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Classic and contemporary rags reign during our first performance at Half Off Books, our newest venue

For the first time in a while, OCRS landed at a new downtown Fullerton venue. Management at Half Off Books and Records proved not just hospitable but welcoming, and the venue proved sufficiently viable to prompt scheduling the next OCRS performance there.

Eight ragtime pianists – Andrew Barrett, Pedro Bernárdez, Barry Blakeley, Vincent Johnson, Max Libertor, Eric Marchese, Bob Pinsker and John Reed-Torres – delivered 33 selections. Nearly half were Classic rags, all but one of which were either by Joplin, Lamb or Scott, supplemented by a handful of contemporary rags and a good share of pieces that could be fairly categorized as rarities – pieces never before performed at OCRS and/or rarely if ever performed by ragtime pianists here or elsewhere.

Eric chose "Please Say You Will" as the first number at the new venue, as this was the first piece of music Joplin had published. The composer and his Texas Medley Quartette had toured as far north as Syracuse, NY, and Joplin found a publisher for what is a standard, late Victorian era waltz-tempo song – sentimental, to be sure, yet even at this early stage in Joplin's musical career, bearing his distinctive personal stamp.

Vincent featured the Big Three of Classic ragtime, performing Lamb's "American Beauty Rag," Joplin's "Paragon Rag" and Scott's "The Ragtime Betty." All three are from 1909 through 1913, one of the most fertile periods of the ragtime era in terms of composition and publication. And as with Vincent's every performance, all three abounded in tasteful yet creative embellishments to the published scores.

Barry continued the Classic thread with more Joplin and Lamb, noting before playing "Fig Leaf Rag" that because of the forgiving keyboard action of the Baldwin console piano, he'd be able to navigate it at a rapid tempo. He followed this immortal Joplin work with "Sensation," the rag that put Lamb on the map and set John Stark on a course of publishing numerous unforgettable Classic rags composed by Lamb between 1908 and 1919.

In fact, Barry didn't just "follow" one piece with the other; upon completing "Fig Leaf," he segued directly into "Sensation" without a break, delivering an exciting performance of this exciting and, dare we say, sensational, early Lamb masterpiece.

Andrew offered up a roll-style and roll-inspired arrangement of an unknown jazzy-raggy pop song circa 1921-1922, noting the many stylistic similarities between the piece and others that are perhaps better known (at least in our time). Andrew said he heard the piece on a recording of an orchestrion at the DeBence Antique Music World museum in Pennsylvania, posted as an audio file on the museum's old website (circa 2004) and that "since the roll label is missing, the tune is unidentified" on both roll and website. Andrew said the roll was most likely made using either a master arrangement derived from a QRS home player piano roll played by someone like J. Russel Robinson or Pete Wendling or else specially arranged for coin-op pianos by arranger P.M. Keast. Andrew also said that he played the piece entirely from his memory of how it sounded on the audio file and that the tune had been stuck in his head for three days straight – and that he hoped someone present at OCRS recognized it and could identify it for him – but no one present knew the piece.

Andrew followed with an elaborate piano arrangement of "Heart O' Mine," a waltz from 1913 (and so well within the ragtime era) by Robert A. Keiser and Eugene Platzmann that's subtitled "Hesitation - Valse Boston." Before playing it, Andrew elaborated upon this beautiful piano piece's lineage, noting that it quotes Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier Waltzes" (1898) and that Richard Rodgers later borrowed a notable chord progression from it in the song "Have You Met Miss Jones?" and that even later, John Coltrane borrowed from the piece, or was inspired by it, for "Giant Steps" (1959).

Andrew closed his set with "One Too Many," a phenomenal Tom Brier rag published in 1997 that Andrew noted was, pleasing from an aesthetic standpoint, the prolific composer's 97th published piano piece. Throughout the 1990s, Brier poured considerable energy into transcribing the piano rolls of many great Novelty composers like Charley Straight and Max Kortlander whose rags often were issued only in roll form. Andrew correctly deduces that Tom's "brilliant" rag was heavily influenced by these masters and dictated, as well, by Tom's own inexhaustible creativity.

Picking up on Andrew's detailed references to J. Russel Robinson during his set, and the fact that Robinson's birthdate is in July, Eric offered "Dynamite Rag," a great Robinson piano rag and one of his earliest. Both composer and piece, Eric said, have California connections: In the mid-'30s, Robinson relocated to California, remaining here for the rest of his career (he passed in 1963 at age 71 in Palmdale), and "Dynamite Rag" was published (in 1910) by Los Angeles-based Southern California Music Company, one of the small handful of ragtime-era rags to be issued in California (the bulk of which were published in the Bay Area). Eric then presented "Country Club," the afternoon's second Joplin rag from 1909, noting that the composer's output from that year yielded six of his greatest works, including "Euphonic Sounds," "Wall Street Rag" and "Solace – A Mexican Serenade."

