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February '23 OCRS: a Fabulous February time is had by all

The OCRS meet that Eric Marchese dubbed "Fabulous February" was held at Spice Social in Fullerton on the 18th, and a splendid time was had by the small but friendly gang of attendees. Not only is February Black History Month, but it seems that a number of ragtime composers have birthdays in that month, so we have an excellent way of organizing whose work we're going to play!

Unfortunately, OCRS founder and emcee Eric Marchese was unable to attend, due to illness (the pandemic is by no means over), which meant that one significant ragtime composer with a February birthday couldn't come and celebrate with us — namely, Eric himself! Bob Pinsker stepped up to the plate to act as emcee for the occasion. Bob began with a set of four numbers each by African-American composers who had February birthdays to boot, beginning with James Scott's (birthday 2/12/1885) "Troubadour Rag" from 1919. Bob pointed out that the rag is notated with 'swing' indicated, typical of post-1910 rags and suggestive of a fox-trot feel, and consistent with a slower tempo. Next, a completely different kind of rag, "Castle House Rag" by James Reese Europe (b. 2/22/1881), published in 1914 when Europe was engaged as the orchestra leader for Vernon and Irene Castle at their restaurant and dance venue of that name. Despite the dotted note notation, the feel is very definitely not a relaxed fox trot, as is documented in Europe's band's phonograph recording of the piece from the period - it's considerably faster. Returning to a more 'classic rag' tempo and feel, Bob essayed Joe Jordan's (b. 2/11/1882) "That Teasin' Rag" from 1909. The tune was published both as a song (with lyrics by Jordan as well as the music) and as an instrumental. Bob told how the Original Dixieland Jazz Band used the tune of the trio, which is the most memorable part of the rag, for their 1917 hit record "Original Dixieland One-Step," and were promptly sued for copyright infringement by Jordan. Jordan won the suit and received a substantial settlement. To round out the set, Bob played the waltz composed by Eubie Blake (b. 2/7/1887) in honor of his wife Marion and entitled "Valse Marion," from 1972. It's by no means ragtime, but instead is in a late romantic style, but Bob hoped that the audience wouldn't mind a change of pace.

Young Michael Flores was called to Spice Social's piano next, beginning with two early Scott Joplin collaborative works. First up was Scott Hayden and Joplin's 1901 "Sunflower Slow Drag," played in the appropriate "Classic rag" style, followed by Arthur Marshall and Joplin's 1900 cakewalk "Swipesy". Michael tastefully embellished the repeated strains, especially the last one, added a return to the A strain to make the form a "rounded rag," and concluded with an unwritten tag. Flores then played the 1935 pop song "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" by Fred Ahlert in what he said was the style of James P. Johnson. The song is always associated with the memory of Fats Waller's hit 1935 record, but James P. indeed recorded it as a tribute to Fats after Fats's death in 1943. Flores's interpretation was indeed in a jazzy style. Michael wrapped the set with one of his standard knockout numbers, Zez Confrey's "Kitten on the Keys," published in 1921.

By this point in the afternoon, Paul Orsi, who will always be known as the winner of the 2019 World Championship of Old-Time Piano Playing, had made it to Spice Social all the way from Arizona, and was induced to give us a set. Paul himself is a ragtime composer who has a February birthday, and he began his set with his own "Birthday Rag," a rag in the classic style published in 1983. Next he turned to another February birthday composer, the Rhode Islander Henry Lodge (b. 2/9/1884), whose best-known composition is certainly "Temptation Rag" from 1909. Like James Reese Europe, Lodge was associated with Vernon and Irene Castle for a time, having been a pianist for the Castle's dance lessons around 1914. Paul's interestingly varied version of "Temptation Rag" got a big hand from the gathering at Spice Social, with its bit of what Jelly Roll Morton called the "Spanish Tinge" on the repeats of the A strain, some stop-time not in the score during the trio section and a tag based on the introduction. Joplin's 1901 "Peacharine Rag" was next. Paul again applied some of the Spanish Tinge to the return of the A strain, and introduced some boogie left-hand work on the repeat of the C strain, concluding with a return of the A strain for a strutting, grandioso conclusion. The set was completed with Paul fulfilling a request from the audience for his version of Euday Bowman's "Twelfth Street Rag" (1914) in full Disneyland style (Paul played at the 'Happiest Place on Earth' for years).

