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Landmark 10th anniversary celebrated with cake – and with musical style – at Steamers

Orange County Ragtime Society’s 10th anniversary – technically, November 10, 2011 – was celebrated on our customary third Saturday afternoon of the month at Steamers Jazz Club on November 19, 2011. Eight performers entertained a small but enthusiastic crowd with nearly three-dozen selections. The highlight, though, was the serving of a large sheet cake adorned with the club’s “piano player” logo and the message “Happy 10th Anniversary, Orange County Ragtime Society.” The occasion marked the club’s 61st performance, the majority of which have been held at the venerated Steamers. In the afternoon’s total of 35 selections, Joseph Lamb seemed to be the favorite composer of the day, with five selections in all, and many more pieces from 1911 were also in evidence (with 10 in all).

Having been delving into the trove of 1911 compositions all year, MC and club founder Eric Marchese offered yet two more by composer Harry Austin Tierney: “The Fanatic” and “Crimson Rambler.” Eric noted that between February and August of 1911, an astonishing 10 Tierney rags were published – eight by Ted Snyder, two more by Jos. Stern. With these two, Eric had played a total of six at this year’s OCRSs, while promising to deliver “American Beauty Dance” (which he just recently received from Tom Brier) at next weekend’s Rose Leaf musicale. (For the record, Eric said he had not played “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” because it’s pretty widely heard, “Dingle Pop Hop” because he hadn’t finished memorizing it, and “Checkerboard Rag” because it was not up to Tierney’s usual quality.) “Fanatic,” the first of the 1911 Tierneys to be issued, has a fantastic cover – a caricature of a disheveled, bespectacled lunatic waving a fist with one hand and an umbrella with the other – and the music offers cascades of diminished chords (A theme), a typical straightforward Tierney B theme, and a pretty, marchlike trio with a typical Tierney interlude between both iterations of the C theme. “Rambler” also typifies Tierney, with a wonderful key change at the trio from the tonic key to that of the flatted sixth – in this case, from C major to A-flat major, an ear-catching change heard years earlier in James Scott’s “The Fascinator” and Joplin’s “A Breeze From Alabama” (between theme B, which is the rag’s main section, and theme C, which takes the listener through several telescoped flatted sixths). For the last half of the rag, Eric played C-interlude-C-interlude-C, moving up an octave with each repeat of C.

Pianist-composer Ron Ross opened his set with “Orange County Rag,” a gentle, minor-tinged rag he wrote a few years back to commemorate the OCRS. Next was his beautiful ragtime waltz “Cloudy,” with its delicate use of the minor tonality and classical waltz-style trio in which much of the melody is played on the lower half of the piano. Ron then asked Phil Cannon to join him for a piano-guitar arrangement of Ron’s “Joplinesque – A Gringo Tango” – again, with distinctive use of minor harmonies, the signature tango rhythm being either stated or implied throughout.

Phil then stayed to offer a wonderful rendition of Theron Bennett’s “St. Louis Tickle” that he said was inspired by ’60s folk guitarist Dave Van Ronk’s performance of the 1904 rag (credited to “Barney & Seymore”). Phil’s performance really kicks, even on the intricate trio – nor is he thrown by the piece’s unusual structure (INTRO AA BB CC DD INTRO-2 B D). Phil closed his set with the late (1922) James Scott rag, and one that even most ragtime pianists don’t play: “Broadway Rag.” Whether on piano or other instruments, it’s a great and underplayed classic rag.

Ryan Wishner opened his set with George Gershwin’s only piano rag, “Rialto Ripples,” co-written with Will Donaldson and issued by Remick in June, 1917 when Gershwin was just 18 years old. This fine piece has a widely copied, minor key-focused A theme and a trio that looks ahead to both novelty piano and jazz, and Ryan offered a crisp rendering. For the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Ryan performed the 1899 version of the lively popular tune “Turkey in the Straw” exactly as notated by Otto Bonell, who had reworked the 1860s version, itself reworked from the 1830s original (a terribly racist pre-minstrel song known as “Zip Coon”). As OCRS has no performance in December, Ryan also offered a Christmas-oriented selection: “One Horse Open Sleigh,” composed by James L. Pierpont at a tavern in Medford, Mass., in 1850 and copyrighted in September, 1857. Ryan noted that Pierpont, uncle of J. Pierpont Morgan, almost exclusively wrote pro-Confederate, anti-Yankee music, this piece being about the only exception. Ryan also made it a point to note that it wasn’t until 1902 that the piece was reworked, when it was re-titled as “Jingle Bells,” and that with both this piece and “Turkey,” he is often accused by listeners of “playing it wrong” when in fact he is playing both pieces exactly as written – while it’s everyone else who plays them incorrectly.

