Rose Leaf Ragtime Club March Meeting (3/31/2002)
Between morning Easter services and late-afternoon Easter feasts, the Rose Leaf Ragtime Club held a kind of inter-denominational service of our own to celebrate ragtime and the ragtime revival. A generous gathering of 40-50 members joined us, the holiday weekend notwithstanding.
It's always wonderful to hear Bill Mitchell perform at the keys, and he started off the meeting with a trio of tunes that he wove around an Easter theme. The first two were piano solo renditions of popular songs by Irving Berlin, first "Easter Parade," then "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket." Even though he was a prodigious composer and then some, Berlin penned so many top-notch compositions; not just a handful but a few dozen handfuls. "Easter Parade", which was a huge seller for Harry James and Guy Lombardo in the 1940s, was originally written in 1917 as "Smile and Show Your Dimple". It was an utter failure, apparently, until Berlin rewrote it and brought it back for the 1933 show "As Thousands Cheer". After James' and Lombardo's successes, the tune continued riding the wave of popularity, becoming the basis for the 1948 MGM classic film of the same name, starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.
Bill's third piece was W.R. McKanlass' 1913 rag "A Bag of Rags." Considering the occasion, however, Bill referred to it as "A Bag of Eggs." Bill performs this tune from time to time, and his rendition is always enjoyable. In all, it was a great start to the meeting.
Gwen Girvin came up next, joined by Phil Cannon on guitar/banjo and James on percussion, to perform "The Birth of the Blues," from the Broadway show "George White Scandals of 1922." The gents' rhythmic support was rock-solid, Gwen's piano was enthusiastic, and her vocals were gritty and bluesy. For her second number, Gwen stayed in the pop music genre, with a heartfelt piano/vocal performance of the Arlen/Harburg classic "Over the Rainbow."
Our next performer was a first-time visitor to the club, Morgan, a young lady of 13 who's been studying music since she was seven. I am very sorry I neglected to write her last name in my notes, but I feel sure we'll all know it soon enough. Morgan performed two selections from an instructional folio by Martha Mier (Alfred Publishing) called "Jazz, Rags & Blues." In these early-intermediate level solos of "Wild Honeysuckle Rag" and "Jelly Bean Rag," Morgan displayed a bright, clean and crisp touch, foot-tapping syncopation, and a relaxed, happy interpretation of the music. These are excellent qualities that will provide a solid foundation for her growth as a musician and interpreter of rags, blues and jazz. The members made her feel welcome and were no doubt excited to have her join us. We hope she'll keep coming back!
In addition to continuing to compose original rags, Ron Ross, our next player, is keeping busy studying a handful of classic rags. He started his set with Joseph Lamb's exquisite "Cleopatra Rag," a decidedly dance-like tune with a swung-eighth feel, single-note melody line and catchy harmonies. Like all of Lamb's tunes, "Cleopatra" is well constructed and a pleasure to listen to. Ron's next piece was "Cloudy, A Ragtime Waltz," a new composition of his that features pretty harmonies, forward momentum and detailed construction. Another fine addition to his portfolio.
Following Ron was Ruby Fradkin, who dove fearlessly into the Scott Joplin/Arthur Marshall classic rag "Swipesy Cakewalk." "Swipesy" is, of course, an oft-played piece that's so engaging because of its purity, innocence and singing nature. (These qualities are typical of Marshalls' greatest rags and make his sound immediately identifiable.) From a player's perspective, although "Swipesy" sounds simple and elemental, it's tricky to play. The syncopations that sound so natural are not so easy to learn. And the change of key in the trio section introduces chord positions, chord fragments and octave eighth-note runs that require attention to detail and lots of practice. Never one to disappoint, however, Ruby perfectly captured the spirit of the piece and performed it near-flawlessly. Her second number was the favorite, "Baby Face," in which she stated the theme, then repeated it twice with increasing blues-based improvisation. I hope Ruby enjoys playing it as much as we like to hear her play it! Ruby closed her set with another ragging of a popular tune, this time "You Are My Sunshine," again, replete with jaw-dropping improvisation.
