OCRS provides last-minute performance on November 12 at the Nixon Library
OCRS director Eric Marchese found out on November 4 that the Nixon Presidential Library was in need of a performer for Sunday, November 12 after the scheduled act had just canceled.
Always happy to accommodate, and to provide a ragtime concert for the public, the answer was "yes."
Eric enlisted Barry Blakeley and Johnny Hodges, and to fill the void the three created an hour-long program covering the fall season, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the (traditionally attributed) November birthdate of Scott Joplin.
Eric got things rolling with two rags from 1914, both of which were published in New York and the first of which was a nod to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
"Oh You Turkey!" is one of the nearly 20 rags by Henry Lodge. His first, "Temptation," came out in 1909 and was a huge hit; all the rest were issued between 1910 and 1918. This one has a lighthearted mood and rhythms that beg to be danced to, and the piece carries a subtitle of "A Rag Trot," a nod to the turkey trot. Eric also noted that the rag's cover artwork extends the humorous feel by depicting a woman on the dance floor with her partner, a human-sized turkey.
"Doctor Brown" is a wonderful foxtrot by Fred Irvin. Eric noted that in their book "Rags and Ragtime," Jasen and Tichenor call it "a whimsical, unforgettable early foxtrot" and astutely point out that the second theme has a sound and feel characteristic of Harlem Stride. This great piece is unique, and can perhaps be deemed a "one-hit wonder" as we have no other rags by composer Irvin and little information about him.
Barry then delivered a set that was a nod to Scott Joplin's Nov. 24 birthdate while also featuring two of the composer's great rags featured in "The Sting." First off was "Pine Apple Rag." One of the greatest rags of all time, the piece was popular in Joplin's own lifetime and gained renewed life after being featured in the popular 1973 Redford-Newman film -- and for the past 50 years, demand for it hasn't ceased. Barry then delivered "Solace - A Mexican Serenade," Joplin's only rag to use tango-habanera rhythms throughout. Like "Pine Apple," it has been an audience and pianist favorite since "The Sting," yet prior to that, it had essentially been obscure, known only to a handful of sheet music collectors.
Johnny took the stage and in a salute to Veterans Day and to all veterans present in the audience, launched into a military medley combining pop tunes with official anthems of the various armed services.
This spectacular medley starts with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911), one of Irving Berlin's earliest hits, then segues into "Over There," written in 1917 by George M. Cohan as a salute to the forces the U.S. had begun sending to fight in Europe, with Johnny creating piccolo flourishes in the treble. Johnny's kinetic, keyboard-wide style propels this collection of tunes into another pop hit, Walter Donaldson's "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?"
From here, the medley moves into "The Marines' Hymn," "Anchors Aweigh" and "The U.S. Field Artillery March," the latter written by John Philip Sousa in 1917, then Cohan's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and, as the grand finale, Berlin's "God Bless America." The segment had the audience on its feet, cheering not only the musical material, but Johnny and his inimitable pianistics.
For his second set, Eric said he had a great blues number and then would follow it with an original written near the start of his ragtime career that's an homage to the fall season.
The blues tune, he noted, was "not what we think of as the blues -- that is, I lost my job and my wife left me and my dog got run over by a truck," but an authentic Midwestern-Southwestern rag-blues piece from the ragtime era. Euday Bowman, composer of the world-famous "Twelfth Street Rag," penned a batch of outstanding blues numbers unique from the ragtime era, and Eric opined that "Colorado Blues," from 1915, was perhaps the best of these.
He then noted that "An Autumn Memory" was his way of creating a rag that in his mind evoked the beautiful fall foliage of his native New England. Among his earliest rags (circa 1988-'89), he related that he usually finds this the best time of year to perform this expressive, slow-tempo classic-rag style piece.
For his encore set, Barry gave us his third Joplin selection and also the third to have been featured in "The Sting" (over the closing credits). Joplin completed "The Ragtime Dance," a full ragtime ballet, in 1899, and staged it at a venue in Sedalia, Mo., that year. Three years later, publisher John Stark agreed to publish the nine-page score, complete with Joplin's lyrics. Sales of this full-length 1902 version were dismal, prompting Stark to delete the lyrics and reduce the score to a four-page piano rag -- the version performed by Barry. For his closing number, Barry delivered "Sunflower Slow Drag," written primarily by Scott Hayden but with a trio by Joplin and among the most popular pieces in ragtime's early history.
Johnny took the stage for his closing set and the final one of the day. His opening number combined the pop 1918/World War One song "Till We Meet Again" with Irving Berlin's 1923 hit "What'll I Do." Johnny then announced "Let me be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas" before launching into his vaunted Christmas medley, created decades ago during his years at Disneyland and polished and expanded ever since.
Powered by Johnny's sly spirit and energy, the medley starts with four of the greatest Christmas pop tunes of all time: "Jolly Old Saint Nick," "Winter Wonderland," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and "Frosty the Snowman." A tempo shift then signals the arrival of some of the most beloved and beautiful carols of the holiday season: "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "O, Holy Night" and "Away in a Manger." Johnny concluded this magnificent and ultimately soulful homage to the winter holidays with his sensitive piano arrangement of "Ave Maria." This extraordinary medley elicited the second standing ovation for Johnny, who said he enjoys nothing more than playing it for such an appreciative audience.
Audience members lingered to meet the performers, who invited them to upcoming OCRS performances in Fullerton (Dec. 9 and Feb. 17) and to the next two OCRS concerts at Nixon Library on January 7 and March 10. We'll see you then and there!
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