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Classic and contemporary pieces fill the bill at June 2012 OCRS

A small crowd of ragtime fans gathered at 1 p.m. at Steamers on Saturday June 16, and 11 performers – nine of them pianists – filled more than three-and-a-half hours with a variety of pieces. Of the total of 38 selections, a sizable percentage (nearly a third) were either Classic Rags or contemporary compositions (not all of the latter necessarily categorizable as “ragtime”).

MC Eric Marchese showcased two early rags, the first being one of James Scott’s earliest rags – and, of course, a classic rag. This was “The Fascinator,” Scott’s second published rag. Eric noted that it was the best of the three early Scotts, all of which were published by Dumars in Carthage, MO. (He also noted that Scott’s fourth rag, “Frog Legs,” began to show a more distinctive, individualized musical style – one that John Stark took a liking to. Stark published “Frog Legs” in 1906, and nearly all of Scott’s subsequent output into the early ’20s.) Eric closed with somewhat of a rarity: Theodore Northrup’s “Louisiana Rag.” Published in 1897, it was the very first piece of music called a “rag” that was written expressly for piano. The rag has many idiosyncracies but also, as Eric noted, some rhythms quite advanced for their day and time. This is an outstanding piece of ragtime for some reason overlooked by the majority of ragtime pianists, and this was probably the first time the piece has been performed at an OCRS gathering.

Stan Long announced an “all contemporary” set, though his opening number, from 1924, is a lot closer to the original ragtime era than to the past 50 or so years. That number was the Isham Jones hit “It Had to Be You.” Known primarily as a songwriter of pieces such as “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” Jones’ earliest compositions include the ragtime-related “Indigo Blues” (1918) and “On the Alamo” (1911), both published by Tell Taylor of Chicago. Stan credits his arrangement of the 1924 Jones song hit to Disneyland’s Ragtime Rod Miller. Played sans vocals, it features interesting syncopations and a couple of stretches where both hands play below middle C. More recent was Robin Frost’s “Uncle Herbie’s Rag” (1986), one of Frost’s wonderful novelties of a playful mood, jazzy and forceful trio and an overall bluesy sound, with plenty of flatted thirds and sevenths. Stan closed his set with another recent piece: Disneyland pianist Alan Thompson’s piano arrangement of the minor key/misterioso Haunted Mansion theme, with Jack Fina’s “Bumble Boogie” interpolated.

Also sticking with more recent compositions, Robert Wendt opened with “Creeks of Missouri” (Galen Wilkes, 1983). Next, two more classics: Joplin’s “Solace – A Mexican Serenade” and “The Easy Winners.” We only got the “Solace” trio once, but Robert also played a pleasing coda constructed of the D theme’s closing measures. He also creates nice embellishments throughout “Easy Winners” and closes his performance with a fourth iteration of the rag’s famous, catchy A theme. Finally, Robert’s wife Rosalee was coaxed out of the audience to do an opera aria with a comedic twist. She sung (and acted) the title soprano role from Offenbach’s romantic comic opera “La Périchole” (1868), accompanied by Robert on piano – hiccups and audience shooshes intact, as this heroine, Rosalee said in preface, is intoxicated.

Jeffrey Briar, who hadn’t attended an OCRS in several years, delivered Charles Cohen’s “Fashion Rag,” one of two Cohen rags from 1910 (the other is “Riverside Rag”). In fact, the title “Fashion” alluded to Jeffrey’s straw hat and “piano” tie attire. Next, an original: The “Homeland Security March,” written in recent years but very much in the ragtime march tradition and with a wholly authentic sound. Jeffrey closed his set with an original ragtime piece originally written for string quartet as “Pizzicato Cakewalk” but rearranged here specifically for piano and retitled “A Sunday Stroll.” It’s a whimsical, jazzy piece with interesting modulations in the trio and an obviously contemporary sound and feel.

Shirley Case had intended to include “Creeks of Missouri” in an all-Galen-Wilkes, all-Missouri-themed set. Because Robert had just played it, she dropped “Creeks,” but did perform “Boone County Rag” (1983), followed by “Streets of Sedalia” (1987). The closing theme of the cheerful and triumphant “Boone County” uses a familiar syncopation pattern in the treble, arranged as a riff to build excitement at the finale. Shirley closed her set with the outstanding Theron Bennett rag “Sweet Pickles,” published in 1907 under the pseudonym “George Florence.” This is a great, and rarely heard, rag that exploits pentatonic scales and blues devices and features a nice minor-key interlude.

