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June 2013 OCRS: Lotta Joplin and Jelly Roll, songs, stoptime, one-steps and ‘hot’ rags

The June 2013 OCRS provided many suprises: A healthy to large turnout of musicians and fans, a considerable number of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton selections, several songs, and a predominant quantity of selections featuring stoptime rhythms, double-time (one-step) rhythms and numerous features associated with “hot” piano playing.

MC Eric Marchese got things rolling with a performance of Julia Lee Niebergall’s wonderful 1907 rag “Hoosier Rag.” If any piano rag can be said to be “genteel,” this is it – a bittersweet, three-themed rag and a great example of the kind of lyricism found in rags from the Ohio Valley. Eric then offered the first Joplin piece of the day, the composer’s stunning “Euphonic Sounds,” a clearly experimental piece in which Joplin melded African-American polyrhythms with elements of 19th-century Romantic classical music. The result is an outstanding piano piece unlike any other in the ragtime world and even with Joplin’s own repertory.

Stan Long hoisted “the Johnny Hodges version” of the ever-popular “Black and White Rag,” more Joplin in “Solace – A Mexican Serenade” (but, Stan said, “without all the repeats, ’cause it’s too long!”) and “Dill Pickles” which, along with “Black and White Rag,” cemented the use in popular ragtime composition of the cliché rhythmic technique known as “three over four.”

Making one of his all-too-rare appearances at Steamers, Doug Haise offered three unusual and rarely heard selections. He started off with Harry L. Cook’s marvelous “Shovel Fish Rag.” Published in Louisville in 1907, it’s a clear example of the eccentricity of Southern ragtime: It’s got a strange number of themes (six), some of which have an unusual number of measures, and sounds ranging from quirky to folksy. The opening theme is quite catchy, and B is lively and happy while quoting some of the motifs found in A. C is softly quirky, its bass using the three lowest notes on the piano keyboard, and is vaguely reminiscent of “Zippity Doo Dah.” D switches to the minor tonality, E is folksy, using an ending similar to “Maple Leaf Rag’s” A theme ms. 13-16, and the final section starts out very soft (pp) and winds up at a higher volume (fff). Next came one of the many rags to be inspired by the 1903 World’s Fair: “Funny Folks” (1904) by W.C. Powell, the pen name for publisher W.C. Polla when in his composing guise. The A theme hovers in the minor tonality, B is cheerful and features a wonderful treble riff, and the lively C theme leads back into the final iteration of theme B. For his last selection, Doug chose to stump us, asking us to guess the piece’s title, composer and year and giving us the hint that it was the first ragtime piece by this particular composer. Your reporter immediately identified the piece as Charles L. Johnson’s “Scandalous Thompson.” From 1899, it launched not only a great ragtime composer career for Johnson but a vital, durable career in pop music. Doug’s wonderfully crisp playing accentuated all of the rag’s great sections, including its fine stoptime section (C theme) which Doug drew attention to with his foot-stomping accompaniment. While the audience continued to be stumped as to title, composer and year, Eric took the mic to provide a hint: “We’ve already heard one of this composer’s rags earlier today.” As the audience was stumped, Doug and Eric allowed Andrew Barrett and Vincent Johnson to call out the correct answer.

Vincent then took the stage and rolled out a fantastically diverse set of Novelties, starting with “Giddy Ditty.” Vincent stated that Jasen & Tichenor refer to the 1935 piece as “Confrey’s last Novelty rag,” but begs to differ, noting numerous rag-like Confrey creations following that year. “Giddy’s” A theme is certainly giddy, and it’s typical of Zez, with triplets, augmented harmonies and more. B is harmonically daring. C is catchy and clever, leading back to the last repeat of A. Next came the rare Billy Mayerl piece “Oriental” (1931). Vincent said it “sounds more Russian” (than “Oriental,” that is) – perhaps inspired by Rachmaninoff? Indeed, the piece has a Russo-classical sound even within the more familiar Mayerl piano sound. The opening theme even employs a cross-hand passage. The entire piece is at once pretty, daring and inventive. Vincent closed his great set with the clearly Gershwinesque Novelty “Lazy Rhapsody,” a Howard Jackson piece published in 1929 by Robbins Music, one of the leading publishers of Novelty piano, but which is perhaps best known from Joe “Fingers” Carr’s recording of it in the 1950s. The piece is soft and pretty and at times beautiful, and its opening section is indeed heavily influenced by the works of Gershwin. Vincent says it’s worth noting that Carr’s recording is actually quite obscure, noting that the piece was “a huge hit in terms of sheet music sales for Robbins,” probably one of its ten biggest Novelty piano solos in terms of sales – yet remained unrecorded for more than two decades.