Next up was Bob Mitchell, performing for the second time at the Rose Leaf club. Bob kept the standard high with a marvelous interpretation of the haunting and soulful 1907 Joplin/Louis Chauvin collaboration, "Heliotrope Bouquet." It was an unusual but well thought-out and magically played solo, highlighted by sixteenth-note cadenza embellishments and a swung-eighth feel. For his second number, Bob sat down at the old Gulbransen to perform a piano/vocal original. He introduced the piece by recalling the idea that led to him writing it: to come up with the perfect song from an imaginary 1931-era cartoon in which a cockroach goes into a nightclub and steps up to the mike to croon in a style reminiscent of Bing Crosby. What would they be singing there? Bob's answer was a hilarious, insightful and totally creative parody called "Doobity-Doobity-Doo" (or something like that). Simply put, his conception, piano playing and vocal delivery were brilliant. I think it's safe to say club members are unanimous in our hope that he plays it for us again and right quick (and not just because I didn't get the title correct)!
Picking up the baton and keeping the crowd compelled by virtue of his high level of musical artistry and scholarship was Bob Pinsker. It's amazing how Bob, when he's not occupied being a nuclear physicist and concert violinist, always seems to have the time to come up with expertly-played rarities, augmented by his fascinating narratives about their creation and historical relevance. A gifted musician, tireless researcher and time-management guru is he. It's not fair.
Noting Bob Mitchell's swinging version of "Heliotrope," Mr. Pinsker discussed the origin of swing in popular music, explaining that it came later, in the early teens, most likely with the advent of the fox trot. Even though the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle was the major popularizing force behind the fox-trot, Bob said research points to the dance's origin in San Francisco, in particular at the Fremont Theatre, where dances like the Grizzly Bear, Texas Tommy Swing and Turkey Trot came into vogue. Another one of these "animal" dances was called the Bearcat. Bob played a piano/vocal tune he found on a piano roll called "Stop That Bearcat, Sadie," written around 1912. Beneath its wittiness, the tune offered tongue-in-cheek commentary on the supposedly diabolical nature of these syncopated dances.
To close out his set and the first half of our program, Bob performed "Trouville Canter," a 1914 piano composition by Huey Woolford, a friend and contemporary of Eubie Blake. "Trouville" is notable in that it was one of the earliest pieces in which the composer's intent to swing was actually notated in the score with dotted-eighth and sixteenths notes, rather than straight eighths.
Nancy Kleier kicked off the second half of the program with a trio of rags loosely, but cleverly, tied to an Easter theme. The first was prefaced by a query: how would ragtimers like to go out (meet their maker)? The answer: "Tickled to Death," of course. This was Tennessee-born Charles Hunter's first published rag and arguably his best. Next, Nancy played Hunter's "Back to Life," a splendid choice for those with resurrection in mind. To close her set, Nancy pointed the way to a promised future for a ragtimer, a sort of everlasting life-after-death party set to the strains of "Cakewalk in the Sky," Ben Harney's 1899 Ethiopian two-step. As always, Nancy turned in a very enjoyable, a propos performance.
Next, Gary Rametta added his two cents worth to the musical festivities, contributing a trio set that included Trebor Tichenor's folksy "Show Me Rag, A Missouri Defiance" (dedicated to the composer's home state), Jelly Roll Morton's seminal "Original Jelly Roll Blues," and New York stride pianist Willie the Lion Smith's lovely "Rippling Waters."
The guests next welcomed Yuko Shimazaki, who performed Joplin's posthumously published "Reflection Rag" with grace and tenderness. Though it was the last piece published under Joplin's name (John Stark had owned the copyright but didn't print it until shortly after Joplin's death in 1917), its sound and structure recall Joplin's early compositions, like "Palm Leaf Rag" and "Peacherine Rag." And rather than using the classic rag format of four sections, "Reflection" is written in five sections, with no repeat of the A section. Each section contains a separate musical idea, much like a classical rondo. Indeed, much of "Reflection" sounds classical, even Chopinesque or Mozartean. This is, of course, Yuko's forte, and she performs with distinction.