Bob brought us a set of three rarities composed by Edwin E. Wilson (1884-1970), relating that he'd been intrigued by an entry a few months ago in a long-continuing "Rag of the Week" series on Facebook by Frederick Brodie. Bob began digging into Wilson's background and searching for scores of his works, treating us to "The Possum and the [Rac]coon," a cakewalk issued by Wilson’s father in Wilson's hometown of Dayton, OH, in 1900, when the composer was 16 years old. Its opening section is a full-bodied rag theme and second subject features a busy treble line, but its bombastic trio section is its high point.

Next up was "Dream-Kisses," published by Stern in 1912. Bob notes that it's a "parlor piece and definitely not ragtime" and that the composer is listed as "Edwin Earle Wilson" on the title page, the "e" appended to "Earl" an indication of Wilson's desire to infuse stature and importance (if not dignity) to the piece, whose beautiful melodies and harmonies are fully realized by Bob's performance.

Last came "Father Knickerbocker," the 1907 piece for which Wilson is, Bob said, "best known to the ragtime community." As Wilson had just relocated from Dayton to New York City, he subtitled the piece "A New York Rag." This is a good-to-near-great Popular-style rag, and like "Possum," its third theme grabs our attention with its flashy, perhaps even showy, style and musical devices.

John Reed-Torres started with Lamb's rag "Rapid Transit.” First composed around 1907, just before Lamb's meeting Scott Joplin in person in New York City jump-started his career as a ragtime composer, "Rapid Transit" was not copyrighted until 1959, at the behest of Bob Darch, and not published until the early 2000s. The piece is one of John's specialties, and for this performance, Andrew joined in on washboard.

Next was the gentle, melodic "Honey Dew," John's most recent original. John wrapped up his set with "The Favorite," lending this early Joplin rag many pleasing embellishments, notably at the trio section.

With John accompanying him on washboard, Pedro delivered "Elite Syncopations," then "The Sycamore," a watershed piece in which Joplin created an all-new reworking of the first half of "Maple Leaf" (themes A and B) before looking forward to "Treemonisha" (themes C and D). Pedro closed with "Swipesy," the reliable ragtime standby written by Arthur Marshall (sections A, B and D) and Joplin (the C theme).

Andrew encored with two outstanding pieces whose phenomenal piano roll arrangements inspired him to work up performances that emulate if not duplicate their sounds and style as well as the excitement they elicit within listeners. First was the ODJB's 1917 masterpiece "Livery Stable Blues," aka "Barnyard Blues," by Ray Lopez and Alcide Nunez. Andrew said his wild pianistics are prompted by both the piano roll and the piano-playing style of J. Russel Robinson, one of the band's pianists, as well as those of other early jazz pianists.

Likewise, Andrew's performance of "Jazz Dance Repertoire" by Shelton Brooks is, he relates, "an attempt to re-create the QRS piano roll" (#1155, issued in August 1920) by Pete Wendling in which Wendling "transformed" the original into something far more exciting. Andrew said he learned the piece from a roll transcription by Hiroki Niwa of Japan that's been posted to YouTube.

Max offered a nicely varied set with a vintage Novelty bracketed by two contemporary rags. First off was the 2002 Brier work "On the Midway." Next was Confrey's "Smart Alec," a rarely heard Zez selection published by Mills Music in late 1933. Last up: "The Red Moon – A Classic Rag," an ethereal, softly haunting piano essay by Canadian contemporary ragtimer Max Keenlyside.

Vincent brought us "Excelsior Rag," the last Lamb masterpiece of the afternoon (with John adding tasteful washboard accompaniment), then "The Cat's Pajamas," a great and too-often overlooked Harry Jentes Novelty rag issued by Jack Mills in 1923. Noting the many times J. Russel Robinson's career and works had been brought up during the afternoon and his second-published rag performed, Vincent ended his set with Robinson's third rag, "The Minstrel Man," published by Stark less than a year after "Dynamite."

Bob said that as he'd given us three E.E. Wilson selections, he now had a rag by a different Wilson: Garfield A. Wilson (middle name Alexander). Bob said Wilson is best known for "Rocky Ford Melon Pickers" (1902) and that though 1912's "Golden Smile" is subtitled "March and Two-Step," "it's just as much as a rag as anything." He closed his set with a masterful performance of Eubie Blake's "Troublesome Ivories," a piece Bob worked up for performance years ago and which showcases his skills at playing Harlem Stride in general and the works of Eubie in particular.

Barry related that the two heaviest influences upon his interests in piano playing were Joplin, first, and the music of New Orleans second. Fittingly, he offered an encore set with one selection from each category. "Rampart Street Stomp" is an exciting Dixieland piece from 1960 but which carries the essence and flavor of the hundreds of great works from earlier decades. One of Barry's specialty numbers, "Scott Joplin's New Rag" was a near last-gasp (1912) by the master ragtime composer, meshing effervescence with bitterness and expressed through the sophistication that marked everything Joplin created from 1907 onward.

John took his place at the Baldwin for "On the Rocks," the afternoon's final rag and among John's best originals.

The consensus seems to be that the new venue is conducive to future OCRS performances. Our next one is scheduled to return to Half Off Books on Saturday, Sept. 16, for another 2 to 5 pm performance.


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