OCRS welcomed a new young ragtime pianist, Eugene Shinn, a 16-year-old ragtimer who just moved to the Diamond Bar area. Eugene opened with Chauvin and Joplin’s “Heliotrope Bouquet,” then pushed things up a few notches with Robert Hampton’s 1914 masterpiece “Cataract Rag.” Published by Stark, this five-themed piece exemplifies the virtuoso piano style of St. Louis late in the ragtime era, with ascending and descending passages, triplets and more meant to evoke tumultuous, cascading waterfalls, all wonderfully handled by Eugene. Staying with Stark but taking things back to the start of the ragtime era, Eugene offered a unique version of “Maple Leaf Rag,” adding extra repeats at will, using an “oom-pah” bass in place of the block chords of the A themes measures 9-16 and generally adding entertaining embellishments to this ragtime standard.

Bill Mitchell stuck to the spirit of Eric’s, Doug’s and Vincent’s sets with more selections rarely heard via ragtime society performances: Johnson’s “Barber Pole Rag,” Joplin’s “The Strenuous Life” and Morton’s “Wolverine Blues.” “Barber Pole” was one of Johnson’s six rags from 1911 but the only one published in Denver. Its A theme is folksy, B catchy, with rhythm as its focus, and C evocative of pop songs of the early teens. Though it has just three sections, it sounds longer due to repeats, interludes and its 32-measure trio. Joplin’s march-like “Strenuous Life” came out in 1902, a banner year for Joplin that included “The Entertainer,” “Elite Syncopations” and several more outstanding compositions – yet it’s rarely performed by ragtimers. Bill noted that the A theme has a similar feel to its counterpart in “The Easy Winners” of a year earlier. It has also been widely noted that the piece’s title is an homage to President Theodore Roosevelt, who advocated “the strenuous life” for all Americans. As Joplin’s lost opera “A Guest of Honor” was completed a year later in 1903, it has been surmised that the opera’s title referred to Booker T. Washington, who was President Roosevelt’s “guest of honor” at The White House during his presidency. Bill wrapped things up with Jelly Roll’s immortal 1923 piece “Wolverine Blues.” The Intro is typical of Morton, the second theme is a cool, bluesy slow drag, and the trio is the piece’s most well-known section, containing its most familiar motif.

Eric trotted out three more unusual selections: two ragtime songs and an original piano rag. He opened with Leo Friedman and Beth Slater Whitson’s huge 1909 song hit “Meet Me To-Night in Dreamland,” which netted publisher Will Rossiter a small fortune he didn’t share with the composers. Rossiter’s younger brother Harold then offered the duo a share of the profits if they could pen something as good as “Dreamland.” They did, and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” became the biggest song hit of 1910. Eric related this amusing tale before playing his piano rendition of the piece. Next up was his “Out of Time,” a poetic, lyrical slow-tempo piano piece from 2003. Eric closed with one of the biggest ragtime song hits of the early ragtime era, “I’m Certainly Living a Ragtime Life” from 1900, with lyrics by Gene Jefferson and music by Robert S. Roberts. Eric said he doesn’t usually sing, but as he does indeed, he noted, “have a ragtime cat and live in a ragtime flat,” he couldn’t resist croaking out the lyrics.

Continuing with the afternoon’s developing theme of rarely heard selections, Andrew Barrett showcased three more, all outstanding pieces and all from the year 1913. First up was Joseph M. Daly’s “Too Much Ginger.” Marked allegretto and billed as a “one-step and tango,” the piece, as Andrew related, is the publisher, composer and theatrical pianist’s obvious answer to the Cecil Mack hit “Tres Moutarde,” from its “minor-key European dance number” feel to its exciting one-step tempo. Andrew’s performance is lively and fun, and filled with piano-roll touches. Next came “Heart O’ Mine,” a wonderful waltz by “two old pros in the music business: Robert Keiser (sometimes known as Robert King) and Eugene Platzmann.” The piece, Andrew said, carries the French subtitle “valse hesitation,” the “hesitation waltz” feature prominent in the second theme. Andrew characterized the piece as “dreamy,” cueing us to listen closely since its resemblance to “an extremely famous 1950s jazz composition is not coincidental.” (That piece, by the way, is John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”) Overall, this pretty piece is well harmonized, with numerous classical stylings – not surprising, Andrew said, since its roots lie in Richard Strauss’s 1890 “Der Rosenkavalier Waltzes,” a piece which Andrew noted directly inspired both “Giant Steps” and Richard Rodgers’ 1937 song “Have You Met Miss Jones?” Andrew closed his great set with a piece Daly published: Thomas S. Allen’s “Home Spun Rag.” This selection is lively and upbeat but also lyrical, especially in its third theme. The interlude is in the minor a la “Wild Cherries,” and the rag ends with the wonderful C theme.