Shirley Case offered a beautiful set of three Joseph F. Lamb rags, beginning with “Cottontail Rag,” one of Lamb’s many immortal “heavy/hard to play” piano rags. Not only is “Cottontail” the original title of the 1916 classic “Top Liner”; the piece that later came to be called “Cottontail” is quite similar to the earlier “Top Liner” (both rousing closing sections are nearly alike). As with a stack of Lamb’s fine ragtime pieces, this one remained unpublished for decades until it was finally completed, then issued in the folio titled “Ragtime Treasures” in 1964. Next up: Lamb’s immortal “American Beauty Rag” from 1913, one of the original dozen Lamb rags issued by Stark between 1908 and 1919. The rag’s trio and D theme are monumental, as is Shirley’s playing of them. Her renditions of both “Cottontail” and “American Beauty” make both of these challenging rags even more so with her addition of ascending and descending strings of 32nd notes, usually on the repeats of themes. She closed her set with one of Lamb’s birdcall rags, “Ragtime Bobolink,” an advanced piece that like “Cottontail” remained unpublished until its appearance in “Ragtime Treasures.” Its A and B themes are especially intricate, while the delicate C theme features contrary motion in the bass and the melody of D bears a strong resemblance to “The Old Piano Roll Blues.”

Andrew Barrett delivered three “pretty obscure” pieces from 1911: two rags and one reverie. He opened with J. Fred O’Connor’s “That Pleasing Rag,” issued by Harold Rossiter of Chicago on November 29, 1911. Andrew noted that especially in the early teens, rag titles of “That [adjective] Rag” proliferated – probably because they provided the composer (or publisher) “an easy out for titling.” As an aside, Andrew said that lack of documentation (manuscripts, interviews etc.) meant that we can never know whether the particular notes of any piece of vintage ragtime music is deliberate or an error introduced along the way in the process of getting a piece to publication. “That Pleasing Rag” lives up to its title and is indeed a gentle, pretty and satisfying piano piece. Andrew then performed the first reverie ever played at an OCRS: William Polla’s “The Angel of Love,” written under Polla’s pen-name W.C. Powell. In waltz tempo, this delicate salon piece can be classified as light classical music and is a type and style of music that was certainly in vogue during the ragtime era. Last up was “Red Onion Rag” – but not the “Red Onion” by Abe Olman. This one was co-written by Lloyd Kidwell and Roy Steventon and issued by the Cincinnati publisher Associated Music on November 11, 1911 (like one of our recent Friday dates, 11/11/11!). Andrew said he sympathized with the composers, who first brought out this wonderful rag as “Powder Rag” in 1906, only to have it overshadowed by Charles L. Johnson’s far more popular “Powder Rag” of 1908. After a few years had gone by, the duo renamed the piece “Red Onion” and sold it to Associated – only to see it eclipsed by Olman’s more popular “Red Onion,” issued in New York in early 1912. This “Red Onion,” though, is every bit as good, with a spirited A theme, wonderfully crafted second subject and a trio with echoes of waltz tempo phrasing in its bass.

