Features and Reviews
By Bill Mitchell
I became fascinated with ragtime in the 1940s after hearing the newly released Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band records on the radio in 1942, the year he graduated from Whittier Union High School. Lu's band version of "Maple Leaf Rag" blew him away, as the slang of a later year would have it. Lu featured his pianist, Wally Rose, backed by banjo, tuba, and drums, on such long-forgotten numbers as "Black and White Rag" and "Temptation Rag." Little did your editor dream that a decade later he would actually meet these fabulous musicians. They are no longer with us, of course, but I thought it might be of interest to the readership to hear about a few of the now-departed ragtime personages it has been my privilege to have met over the years.
I was married in 1950 and acquired a piano, an instrument I had missed in the three years since I left the nest. By happy coincidence, 1950 was the year the Melrose Music Corp. issued The Ragtime Folio, containing the music to nine great rags, including "Maple Leaf," "Frog Legs," "The Cascades," "Grace and Beauty," etc. I bought this treasury for $1.25 and proceeded to learn all the rags except Lamb's "Excelsior," which was too difficult for me.
Four years later I was playing piano Friday nights in Bill Carter's Jazz Band in a club called Aldo's on Melrose Ave. in Hollywood. Carter, a wonderful young clarinet player who was attending Stanford at the time, organized this combo for a lark over summer vacation. One of his buddies at Stanford was a chap named Pete Clute, who had been a student of Wally Rose and now was playing rags in the style of his teacher. Pete came down for a weekend or two to hear the band and play intermission piano. I was impressed by his musicianship from his first number, "Sunburst Rag." He was not only a fine performer, but a serious collector of out-of-print sheet music (and practically all ragtime was then out-of-print). He was friendly, and kind enough to lend me a few pieces to learn. Pete was to go on to a long and illustrious career with Turk Murphy's Jazz Band, and for nearly fifty years our paths crossed occasionally. It was always a pleasure to chat with him. He was the first ragtime pianist I met, but there were many others to follow in the coming years.
On occasional trips to San Francisco during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, my first wife and I would try to catch some of the fine traditional jazz bands that played in the Bay Area. On our honeymoon in the bay area we heard Burt Bales with the Bob Scobey band in Oakland. Bales was featured on the occasional solo. One I found particularly intriguing was called "Mr. Joe," and was a Jelly Roll Morton composition. In nearby El Cerrito we heard Lu Watters at Hambone Kelly's, with Wally Rose, who soloed on "The Cascades," "Grizzly Bear Rag," and "Black and White Rag." Wally became Turk Murphy's pianist in 1951, and was with him till he left the band for solo work a few years later, replaced by Pete Clute. We heard Wally in a club playing accompaniment (not ragtime) to a comely girl singer swinging back and forth in a trapeze-like contraption. At intermission I introduced myself as a fan of his. We chatted about ragtime awhile, and we mentioned that we were planning to catch Turk Murphy's band later in the evening. He said he too was going over there after his gig. We met him at Murphy's club and thus had a nice visit with Wally Rose and Pete Clute.
Several years later, in 1972, I recorded a ragtime LP called Ragtime Recycled, with banjo, tuba, and drums accompaniment, the same instrumentation Rose had used in his post-war ragtime performances with Lu Watters. I sent a copy to Wally, who was kind enough to write me a very complimentary letter, commenting on the rags I had chosen, a couple of which were new to him. Wally was a sunny, easygoing type, and a classically trained, versatile musician. I think he may have been the prime mover of the post-WWII ragtime revival.
I met Dr. John "Knocky" Parker around 1963. He was pianist with a Western Swing group called "The Light Crust Doughboys" in the 1930s, but went on to earn a Ph. D. in English, teaching that subject as his day job in various Southern colleges. His parallel career was playing piano in numerous Dixieland jazz sessions and recording ragtime LPs, including a four-LP set called The Golden Treasury of Ragtime. He was also the first pianist to record the complete works of Scott Joplin and James Scott. (Parker was primarily an "ear" player, and did not adhere closely to the scores, a characteristic which displeased some critics.) In the late 1970s and early 1980s up to the time of his death, he resided in the Los Angeles area and often would show up at Maple Leaf Club meetings as well as the Sunday afternoon jazz clubs. By then he was reluctant to solo, but loved to play duets with other pianists. (One of his last LPs consisted of duets with various young pianists at the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo. As for these duets, it was always better if there were two pianos, as was the case at OTMH. If you were sharing a bench with him on one piano you were likely to end up with a decided scratch or two on your hand, as he was a vigorous player. Just ask me!) Knocky was the quintessential Southern gentleman, and always impressed the ladies with his gallantry. He used to mention that he loved to hear the different styles of the young pianists at the Maple Leaf Club meetings.
Eubie Blake was another charmer. I met him at a couple of parties in Los Angeles where he was the honored guest. He really made a big hit with my wife when he complemented her on the outfit she was wearing. He was ebullient and spry into his nineties, and loved to visit and reminisce. When we were introduced, he looked up at me and said, "You look like Jim Europe. He was a big fellow like you." (I think he had my height in mind, not my color.) He was kind enough to autograph my copies of his LPs and a folio of his music. These are among my most prized possessions. Eubie performed at the Old Town Music Hall in the 1970s, and was always in good form. When pianists today play on the massive Bosendorfer, I wonder if they realize that Eubie once held forth on that very instrument.