Andrew Barrett followed Paul to the stage of Spice Social, and began with Will Nash's "The Snakey Blues," published by Pace and Handy in 1915. Nash was an African-American musician, born in Mississippi in 1882, who spent the latter part of his life in Southern California (San Diego from 1918 to about 1924, then Los Angeles, where he died in 1946). No photos of Nash have been found to date. Andrew's celebration of Black History Month continued with Harry P. Guy's 1901 "Pearl of the Harem," a rag published in Detroit that, as Andrew highlighted, bears ample witness to its composer's mastery of harmony and counterpoint. Next was composition thought to be by James L. Blythe from a ten-tune "A-roll" orchestrion roll, where it is labeled "Fast Stuff Blues". Andrew mentioned that the song of that title recorded by George Thomas in 1929 has nothing whatever to do with this player piano tune, so perhaps the Capitol player roll company just used this convenient title for the card with this roll. The roll tune features what has been called "secondary rag" in its principal strain, and the arrangement features numerous "backward tenths" in the left hand part. Andrew's set concluded with Charley Thompson's tune "Delmar Rag" (not named for the beach community just north of San Diego, but for the Boulevard and section of town named for it in St. Louis). The rag was informally recorded a few times by its composer but not transcribed and notated until this century. Its main strain is clearly related to the main theme of Joe Jordan's 1905 "J.J.J. Rag" and may be a folk strain from Missouri around the turn of the century.

At this juncture, Bob Pinsker led the audience in a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday to You" in honor of Paul, the absent Eric Marchese, and all of the other February birthday composers. Paul's wife Sharon had brought balloons and a delicious chocolate birthday cake which she graciously shared with the whole gathering. Bob stayed on stage for his encore set, which began with a vocal of Eubie Blake's collaboration with Gene Irwin from 1935 "It Ain't Being Done No More," with a lyric by George Sherzer. The song was published by Handy Bros. Music, which was the corporate descendant of Pace and Handy, the publisher of Nash's "Snakey Blues" in 1915. Next Bob played an untitled one-step in C minor by Eubie, from one of his earliest extant manuscripts at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, probably from about 1914 or 1915. "Eubie's Boogie" followed, also from a manuscript as the piece still has not been published, though Blake recorded it several times. Finally, Bob ended with his rare find of the month. This was a lightly syncopated march by James P. Johnson (b. 2/1/1894) entitled "The Harlem Band". The march was published by Mills Music in 1951, but only in an arrangement for band, not as a piano solo. Bob obtained a copy of most of the parts in the published band arrangement around 2000, but only this month did he construct a piano solo arrangement by putting together the band parts, which he proceeded to premiere at this OCRS meet. The concluding strain is particularly catchy.

Michael Flores's encore set continued the James P. Johnson theme with a rendition of "Over the Bars" based on the published 1939 arrangement. Johnson had originally issued the rag as "Steeplechase Rag" on an Aeolian piano roll in 1917, and revived and retitled the piece in the late 1930s. The concluding strain has a lot in common with the strain from the same point in Luckey Roberts's "Park Avenue Polka" (recorded as "Nothin'" by the composer in 1958, though originally composed many years earlier, perhaps as early as 1908), and with the trio strain (not often played) of Eubie's "Troublesome Ivories," as published in 1971. Perhaps it too is a 'floating' folk strain. Michael then returned to the classic rag format, with Joplin's 1904 "Cascades" to close his set.

Paul Orsi was convinced to return for a couple of encores, which began with February birthday composer James Scott's "Frog Legs". Paul explained that probably Scott had submitted the 1906 rag to publisher John Stark without a title; maybe Stark suggested that the jumpy character of the rag lent itself to the image of hopping frogs. Paul then played his special arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Swanee River" (aka "Old Folks at Home"), first in a slow blues manner, then speeding up into a boogie style, then stride, finally slowing down for a big finish with a 'hot one-step ending' in the Pete Wendling piano roll manner. All in all, quite the arrangement!

Andrew Barrett had the honor of wrapping up the afternoon with a couple of numbers. He returned to Detroit-based African-American composer and arranger Harry P. Guy with what is probably his best-known composition today: his beautiful "Echoes From The Snowball Club" ragtime waltz, which is thought to be the first-published such ragtime waltz, having been issued in 1898, and certainly one of the very best of the genre. Andrew's arrangement incorporated counter melodies in the tenor range that do not appear in the published piano solo arrangement and even some inner voices in the right hand part on some of the repeats of the main strain of the waltz. Andrew pointed out that this is one of his mother Laura's favorites in his repertoire, to which Lisa Pinsker added that it was also a great favorite of hers.

Andrew concluded the OCRS meet with his version of Luckey Roberts's 1913 masterpiece "The Junk Man Rag". He played it mostly in the keys of B-flat and E-flat, saying that he never was quite sure what key he was going to wind up playing it in. The style in which Andrew played it is a little difficult to pigeonhole, which is the way Andrew likes it, saying that he long since abandoned labels like "Novelty style" or "Stride style," in favor of simply saying that certain aspects ('tricks') are associated with certain pianists' styles. At some point, one must conclude that the assemblage of a bag of tricks constitutes Andrew's own style, and that's that!

In the end, the meet featured four performers playing a total of 26 compositions in a wide variety of genres and styles, for a great afternoon of 'old-time' piano! We'll do it again at the same locale (Spice Social) at the same time (2:00 pm) on March 18, 2023 - see you then!


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