Gary Rametta offered the fourth Lamb rag of the afternoon in the rarely heard 1915 gem “Contentment Rag.” Gary related the piece’s background and how Lamb originally wrote the piece in 1909 for the Starks’ wedding anniversary because he saw how “contented” they were with one another. He and John Stark envisioned the rag’s cover as a depiction of a contented old couple at home by the fireplace. The piece was pre-empted from publication, though, by illness which caused Mrs. Stark’s death in 1910. When “Contentment” was finally issued, its cover now depicted an old man sitting alone by the fireplace – sadly and ironically, now anything but “contented.” Gary noted how “lovely” is the rag’s A theme; how its second theme “hauntingly revisits” that of “Maple Leaf Rag”; how its third theme is only played once as it’s really more of an interlude; and how its closing theme is “more traditional ragtime.” Indeed, as Gary played it, A is delicate, B’s measures 5-8 strongly resemble B/1-4 of “Maple Leaf,” C has exquisite harmonies and is grand and dignified, and D offers a typically socko Lamb finale: a riff pattern built on a circle of fifths. As a connection to Lamb and our era, Gary offered “One for Amelia,” written by ragtime master Max Morath in 1964 as a gift to Lamb’s widow Amelia. A lovely classic rag, it’s a gentle, haunting piece with truly stirring harmonies, with its stormy C theme leading back to two more choruses of the wistful B theme. Gary closed his fine set with a second outstanding rag from the mid-1960s: Trebor Jay Tichenor’s “The Show-Me Rag – A Missouri Defiance,” a hard-charging folk stomper of several lively themes that not only echo the sounds of mid- and late-20th-century bluegrass and country-western music, but also harks back to the great folk ragtime of Charles Hunter, the seminal Tennessee ragtime composer whose eight published rags (written between 1899 and 1905) are a cornerstone of the genre.

Bill Mitchell related that whenever he hears anything of Joe Lamb’s, he’s reminded of hearing his first Lamb rag – a recording of “Ragtime Nightingale” by Johnny Wittwer who, for a time, played intermission piano for Kid Ory’s gigs. Bill said that recording “captivated” him, setting him on his way as an interpreter of Lamb. Bill also related the hilarious anecdote of seeing a Lamb rag referred to on a recording as “Canned Meat.” Knowing that Lamb’s titles do not include any “food” names, and that the composer wouldn’t label anything with so crass a title, he gave the piece a listen – realizing that the cut was actually “Contentment” and that the audio engineer (or the recording’s producer) had misheard and misunderstood Lamb when asked for the title. Bill then offered the wonderful 1908 Jean Schwartz rag “Whitewash Man.” Previously unplayed at OCRS, its opening themes are toe-tappers and its C theme a great popular-rag style trio. Next up was one of Jelly Roll Morton’s best, “The Pearls.” It’s also one of Bill’s all-time best solos, with his typically crisp, swingy feel and distinctive use of tremolo in the treble. Bill closed his set with the day’s fifth Lamb: “Bohemia,” the last (from 1919) of the original 12 Stark-Lamb rags. Once again, Bill’s embellishments and improvisatory feel greatly enhance his performance.

As all eight musicians had delivered their first sets, a break was held to raffle off several ragtime items – including LP recordings by Bill Mitchell and Joshua Rifkin, a Bill Mitchell audiotape of his “Ragtime Recycled” album, and a RagFest tee-shirt – as well as several holiday items (including coffee mugs, plates, ornaments, and original-design Christmas cards). More importantly, it was time to cut and serve the OCRS Anniversary cake, which everyone lined up for. While mingling and enjoying our cake, we were serenaded by Andrew on piano and Phil on guitar, first playing The Birthday Song as a singalong, then launching into a creative, impromptu performance of the piece featuring much enjoyable ragging and syncopation.

