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First OCRS of the year showcases composers

born in February and Black History Month

Ragtime is rife with composers born in February, so over the last handful of years, it's become a tradition for our performances that month feature their works. This is also Black History Month, so it's a great time to spotlight any musical pieces tying in with the occasion.

Half-Off Books hosted a good-sized crowd who came to partake of this always-special month, with six pianists presenting a total of 29 selections, a handful by composers born in February and others by prominent black composers (and in some cases both).

Ron Ross made a rare and therefore welcome appearance, getting things rolling with "That Itchin' Rag," a 2022 pop-style rag whose trio alternates between major and minor tonalities. Ron followed with his fine rag tango "Nostalgia."

MC Eric Marchese led off with two notable birthday composers: Joe Jordan and James Scott. First off was Jordan's "[ . . .] Todalo -- A Raggedy Rag," (with the title including a word that is unacceptable today) the term "todalo" referring to a dance style. Published by Harry Von Tilzer in New York City in 1910, it was the last of Jordan's six published piano rags and the only one issued in New York. Its use of musical materials is unusual, and it blends Jordan's typical St. Louis-Turpin-Rosebud sound with elements later associated with Harlem Stride, making this "Todalo" unusual in numerous respects. Jordan was born February 11, 1882, in Cincinnati, and lived up until 1971, his fascinating life encompassing unrelated work in real estate and the business world in addition to his work as a pop song composer, musical director of the Pekin Theatre in Chicago and, of course, as a ragtime composer.

From around the same period is James S. Scott's "Princess Rag," one of three Scott rags published by Stark in 1911 and notable for a charming, lighter handling of musical elements unusual for the composer. Scott was born February 12, 1885 in Neosho, Mo., and with Scott's publications spanning nearly two decades (1903 to 1922), many of his rags are regularly played at OCRS, though this one is certainly one of the least played.

Vincent Johnson lent a slight swing to his performance of Joplin's 1907 classic "Gladiolus Rag," a quality especially notable in the two powerful closing themes. Next up was "Siam Blues," an unusual piece enjoying its centennial this year. A wholly original blending of elements found in jazz, blues and pop music, "Siam Blues" was composed by Fred Elizalde when the Spanish Filipino was 17, then recorded in Los Angeles that year (1924), giving it a local tie-in.

Vincent closed his set with "Pastime Rag No. 4," the most intricate and difficult of the five advanced, varied, innovative "Pastime" rags written by Artie Matthews -- and, probably because of this, held off for publication by John Stark until 1920, two years after he issued No. 5. Matthews occupies a singular place in ragtime music's history and therefore deserves to be featured in Black History Month.

Bob Pinsker kept the February birthday train rolling with "The Baltimore Blues," a great, late (1917) piece by Henry Lodge (born February 9, 1884, in Providence, RI). Bob noted that "Baltimore," subtitled "a fox-trot rag," is a "strange little piece," and his playing of it, the piece's first playing at OCRS, accentuates what "Rags and Ragtime" refers to as a "weird tonal plan" as well as the originality Lodge brought to all his music.

Bob said he had attempted to locate Lem Fowler's "Sock It" "for at least fifteen years," noting that although published by no less a historic figure than W.C. Handy (in 1928), the piece was "really obscure" and that no collector he reached out to had the score. He detailed how he was ultimately able to locate what he calls "a totally unique piece" in the collection of the British Library in London, where he was able to examine during a business trip in October of last year. Blending a steady ragtime beat and bits of stoptime with facets of the jazz, blues and pop song milieus, "Sock It" proved unlike most of what we hear at OCRS -- a rare gem brought to light by Bob's dogged efforts and yet another of his many world premieres of an obscure slice of this great music's history.

Bob closed his set with yet another rarity: "Piping Rock" composed by J. Fred Coots (who some 20 years later wrote "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"). Or was it? The late Frank Himpsl had speculated that perhaps the tune was an early composition of James P. Johnson's, based on the circumstances by which the piano roll that is the piece's only existence was issued by Aeolian and on internal musical evidence. Bob detailed how Piping Rock, a country club on Long Island's north shore, became associated with horse events and fox hunts in the early teens of the 20th century. As the foxtrot became explosively popular in 1914, pieces bearing the name "Piping Rock" began to appear that year (including Chris Smith's early foxtrot-dance song). Aeolian issued a piano roll bearing this title, though it has nothing at all to do with Smith's piece, in late 1917/early 1918 that's marked as "composed and played by J. Fred Coots," and Bob recently transcribed the roll. A lively foxtrot with interesting harmonic changes, "Piping Rock" made for another outstanding piano performance and yet another OCRS first for Bob.

Shifting back to 1904 and noting Joplin's place in black history, Eric played "The Chrysanthemum" while pointing out that this often poetic "Afro-American Intermezzo" is believed to be the first piece of published music to use the term "Afro-American."

