Labor Day weekend 2022: First time back at Nixon Library since February 2020
In July 2022, and after a nearly 2.5-year hiatus, the Nixon Presidential Library resumed its weekly Sunday concert series, which opened the door for OCRS to host a pair of ragtime concerts at the venue's Theater 37.
The first of these was on September 4 during Labor Day weekend, featuring Ryan Wishner, Bob Pinsker and Eric Marchese. All three crafted well-rounded sets that put the diversity of ragtime music on full display.
Working as MC, Eric opened his set with "Blame It on the Blues," an outstanding rag by Charles L. Cooke. Published by Remick in 1914, the piece is among "Doc" Cooke's most enduring, remaining popular decades beyond the mid-teens. Having studied at Chicago Musical College, Cooke was one of the few blacks to have attained a doctoral degree in music, and he used his nickname when forming a band (Doc Cooke and his Dreamland Orchestra). The popularity of this piece, as Eric noted, long outlived its original era.
Eric prefaced his next selection, "Wall Street Rag," by noting that Scott Joplin relocated to New York City in 1907. The move initiated the creation of some of the greatest compositions in the genre – "Gladiolus Rag," "Rose Leaf Rag," "Search Light Rag," "Pine Apple Rag," "Fig Leaf Rag" and "Euphonic Sounds" among the most notable. "Wall Street Rag" was the first of six immortal Joplin pieces from 1909. A masterpiece that's generally overlooked by ragtime performers, the piece's four themes carry captions starting with "Panic on Wall Street. Brokers feeling melancholy" and closing with a splendid, exhilarating ride-out strain, described as "Listening to the strains of authentic Negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares."
Next up was Paul Pratt's "Spring Time Rag." Vaudeville ragtimers would poke classical music in the eye by ragging the best-known pieces, but Indianapolis composer Pratt used Mendelssohn's "Spring Song" as a jumping-off point for this first-rate piece, one of his best piano rags, which was published by John Stark in 1916. Eric closed his set with "Texas Tommy Swing," a wonderfully lively rag written by Sid Brown and Val Harris for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1911. Though not a song, the piece's focal phrase, heard in the intro and at the end of the second theme (which also closes the piece), carries these lyrics: "It's a Texas, it's a Texas, it's the Texas Tommy Swing."
Up next was Ryan, who continued the presentation of Joplin's later works with his outstanding rendition of "Reflection Rag," issued by Stark in December of 1917, eight months after Joplin's death. He then brought out his vintage phonograph manufactured circa 1898-'99 by Columbia Phonograph Company (which later evolved into Columbia Records and the motion picture studio). Ryan prefaced his demonstration of this ragtime-era audio player with fascinating information about the device and its technology: At $10, it was the first affordable phonograph to be offered to the public. We were then treated to a 1909 cylinder recording of Percy Wenrich's "Rainbow," and Ryan told us that the cylinder is the "Indestructible" brand made of celluloid, which existed concurrently with wax cylinders for about a decade, with wax being phased out entirely in 1912. Because of the triple-digit heat the day of the concert, Ryan chose to leave his wax cylinders at home.
Ryan specializes in unearthing popular music from the 19th century, and performing these compositions on piano, allowing audiences to trace the musical development of non-ragtime music from decades prior to the ragtime era – so we heard Jo. Benson's "Shin Plaster Jig," published by C.D. Benson in Nashville in 1864, its publication date preceding ragtime by several decades. Another of Ryan's specialties is composing originals that carry echoes of the West's many mining towns now known as ghost towns. His "Rhyolite" is a lively, top-notch classic rag that sustains its extroverted character over four outstanding themes.
Bob took the stage, prefacing his opening selection, "Heliotrope Bouquet." The piece is one of classic ragtime's most revered compositions, and Bob pointed out that it's also the only published piano rag that provides us an example of Louis Chauvin's ragtime music, both compositionally and performance-wise, and "the only instrumental music we have of Louis Chauvin." The brilliant Chauvin not only neglected to notate the incredible music flowing from his imagination and fingers; he also abused his health. Visiting him in Chicago, Joplin heard him play two 16-bar themes in Chauvin's trademark bittersweet style. Joplin kept them from falling into obscurity by notating them, then writing an introduction, trio and closing theme that mirror Chauvin's music. Stark purchased and published the beautiful new rag in 1907 – and, as Bob related to the audience, Chauvin died in 1908, just a few months later, at the tragically young age of 27. [The audience didn't hear, but we'll relate just the same, that when Bob and Bruce Vermazen formed a ragtime orchestra in 2005, this beautiful rag was the source of its name, the Heliotrope Ragtime Orchestra.]
Next, Bob served up a stellar performance of "Jimmie Blues," one of Jimmy Blythe's superb pieces, exemplifying Blythe's work in pioneering the style that came to be known as boogie. Bob related that pianist Blythe was "a pivotal figure in early jazz in Chicago in the 1920s" and that Chauvin and Blythe had much in common: First off, both relocated to the Windy City from the south – Blythe from rural Kentucky and Chauvin from Missouri. Secondly, both died in Chicago and both died without even getting close to middle age. As noted above, Chauvin lived to only age 27. In 1931, Blythe contracted epidemic meningitis and expired at the age of 30. Before playing "Jimmie Blues," Bob called the self-titled piece "a sort of hybrid of ragtime, blues, and what would later be called ‘boogie-woogie'" (by the public at large). Blythe recorded the piece in 1925, and since it was never published, Bob learned it from the recording and has patterned his performance after that of the composer.
Bob then served up a second selection from 1907: "Searchlight Rag," one of the many masterpieces to flow from Joplin's pen after he relocated to New York City. Bob led into his performance of this brilliant piano rag by referencing Ryan's set: "Ryan played ‘Reflection Rag' so beautifully for you, and before the concert he pointed out to me that it might have been an early draft of ‘Searchlight Rag,' to which I agreed. Then Ryan also played what he wrote as sort of a sequel to ‘Searchlight' (‘Rhyolite Rag'). So, you've heard the prequel, and you've heard the sequel – I guess I'm obliged to play the original for you!"
(The rag's title is a direct reference to the Big Onion, a copper mine near the town of Searchlight, Nevada, in which Tom Turpin was materially active. At some point in 1906, Turpin paid what was most likely a brief visit there, prompting Joplin to immortalize the location and, indirectly, pay homage to his friend, by devising and writing this rag. It's likely that many a ragtime fan who has driven to the Nevada town of Laughlin has seen a road sign with the name Searchlight and the number of miles to that now much-reduced entity.)
Bob closed his wonderful set (and the concert) with Eubie Blake's "Baltimore Todalo," one of the best examples of the Harlem Stride piano music of which Bob has specialized since the 1980s. Bob's repertoire includes the most phenomenal Stride composer-performers ever: James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Luckey Roberts, Clarence Williams, Willie the Lion Smith, Spencer Williams and a host of others. This time we got a thrilling performance of Eubie's "Baltimore Todalo." Bob's fascinating background information told us that "Eubie said that he had composed it around 1910, that he used it in a show in the 1920s, didn't notate it and copyright it until 1962, recorded it in 1969, and published it in a 1975 folio -- "and I'm going to play it for you in 2022!" Bob also noted, as an aside, that the "todalo" (alternately spelled "todolo") was the name of an African-American form of dance. He capped off the afternoon with an energetic version of this great number.
OCRS's next Nixon Library concert is on October 16. Mark your calendars now, because with a lineup of Michael Flores, Johnny Hodges, Vincent Johnson and Paul Orsi, this is going to be an afternoon you won't want to miss!