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May 2017 OCRS: Seeing FCLO venue on its way out

The May 2017 OCRS gathered at the FCLO Music Theatre rehearsal hall on a hot, dry, busy Saturday afternoon in downtown Fullerton, generating 33 selections from eight pianists and one banjoist. Emerging as the afternoon’s theme was the general lack of any one theme, with nearly every facet of ragtime being represented – early/Folk, Classic, Popular, Advanced, Stride and contemporary rags, plus ragtime and non-ragtime songs and ’20s standards. Just the same, Turpin, Charles L. Johnson, Joplin, Lamb, Botsford, Lodge and Luckey Roberts were all well represented, accounting for more than half (18) of the selections.

Paul Orsi is headed for Oxford, Mississippi, for Memorial Day weekend, where he’ll compete for the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest. To rehearse and get a feel for the competition’s four rounds, Paul presented his seven selections for that event, complete with his costume changes. He started the afternoon’s OCRS performance with his first two selections for the following weekend: “Tiger Rag,” attributed to Jelly Roll Morton and whose heat matched that of the outdoors, and what he called “a contrast,” Willie the Lion Smith’s “Echo of Spring.”

Armando Gutierrez took the stage and noted that he has never really played a rag at an OCRS musicale (although last month, he did deliver a terrific version of “Canadian Capers,” which is categorized in “Rags & Ragtime” as an advanced-style piano rag). His selection: the ever-popular “Dill Pickles,” Charles L. Johnson’s big hit from 1906. Armando notes that his performance is based on an arrangment created by Ragtime Rod Miller from 50 (!) years ago – 1967, when he and Miller “were palling around” around the piano at Disneyland. Armando forewarned us that this was going to be a “very slow” rendition of “Dill Pickles,” which it was – until he amped up the tempo into triple-time, a dazzling near-blur of notes.

Shirley Case noted that she and Storm had just returned from an 11-day visit to New York City, which included a surprise encounter with Terry Waldo in Bryant Park as he was playing piano in front of the New York Public Library. Shirley also noted that with this (May 20) husband Storm’s birthday, she wanted to play composer and arranger Denis Agay’s “Birthday Variations,” which re-creates “Happy Birthday” as if composed by 10 of the most famous composers down through the ages, with the eleventh and final version being Agay’s own. The opener was clearly based on Bach, the next two, Mozart and Beethoven, and so on down through to the 20th century, with Sousa, Debussy and Gershwin.

MC Eric Marchese took the piano and expounded on the basics of ragtime that was published in Nashville and on the career of composer Thomas E. Broady, who published all three of his pieces with H.A. French: “ Mandy’s Broadway Stroll” (1898), “A Tennessee Jubilee” (1899), and the final and best of the three, “Whittling Remus” (1900), which he then proceeded to play. Next up were two great selections from 1911: Harry A. Tierney’s rarely heard “Fleur de Lis,” and “Lovin’ Babe,” a ragtime song written by Al R. Turner and arranged by Scott Joplin. Eric pointed out that the next day’s date, May 21, is the birthdate of three ragtimers: Tierney (born in Perth Amboy, NJ, in 1890), May Aufderheide (Indianapolis, 1888) and Thomas Waller (New York City, 1904), better known as “Fats” – hence his selection of a Tierney, who had a record 10 (and counting) rags published in 1911. Eric said that most of these came from Ted Snyder but two were issued by Jos. Stern: Tierney’s most popular rag, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and “Fleur de Lis,” the last of the 1911s to be published. As for “Lovin’ Babe,” Eric said it’s notable because Turner had hired or commissioned Joplin to arrange the piece for publication. Eric noted that the song’s theme, lyrics and melody are standard issue and that it’s Joplin’s inventive, engaging ragtime arrangement that makes the piece noteworthy.