Andrew Barrett launched his first set with "The Hobble Rag," a rare 1911 piano rag by Broadway impresario Will Morrissey, an actor, producer and playwright who had just a handful of scores published, with "Hobble" as his only rag. It is an instrumental version of a song of the same title, with the verse becoming the A strain, the chorus the B strain, and a trio section added to complete the rag. Andrew's performance of the piece points up its composer's use of music as a way to express the dramatic.

Next up was "Peace and Plenty." The second James Scott rag of the afternoon, the 1919 piece is, like most of Scott's late rags, wildly intricate, with Andrew's performance clearly influenced by the sound and style of vintage piano rolls. He closed his fine set with a piano-roll-style arrangement of the 1922 Fred Fisher standard pop tune "Chicago."

Michael Flores gave us a loose, jazzy rendering of Hayden and Joplin's "Sunflower Slow Drag" and an expressive handling of Lamb's masterful "Ragtime Nightingale." He closed his set with a version of Marshall and Joplin's "Swipesy" that's clearly informed by later jazz as well as that style's emphasis on loose, improvisational performance.

Ron encored with "Cloudy," a lovely ragtime waltz that, like many of his originals, explores minor key tonalities, then reprised "That Itchin' Rag" for the audience, the bulk of whom arrived after 2 p.m. and thus missed hearing it.

Vincent's encore set started with the 1909 Scott masterpiece "The Ragtime 'Betty'," his beautiful handling of this great work exemplifying his opinion of it as "my favorite of his rags." Next up was yet another birthday composer, Sid Reinherz, born in Massachusetts on February 23, 1901 and best known for two 1924 Novelties, "The Boston Trot" and "Mah Jong." Vincent gave us the latter, an innovative Novelty with an opening theme built on shifting harmonies and ascending treble arpeggios. Especially admirable is Vincent's mastery of the crazily challenging trio's descending triplet figures in fourths in the treble and matching, equally demanding bass.

Last came "Rockinghorse," a rarity by German composer Lothar Perl, touted by Vincent as "one of my favorite composers." Published in Germany in 1934, "Rockinghorse" has an ethereal quality distinctive of Perl's piano works.

Andrew leafed through the Gems of Texas Ragtime folio to craft a set of rags from the Lone Star State. First off: Ben Rawls and Royal Neel's "Majestic Rag," published by Bush and Gerts in 1914. Rife with devices heard and found in many a Texas-originated rag, it pleasingly blends blues elements with those of folk ragtime. Next, the rarely heard "Texas Blues" by Les Copeland. Andrew noted that the funky, bluesy licks heard in his performance are in the score, which also displays Copeland's skill in exploiting a variety of bass patterns like walking octaves and habanera rhythms in addition to the standard 2/4 of ragtime. Andrew wrapped up his set with "Park Avenue Polka," a magnificent and rare Stride number by Luckey Roberts preserved for posterity on a 1958 LP, on which it was entitled "Nothin'", with an innovative trio that's mesmerizing and, once heard, truly unforgettable.

Bob took us home with four great numbers that all tie in with Black History Month, starting with "The Navy Blues," which he played from a copy of Luckey Roberts' manuscript found at the Library of Congress and which he notes is an example of what might be called a "commercial blues", not a true 12-bar blues and is typical of this style in which an occasional flattened third or seventh lends a little bluesy touch to an otherwise typical 16-bar refrain.

"You're Lucky to Me" is one of the song hits from the score of the show "Blackbirds of 1930," and Bob not only plays Eubie Blake's memorable music but also sings Andy Razaf's lyrics.

Clarence Jones played the 1916 Rolla Artis piano roll of Fred Irvin's "I've Got a Remedy to Cure the Blues," which Bob transcribed. Irvin wrote the piece's music and lyrics during his earliest career as a musician, during which he was a member of the Clef Club orchestra, performing in some of its Carnegie Hall concerts. Bob's research has revealed that Irvin later became a fight promoter and was, in fact, so well known in that field as to be "the Don King of his day." Bob points out that unlike "Navy Blues," " . . . Remedy . . ." "is actually a blues, its chorus a 12-bar blues in the classic form."

Bob closed the outstanding afternoon of fine and often rarely heard music with "I'm Just Wild About Harry," giving us Eubie Blake's lyrical, waltz-tempo arrangement of his original conception of the now famous piece typically heard as a one-step -- a version in which the reprise is played in a new key.

Why did this beauty not appear in the score of the show "Shuffle Along" in this waltz form? Upon hearing it, the show's leading lady Lottie Gee said "Whoever heard of a waltz in a Black show? Make it a one-step!" -- and the show's producers agreed with her, forcing Blake to turn something poetical into a more typical up-tempo selection. As Bob notes, though, Eubie never subsequently complained, because the revised "Harry" was such a huge hit that it kept Eubie in the chips, helping support him for the remainder of his considerably lengthy lifetime, with the song getting a new lease on life during the 1948 presidential election, when incumbent Harry Truman's campaign used the song as its theme.

The afternoon's pianists -- Bob, Andrew and Vincent in particular -- gave this OCRS audience a musicale for the books. We look forward to our March session, which, as "February Part II," will allow us to hear even more great ragtime penned by those born during the second month of the calendar year.

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