First OCRS of 2016 salutes ragtimers born in February
Held in the lobby of FCLO Music Theatre’s rehearsal hall in downtown Fullerton, the first OCRS of 2016 started out as a salute to the many ragtime composers with February birthdays, but it soon became apparent that the afternoon’s performance was almost as prominent as a showcase for the works of contemporary composers.
The tally was close, but in total we heard 13 pieces written by February-born composers and 10 written by contemporary composers. Two of these were overlaps – pianists with February birthdays playing their own pieces.
Paul Orsi, whose birthday is in late February, got things rolling with “Birthday Rag,” a lively, rollicking rag he wrote in the 1980s. Next up was “Frog Legs Rag,” the biggest hit of James Scott, with Paul adding a bridge after the rag’s conclusion to lead back into a final restatement of the A theme. Scott was born on Feb. 12, 1885, and four of his rags were heard during the afternoon.
Paul wound things up with Eubie Blake’s immortal “Charleston Rag,” one of the greatest ragtime pieces ever. Blake was born Feb. 7, 1887 in Baltimore and was represented at OCRS by three different compositions. To spice things up, Paul interpolated part of “The Charleston,” the quintessential ’20s dance tune, which was written by none other than James P. Johnson, born in New Jersey on Feb. 1, 1894.
Shirley Case offered two wonderful 1916 rags enjoying their centennials this year: “Moonshine Rag” by Edward Hudson and “Too Much Raspberry” by Sidney K. Russell. “Moonshine” is a terrific, lively piece that isn’t performed often enough, and “Raspberry” is a fine example of an “advanced” rag of the teens, featuring numerous unusual modulations, especially in the trio. As the second of the afternoon’s many nods to contemporary composers, Shirley played Kathi Backus’ “Goldenrod Rag,” a part classic, part pop-style rag from 1967.
Stan Long offered up “Black and White Rag,” one of the standards of the ragtime repertoire, by George Botsford (born in South Dakota on Feb. 24, 1874). He followed with George L. Cobb’s “Feeding the Kitty” and ended his set with Arthur Marshall’s “Swipesy” (trio penned by Scott Joplin).
MC Eric Marchese and banjo player Jimmy Green launched into two great classics by Scott Joplin, both featured in the movie “The Sting”: “Pine Apple Rag” (1908) and “The Easy Winners” (1901).
Frank Sano delivered a piano rendition of the great ragtime song “Oh You Beautiful Doll,” one of the biggest song hits of 1911, followed by Joe Lamb’s classic “Champagne Rag” (1910) and Wenrich’s “Red Rose Rag” of 1911.
Eric soloed on three pieces by composers born in February, starting with Julia Lee Niebergall’s “Hoosier Rag.” Niebergall was born in Indianapolis on Feb. 15, 1886, and the 1907 “Hoosier” was her masterwork. From 1916, Scott’s “Prosperity” is in many ways a reworking of his earlier masterpiece “Grace and Beauty,” especially in its two opening themes. Eric then closed with his own “The Ragtime Warbler: A Songbird Rag.” As one of his earliest compositions, Eric noted that he first wrote two themes in a Scott/birdcall vein before running dry of inspiration. Hearing Glenn Jenks’ “The Ragtime Hermit-Thrush” prompted him to take the rag in the direction of Lamb’s lyrical style, and he completed “Warbler” in that vein. He said he chose to perform the piece to honor Jenks, who was born on Feb. 9, 1947 and who passed away unexpectedly a few weeks before this OCRS meeting, just shy of his 69th birthday.
Bob Pinsker opened his set with an even more direct tribute to Glenn, playing a stirring rendition of Jenks’ haunting “Elegiac Rag.” Next was 1923’s “Morocco Blues” by Joe Jordan (born Feb. 11, 1882 in Cincinnati). Bob closed his set with the bombshell that he’d gotten hold of a tape recording Bob Darch made at Joe Lamb’s home circa 1958, with Lamb playing various rags on his piano. One of these was one of the now-lost Mills novelties. The piece’s title isn’t spoken on the tape, and Lamb only plays the A theme and parts of B and C – so Bob transcribed these, then said he tried to imagine the missing sections of these rags, also adding a closing D theme of his own. Bob then rattled off the titles of the still-missing Mills pieces (excluding those four recently found) to let the audience choose a suitable title. The audience consensus was “Waffles,” although Bob himself favors “Knick-Knacks.”
Ron Ross delivered a set of contemporary rags: Hal Isbitz’s “Chandelier,” P.J. Schmidt’s “French Vanilla” and his own “Joplinesque.”
Following a lengthy refreshment break, the music resumed with Phil Cannon’s outstanding transcriptions for guitar of two great James Scott rags, “Climax” and “Efficiency.” He then performed his original “Monrovia Rag,” in which he says he “tried to channel James Scott.”
Shirley encored with Trebor Tichenor’s “Cape Rose Rag,” a bluesy folk-style rag with a second theme that prominently features a blues handling of the standard circle of fifths.
Paul took to the piano once more with Jimmy on banjo for the great Jelly Roll Morton classic “Grandpa’s Spells” and, from a much earlier era, the great cakewalk “At a Georgia Camp Meeting” by Frederick “Kerry” Mills (born Feb. 1, 1869).
Bob wrapped up the day with the rarely heard bluesy rag “Texas Blues” by Les Copeland, noting that the published score is essentially identical to Copeland’s hand-played 1917 roll version of his piece. It’s also striking to note the similarities in sound and feel to Euday Bowman’s output of blues-rags.
Bob’s set, and a wonderful afternoon of terrific music, ended with two more Eubies, both rarities: “Slew-Foot Nelson,” from a 1973 manuscript but obviously composed many decades earlier and, also from a manuscript Bob found in the Maryland Historical Society library in Baltimore, home of Eubie's papers, “Eubie’s Boogie Rag,” a creative boogie using the ragtime format and incorporating elements of both styles as well as Eubie’s characteristic infusion of blues ingredients.
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