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May 2011: Bloom and Morton dominate – along with Joplin, Scott and contemporary ragtimers

Making a late switch from Rutabegorz back to Steamers, a late starting time of 3:30 p.m. and a slightly shorter meeting of three hours, a contingent of nine pianists graced the stage. The focus was on Rube Bloom (three selections) and Jelly Roll Morton (two selections), plus seven Scott Joplin solo compositions and collaborations, two by James Scott and a total of nine contemporary compositions – 23 of the afternoon’s total of 36 selections.

Bill Mitchell got things rolling with George Botsford, an early Joplin-Hayden rag and the today-ubiquitous Morton – “Grizzly Bear,” which was a simultaneous hit piano rag, hit ragtime song and fad dance in 1910; the lovely and fresh “Something Doing” (1903); and Morton’s rhythmically and harmonically exciting “Wolverine Blues” delivering the composer’s characteristic sound, including breaks, tone clusters, interior notes added to bass octaves, and the introduction of different ideas in the repeats of themes. The trio is especially exciting, and Bill gave his rendition a jazzy touch.

Stan Long added more Joplin the with composer’s early “Peacherine Rag,” substituting a fourth rendition of the opening theme for the piece’s closing D strain. Stan then offered two originals – his “Long Boogie” (“Long”: get it?) and his rustic-sounding “Haunting Accident.”

Making his first OCRS appearance was John Reed-Torres, a college student from Los Angeles. He contributed two great Joplin rags from 1908 plus one of May Aufderheide’s greatest rags. John opened with “Fig Leaf Rag,” considered by most ragtime musicologists and historians to be Joplin’s greatest rag, second only to “Maple Leaf.” He delivered “The Thriller” (1909) at an extremely rapid tempo, providing a truly thrilling and exciting approach to the climactic theme. Perhaps his most original approach was to “Sugar Cane”: He used the signature four-bar phrase that closes the second and fourth themes as a four-bar intro., then launched into an up-tempo rendering a la “Maple Leaf,” skipping the initial repeat of the A theme and offering subtle embellishments to the repeat of the trio.

Noting that today’s date, May 21, was not only the birthdate of May Aufderheide but also of Harry Austin Tierney and Fats Waller, emcee Eric Marchese offered one of the nine rags Tierney had published exactly 100 years ago during the peak ragtime year of 1911. He said he chose the piece for its title, making it a reference to the recent “royal wedding” of Prince William and Kate Middleton: “William’s Wedding.” Eric noted that this was one of seven Ted Snyder Tierneys from 1911 along with two more by Joseph Stern (the outstanding “Fleur De Lis” and well-known “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) plus a handful of Tierney rags from 1909, 1912 and 1913, including “The Chicago Tickle” (aka “The Tierney Rag”), “Variety Rag” and “Cabaret Rag,” for which there is no published piano score or piano roll. Eric noted that the classically-trained Tierney was one of the few ragtimers to work and produce music in the world’s three largest entertainment-oriented cities – New York, London and Hollywood – and promised to play more 1911 Tierney ragtime during the rest of this year.

Gary Rametta followed up his previous meeting performance of the late-find Lamb rag “Brown Derby No. 2” with its companion, “Ragtime Reverie,” which was discovered in manuscript form from the contents of Lamb’s piano bench in Brooklyn in the early 1990s. The piece is especially Lamb-esque, with a forceful and moving closing theme. Next up was “another New Yorker and self-taught musician,” Rube Bloom, whose first name, we are now told, was pronounced “Ru-BEY” (rather than “Roob”) and was an abbreviation of “Reuben.” The piece was “Southern Charms,” a wonderful “little Novelty” from 1931. The distinctive opening theme starts with both hands very close together on the keyboard near middle C, and the trio section is marvellously pretty. Gary closed his ambitious set with one of James P. Johnson’s most beautiful creations, “Snowy Morning Blues,” circa 1925. The piece resembles other piano solos of the 1920s but is much more intricate than most.

Teen Ryan Wishner, who made his OCRS debut in February, offered a slow-and-steady tempo version of “Maple Leaf,” then launched into one of Zez Confrey’s most outstanding, and underplayed, compositions, “Nickel in the Slot.” Ryan easily handled the piece at a rapid tempo. All three sections, but notably the trio, have a loose, improvisational sound as the piece emulates the sound of a player piano that is in the process of a mechanical breakdown.

Eric followed suit with Joplin’s “Reflection Rag,” a beautiful yet underplayed rag from the master that was published posthumously by John Stark in early December, 1917, eight months after Joplin’s death. Like Joplin’s first published rag (“Original Rags”), it has five sections: a pleasantly introductory A theme; a second theme that enters the relative minor much like “Magnetic Rag,” “The Favorite” and several others; a complementary and lightly climactic C theme; a quiet, low-key, lyrical trio (section D); and a closing strain that’s quietly triumphant while also being lovely and typically poignant. Eric noted that he has always loved the piece, playing it for years and having once recorded it, and wondered why more ragtimers don’t perform it.

