October 2023: Composers and pieces born in October plus Fall and Halloween rags – and "the complete ‘Sting'"
Half Off Books and Records hosted October's OCRS with a performer lineup of Pedro Bernárdez, Barry Blakely, Vincent Johnson and Eric Marchese and a total of 36 selections.
The day's themes quickly emerged: Pieces by composers born in October and ragtime pieces copyrighted in October were the first order of the day, but some selections pegged to the fall season and Halloween were also performed.
Joplin's music was showcased, with a total of 15 of his rags delivered – one of the highest totals of the master composer's ragtime works of any OCRS. Several of these were copyrighted in October, and as the afternoon unwound, every Joplin composition featured in "The Sting" was offered, from obvious choices like "The Entertainer" and "Solace" to those that might have escaped notice (eg. "Fig Leaf Rag" and "The Cascades"). In the mix, we heard all three of Joplin's 1908 rags and nearly all of the rags in which Joplin used the first two themes of "Maple Leaf Rag" as a structural and harmonic model.
Eric opened things up with a set comprised of two October copyrights and one piece played in honor of Halloween. He launched with "Texas Steer," a fine and fun George Botsford rag with an Oct. 15, 1909 copyright date. Remick published the rag in New York City, and Eric noted that its three themes are irresistibly catchy while being great examples of what the composer could do when not falling back on using the three-over-four device seen so often in his rags.
Next up was a piece copyrighted 126 years ago from the previous day's date – October 20, 1897. This was "Louisiana Rag" by Theodore Northrup, and Eric noted its historical importance: It was the first rag written expressly for piano. Despite this, as observed by Jasen and Jones in "That American Rag," the piece hasn't found many takers among today's ragtime pianists in that it's scarcely programmed, performed or recorded.
Thompson Music Co. of Chicago published this vitally important piece, whose highlight is an intricately syncopated trio with a bass part that can only be termed extraordinary. The piece's cover artwork circulated through the OCRS audience as they were hearing "Louisiana" being played. Northrup, it should be pointed out, was one of the first to figure out how to notate ragtime on paper – a crucial task evidenced by his early rags and the many compositions on which he worked as an arranger. Without him, ragtime, might not have sprung into being until years later.
Eric closed his set with his selection for Halloween: "That Demon Rag," a wonderful rag by Russel Smith. The piece carries a 1911 copyright but was published the following year by I. Seidel of Indianapolis. The melody lines of its four themes are built upon the outlines of chords broken into single notes, with a three-note octave bass consistent throughout. The trio is a beauty, and the final note breaks loose with bursts of sixteenth notes in the treble. Overall, a great rag that deserves to be played more than just once a year.
Pedro offered the first of the day's all-Joplin sets – in this case, two Joplins and one Marshall-Joplin collaboration. First off, "A Breeze from Alabama," taken at a pleasingly unforced tempo. Next, "Swipesy" and, finally, "Elite Syncopations." For all three, Pedro didn't push the tempo, and the audience was rewarded with enjoyable renditions showcasing Pedro's performance skills in embellishing and improvising upon well-known rags.
Barry gave us the day's first two Joplins featured in "The Sting": "The Easy Winners" and "Solace – A Mexican Serenade," the latter being Joplin's only rag to use tango-habañera rhythms throughout. Barry noted that "Easy Winners," copyrighted October 10, 1901, quickly became one of his favorites when he got hold of Dick Wellstood's solo Joplin album and that he has patterned his performances of "Easy Winners," "Solace" and other Joplins after those of Wellstood.
Barry closed his set with "Traffic Jam," an original that originated in 1977 with the composition of the A theme. After attending his first OCRS in 2021, Barry was inspired to complete the piece, which he debuted at Spice Social in November, 2021. This wonderful creation indeed evokes the sounds of a busy, traffic-jammed city street, replete with the sounds of car horns being honked. The second theme extends the thematic milieu established by the opening theme. The opening of the third section's melody line sounds much like the A theme of "Peacherine Rag" but quickly moves into its own direction, with the earlier themes returning to close the piece.
Eric offered a second set of two October copyrights and an original that's an homage to the fall season. First up was "Euphonic Sounds," copyrighted on October 30 of 1909. Eric noted that "Paragon Rag" and "Country Club" have the same copyright dates and that these three, along with "Solace," "Wall Street" and "Pleasant Moments," were published in 1909 out of New York City by Seminary Music Company. Eric said he chose "Euphonic" not just for its copyright month, but because of these six immortal Joplin works from 1909, it's performed perhaps the least often and because it's so unusual. Indeed, it defies the definition of a piano rag, with only a few measures of "oom-pah" bass and some of the most ambitious tonal work of any of Joplin's short pieces.
Next up was "Doctor Brown" by Fred Irvin that has a copyright of October 27, 1914. Published in New York City (by Remick), the piece uses foxtrot rhythms throughout its three themes, the highlight of which is an A theme which ingeniously creates the sound of two separate melody lines being played simultaneously.
