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Nov. 2013: Classics, early rags and Novelties fill the bill for OCRS’s 12th anniversary performance

OCRS recognized its 12th anniversary – the club’s first performance was in November, 2001 – with a moderate turnout and eight musicians in all: Six pianists, one banjoist and one percussionist.

Noting that Scott Joplin’s observed birthday was just over a week away, MC Eric Marchese related Joplin’s interest in Booker T. Washington’s visit to the White House via the invitation of President Theodore Roosevelt, expressed through two of Joplin’s works: His lost 1903 ragtime opera’s title is “A Guest of Honor,” most likely a reference to this historic occasion, and Joplin’s 1902 rag “The Strenuous Life,” a wonderful rag which has a decidedly martial feel to it and whose title was taken from a phrase coined and frequently heard by Roosevelt. Eric performed this outstanding and rarely heard piano rag, then followed with “Country Club Rag,” one of the six outstanding Joplin releases from the year 1909.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, Shirley Case offered a set of “food rags”: Theron Bennett’s “Sweet Pickles,” Les Copeland’s “Cabbage Leaf Rag” and James Scott’s “Frog Legs Rag.” Missouri composer Bennett (whose first name, Theron, rhymes with “terran”) wrote several fine rags; this one offers a dramatic trio whose darker mood contrasts nicely with the first two themes. Like Bennett, Copeland was a folk-rag composer, but with a much more eccentric personality that’s been well documented by music historians. With a whimsical mood and overall feeling, “Cabbage Leaf” features triplets, dotted-note rhythms and multi-octave leaps in the melody – all unusual touches for folk ragtime. Shirley saved the toughest rag for last: “Frog Legs” is the first of many Scott rags which challenge even the best pianists; she prefaced her performance by noting, “We used to eat frog legs. My dad would want them for dinner.” As a food, she said, it “tastes like chicken.” The piece’s trio goes to the subdominant key, an unusual modulation for classic ragtime. However, the subdominant of home key D-flat major would have had a key signature with six flats, so publisher Stark may have urged Scott, an outstanding pianist, to transpose the last two themes into the more manageable key of A-flat, thus explaining the piece’s four-bar bridge.

Stan Long played two great Zez Confrey pieces from very late in the ragtime era – “Nickel in the Slot” and “Dizzy Fingers,” then capped his set with Charles N. Daniels’ “Margery,” which appeared during the dawn of the ragtime era in the year 1898. “Nickel” is a wonderful, rarely heard Confrey piece which emulates the sound of a player piano in severe need of repair. Stan took the main theme of “Dizzy” at a measured pace, the better with which to handle the more challenging B and C sections. “Margery,” meanwhile, is a lively early pop song from Charles N. Daniels, the man who decided to purchase Scott Joplin’s “Original Rags” for Carl Hoffman, the Kansas City, MO, music publishing firm he worked for; around the time of his death in the mid-1930s, a niece would be born who would later spread Daniels’ music around to contemporary audiences. Her name? Nan Bostick.

Vincent Johnson stated that he’d be playing all new material and that we would be the first audience to hear these pieces being performed by him. He opened with Bix Beiderbecke’s 1928 masterpiece “In a Mist” which Vincent referred to as “a classic of jazz piano with a lot of syncopation” and which had also been released under the title “Bixology.” Vincent said that under either title, the piece was typically referred to as “A Piano Novelty” or “A Modern Piano Solo.” With advanced harmonies and syncopations, it sounds as modern and fresh now as 85 years ago, and in his performance, Vincent lent terrific expression to this immortal work.

Next up was a much more obscure piece that’s also much lighter in emotional content: “Hong Kong Haggis,” a rarely heard Novelty piano solo from 1938 by Patricia Rossborough. The piece, Vincent said, mixes elements of Oriental and Scottish music, and indeed, when listening to it, one hears ideas found in both. Vincent closed his set with the outstanding 1927 Rube Bloom Novelty “Silhouette,” giving a crisp reading of the busy A theme’s streams of single notes, then, through his performance, emphasizing the darker B and more impressionistic C themes.

Bill Mitchell took to the piano, Jimmy Green joined him on stage on the banjo, and percussionist Durand Stewart took his place at the drums for Scott’s “Grace and Beauty,” Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” and Charles “Doc” Cooke’s “Blame It On the Blues.” Bill surprised us by doing a “reverse echo” effect for the second repeat of the 1909 Scott masterpiece’s closing theme. A Dixieland jazz standard, “Wolverine” is more upbeat and more aggressive than the graceful classic rags, with a justly famous trio whose break Bill exploited to give Jimmy and Durand chances to solo. “Blame It” started life as a piano rag but has since also become a regular part of the Dixieland repertory. With no rehearsal, this trio of musicians created a cohesive, unified sound entirely built upon improvisation and musicianship.

Preparing to host an all-ragtime open house at home the next day, Shirley Case took the stage for her encore, the classic Louis Chauvin/Scott Joplin collaboration “Heliotrope Bouquet.” In 1906, Joplin visited Chauvin in Chicago, organized the piece and notated Chauvin’s two lovely ragtime themes. He then completed the piece by adding two more strains plus an intro, then brought it to John Stark for publication. The piece was issued in December of 1907; three months later, Chauvin passed away just two weeks after his 27th birthday. It’s doubtful he saw a printed copy of the only published piano rag to bear his name.