Vincent Johnson offered one of Rube Bloom’s greatest compositions, “Spring Fever.” He said the reason he doesn’t feature this 1926 gem more often is that of all of Bloom’s compositions, “it’s the hardest to play.” The opening theme is quite catchy, B is simply wonderful and C is outstanding. Bloom even skillfully works echoes of Harlem Stride piano into the piece. Vincent presented Billy Mayerl’s rarely heard “Nimble Fingered Gentleman,” which Mayerl wrote for his friend, dance band pianist Jack Wilson. Wilson loathed playing scales; thus the piece features many up-and-down passages that trace scales, notably in the opening theme and the trio. The entire piece is typical Mayerl: slow, delicate and lyrical. Vincent closed with more Bloom: this time, “Soliloquy – A Musical Thought” (1926). The opening theme has a playful spirit, while B is intricate yet light.

Ron Ross delivered an original piano rag and two of his humorous songs: “Orange County Rag,” which closes with its haunting, tango-like B theme; “Pasadena”; and “Just Not Gettin’ Over You,” which contrasts dealing with a broken romance versus trying to get over a cold, flu or stomach bug (“Blue Cross doesn’t cover...”).

Glen Perelman, an outstanding pianist who said he plays entirely by ear and does not perform any ragtime, yet loves all syncopated music, gave us a mystery tune, a lyrical piece that starts out soft and gentle, then gains in volume and intensity. Give up? The piece was “Listen People,” from the early 1960s group Herman’s Hermits.

Eric returned to the stage with yet two more great pieces from 1911. “Texas Tommy Swing,” by Val Harris and Sid Brown, was introduced to the public via the Ziegfeld Follies of 1911 and was later published in Chicago that same year. Even more rare is “Lovin’ Babe.” Written by Al R. Turner, it’s a standard boy-meets-girl ragtime song. What’s so notable about it is that it was arranged for piano by Scott Joplin during the lean time he was focusing on completing “Treemonisha.” Eric said he loves playing the piece as a piano solo. He closed his set with James Scott’s outstanding and intricate “Troubadour Rag.” From late in the composer’s ragtime career (1919), Eric called the piece “one of the neglected masterpieces of Classic ragtime.”

After holding a raffle for a pair of ragtime CDs, and two RagFest souvenirs: a wall clock and a tee-shirt, the performance resumed with a series of encores. First up was Stan Long with George Cobb’s “Feedin’ the Kitty.” From 1919, it’s one of the composer’s first handful of outstanding Novelty rags, a terrific piece featuring unusual harmonies.

Ryan Wishner delivered “Beale Street Blues,” a quintessential blues piece by the genre’s master, W.C. Handy. Ryan’s rendering was clean and strong, with good dynamics and nice bass work.
John Reed-Torres offered one of his own rags, the lively, sparkling “Carrot Cakewalk.” Ron Ross followed with one of his most recent originals, “Valley Ragtime Shuffle” (1910), a mellow, slow-tempo piece with an intricate harmonic structure.

Bill Mitchell had two more great Classic rags for us: “Scott Joplin’s New Rag” (1912) and James Scott’s “Evergreen Rag” (1915). “New Rag” is one of the master’s most bubbly – and also one of his most searing; “Evergreen” is Scott at his lightest, jazzified by Bill.

Gary contributed to the afternoon’s eclectic mixture of Morton, Bloom, Joplin and contemporary compositions with a Morton and a contemporary. “Dead Man Blues.” Alan Lomax’s famous account of Morton’s career, “Mister Jelly Roll,” lists the piece as from 1926, but Gary said Morton recorded it with his Red Hot Peppers two years earlier before creating a piano roll version. Like all of Morton’s work, this one has his signature style on every measure. Gary delivered a fine, bluesy rendition of the piece, whose intro quotes the traditional New Orleans funeral hymn “Flee as a Bird to the Mountain.” Rightfully calling David Thomas Roberts “a major ragtime writer” of the past several decades, Gary scored with his performance of “Through the Bottomlands,” which he said bespeaks “rural isolation and longing.” Filled with exquisite harmonies, its opening theme is truly haunting. The second theme, which employs a part-tango bass part, is striking, while the trio is ethereal and delicate. The rag closes with the forceful, searing second theme.

Vincent closed the afternoon with one vintage rag, one original/contemporary: Eubie Blake’s always-great “Baltimore Todolo” remained unpublished until 1962, but dates from roughly 1910. As always, Vincent’s touch and dynamics were outstanding, and he subtly introduced some of his own ideas in the trio repeat. From 2010, Vincent’s own “Sweet Pea” is said to be in the style of Mayerl but actually more closely resembles the works of Lothar Perl. It’s a delicate, other-worldly and marvellously pretty composition, one of several dozen Vincent has written over the last few years.

Eric announced that OCRS will reconvene at Steamers in exactly four weeks, on Saturday, June 18, at its normal time of 1 to 4:30 p.m.

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