Andrew Barrett, who has been missed at OCRS for months now due to his weekend commitment playing piano at Disneyland’s Refreshment Corner, decided to play off of “Lovin’ Babe” by playing Milton Ager’s 1923 number “Lovin’ Sam, the Sheik of Alabam.” Next up was Andrew’s wonderful medley of Nat Johnson waltzes, a combination of two of Andrew’s favorites: “Sun-Kissed Roses” and “Hesitation Waltz.” Andrew said that since he didn’t have any Tierney or Aufderheide pieces at the ready, he would honor Fats Waller with his wonderfully intricate version of the Stride classic “I’m Crazy ’Bout My Baby.”

Jeffrey Hartmann is normally a dedicated audience member, but over the years he’s been working up a handful of rags for performance, so he graced us with his performance of Joplin’s “Weeping Willow.”

Next came Frank Sano, who announced that he had a ticket worth $45 to an upcoming jazz/swing festival in San Clemente and that if someone in the audience could correctly answer questions about his set, they would win the ticket. Frank started with a medley of standards that includes “Louise,” “Chicago” and “Oh! You Beautiful Doll.” His second selection was the first two themes of Joplin’s 1902 rag “Cleopha.” [Frank then asked, What was Irving Berlin’s real name, what is the name of his birthplace, and which piece did Joplin compose to commemorate the St. Louis World’s Fair? After no one volunteered any replies, Eric correctly answered all three.]

Vincent Johnson displayed a paperback copy of “Rags and Ragtime,” noting his goal to learn all of the rags listed in it (more than 1,000 total), which he’s attempting to accomplish by learning one new piece per day. Starting that the front of the book with the earliest pieces (primarily in the “Folk Rag” category), he offered two great rags by Charles L. Johnson, “Southern Beauties” and “Sneeky Peet,” with Turpin’s “A Ragtime Nightmare” in between.

Paul reappeared for the second leg of his competition program with two ice cream parlor-type selections: the ever-popular song “Ain’t She Sweet” from 1927, by composer Milton Ager and lyricist Jack Yellen, and Henry Lodge’s biggest hit, “Temptation Rag.”

After the break, Paul and Eric did a two-piano, four-handed version of “Peacherine Rag,” joined by Jimmy Green on his banjo. Jimmy then joined Frank on two jazz standards: “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” and the piece that defined the 1920s, “The Charleston.”

Shirley offered two of Joseph F. Lamb’s “bird” rags, both published late in Lamb’s life: the lyrical “Ragtime Bobolink” and the more playful “Bird-Brain Rag.”

Paul took the stage for the third section of his upcoming championship program, which includes a competition for the best new rag – so Paul played a piece he and daughter Janet just completed, “Sippin’ Sarsaparilla – A Refreshing Rag,” whose opening strain has a whimsical idea by inserting a lone flatted-sixth note at the mid-theme break and which, as a whole, offers a “refreshing” catalog of wonderfully jazzy ideas.

Playing off of Paul’s Lodge selection, Andrew played the composer’s second-most popular rag, “Red Pepper – A Spicy Rag,” followed by Luckey Roberts’ fantastical “Junk Man Rag,” made even better through Andrew’s playing it in the key of E-flat Major.

Paul concluded his competition program with an all-stops-out version of Botsford’s immortal “Black and White Rag” and an equally dazzling rendition of the great Gershwin/Irving Caesar song from 1919, “Swanee,” which Paul noted flopped when first heard in a Broadway show – but which soon became a hit thanks to Al Jolson, who heard it being played at a party and asked to include it in his new show “Sinbad.” He did, and the rest, as they say, is musical history.

Referencing Botsford, Eric noted that he had worked up a duet of the composer’s 1909 rag “Pianophiends,” but since the second pianist wasn’t present, he would do the piece as a solo (he did, in a ragged, rough version). He complemented the piece with something more moderate in tempo – “The Ragtime Utopia,” his own homage to the camaraderie and mutual support of the ragtime community, including pianist-composers, all musicians, and all audience members.

Vincent returned to the “early rag” era with “Harlem Rag,” Turpin’s great piano rag from 1897 and the first published ragtime piece written by a black composer, and Turpin’s rarely heard “Pan-Am Rag.” Andrew then took his place on the second piano and the duo delivered a socko version of Luckey Roberts’ outstanding 1914 piece “Palm Beach.”


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