Eric opened the second half with yet three more rags from 1911, noting that, having played George Botsford’s “Hyacinth Rag” and “Royal Flush” from 1911 at the last OCRS, he was going to play the composer’s “Honeysuckle” from the same year. First, though, he wanted to offer pieces by two Indianapolis ragtimers, written and published when both were quite young. First was J. Russel Robinson’s “Whirl Wind,” published by Stark in late 1911 when the composer was just 19. Eric said that despite its title, the piece is really more like a classic rag – hence, Stark’s buying and publishing of it. Indeed, its opening themes have a classic-rag sound and feel to them – but its last half more strongly resembles the C and D themes of Robinson’s “Dynamite Rag” of the previous year. Eric followed with Indianapolis composer May Aufderheide’s “Novelty Rag,” noting that it was the last of her seven published rags and a fine yet curiously unperformed rag that meshes elements of the folk and classic ragtime genres into a solid, popular-rag-format piece. Curiously, Eric said, “Novelty Rag” is not novelty piano at all – nor is “Whirl Wind,” which was subtitled “A Novelty Rag,” indicating that the term “novelty rag” was in vogue in midwestern pop music around 1911 (what with these two references by two different Indianapolis composers), that it meant to impart that there was something unique or unusual about the piece in question, and that it had no connection with the Novelty Rags pioneered by Zez Confrey, Roy Bargy and Charley Straight several years later – neither in method and technique nor in style. Eric closed his all-1911 set with “Honeysuckle Rag,” stating that Botsford rarely wrote a ragtime theme that didn’t use the “three-over-four” device and that this was no exception – except that in the A theme, Botsford combined it with the minor tonality, creating an exciting and ear-catching effect. Indeed, the rag is a real rouser, with a wonderful trio and an especially catchy B theme that’s used to close the rag.

Ryan encored with E.T. Paull’s arrangement of the Edwin Ellis march “Napoleon’s Last Charge,” demonstrating terrific technique on this exciting piece from 1910. Its ringing, triumphant finale is followed by repeats of the first two themes, and Ryan’s piano roll-style embellishments greatly enhance his performance.

Shirley offered Irene Giblin’s wonderfully bubbly “Chicken Chowder,” renaming it “Turkey Chowder” in honor of Thanksgiving. Her arrangement of the 1905 rag is among her best, featuring treble arpeggios and all types of creative embellishments.

Ron gave us two encores: “Small-Town Private Eye” from one of his independent films from the late 1980s, and the much more recent (2004) “Gettin’ Over You,” in which he comically sings that a romantic breakup causes a lot more suffering than having the flu.

Phil and Bill teamed up on Percy Wenrich’s rousing rag “The Smiler,” often considered the composer’s best instrumental rag. Bill then stayed at the piano for a swingy version of Scott Joplin and Scott Hayden’s early masterpiece “Something Doing,” a truly sweet-tempered classic rag.

Expressing his gratitude at having been a part of the ragtime community for more than 25 years and how supportive and giving its members are, Eric played and sang what he said is the only vocal number he performs: Jefferson and Roberts’ “I’m Certainly Living a Ragtime Life,” noting that the piece’s lyrics are just as fresh today as 111 years ago, and that they perfectly describe his own life and involvement with ragtime music stretching back more than 35 years.

Gary encored with “The Legend of Lonesome Lake,” part of composer Eastwood Lane’s “Adirondack Sketches” suite (1922). A mixture of modern jazz and classical music, its reflective, wistful spirit is wonderfully expressed by Gary’s performance.

Andrew closed this enjoyable and celebratory afternoon with yet another “That... Rag”: Buel Risinger’s “That Tuneful Rag,” issued in 1911 by Sunlight Music Company, Chicago. (Harry L. Newman was manager of Chicago’s Grand Opera House, operating it and Sunlight, his own music publishing company, concurrently from his office with the opera company. In 1909, he wrote “The Saratoga Glide” especially for the city’s Saratoga Hotel and published it under the Sunlight imprint.) The highlights of “That Tuneful Rag” are its bubbly A theme and its quiet, march-like trio – and indeed, Andrew exclaimed (right after playing it) “I just love those old vaudeville numbers!” He then announced that he would play a waltz – and offered no other hints, wanting to see if the audience could ascertain the piece’s title, year of composition or composer after hearing it played. The piece’s opening theme is delightful but also plaintive, its second section more dramatic, and its trio gentle and lyrical. After polling several of his fellow musicians and getting some interesting guesses, your reporter noted that the piece sounded and felt more like several of Andrew’s own outstanding original compositions than anything vintage. Indeed, the piece is Andrew’s newest composition, written earlier this year and titled “Yara.”

The day’s many fine tunes, and this handful of wonderful encores, was a fitting way to wrap up the club’s first decade – and we look forward to at least 10 more years of memorable selections and performances.

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