Bob Pinsker took to the stage with a complete set of Jelly Roll Morton tunes. First was Jelly’s transformation of Joplin’s 1899 “Original Rags” into “Jelly Roll” style, famously heard in a 1938 recording. Bob backtracked by saying that because piano didn’t record well with early technology, we didn’t begin to get piano recordings until the 1920s. “Maple Leaf Rag” was recorded as a piano solo until Willie Eckstein’s 1923 performance. Thus Bob’s opening selection connected this fact with Eugene’s earlier performance of “Maple Leaf” and Bill’s of “Woverine.” Indeed, Bob’s performance highlights the shifted rhythms, increased syncopations and looser, jazzier feel, with the closing E theme receiving the most radical changes. All repeats were skipped save those of themes D and E, and the overall performance is a fascinating look at the way inventive musical artists put their creative individual stamp on each and every performance – none more so than Jelly Roll Morton. The next rarity: the Morton tango “Creepy Feeling” – a virtuoso piece both in its composition and in Bob’s performance of it. The arresting third section has a wonderful break built on a single note in the treble. Not copyrighted until 1944 (by Roy J. Carew), this selection offered listeners a tantalizing taste of a Morton rarity as well as an outstanding example of the “Spanish tinge.” Finally, Bob said, something “more along the lines of a rag or a stomp,” and yet another piece never previously heard at an OCRS performance: Morton’s “Big Foot Ham.” Well known by its composer’s famed 1923 recording, the piece typifies Morton’s many great stomps. And as with many a Morton piece, the active left hand helps create the aural illusion of a multi-instrument combo, even within the framework of a solo piano piece.

After a brief break, Eric invited Doug, Bob, Vincent and Andrew to take the stage and offer a pair of encores. Doug delivered Charles N. Daniels’ “Cotton Time” and Egbert Van Alstyne’s “Jamaica Jinjer.” The main theme of “Cotton Time” (1910) is its second section, but the highlight is the trio, an enjoyable stoptime creation. From 1912, Van Alstyne’s “Jamaica Jinjer” is subtitled “A Hot Rag.” One of the great pop rags of the ragtime era, the piece is strongly articulated through Doug’s performance, and Doug slowed down the piece’s tempo for the finale, the final repeat of section C, to allow the audience to clap along and stomp their feet in rhythm. This technique was quite common in performance during the ragtime era, and Doug’s use of it mirrors Van Alstyne’s own piano roll recording of the piece.

Bob rounded out his all-Morton set with two more Morton selections. First up was the piano part of the song “Sweet Substitute” (Bob said “I won’t sing it because the lyrics are bad”), a wonderfully bluesy, slow-tempo number. Bob closed with the unpublished Morton piece “Superior Rag.” Like “Creepy Feeling,” this one was copyrighted by Roy Carew after Morton’s death – in this case in 1948. Bob characterized the piece as “real ragtime” and “somewhat enigmatic,” and indeed, the piece is, musically speaking, an oddity. Continuing the afternoon’s seeming emphasis on stoptime piano, this piece gave us the stoptime rhythm in its third theme.

Vincent offered a pair of great yet rare piano solos by Lothar Perl. First up was “Rocking Horse.” From 1934, the piece is typical of its composer in its slow tempo, beautiful harmonies and overall softness and delicacy. The second theme adopts the minor tonality, while the C theme is gentle and wistful. Vincent then offered a rare Perl from a year earlier, noting that he had only tried this piece in one previous OCRS performance. This was the wonderful, whimsical “Ducky.” Its opening theme sets the tone and the second theme features unusual fingering – but it’s the delightful A theme that comes back to close the piece.

Like Bob and Vincent, Andrew stuck to a single concept – Bob did five Morton selections, Vincent did five Novelties, and Andrew wound up performing five pieces from 1913. His encores were “Oh You Lovable Chile” and “The Milkman’s Rag.” “Chile” (spelled like the country “Chile” but pronounced to rhyme with “mile”) was publisher Remick and composer Van Alstyne’s answer to the hugely popular 1911 song hit “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” Andrew characterized Earle C. Jones’ lyrics as “mediocre” but Van Alstyne’s melodies as “nice,” featuring the composer’s own chord progressions, yielding, overall, “not a bad knock-off.” While not the hit that “Doll” proved to be, it’s a typical ragtime song of the early to mid-teens. Finally, Andrew closed his set, and the afternoon’s performance, with a piece he said went over well with audiences at the previous weekend’s Blind Boone festival in Columbia, MO: “The Milkman’s Rag,” the only instrumental selection from the score of the 1913 musical “Snobs” by composer/lyricist Sheppard “Shep” Camp, arranged by Eugene Platzmann. Andrew noted that Camp was, in addition to being a composer, also a lyricist and playwright; that the show concerns a milkman who pretends to be a businessman; and that the show never made it to Broadway but did play at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. The selection itself is best characterized as whimsical, cute and fun. Its highlight is its wonderfully quiet, low-key trio featuring a countermelody in the thumbline, but the final iteration of the B theme makes for a big finish for this terrific piece.

All in all, we heard a total of 34 selections. Nearly all of these were either OCRS premieres or were rarely heard at our musicales. Six of the selections were by Morton, six more were originally songs, five were by Joplin, five were Novelties, at least five featured stoptime or one-step rhythms, and at least two more can be categorized as “hot” piano, making the June, 2013 OCRS one of the most singular in recent memory.

We hope you’ll join us next time around on Saturday, July 20, at Steamers from 1 to 4:30 p.m. We’ll see everyone again then and there!

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