1920s sensibility in terms of titles that are products of wordplay, a phenomenon that actually began many years earlier (1909) with George Botsford’s “Pianophiends.” Vincent started his set with Arthur Schutt’s “Piano Puzzle” (1929), an excellent piece with an exceptional, intricate B theme and much interplay between hands. He followed with Louis Alter’s “Piano Phun” (1925), whose great opening theme features descending phrases. Vincent then closed this marvelous set with Ralph Rainger’s “Pianogram” (1929), preserving the piece’s whimsical A theme, stoptime-infused B section and rather abstract C theme.

Andrew closed the afternoon of wonderful music with two more pieces from 1911, one from the 1920s and one of his own. He stated that Les Copeland’s wonderful 1911 “Invitation Rag” “was probably played at nearly all of Lew Dockstader’s minstrel shows” and bemoaned the fact that recordings of Copeland’s piano-playing are so rare because of how wonderful the existing ones are. Next was Max Kortlander’s outstanding “Deuces Wild,” composed circa 1918 but unpublished until 1923. Andrew brought out the composer’s “distinctive, inimitable style,” notably its melodically fun trio-intro. and trio and its many catchy rhythms throughout. Andrew then offered Scott’s “The Princess” from 1911. In a much lighter vein than most of Scott’s other rags, “Princess” is a subdued, pretty, lyrical piece with characteristically flowing melodies. Andrew closed the afternoon’s musical with “Ragtime Amanda,” a lyrical, poetic piece he wrote in 2009. With many touches of modern jazz, the piece is pretty, poetic and lyrical, with a quiet, reflective trio and some striking harmonic shifts (such as late in theme A) that are definitely a product of contemporary music in general and contemporary ragtime in particular. Our many thanks to the seven pianists and one guitarist/banjoist who made the afternoon’s musical output so memorable.

Eric announced that the next OCRS will convene at Steamers on Saturday, September 17, from 1 to 4:30 p.m.

This website ©2012 by RagFest, created and administered by Aeromark