More great ragtime of every stripe at September's OCRS
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.
Pianists Andrew Barrett, Pedro Bernárdez, Vincent Johnson, Max Libertor, Eric Marchese, Bob Pinsker and John Reed-Torres had a total of 35 selections on hand for an appreciative audience.
Eric led things off with "Kinklets." John Stark issued the Arthur Marshall rag in 1906. The outstanding Classic rag was originally titled "Smokeville Kinklets," and as Eric related it, the story went that Stark admired the piece, tapping his foot while hearing it played, and commenting, "that tune's got plenty kinks in it." Eric noted that while the piece could indeed contain enjoyable "kinks," it is, overall, a smooth, polished rag in the Classic vein.
"Wall Street Rag" became the second Classic in Eric's set, and he noted that he feels compelled to play it in the month of September to honor the date of 9/11/2001, the tie-in being that Wall Street is in lower Manhattan and this superb Joplin rag was among the first handful the composer saw published (by Seminary Music Co.) after making New York City his new home. This Joplin masterpiece is scarcely performed by Eric's peers, which he said motivates him all the more.
Pedro kept the Classic rag thread going with more works by Joplin and Marshall, all of them from 1902 or earlier. First off: Joplin's top-notch 1902 piano rag "Elite Syncopations." Next up: "Swipesy," written by Marshall (first half and closing theme) and Joplin (trio section) and issued by Stark in 1900. Finally, Joplin's immortal "Maple Leaf Rag," Joplin's greatest rag and unquestionably the greatest rag ever written. Pedro injects pleasing embellishments into these time-honored rags. With "Swipesy" he improvised wildly (read: effectively) with the second theme and delivered a blazing finale, and his handling of the "Maple Leaf" trio was equally fiery.
Before introducing Andrew to the audience and bringing him up to the piano, Eric noted that he was hoping someone would play "Maple Leaf" since the anniversary of its copyright (Sept. 18, 1899) was in September.
Andrew launched his set with "The Garden Walk," one of the seemingly endless supply of Tom Brier rags which, for the most part, have remained unperformed at OCRS gatherings – until this year, when various pianists have worked up these Brier masterpieces for performance, and to the delight of all. The piece moves from major flirting with minor tonalities to joyous and (for Brier) typically playful to orchestral.
Andrew then tore into his next selection, asking us to see if we could recognize it by name. The piece was Zez Confrey's famed "Stumbling" (and yes, at least one listener identified it), Andrew referring to his piano-roll stylings as "one of my three-hand arrangements" – wonderful and quite impressive. He did the same with "The Sheik of Araby," the hit 1921 song by composer Ted Snyder and lyricists Harry B. Smith and Francis Wheeler. As with "Stumbling," the piece's identity didn't escape the sharp-eared OCRS audience members.
Max, like Andrew, opened his set with a Brier – "Pacific Waltz," a graceful, gentle early (1990) Brier opus in three-quarter time. Next up was the adventurous, and ambitious, contemporary Novelty "Coyote Capers," written by Kylan DeGhetaldi. Max reports that the composer wrote the piece for his friend, Terroto Rotbart, who uses "Jackpot Coyote" as his online screen name (hence the "Coyote" of the piece's title). The avant-garde piece is impressive: inventive and wildly intricate, with complex bass rhythms that push the boundaries of ragtime. Max closed his set with a virtuoso rendering of Luckey Roberts' masterful "Junk Man Rag," playing it, as Luckey did, in D-flat major versus the C major of the published score and closing it in C-flat (enharmonic with B major). By taking the piece at breakneck speed and keeping the composer's preferred key signatures, Max created a scorcher, and one of the afternoon's best performances.
Bob asked if anyone had watched a baseball game recently, pointing out that a day ago he'd seen a game where all the players (every MLB team playing that day) wore the number 21 on their jerseys and asked if we knew its significance. The number signified Roberto Clemente's number, Sept. 15 having been designated Roberto Clemente Day in Major League Baseball. Bob then played "Roberto Clemente," the soulful ragtime opus composed by David Thomas Roberts in 1979 to honor the late, great professional baseball player, who died in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico while on a humanitarian mission to aid earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Bob then served up a set of Elmer Olson pieces, starting with "Blondy's Melody," issued in 1914 and Olson's first published song (not his first published instrumental, however), at first playing the piano and then playing and also singing its lyrics (by Sam Beverly, Olson's vaudeville partner at the time). Olson's pals referred to him as "Blondy" and hence this particular number as "Blondy's Melody." The tune is obscure today because, as frequently happened with small-time and/or small-town publishers, the published sheet was not actually registered for copyright with the office in Washington, so there is no copy in the collection of the Library of Congress.
Next up was Olson's most famous rag, "Town Talk," the one with which today's ragtimers are most familiar. This great rag, whose general sound and feel strongly evoke the milieu of vaudeville within which Olson worked, was first published by E.F. Bickhart's Song Shop in Minneapolis in 1917, then picked up and re-issued out of Los Angeles by W.A. Quincke. (See "The Billboard", December 7, 1918, p. 15, where we read "TOWN TALK ON PLAYER ROLLS - Los Angeles, Nov. 27 - W.A. Quincke's new instrumental number, Town Talk, which has become very popular with orchestras on the [West] coast, has recently been placed on the player rolls by Q.R.S and [U].S. Music Companies." This was further shown by the original sheet of Quincke's LA edition that was shown to the audience by Bob.)
