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May 2012 OCRS showcases ragtime’s many facets

A small crowd of ragtime fans gathered at noon at Steamers on Saturday May 19, and by 12:45, eight pianists were on hand to entertain an audience of roughly 35. Our performance was not allowed to proceed past 3 p.m., but we delivered a total of 33 selections. Like the March OCRS, the day’s selections covered a wide range of ragtime genres (classic, folk, popular, novelty, etc.) but also included non-ragtime pieces and more contemporary ragtime works written during any of the several post-1940 ragtime revivals.

MC Eric Marchese opened things up by noting that two days hence, May 21st, was the shared birthdate of Harry Austin Tierney, May Aufderheide and Fats Waller. Without any Waller pieces in his repertoire, Eric offered Tierney’s “Variety Rag” from 1912 and Aufderheide’s “A Totally Different Rag” (1910).

Eric noted that Tierney, after going on a tear and having at least 10 rags published in 1911 (preceded by a single rag in 1909), composed only a few more. Two of these, “Cabaret Rag” and “Variety Rag,” are from 1912. Eric is now transcribing the unpublished “Cabaret” for piano. “Variety,” he noted, is perhaps Tierney’s best piano rag and is certainly true to its title, with an exciting opening theme featuring a call and response between hands, a second theme with a quasi- habañera rhythm in the bass and a trio with a broad, flashy, “show-biz” ambiance. What’s more, Tierney not only named the rag for the entertainment industry newspaper (first published in 1907); he got Variety’s permission to use the paper’s well-known, distinctive logo/masthead on the cover of the rag (along with a notice of having gotten permission). “Totally Different” features three pretty themes, its title most likely a reference to the use of augmented chords – a “different,” unusual device for midwestern pop rags of the time.

Ryan Wishner opened with Gottschalk’s “Orfa Grande Polka” from 1854, and he handled its fiery, challenging pianistics with ease. Next up was Scott’s 1922 opus “Broadway Rag,” a rarely heard Scott piece among the last few rags to be issued by John Stark and with a complex, virtuosic trio. Ryan closed his set with “Impromptu,” the first of Zez Confrey’s “Three Little Oddities” from 1923. (For the record, the other two are “Novelette” and “Romanza.”) Its opening theme is ethereal and melancholy and its second subject more pastoral and pretty, and overall, the piece is both dramatic and emotionally evocative.

Vincent Johnson delved into the novelty genre with Jean Pacques’ “Lily” (1930), Rube Bloom’s “Sapphire – A Musical Gem” (1927), and Billy Mayerl’s “Song of the Fir Tree.” “Lily” opens with beautiful tinges of classic ragtime before moving into a stormy section with adventurous harmonies and ascending chord progressions, with even more striking chord changes in the trio. Vincent observed that “Sapphire” was “written orchestrally,” though the piece’s mood is largely one of puckish frivolity. Mayerl’s piece, based on a traditional Swedish folk song, has a lushly pretty opening theme and interesting syncopations throughout.

Reflective of springtime, Shirley Case delivered a set of “bee”-themed rags, start with “The Stinging Bee,” a 1908 rag by the virtuoso ragtime pianist Mike Bernard. Its opening themes sound semi-classical – classical ragtime, that is – and the C theme has a more dramatic sound. Next up was Joe Lamb’s “The Bee Hive,” published in 1959 but clearly written earlier – perhaps even by several decades. Its first two themes sound like vintage Lamb, but the highlight is the wonderful trio, with its rapid succession of diminished chords and a closing strain that’s yet another in a long line of great Lamb finales. Finally, we heard Jack Fina’s “Bumble-Bee Boogie,” a ’40s-boogie arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble-Bee.” Shirley said she first heard the piece on a 1946 recording by Fina and the Freddy Martin Orchestra, and she improvises enjoyably in both the boogie components (left hand) and the melody lines (right hand); the syncopations of the final statement are particularly frenzied.

Andrew Barrett had a set of ragtime songs from 1912: “That Old Girl of Mine” by Earle C. Jones (words) and Egbert Van Alstyne (music), Albert Von Tilzer’s “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town,” and “Be My Little Baby Bumble-Bee” by Stanley Murphy (words) and Henry I. Marshall (music). Both “Old Girl” and “…Lonesomest” are sweet, sentimental, “old-fashioned” songs, and Andrew’s arrangements of both, and his creative embellishments, are nicely performed. “…Baby Bumble-Bee” features a lively, playful chorus with some wonderful syncopations, and made for a fitting way to close the all-1912 set.