Eric closed his set with "An Autumn Memory," one of his earliest rags (circa 1988-'89) and one he related was inspired by his memories of the incredible foliage in New England each fall. The piece helped solidify his friendship with Tom Brier, too: Brier was planning his debut solo album for Stomp-Off Records and emailed Eric to request permission to include "An Autumn Memory." That album, "Rising Star," not only unearthed a treasure trove of rag vintage rags; it also featured a handful of outstanding Brier originals and helped spotlight his peers by including rags by Eric, Galen Wilkes, Kathi Backus and Gil Lieby.
Vincent's opening set showcased two works by the great Jelly Roll Morton, the most famous October-born jazz and ragtime composer (DOB October 20, 1890). First was an enjoyably loose, jazzy, funky version of "The Pearls," whose closing themes carry an orchestral feel. Next up was "Grandpa's Spells," one of Morton's more popular pieces during ragtime's various revivals. Vincent closed with the Lamb masterpiece "American Beauty," one of the only non-Joplin Classic rags of the afternoon in a stellar performance worthy of the piece's stature as one of the great "heavy" Lamb pieces of the ragtime era.
Pedro's rendition of "Sugar Cane" was one of a handful of Joplin rags performed whose first half follow the structure and harmonic contours of "Maple Leaf Rag." His set concluded with Joplin's first two published rags: "Original Rags" and "Maple Leaf," both issued in 1899 – the one universally regarded as the king of all rags and the other that is perhaps the closest thing to a folk rag of everything Joplin wrote.
Barry's all-Joplin set started with the 1906 piano rag version of Joplin's ambitious ragtime ballet "The Ragtime Dance." Essentially completed in 1899, the piece was a bone of contention between Joplin and publisher Stark, who grudgingly issued the full nine-page version, complete with dance steps and Joplin's lyrics, in 1902. Its sales were dismal, so to recoup his losses, Stark eliminated the dance instruction and lyrics and chopped the score down to a four-page piano rag version. Next up was a first-rate performance of one of Joplin's best rags: "Scott Joplin's New Rag," so titled because it had been two years (1910's "Stoptime Rag") since Joplin had produced a solo piano rag. Barry closed with "The Cascades," whose first half follows the outlines of the A and B themes of "Maple Leaf" and whose second theme can be heard in "The Sting" … and, for the record, "The Ragtime Dance" was also on the film's soundtrack, played over the closing credits.
Eric offered Tom Kelly's "A Certain Party," copyrighted on October 3, 1910, and published in New York City, noting that he first heard it on Brier's "Rising Star" album and asked for a copy. Next up was "Weeping Willow," a Joplin rag not heard at OCRS for a while and which was among the first in which the composer used ragtime as a vehicle for serious expression.
Vincent then gave us three Novelties: one by an October-born composer and two for Halloween. First up was "Pianogram" (1929), one of three Novelties by Ralph Rainger, born Ralph Reichenthal in New York City on October 7, 1901. (The composer's other Novelties are 1923's "Piano Puzzle," wherein he used his birth name and, from 1929, "Tick Tack Toe"). Arthur Schutt's "The Ghost of the Piano" (1923) cleverly quotes Chopin's "Funeral March" among its darkly spooky-sounding themes. "Greenwich Witch" is a typical Zez Confrey excursion into minor tonalities and among the best of the spate of his Novelties issued by Jack Mills and Leo Feist in 1921 and '22.
Pedro delivered Turpin's "A Ragtime Nightmare," whose closing theme quotes a melody from a Mozart piece. When Eric pointed this out, Pedro then launched into an improvised ragtime version of Beethoven's "Fur Elise." He closed his super set with a super up-tempo version of "The Entertainer."
Barry gave us an all-Joplin set that also included an October copyright as well as being comprised of three rags all heard in "The Sting": "Gladiolus Rag" is perhaps the apex of Joplin's works adapting the two opening themes of "Maple Leaf" to a more poetical sound and style. "Pine Apple," copyrighted on October 12, 1908 and published that year by Seminary, gained new popularity from the '70s on thanks to its inclusion in "The Sting." With "Fig Leaf," Barry completed the day's performance of all three of Joplin's rags from 1908 and yet another Joplin rag heard in "The Sting" (the closing four measures, slightly altered and camouflaged, are heard late in the movie under one of the title cards).
Vincent took us home with two outstanding Harlem Stride selections and two great, rarely heard Novelties, including yet another October birthdate. That would be the great Clarence Williams, born October 8, 1893 (editor's note: evidence that Clarence Williams was born on October 8, 1893, not the often-cited 1898, is shown in Bob Pinsker's analysis of the available data) in Plaquemine, Louisiana. Vincent noted that in the past he had played Williams' "Wild Flower Rag" more frequently than in recent years and that it has since become his preferred warm-up piece when playing the piano out and about. The set's Novelty was "Grasshopper Dance" by German ragtime composer Lothar Perl. Issued in 1933, it has Perl's signature ethereal sound and distinctive harmonic sense and an expansive trio typical of the composer. Vincent served up a superb rendering of Eubie's "The Chevy Chase," saying he had noticed "Chevy Chase Street" in Glendale whenever driving to and from work. He closed his set and the top-notch afternoon of ragtime music with Rube Bloom's great and rarely heard 1931 Novelty "Aunt Jemima's Birthday."
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