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May '24: Celebrating composers born in May

The May session of OCRS saw a small contingent of pianists as well as spectators at Half-Off Books, but the program was yet another memorable one. This time around the focus was the music of composers born in May.

We won't say "ragtimers," as the clear giant of that group, Fats Waller, wasn't a true "ragtime composer" by definition - but more about that later.

Waller was among six composers whose works were celebrated by the four OCRS pianists on hand, and his pieces dominated the afternoon both in style and in quantity: of the 34 selections, 25 were by May-born composers, and 60% (15) of those were Waller creations.

The composers featured were Waller, Charles Hunter, May Aufderheide, Harry Austin Tierney, Billy Mayerl, and our own Vincent Johnson, who played some of his own outstanding compositions.

The King of Ragtime Composers (Scott Joplin) was also well represented with a total of five selections (six counting the brief warmup by the MC). Three contemporary pieces and a vintage Lamb accounted for the rest.

Eric Marchese answered questions about the ragtime genre for those who had arrived early. While others were still taking their seats, he spotted a friend whose favorite rag is "Pine Apple," which he played. Up next was "S'more," a 1916 rag by Charley Straight that Eric learned from the score created by Tom Brier when he transcribed the roll.

The official program began when Eric talked about Harry Tierney, noting that Tierney, Aufderheide and Waller share the same birthdate (May 21). Tierney began his career touring the U.S. as a concert pianist, but his real interest was pop music, so he moved into the ragtime genre, with at least 10 published rags (those we know of) in 1911. In 1912 we got "Variety Rag," while "Cabaret Rag" was never published as a piano score nor on roll. So in 2013, Eric transcribed the Prince's Band recording of "Cabaret" issued by Columbia Records in 1912, and played his piano rendition of the piece to start the day.

Barry Blakeley gave us a nearly all-Joplin set comprised of "The Ragtime Dance," "The Entertainer" and "The Easy Winners" plus Tom Brier's "Doghouse Blues." He explained the evolution of "Ragtime Dance" from a lengthy ragtime folk ballet (1899) to a nine-page score, complete with lyrics and dance steps, published by Stark in 1902, to the truncated, piano-rag version Stark issued in 1906 to recoup his financial losses from the lengthier publication. The shorter, four-page version is the one of which most ragtimers are familiar, and that's the one we heard. Barry's rendition of "The Entertainer" is up-tempo and apparently patterned after that of Marvin Hamlisch. "Easy Winners" is an early Joplin masterpiece and one of Barry's specialties. To boot, all three Joplins heard here were featured in "The Sting."

"Doghouse" is an authentic-sounding ragtime-era blues from 2006. A highlight is the trio, with a roadhouse ambiance and numerous breaks. Section D has more ear-catching breaks, while the arresting section E cuts the rhythm in half, with the main theme (section A) returning to close things out.

Eric returned to the piano to offer background on Charles Hunter, the amazing composer of folk ragtime born in Nashville on May 16, 1876 - "amazing" because Hunter was blind, working as a piano tuner but also making his mark on ragtime music with a handful of outstanding rags from 1899 to 1905. The first of these, "Tickled to Death," is a masterpiece and perhaps his best work, first issued in 1899, but Eric chose "'Possum and ' Taters, a Ragtime Feast" from 1900, as a fine example of this great and often overlooked folk ragtimer's notable output.

Having already referenced Tierney's "Variety Rag," Eric then performed it before telling us a bit about May Aufderheide (and noting that both composers lived here in Southern California: Aufderheide and her husband moved from the midwest to Pasadena, where she lived in apparent obscurity in terms of the local ragtime community through her death in 1972; Tierney, meanwhile, moved from New York City to London, then back to the Big Apple, then came to Hollywood circa 1930, where he wrote music for the earliest talkies produced by RKO Studios).

"The Thriller" is undoubtedly May's greatest rag, and we heard it through Eric's performance, before which he lamented that the piece's ho-hum cover missed the boat by not depicting the wooden rollercoaster for which the rag is named.

In celebration of the day's third featured May 21-born composer and arguably the greatest of the three, Vincent Johnson opened his set with the first Waller of the day: the fantastic "Alligator Crawl," which Vincent has previously treated us to and whose original title was "House Party Stomp." The piece abounds in Stride left hand figurations (drop bass, walking bass, etc.), and its trio conveys a cool Stride sound and contains plenty of Stride licks.

Noting that he'd soon be in Sedalia for the 50th anniversary Scott Joplin Festival, Vincent credited the Rose Leaf Ragtime Club with having gotten his ragtime career off to a rousing start nearly 20 years ago and therefore deserved a salute. Vincent did so by performing originals by club founder P.J. Schmidt and RLRC stalwart Fred Hoeptner.