Bill Mitchell gave us a varied set that started with J.M Wilcockson’s “Pride of the Smoky Row.” Bill recorded this wonderful 1911, rarely heard piece, subtitled “A Slow Drag,” on his 1972 LP “Ragtime Recycled.” Bill said the composer was a music dealer who lived in Hammond, Indiana, just across the state line from Chicago, and that “Smoky Row” received three piano rolls almost instantly before falling into obscurity. Its folksy opening section has an underlying poignancy, its B theme mixes ideas from both folk and pop ragtime, its trio is sweet yet haunting, and its memorable, vampy interlude achieves a steamy sound combining a circle of fifths and a riff pattern. Next up was “The Whitewash Man” by Jean Schwartz, a Tin Pan Alley composer known for songs like “Chinatown, My Chinatown.” Bill said his earlier (1908) ragtime piece “The Pop Corn Man” is a “companion” to “Whitewash Man.” The lively opening of “Whitewash” flirts with the minor tonality, and both the trio and bridge are great. Bill closed his set with Scott’s fanciful, lighthearted 1915 rag “Evergreen,” with its semi-orchestral A theme, charming second section and a great Scott trio that Bill jazzes up in performance.

John Reed-Torres offered a set of two very early (1890s) non-rags and one Joplin rag not often heard. First up was a crisp reading of the cakewalk/two-step “Smoky Mokes” (Abe Holzmann, 1899), then Joplin’s “The Favorite.” Written in 1900 but not published until four years later, the piece was given fine embellishments by John, who went to town on the closing themes syncopations. Finally, we heard Joplin’s “The Great Crush Collision March” from 1896, given an entertaining handling by John via various devices – notably, shifts in tempo from fast to slow and use of tremolo in the treble.

Bob Pinsker announced a set of contemporary ragtime, beginning with “a piece written by our host” – that is, Eric Marchese, whose “Winnin’ Time” was written in the early ’90s as a paean to the Los Angeles Lakers, its title taken from a term used frequently by Magic Johnson to exhort his teammates during the team’s many 1980s championship runs. Sure enough, the piece was bouncy and lively. Next was “Sun Flower – A Syncopated Impression” written by Vincent Johnson in 2010, with a haunting, introspective B theme that captures the sound of ’10s and ’20s piano and an intricate, more playful third theme that features a break and a descending treble run. Bob closed his set with a suitably crisp rendition of Tom Brier’s “Just Peachy,” a swingy, lighthearted foxtrot from 1992. To boot, Bob introduced Eubie-style figurations in the bass, notably in the final theme. Bob noted that the rag’s final strain has the type of harmonic sequence that just begs for elaboration and improvisation. In keeping with this, he played the strain a total of four times – including the introduction of Eubie-style bass figurations – building to a big finish.

Opening the encore portion of the show, Eric offered two outstanding yet rarely heard rags from 1912: “World’s Fair Rag” by Harvey M. Babcock and Charles L. Johnson’s “Swanee Rag.” Eric noted that Nan Bostick was especially tickled by his previous renditions of “World’s Fair,” a wonderful rag with two boisterous themes followed by a more subdued yet still exciting trio. Eric characterized the inventive “Swanee” as one of Johnson’s unheralded masterpieces, a creative mixture of numerous musical devices that far exceeds the basic premise of quoting Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (“Swanee River”), a phrase that occurs in the trio.

John encored with “Maple Leaf Rag,” mixing in unusual harmonies and rhythms (eg. tango, Stride etc.). He then delivered an original, “Belle of Los Angeles,” a lively stomper that opens with a creative reworking of the A theme of “Maple Leaf” before moving into an exciting, heavily syncopated B theme. The trio is especially creative, with a melody that dabbles in the minor tonality, wild chord progressions and the use of habañera rhythms.

Vincent’s encore also included an original – the tender, beautiful classic rag “Tiffany Lamp,” which has much in common with the lyrical works of Lothar Perl. He then offered Perl’s 1932 masterwork “Black and White,” whose jaunty opening section has clever harmonies, while in sections of its trio, both hands move in parallel motion. Both pieces display Vincent’s expertly light, lyrical touch.

Bill returned to the stage and, noting May 21st as the shared birthdate of Tierney, Aufderheide and Waller, said we hadn’t yet heard any Waller tunes – so he offered a medley of four of Waller’s best pieces. Bill played the medley first before revealing the selections. In order, they were the bluesy “Squeeze Me,” upbeat, jaunty “Honeysuckle Rose,” romantic “I Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” and jazzy “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Bill then answered an audience member request for Scott’s masterpiece, “Grace and Beauty.”

In line with several of the very early Joplin pieces heard today, Ryan offered a piano arrangement of “A Picture of Her Face,” a Victorian-style waltz-tempo ballad Joplin wrote in the 1890s as part of the repertoire of his Texas Medley Quartette. In 1895, when the vocal group toured as far north as New York, Joplin sold the piece to Leiter Bros. in the town of Syracuse – and it is only the second published piece of music to bear his name. Ryan accented certain phrases through the use of tremolo, typical of the way such pieces would have been played at that time.

Shirley Case served up Lamb’s wonderful “Chimes of Dixie,” one of the 13 “new” Lamb rags published in the 1964 folio “Ragtime Treasures.” The rag cleverly quotes, and syncopates, snippets of “Dixie”; like Johnson’s “Swanee Rag,” it also quotes “Old Folks at Home” (“Swanee River”).

Unfortunately, the tight schedule at Steamers prevented us from hearing Andrew and Bob’s closing tunes – so we’ll reserve extra playing time for both gents at our next meeting, at Steamers in June, when our normal performance time of 1 to 4:30 p.m. will resume.

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