Just before the break, Eric offered another great rag by Charles “Doc” Cooke, but one far less well-known than “Blame It On the Blues”: “Such Is Life,” a delightful rag issued by Remick in New York in 1915. The piece, Eric noted, relies upon a few basic musical devices that are used in all three themes, yet each section sounds fresh and original. In introducing his next two selections, Eric explained the difference between two contemporary approaches to ragtime composition: those pieces which deliberately try to break with vintage ragtime and those which are “nostalgic.” He said he has often written so-called “nostalgia” rags through which he tries to evoke the original ragtime era – but that in doing so, he always aims to use the period itself as inspiration rather than any particular composer or piece. This approach, he said, yields rags like his “Halcyon Days,” written in the early 1990s after one of his annual visits to the Scott Joplin festival in Sedalia, Mo., and “Zephyrs of Yesteryear,” written roughly a decade later. He proceeded to play both, noting that recordings of each were featured on two of the CDs being raffled off during the break – Tom Brier’s performance of “Halcyon Days” on the CD “Brier plays Marchese” and Eric’s own performance of “Zephyrs of Yesteryear” on the solo piano CD “The Silver Lining.”

Ryan Wishner, who arrived just as the first half was coming to a close, took to the Steamers piano with four wonderful numbers, all of which demonstrated his amazing ability to re-create the sounds of piano rolls. Ryan noted that he often downloads and prints out various vintage piano scores and songs while sitting at the computer doing his homework – hence this set’s two 1920s songs whose first words are “When the.” First up was “When the Leaves Come Tumbling Down,” a 1922 number by Richard Howard. Next was Harry Von Tilzer’s “When the Harvest Moon is Shining” (1920), which Ryan gave a strongly roll-oriented sound via various embellishments (runs/arpeggios, fill-ins, tremolos, etc.). He followed these with Albert Gumble’s “Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farm.” The verse of this 1914 piece (lyrics by A. Seymour Brown) creates an intense mood through its use of the minor tonality. Noting that for some reason, James Scott’s wonderful “Hilarity Rag” always seems to be played by at least one pianist at every Rose Leaf Ragtime Club meeting, Ryan proceeded to offer his version of this great 1910 Scott masterpiece, a very full rendition of this lively rag made more intricate by Ryan’s filling out of the score with additional notes and embellishments.

Vincent’s second set opened with Duke Ellington’s “Black Beauty.” Opening with a familiar and memorable main theme, the 1928 piece typifies Ellington’s sophistication, which is well represented by Vincent’s smooth, graceful performance. Next up: Arthur Schutt’s “Rambling in Rhythm,” which features a dark, intense second theme. Vincent closed with an outstanding rendition of Rube Bloom’s optimistic “Spring Fever,” which is at once both aggressive (as in its driving trio) and graceful.

Eric offered another mid-teens rag issued by Remick, his second of the day: Fred Irvin’s wonderful and whimsical early foxtrot “Doctor Brown.” The A theme of this 1914 piece uses a strong thumbline countermelody to suggest two melodies being played simultaneously, while the second theme surprisingly has a sound and feel that would later be associated with Harlem Stride piano. Eric then honored a request from an audience member for Joplin’s 1902 masterpiece “The Entertainer.”

To start his second set, Ryan delivered Fred Fisher’s “The Red Lantern,” whose use of treble tremolos and rumbling bass inform its wildly intricate nature. Next up: Euday Bowman’s “Twelfth Street Rag,” and yet another roll-style performance loaded with fill-ins, octave leaps, tremolos and walking bass figures. “Sunshine Capers” was issued on piano roll in 1920 as one of “Roy Bargy’s Piano Syncopations,” seeing print in 1922 and being recorded (by Bargy) in 1924. The lively, intricate piece has an entirely memorable A theme, a second subject that inventively mixes a variety of Novelty devices, and a trio that’s simply wonderful. Ryan closed with “Ruspana,” written by Robert A. King under the pseudonym of Mary Earl. Referring to the piece as “one of those cheesy late teens dance songs,” Ryan noted that his fill-in and tremolo-oriented performance is patterned after the Zez Confrey roll arrangement of the piece, whose opening theme is a torrid minor-key tango.

Wrapping things up for the day were Bill and Jimmy, who opened their set by taking us “back to the era of the cakewalk” with the 1900 hit “Creole Belles.” Bill said he first heard the piece, composed by J. Bodewalt Lampe, on a 1946 record by Lu Watters and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band. Bill then noted that during Scott Joplin’s days in Sedalia, MO, the great ragtime composer had a couple of “brilliant students”: Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden. Bill and Jimmy then illustrated Marshall’s style by performing the first two themes of “Swipesy,” both sections composed solely by Marshall. “Something Doing” is a wonderful early (1903) rag written primarily by Hayden, with a fine trio added by mentor Joplin after the younger man had composed three themes (the rag’s A, B and D themes). The set and the day were brought to a close with “Bohemia Rag.” From 1919, this was the last of the 12 Joseph F. Lamb rags issued by Stark between 1908 and 1919, an upbeat, happy number with a wonderfully lively and memorable trio and, overall, the flavor of Czech music – but in the language of ragtime, of course, again illustrating Lamb’s genius in transmuting widely divergent source material into the format of the piano rag.

The afternoon produced a total of 35 selections, a fitting tribute to the Orange County Ragtime Society’s 12th anniversary. O.C.R.S. now enters its brief end-of-year hiatus before reconvening in February of 2014. We wish everyone happy holidays and look forward to seeing you all at the start of the new year!

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