Our next performer was Fred Hoeptner, a distinguished composer in his own right and a pianist with great tone, touch and sensitivity. His first selection was "Dalliance, A Ragtime Frolic," his award-winning composition from the 2000 Joplin festival in Sedalia. "Dalliance" is a work of great depth, sophistication and imagination; modern-sounding yet true to the ragtime spirit. It has to be considered a staple of contemporary ragtime. To close his set, Fred picked up on Bob Pinsker's remarks about the popularity of the fox-trot style in the mid-teens. Once the style caught on, Fred explained, the name "fox-trot" became overused to the point of mere hype. One such number that shows a disparity between its name and its sound is Dave Guion's "Texas Fox Trot." In stark contrast to what the title suggests, this is actually a lilting, habanera-styled piece in a similar vein as Jelly Roll Morton's "Spanish tinge" pieces. Overall, Fred played it beautifully.
Phil Cannon then took the mike to perform a couple of James Scott tunes on his guitar/banjo, with Bill Mitchell accompanying him on piano. Phil's first tune was Scott's "Frog Legs" rag, written in 1906 when Scott was 21 years old. Scott had already three earlier compositions published (by Dumars Music Co. in Carthage, Missouri where he lived at the time), but "Frog Legs" was his first tune published by John Stark, and the first Scott rag that really caught on with the public. Although the first two sections are derived from Joplin's influence, the final two sections feature piano stylings that characterized Scott's sound and which he used in many of his subsequent rags, like the undisputed classic "Grace and Beauty," which Phil played to close out his set.
Our next performers were the duo of Ron Ross and Alan "The Great Bramanovich" Breimer. They began their set with a tune Ron downloaded from cyberspace, "Whenever April Showers Come Your Way." Next was the Nino Rota classic from The Godfather films, "Speak Softly Love," followed by the pop standard "Hello My Baby," on which they were joined by Gwen on accordion. As usual, The Great Bramanovich added style and humor to the show, while Ron provided excellent harmonic and rhythmic support. Gwen's accordion was a nice touch, too.
With the show winding down, Bob Pinsker returned for a couple more solos, first with a song he found on a piano roll written by Roy Bargy and published by Walter Donaldson in 1921. Bob said it's credited with introducing two words into the English language, courtesy of lyricist Grant Clark. The tune was "My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle," and it was definitely cute. Can you guess or remember the words to which Bob was referring?
Bob's final performance was of an uncredited composition called "Sugar Dew Blues," which he found on a Nickelodeon roll. Bob said the style suggests Chicago-born blues pianist Jimmy Blythe as writer. I'm not as familiar with Blythe's work as Bob is; the only other Blythe piece I know is one Bob's also played for us ("Jimmy's Blues"), but I wouldn't disagree with him. At any rate, Bob took "Sugar Dew" to town.
To close out our Easter Sunday program, Ruby, Bill Mitchell, Phil, Gwen and James combined on an extended version of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." Though it was certainly a great way to end the show, I must admit that I called the players up in a very impromptu fashion, which didn't afford them the opportunity to work out their arrangement of solos and accompaniments beforehand. I apologize for this and hope no one was imposed upon or inconvenienced by this. It would be a good idea for players wishing to combine on tunes to get together in advance in order to work out the details of the arrangements. For my part, if I see that the clock looks like it'll allow us to put together more of these combos at the end of the show, I'll let the players know in advance so they can discuss their approach to them.
That's it! Another successful Rose Leaf Ragtime Club meeting. By anyone's standards, there was lots of great music. Many thanks to all those who attended, and to all the musicians who provided some really terrific entertainment. Looking forward to seeing you at our next meeting, the last Sunday of April (the 28th) at 2:30 p.m. sharp!
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