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April 2017 OCRS gets Muck gallery ringing out with ragtime

Our third OCRS of the 2017 calendar year was also the first of three ragtime musicales at the gallery of the historic Muckenthaler Cultural Center, a pleasing setting, fine baby grand piano and plenty of room for spectators.

Nine pianists contributed to a terrific afternoon that featured several more gems written by February-born ragtime composers, lady ragtime composers of the vintage era, a healthy number of originals, obscurities and pre-ragtime selections, and a raft of WWI tunes sight-read by various pianists from a stack of vintage sheet music scores supplied by Frank Sano.

Armando Gutierrez gave the afternoon a terrific jump-start with his wonderful rendition of "Canadian Capers," one of the best advanced-style piano rags to come out of the mid-teens and among the few from the vintage era to have originated in California (in this case, San Francisco, although it was published in Chicago). Eric noted that although the piece rates as one of the "top 40" or so most-popular rags ever, it had never been performed at any OCRS musicale (or even at RagFest). He also gave the back-story of how the piece came to be: Although credited to Cohen, Chandler and White, it was actually part of a much larger, untitled piece created and played by Sid LeProtti, a San Francisco-area pianist. Cohen happened to hear it and kept returning and requesting the piece of LeProtti, tipping him a few dollars each time. Once Cohen had gotten enough of the piece written out, he passed it along to Chandler and White so that lyrics could be added - then the trio sold the piece to Chicago publisher Roger Graham, who issued it in March of 1915. Armando's performance adds enjoyable embellishments while capturing the rag's unique style and flavor.

Speaking of shorter works emerging from longer ones, Paul Orsi started his set with the full-length version of Joplin's "The Ragtime Dance," which started as a nine-page ragtime ballet of which Joplin wrote the music, lyrics and dance steps. In 1902, Stark gave in to Joplin's urging him to publish the piece - and saw it fail commercially. Four years later, trying to recoup his losses, Stark dropped the dance instruction and lyrics and eliminated the intro and the minor-key first theme, the ballet's elongated introductory section, whittling it down to a standard four-page piano rag. Though most of the other themes remained intact, the original version is much more interesting to listen to and intriguing from the standpoint of its possible inclusion as part of Joplin's lost 1903 opera "A Guest of Honor" (a point that Paul emphasized in introducing the piece). Paul's next two pieces, "The Birthday Rag" and "Zebra Rag," are among his earliest originals.

Shirley Case offered a complete set of pieces by lady ragtime composers - one by Imogene Giles, two by Irene Giblin. "Red Peppers" was Giles' only published rag, but it's a great piece, given great dynamics, pacing and phrasing by Shirley - and with one of the best trio sections around. Giblin's "Sleepy Lou," Shirley said, is "quiet and sleepy" until its stormy trio. Giblin's "Chicken Chowder" was her first rag, issued in 1905 when she was 17. A tremendously lively piece, it was also Giblin's most popular. The opening theme keeps both hands busy, the second section uses a call-and-response format that approximates the sound of chickens "clucking," and the trio's ascending phrases invert the descending contours of the A theme.

Michael Chisholm delivered two selections from early in the ragtime era, then one from the teens. First up: "Queen of Love," a peppy, lively and rarely heard ragtime march by Charles Hunter. Michael noted that the piece is one of the hardest original sheets to find, and Eric pointed out that the piece has rarely, if ever, been played at either OCRS or RagFest. Michael's second selection is even more rare: Herbert Walker's 1899 opus "The Chicken and De Possum," subtitled "A Descriptive March & Two-Step." This is a great, lively ragtime march with some fine harmonic changes in the terrific trio section and interlude that are repeated through the rag's last half. At the February OCRS, Eric had played one of the four rags that carry the title "Dynamite" (the 1910 rag by J. Russel Robinson); Michael gave us Paul Biese and F. Henri Klickman's "Dynamite," published by Will Rossiter of Chicago in 1913, subtitled "A Noisy Rag" and labeled "A Big Explosion in Ragtime" on its cover, which Michael displayed before playing this wonderfully rollicking rag.

Ryan Wishner gave us three tunes from well before the ragtime era, each of which carries elements that would be brought to the fore in ragtime music. First up: "The Shin-Plaster Jig," published in Nashville in 1864. Ryan noted that a "shin-plaster" was something people would make from the era's paper currency (known as "fractional currency") by adding starch, and that since tuning practices of the day differ from now, he has retained the piece's authenticity in terms of its sound by transposing and performing it down a half-step, from C major to B-natural. Its opening two minor-key sections and lively trio are certainly ragtime-like, and as Ryan observed of all of his set's pieces, "Ragtime came from a lot of other places that people don't realize." From 1885, his next piece, he said, "sounds like a cakewalk" and provides "evidence of ragtime before there was ‘ragtime'." Titled "I Have $15 in My Inside Pocket," Ryan said the piece is actually a schottische, one of the earliest forms of cakewalk, and his performance provided fine dynamics to the sounds of this unique piece. Ryan closed his set with a second piece issued during the Civil War: "The Great Wahoo Polka," a brisk, cakewalk-sounding march from 1863.