First up was Fred's "Dalliance," a sweet, slow-tempo classic-style rag that captured first prize in a ragtime composition contest in 2000. Rose Leaf members likely recall hearing the composer himself perform this outstanding rag, now being ably preserved by Vincent.

"French Vanilla" is perhaps Schmidt's best work, a pretty classic-style rag with a lovely, memorable main section (theme A), a second strain with the left hand offering countermelodies in response to phrases stated in the treble, and an innovative trio with involved bass work.

Bob Pinsker had enough printed music to generate several hours of performance time, and he made judicious use of his ample stage time by focusing on Waller, starting off with the basics (his full name, Thomas Wright Waller, his birth in New York City on May 21, 1904, and his life and career ending in December of 1943).

Bob emphasized that Waller is clearly not a ragtime pianist. "He was a jazz musician, then became primarily a pop vocalist. He wasn't originally a vocalist. Not until 1931 did he begin singing on records, and became very popular as a singer - not unusual. Nat ‘King' Cole is another performer who started as a jazz pianist but subsequently became tremendously well-known for his pop vocals."

Bob launched his all-Waller set with "The Scrimmage," an uncopyrighted, unpublished, unrecorded entry in the Harlem Living Room Suite, the score of which was found in 2012 with the discovery of part of the Mills Music files. Dating roughly from the mid 1930s, the piece has a distinctive Harlem sound and feel but contains devices that can be described as avant garde, and it has an expansive, "big finish" finale (which for whatever reason quotes a few bars of Gershwin's "The Man I Love").

Next up was "Sloppy Water Blues," one of six pieces Fats recorded on pipe organ in 1927. RCA Victor had purchased a church building in Camden, NJ, and had its organ rebuilt as a theater organ. Bob is in the process of transcribing each piece for piano. Having just transcribed "Sloppy Water", a moderate-tempo bluesy number that Bob described as "kind of mellow," he unveiled the new piano version at OCRS.

From 1931 is "I'm Crazy ‘Bout My Baby," Waller's first piano-vocal recording on which he accompanied his own vocal, of his own tune. The minor tonality of the opening (the verse) belies the happiness described by that section's lyrics. Bob's rendering of the song was the afternoon's first vocal performance.

Barry retook the stage to deliver "Scott Joplin's New Rag," the only Joplin piece of the day that tied in with the month by virtue of its having been copyrighted on May 1, 1912. Joplin's first new piano rag since "Stoptime" in 1910 (hence its title), the outstanding, first-rate "New Rag" alternates between effervescent themes (sections A and C) and those expressing unmistakable bitterness (B theme and the interlude between C and the final reprise of A).

By contrast is the more hopeful Joplin of eight years earlier and the creation of "The Chrysanthemum - an Afro-American Intermezzo," an outstanding piece beautifully played by Barry.

Noting that his own birthday was earlier in the month, Vincent gave us three of his own originals, including one of the most recent and one of the earliest.

Dedicated to girlfriend Blue, "Mangosteens" came about following a get-together in summer, 2021, where ragtime pals gathered and the Southeast Asian tropical fruit known as the mangosteen was served. Vincent's discovery that ragtimer Eve Elliott has a tattoo of a mangosteen on her leg prompted him to write a new piece with a cheery, loose opening theme featuring involved bass work, a second section with shifting harmonies, and a trio combining features of the opening themes.

"Shih-Tzu Blues" is among Vincent's most popular pieces and is being featured on the new recording he's in the process of completing and releasing. "Sweet Pea" is a slow-tempo beauty from 2010, its ethereal sound akin to and perhaps inspired by the works of Lothar Perl.

Eric worked in one more May Aufderheide piano rag: "Novelty Rag." From 1911, it's the last of her six published piano rags and, as expressed by Eric, second only to "The Thriller" in terms of creativity and originality.

Bob delivered his second all-Waller portion of the day – this time serving up a total of 10 selections while noting that the last time he brought us such a substantial program of the great composer's works was at the May 2004 session of the OCRS, as a salute to the centennial of Waller's birth.

"Messin' Around with the Blues" is the second of Bob's transcriptions of the 1927 Fats Victor studio theater organ recordings, with a cheerful, up-tempo rag-blues opening section and a contrasting minor-key B theme.

Bob didn't sing Andy Razaf's lyrics to the next Waller tune, instead choosing to render "Willow Tree," subtitled "A Musical Misery," as an instrumental. The song was written for the musical "Keep Shufflin'," one of several sequels to the hit show "Shufflin' Along." In keeping with the subtitle and the melancholy lyric, "Willow Tree" is a slow-tempo meditative bluesy number.