Bill Mitchell also delivered a rag that’s rarely/infrequently heard: J.M. Wilcockson’s 1911 folk masterpiece “Pride of the Smoky Row.” In introducing the piece, Bill noted that no one has been able to ascertain the meaning of the rag’s subtitle, “Q Rag.” For the record, in their book “Rags and Ragtime,” Jasen and Tichenor reference Bill’s recording of the piece on his 1972 album “Ragtime Recycled” as the definitive, and perhaps only, performance of the piece. Bill then invited banjoist Jimmy Green to duet with him on Shelton Brooks’ two most famous pieces, and his biggest hits: 1917’s “Darktown Strutters Ball” and, from 1910, “Some Of These Days.” In introducing the pieces, Bill said he had the pleasure of meeting Brooks himself when the famed composer dropped in on a meeting of the Maple Leaf Club during that ragtime society’s early days in the ’70s. Brooks, Bill said as an aside, also wrote “Cosey Rag.” He and Jimmy give the two pieces a lively, peppy sound and, in keeping with their Dixieland milieu, each gent took a solo during their performance.

Gary Rametta opened with Bix Beiderbecke’s “Flashes” from 1931, noting that the famed cornet player was a “closet pianist” and that his friendship with Eastwood Lane inspired “modern piano solos” such as this one. Indeed, Gary’s description of “Flashes” as “Impressionistic” and it being “hard to find the tonal center” of the piece are true, for “Flashes” is fully modern in sound, musical scope and its demands upon the pianist. Next, by Lamb but still somewhat “recent” (not copyrighted until 1959 and unpublished until 1964), was “Toad Stool Rag.” Its second theme features downward treble runs and an unusual break and its trio resembles the corresponding section of “The Cascades,” while the rag’s closing theme is just eight measures repeated and uses the same ending as the third section.
Next up in Gary’s ambitious set was the 1927 Novelty “Sapphire – A Musical Gem” by Rube Bloom, whom Gary called “a great tunesmith” whose pieces have a romantic quality. He hastened to add that the word “gem” here alludes not to it being a great piece, but rather to its obvious multifaceted nature. The piece uses devices uncommon to both ragtime and jazz, with interesting modulations in the opening theme and a driving, aggressive second section. Gary closed with Trebor Tichenor’s folk masterpiece “It’s a Long Way Back Home” (1966), which Gary characterizes as “a pathos-filled blues-rag” and which also has the sound, mood and style of the works of the early itinerant pianist Brun Campbell.

Bob Pinsker prefaced his set by saying for many of us under the age of 60, finding or discovering copies of once rare pieces is, in effect, akin to “digging up history.” On a more personal note, he said the process of finding and working up pieces that he “never thought (he) would ever see, much less play,” is an incredible experience. In fact, all three of the pieces in this outstanding set were pieces Bob had seen in the list of musical compositions at the back of the seminal history book “They All Played Ragtime.” The first one Bob played is listed there as “unpublished” and the third and last as “bought by Mills Music but unpublished” (in this case, Bob said, because all of the manuscripts Lamb had sold to Mills were missing).

Bob delighted everyone with Tom Turpin’s final piece of published music, the World War I song “When Sambo Goes to France.” Copyrighted on Dec. 21, 1917, the piece is typical of music of its era, and Bob’s arrangement is lively.

He followed with another great piece, also from 1917 – the once rare Sam Wishnuff rag “Shave ’Em Dry.” Bob said even rags issued by John Stark, such as this one, was never included in any of the several Dover ragtime folios containing other once-rare rags. It “evaded being republished,” Bob said, until Dick Zimmerman compiled pieces from Trebor Tichenor’s vaunted collection in a “Gems of St. Louis Ragtime” folio. Bob shared the information about composer Wishnuff that he was able to track down, then played this mostly bluesy piece, whose “Rag-Blues-Trot” subtitle is typical of pieces from the late teens in the attempt of publishers (like Stark) to appeal to the widest potential audience as possible.

Most exciting of this set was Lamb’s “Chime In!,” one of the three Joseph Lamb rags recently discovered in a stack of manuscripts that had been purchased during Lamb’s lifetime by Mills Music but which later disappeared, only to resurface this year. Bob said he had “no idea these existed,” and while all of us are still lacking detail on how the pieces came to light, Bob speculates that Lamb may have rewritten “Chime In!” and its two recent companions in manuscript form some time during the 1950s, several decades after it was originally composed. As Bob noted, the piece seems much influenced by Scott’s “Ragtime Oriole,” yet also contains much that’s highly Lambesque. Its opening theme offers an odd modulation at measures 7 and 8, the first two measures of its outstanding trio create a “downward chime” effect in both hands, and its closing theme, like so many later Lamb and Scott trios, is lifted from the great “Maple Leaf Rag” trio – in this case, combined with the “echo” effect so favored by Lamb and Scott. Bob flawlessly performed the wonderful piece and promised to unveil the other two pieces as his encores.