MC Eric Marchese noted that many a Joplin piece would be heard this year in commemoration of the centennial of Joplin's death in April of 1917, and he offered one of the earliest pieces by Scott Hayden, whom Joplin mentored and whose published rags each carry a trio by Joplin: From 1903, "Something Doing" is a good example of Hayden's light, airy, delicate style, with a great trio by Joplin that unifies the piece by using stylistic elements of the rag's A, B and D themes, with Hayden's closing "ride-out" strain being especially memorable. Eric then turned to the weekend's major holiday, Easter, and played "The Bunny Hug Rag," noting that three pieces were published with that title in 1912 and 1913. The first two are by Harry DaCosta and Keith Abandana, and Eric said he usually plays the DaCosta version, but this time was playing George L. Cobb's outstanding "bunny hug," published by Chas. Roat in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1913. Eric noted that like Cobb's earliest rags, it's considered in the "popular" style (as opposed to the "advanced" pieces that followed in the late teens and the Novelties Cobb wrote into the '20s), and that the cover shows a human-size rabbit waltzing his woman dance partner around on the dance floor. Eric then played a second "animal fad dance" piece, Geo. Botsford's ever-popular "Grizzly Bear Rag." From 1910, the piece is similar to other Botsford rags in its use of the three-over-four device, but Eric noted that publisher Ted Snyder sensed a hit, so he assigned Irving Berlin to write lyrics to it - which made the piece a piano rag and piano-roll hit, a ragtime song hit, and an animal fad-dance hit all at the same time.

Ron Ross served up three originals: Two of his own and one by Rose Leaf Club founder P.J. Schmidt. First and last were Ron's "Joplinesque: A Gringo Tango" and "Sunday Serendipity"; in between was Schmidt's slow-drag classic-style rag "French Vanilla."

Carrying forward the "virtual February" concept from the March OCRS, Bob Pinsker gave us two rags by Joe Jordan and one by Eubie Blake, both gents' birthdates in February (Jordan, 2/11/1882 and Blake, 2/7/1887). Issued by Von Tilzer of New York in 1910 was Jordan's "Darkey Todalo, A Raggety Rag," which Bob introduced as "The ‘Ebony' Todalo," giving the Turpinesque piece great dynamics. Bob closed his set with Jordan's "That Teasin' Rag," recounting the well-known tale of the rag's trio being appropriated by the Original Dixieland Jass Band" exactly 100 years ago from the current month (April, 1917), and Jordan's successful lawsuit against the ODJB. As his second piece, Bob gave an untitled Blake one-step from the mid-teens its world premiere: Bob said that Eubie had written "1912" on the manuscript of the piece, which he found among the treasure trove of Blake papers at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

Frank Sano delivered five ragtime- and jazz-era pieces combined into a single medley: "Dinah," "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me," "Oh! You Beautiful Doll," "Hello, Ma Baby," and "Sunday." He also set out a box of large-size format vintage scores of World War I-era songs and asked the afternoon's pianists to each choose one to sight-read for the second half of the afternoon, the encores performed after the refreshment break.

While most of the encores came courtesy of the stack of vintage scores, Ryan and Michael started off with a four-handed version of "By the Silvery Nile" (composed by Charles L. Johnson and with lyrics by Jack Yellen). Sight-reading the score, Ryan created piano roll-like tremolos in the treble while Michael gave the bass a genuine "oriental waltz/foxtrot" sound.

Sight-reading from the stack were Shirley, with Irving Berlin's "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" (replete with clever bugle-call quotes), and Paul with George M. Cohan's "Over There," joined by audience members who sang along.

Michael sang the 1926 comedy song "So Is Your Old Lady" by Al Dubin (lyrics) and Joe Burke (music), with Ryan accompanying him on piano. Ron's encore was his ragtime waltz "Mirella," written in May 1999 for his goddaughter, who turns 18 this May.

Bob pulled "Uncle Sam's Boys" from the stack and sight-read the piece, a pre-WWI march by "Jerome Hartman," a pseudonym for Sadie Koninsky (it was published in 1909 by Koninsky Music). He then wrapped up the afternoon with rags by delivering two more rags by Joe Jordan and Eubie Blake: Jordan's "Pekin Rag" and Eubie's "Charleston Rag," bringing the afternoon to a close with a total of 31 selections.

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