"Blue Black Bottom" is derived from a piano solo recording from 1927 but not released by RCA until 1965. John Farrell transcribed this forceful, socko piece from the Victor recording in 2002, allowing pianists like Bob to perform it for us.

During his first or second tour of England (circa 1938-'39), Fats composed the London Suite, which includes "Bond Street" and its walking bass figures.

"Jitterbug Waltz" is among the most famous Waller pieces of all time, an unforgettable classic the skillfully meshes pop music with classical piano.

From 1929 is yet another great, vintage Waller tune, "My Fate Is in Your Hands." Bob said he suspects the lyrics came first, via Razaf (from an unfortunate encounter with a police officer who pulled the lyricist over for speeding) and that the music came later to conform with the words. Bob played a transcription done by Paul Marcorelles of Waller's piano solo recording of the song.

"Caught" is yet another rare piano solo, its main theme fluctuating between minor and major tonalities. It was included in the mid-1950s second edition of Waller's Piano Pranks.

Still another rarity is "Palm Garden," which Bob said was most likely recorded by Fats onto acetate so that it could be transcribed by the publisher's arranger, which in the case of the five compositions in the 1941 "Fats Waller Piano Antics" folio are so very carefully notated that Bob suspects they are the uncredited work of Morris Feldman.

Bob saved Fats's most famous and most successful song, "Ain't Misbehavin'," as the penultimate selection of his extended set. The song was written for the 1929 revue "Connie's Hot Chocolates" and published by Mills Music. The song was a smashing success from the start, and Waller recorded it on at least 13 occasions.

Closing the outstanding set was the first-rate "Wild Cat Blues," which Bob noted was an example of a Stride piano solo having the word "blues" included in its title despite it not being a genuine blues piece - a phenomenon that began with pop music of the early ragtime era in which whatever was the most dominant style known to the public ("cakewalk," "one-step," "rag," "blues," etc.) was shoehorned into the title despite that style not being an accurate musical description of the piece. Bob told us that "Wild Cat" was among the very first compositions of the then-19-year-old Waller when the tune was copyrighted in October 1923.

Vincent saluted the birth of Billy Mayerl (May 31, 1902) with "Marigold," widely regarded as the composer's greatest work and undoubtedly his most famous and most popular. This light Novelette is delicate and pretty, qualities emphasized by Vincent. The piece has long been one of his specialty numbers, as evidenced by his top-notch performance of it.

Ranking near the top of Mayerl's greatest works is "Nimble-Fingered Gentleman," nimbly and outstandingly essayed by Vincent, who told us the piece was dedicated to Mayerl's pal, jazz pianist and bandleader (and fellow Brit) Jack Wilson.

Vincent pointed out that the Stride works of Waller and the Novelty genre of Mayerl range far afield from authentic ragtime. To remedy that, he gave us Lamb's "Patricia Rag," the last of a string of six Lamb rags issued by Stark in 1915 and 1916 and the second-last of the dozen Stark Lambs.

Bob took the stage one last time to deliver, fittingly, one last Waller masterpiece - "Viper's Drag," which Eric had requested earlier in the day. The piece has an entertainingly sinister sound that bespeaks the danger of the title serpent, amusingly (and briefly) quotes Grieg's "The Hall of the Mountain King" in the bass, and has an elongated middle section that shifts the mood and the tempo. The great Waller number made for a fitting end to a notable afternoon of music by OCRS pianists.

MAY 2024 PLAYLIST: Eric Marchese: "Pine Apple Rag" "S'more" "Cabaret Rag" Barry Blakeley: "The Ragtime Dance" "The Entertainer" "The Easy Winners" "Doghouse Blues" Eric: "'Possum and 'Taters" "Variety Rag" "The Thriller" Vincent Johnson: "Alligator Crawl." "Dalliance" "French Vanilla" Bob Pinsker: "The Scrimmage" "Sloppy Water Blues" "I'm Crazy ‘Bout My Baby" Barry: "Scott Joplin's New Rag" "The Chrysanthemum" Vincent "Mangosteens" "Shih-Tzu Blues" "Sweet Pea" Eric "Novelty Rag" Bob: "Messin' Around with the Blues" "Willow Tree" subtitled "A Musical Misery" "Blue Black Bottom" "Bond Street" (from the London Suite) "Jitterbug Waltz" "My Fate Is in Your Hands" "Caught" "Palm Garden" "Ain't Misbehavin'" "Wild Cat Blues" Vincent: "Marigold" "Nimble-Fingered Gentleman" "Patricia Rag" Bob: "Viper's Drag"

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