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March 2017 OCRS: Great lineup, St. Patty’s Day, and spring arrives –  along with ‘virtual February’

The second OCRS of 2017 turned out as a pleasant surprise: a small gathering that quickly bloomed into one of the largest turnouts in recent years, with several top pianists on the bill, including two new performers. We again used the FCLO Music Theatre rehearsal hall in downtown Fullerton.

We were blessed with a total of 11 pianists on the bill – nine OCRS “regulars” and two newcomers, one of which is a student, the other a veteran ragtimer. The student was Ella Strauss, invited to the meet by her piano teacher, Christy Sawyer. Ella opened the musicale with an outstanding performance of “Maple Leaf Rag.”

MC Eric Marchese tipped his hat to St. Patrick’s Day with Euday Bowman’s “Shamrock Rag” (1916) and to the upcoming first day of spring with Paul Pratt’s “Spring Time Rag” (also 1916), noting that this is generally regarded as Pratt’s best piano rag, as evidenced by the fact that it was issued by John Stark, the great music publisher of classic rags.

All of Shirley Case’s pieces for the day were by Galen Wilkes, starting with 2008’s “Red Carpet Stroll” and 2006’s “Hollywood Stroll,” chosen by Shirley to mark the Academy Awards held on the last Sunday in February. Both pieces have an elegant, loosely jazzy, casual ambiance fitting the concept of taking a leisurely walk. Like Eric, Shirley also wanted to acknowledge St. Patty’s Day – in this case, with Galen’s “Leprechaun Rag” (1987).

Ron Ross pushed a special on his “Ragtime Renaissance” CD ($5 price tag) by playing three selections from it: “Sunday Serendipity,” “Obediah’s Jumpsuit” and “Moscow Rag.” All are from the late ’90s, and each has specific features not found in his other pieces: the main section of “Sunday Serendipity” ends with a flatted note that isn’t resolved until the start of the next section, giving the humorous impression of a “wrong” note; “Obediah” is generally whimsical in tone; and “Moscow” uses various harmonies and melody lines that have a distinctively Russian sound.

Bill Mitchell joined Eric and Shirley in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day through ragtime by playing his piano arrangement of Louis Armstrong and Percy Venable’s “Irish Black Bottom.” Bill then offered two great rags by one of his favorite composers, Charles L. Johnson: “Barber Pole Rag” (1911), the only rag by the prolific Johnson to be published in Denver, and “Snookums” (1918), the last of Johnson’s many rags, coming out very late in the ragtime era.

A fixture in Northern California’s ragtime scene for a few years now, Michael Chisholm has now moved to Southern California, introducing himself as sharing a passion for obscure ragtime pieces with pals Tom Brier and Elliott Adams, and saying he frequently obtains copies of such pieces from both of these ragtime stars.

Michael started off with “Hap’ Li’l Mose,” an obscure 1903 rag by T.A. Dugan, a New Orleans doctor. In Michael’s hands, the piece makes for a spectacular barnburner. He then played what he said was his rearrangement of Elliott’s arrangement of “The Wandering Moke,” an 1899 rag by William Loraine. Michael closed with Elliott’s arrangement of Theron Bennett’s “Sycamore Saplin’,” an underplayed 1910 Bennett piece Elliott recorded on his early ’90s album “That Demon Rag.”

Michael’s spectacular set woke the crowd up, and Johnny Hodges kept up with that skill level with a super-fast, caffeinated version of “Twelfth Street Rag” and a wonderfully low-down version of “My Handy Man” (Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf, 1928).

Vincent Johnson characteristically opened with a Novelty, Billy Mayerl’s “Nimble-Fingered Gentleman,” then switched to classic ragtime, which he’s just now starting to explore: Clarence St. John’s “Cole Smoak,” published by Stark in 1906, and “Original Rags,” Joplin’s first published rag, issued by Kansas City’s Carl Hoffman in March of 1899, six months before Stark published “Maple Leaf.”

Paul Orsi offered a lively, intricate rendition of “Tiger Rag,” slyly interpolating bits of the second theme of “Maple Leaf.” Next was Paul’s hats-off to the coming of spring with Willie the Lion Smith’s “Echoes of Spring.” Paul closed with one of the handful of rags that like “Maple Leaf” and “Twelfth Street” has enjoyed perennial popularity: George Botsford’s 1908 hit “Black and White Rag.”

Having missed the February meet and the chance to offer pieces composed by his many favorite composers born in February, Bob Pinsker declared the musicale “virtual February” so he could perform pieces by James P. Johnson (born Feb. 1), Joe Jordan (Feb. 11) and Eubie Blake (Feb. 7). First off was Jordan’s wonderful tango “Morocco Blues,” which Bob said was originally titled “Tampico” as evidenced by Jordan’s handwriting on the piece’s manuscript. Next were two Johnsons: “Mister Deep Blue Sea,” written by Johnson and Gene Austin (lyrics) for the 1936 Mae West film “Klondike Annie” (and for which Bob played while singing it), and “Skiddle-De Skow,” written for the 1929 Broadway revue “Messin’ Around” by Johnson and lyricist Perry Bradford.

Frank Sano played the piano version of another piece from 1929, “You Were Meant For Me” (Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed), on the Ellington, joined by Vincent on the Knabe.  Eric then got the encores rolling with Joplin’s “Silver Swan Rag,” telling the audience that the never-published 1914 piece was completely unknown until a Maple Leaf Club member found a piano roll of it in his garage in 1970; he brought it to the club for authentication, after which the club’s Dick Zimmerman and Donna McCluer transcribed the roll and published the rag in 1971. Ron encored with his tango “Joplinesque.”

Michael gave the intriguing back-story for the lively, intricate Elliott Adams rag “Spanking the Monkey,” relating that it was originally titled “The Stunner” and noting that the incredibly challenging piece is “the easiest thing (Elliott) has written.” Paul’s encore was the great 1909 rag “Temptation,” ragtime composer Henry Lodge’s first rag and also one of his best and most famous pieces. Vincent followed these two outstanding performances with something just as impressive: “You Tell ’em Ivories,” the third of five Zez Confrey Novelties to be issued by Jack Mills in 1921 and, of the five, the one least often performed, played or recorded.

Bob helped to bring the encores to a close with two great unpublished pieces by Eubie Blake: “Africana,” which he said “was probably written for use in a show,” and “Sluefoot Nelson,” a wonderful piece Eubie notated in his late 80s (1973).

The afternoon’s 37th and final piece came from an audience request for “Maple Leaf” that nicely and neatly bookended the performance’s start with that piece – in this case, an eight-handed version, with Vincent and Eric on the Knabe and Paul and Bob on the Ellington.

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