Bob then related the sordid doings surrounding Olson's romantic escapades which resulted in the composer being stabbed by one of his lady friends (though in a trial that attracted a great deal of press coverage, sounding very like the plot of Kander and Ebb's musical "Chicago," the woman was found not guilty and in fact no one was ever convicted of murder in Olson's death, which occurred on July 19, 1928), closing his set with "Funny Tune." Olson's final instrumental was brought out by the same Los Angeles publisher that re-issued "Town Talk," and has much the same sound and feel as the earlier piece. Vincent Johnson pointed out correctly that "Funny Tune" was in fact a slight revision of an earlier Olson composition entitled "Syncopated Echoes", which had been published by W.A. Quincke in 1920.
Vincent opened with Eubie Blake's great Harlem Stride number "Baltimore Todalo." He followed by the outstanding Arthur Schutt Novelty "Rambling in Rhythm" (1917), working off Tom Brier's transcription of the Schutt recording and noting that the "chimes" effect is most likely the composer's answer to Bloom's "Soliloquy."
Vincent closed his set with "The Packard Fox-Trot," which he wrote in 2018 to honor John Ulrich, a ragtime enthusiast and collector of vintage Packard automobiles who lives in the Bay Area town of El Sobrante with Blanche Korfmacher, his longtime girlfriend, partner, and fellow ragtime enthusiast. The piece, commissioned by Blanche as a gift to John for his 70th birthday, seems to be in a style typical of the '30s, but with foxtrot rhythms and intricate melody lines.
Vincent also related that Blanche and John are heavily involved with AMICA and that before Tom Brier's 2016 accident, they partnered with him to create Olivewood Piano Rolls, a modern piano roll label that released rolls of rags by Brier, Johnson, and Carl Sonny Leyland.
John took to the piano with "Rapid Transit," a unique Joe Lamb rag that originated during the ragtime era but which wasn't completed and published until the 1950s. Bob mentioned that the piece had been in Lamb's archive of untitled and unfinished manuscripts from the early 20th century when Bob Darch induced Lamb to entitle the piece "Rapid Transit" as a tie-in with some deal Darch was working on with a public transit authority in Detroit in the late 1950s. Next up was "That Irresistible Rag." Three rags with that title appeared between 1910 and 1913, the 1913 (by Fay Parker) is the one John performs, dazzling OCRS audiences with the finale by ramping up the tempo, playing the piece in double time. John wrapped up his set with "Ham And!" One Arthur Marshall's greatest ragtime essays, this Classic rag, published by Stark in 1908, has flavorful Marshall touches throughout.
Eric encored with two pieces by composers who, he noticed while glancing at his scores, have identical initials. First was Ernie Burnett's "Steamboat Rag," which was published in 1914 by Syndicate Music Co., the "second-tier" ragtime publishing brand Stark created to issue those rags he opined weren't quite at the level of Joplin, Scott and Lamb.
Eric related the fairly well-known tale of Burnett becoming amnesiac after having suffered an injury to his head while a WWI solder in Europe. His dog tags lost, he sat in a hospital in Europe, recovering, with no clue as to his own identity. One day, a pianist who arrived to cheer up the patients in the ward by playing for them announced he had just read of the death of the great composer Ernie Burnett, and said he'd play Burnett's greatest hit, "My Melancholy Baby." Hearing the piece he had written being played jogged Burnett's memory and caused him to remember his name and identity.
Eric also noted that the score to "Steamboat" credits Burnett as "composer of ‘Melancholy'," the name by which the 1912 piece was widely known. "Steamboat" is an outstanding rag with an intro that emulates a steamboat whistle, two themes that play off that effect, and a trio obviously built on a floating folk strain heard widely elsewhere (as in "Too Much Mustard," "That's A-Plenty", and other ragtime-era pieces).
Euday Bowman's "Colorado Blues" is, Eric noted, among the best of the handful of outstanding authentic Southwestern piano blues numbers by the composer famed for "Twelfth Street Rag" (also published in 1915).
Pedro encored with two more early Joplins: "Original Rags" and "A Breeze from Alabama." Max time up yielded "Rubber Plant Rag," a lively early piano rag by George Cobb, and yet another estimable Tom Brier rag, "Wind 'Em Up" – this one an intricate, hard-to-play Novelty.
Vincent encored with the rare 1915 Novelty "Chop Suey," self-published by Edward Hayne in Chicago as, Vincent said, "I think his only rag." In honor of the advent of Rosh Hashanah, he followed with "Milk and Honey," a singular original that incorporates the sounds, rhythms and harmonies of Hebraic music into the structures and essential elements of piano ragtime.
Bob encored with "Through For the Day," a rare, lyrical 1942 work by Willie the Lion Smith, aptly noting that "it's not exactly rompin', stompin' ragtime." Referring back to the story of the trial connected with Elmer Olson's death that he talked about earlier, Bob then closed with "Mister Cellophane," a ragtime song from Kander and Ebb's score for their 1975 Broadway musical "Chicago," giving us the whole package – piano score, beautifully played, and vocals, delivering the poignant humor of a guy so insignificant, people "see right through" him.
In his second appearance at the piano, John served up "Smokey Mokes," the great early (1897) cakewalk by Abe Holzmann and, From 20 years later, "New Era Rag," one of a handful of complex, thickly-textured masterpieces James Scott created in the mid- to late teens.
Andrew took us home with two ragtime originals. "I Miss(ed) Tulasi" (2012) is a complex, contemporary-sounding rag with pointed poignance. The more recent yet equally complex "The Humanitaur Rag" is, Andrew said, dedicated to friends who had formed a rock band. Its title refers to, and its musical contours are meant to evoke, the uninhibited dancing Andrew observed at the band's performances.
As the afternoon's output was so entertaining and widely varied, it was only with the greatest reluctance that we drew things to a close. Many thanks to the core of ragtime pianists for their dedication to the music and continued commitment to bringing rarely heard pieces to light – and to our audiences, whose support makes it all worthwhile.
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