Following a drawing for some ragtime CDs and LP albums, Shirley Case encored with Roberts’ “Pork and Beans” (1913), featuring the “sinister” minor key sound and feel so typical of much of Luckey’s great Stride pieces.

Robert Wendt chose yet another contemporary piece for his encore – this time the lovely and haunting “Graceful Ghost” by William Bolcom (1971).

Gary Rametta surprised us with a performance of Joseph Lamb’s first rag, “Walper House Rag,” crediting Indiana-based collector Terry Parrish with providing him a xerox copy of the still-unpublished rag. Lamb was all of 16 years old when he wrote this, his first rag, around 1903. The rag lacks the polish and sophistication that came to be Lamb’s compositional hallmarks – but Gary noted that still and all, it has “some of the elegance” of later Lamb works. Indeed, it features a few interesting ideas, but its syncopations are mostly unsophisticated and the piece itself of a much more folksy, rural flavor than Lamb’s later, greater classic rags. (As an aside, some 15 years ago, this reporter had the pleasure of visiting Pat Lamb at her home in Connecticut, during which time she placed a xerox of the “Walper House” manuscript in front of me and asked me to play it. After hearing it, we evaluated it and agreed that it was far from Lamb’s best – but also that it would be foolish to expect a masterpiece from an essentially self-taught composer, and one so young at that. ) For his second encore, Gary offered Eastwood Lane’s “A Gringo Tango.” Part of the composer’s “Five American Classics,” the piece’s moods range from placid to stormy. Lane often shifts the tango rhythm to the right hand, one of several features of this modern-sounding work.

Bob returned to the stage with one of the afternoon’s highlights: the as-promised, heretofore missing Lamb rags, “Shootin’ the Works” and “Crimson Ramblers.” Bob said “Shootin’” is “much more of a Novelty” than any other Lamb work, and that its trio contains “some of the most technically demanding writing that Lamb ever produced.” Indeed, the trio of this lively score is complex, and the entire piece is hard-hitting and vibrant. The title “Crimson Ramblers” is a floral title much in keeping with the tradition of naming rags for flowers (cf. Tierney’s 1911 rag “Crimson Rambler”). Its opening mirrors the opening motifs of several well-known Lamb rags, among them “Top Liner,” “Cottontail” and “Ragtime Reverie.” The piece, Bob said, has “more touches of blues” than any other piece by Lamb, and indeed, one hears numerous flatted (or “blue”) thirds and sevenths as well as some complex harmonic constructions – but the piece is still easily identifiable as having been written by Lamb. Its trio features tricky rhythms, a break and some unusual modulations, yet many typical Lamb devices and touches are apparent in this section as well. A four-bar bridge takes us back to the tonic key and to the second theme as the rag’s conclusion, which Bob repeats for good measure.

Norm Zix, not an OCRS regular but a wonderful pianist, graced our stage and performed Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” followed by a wonderful trilogy written by Dave Brubek circa 1960-’61. Of a distinctly modern character, the trilogy featured “Kathy’s Waltz” and includes the immortal Brubek tune “Take Five,” composed by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and performed and recorded by The Dave Brubek Quartet. Norm is an expert pianist and a wonderful performer, and we hope to see him back at future OCRSs.

Jeffrey encored with one of the biggest hits of the year 1912 – W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” noting that until the 1950s, it was among the most frequently recorded pieces. His creative arrangement of this standard added interest while enhancing the torrid feel of its main theme.

Stan performed the Charles N. Daniels standard “Margery,” which Daniels wrote at the age of 20 and submitted to a contest being conducted by the Carl Hoffman Music Company of Kansas City, Kansas. Daniels won a $25 prize for best two-step by a local composer. Even better, though, was that when John Phillip Sousa heard of the contest, then heard the piece, he liked it enough to add it to his band’s repertoire. That exposure helped “Margery” to eventually sell some 275,000 copies while giving the young composer, and his first major piece, a great deal of welcome national publicity and helping to set him on his way as a music publishing pioneer.

Bill closed out the afternoon with a pair of classics: “Pine Apple Rag” and the early Joplin/Hayden collaboration “Something Doing.”

In all, we heard a total of 8 classic rags and 11 contemporary or recent pieces, comprising nearly one-third of the afternoon’s selections. We look forward to seeing everyone again at Steamers in five weeks, on Saturday, July 21.

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