Rose Leaf Ragtime Club February Meeting (2/23/2003)
Thanks to our members and performers, February's meeting turned out to be big-time fun. We filled the banquet room with just shy of 50 ragtimers, and the show was thoroughly enjoyable. If I'm not mistaken, it was our 101st meeting. That's quite an achievement for us, and a testament to those who've led the way in keeping the ragtime spirit alive in Southern California; players like Bill Mitchell and composers like Fred Hoeptner, are just two of the names that come to mind. And of course, longstanding ragtime aficionados like you, without whose participation, support, friendship and encouragement there wouldn't be a forum where we could share our mutual interest.
To kick things off, Gary Rametta and Bill Mitchell played duo pianos on three classic Joplin rags, "Elite Syncopations," "Peacherine" and "Original Rags," and on the James Scott favorite "Climax Rag." The duets are, for better or worse, always impromptu. Gary generally plays the rags as they were scored while Bill provides rhythmic and melodic improvisation, and added harmonic coloring.
Bill stayed on after the duets, soloing on Abe Holzmann's popular cakewalk from 1899, "Smokey Mokes," and Joplin's timeless "Pine Apple Rag" from the composer's New York period. Published in 1908, this piece, in the words of ragtime writers Jason and Tichenor, is "among the very finest rags ever written." It incorporates "pentatonicism, chromaticism, formal European traditions and Black folk materials," [producing] "moments of the richest beauty which sometimes defy a one-way analysis of what we hear." My sentiments exactly...
Ron Ross, our resident publicist, PR man and talented composer, player and vocalist, premiered the fully-fleshed version of his latest work, "Acrosonic Rag," named after his piano. As I become more familiar with this rag, I like it even more. It bears some of the signature elements and stylings of Ron's other pieces, yet it's a sweet and pensive ballad on its own, with very attractive SUS4 and sixth-chord voicings that give it a feel of motion and modernity. Next was "Sunday Serendipity," Ron's ode to the fabulous Rose Leaf Ragtime Club. This is one of Ron's best rags, creative in every way and downright toe tappin.'
Ruby Fradkin followed, first with some personal announcements, including the launch of her web site www.ragtimeruby.com, and her recent interview at KBMR FM radio where, in addition to talking about her musical activities, she took phone calls from listeners. Ruby then sweetly and sincerely thanked to the club for its support and encouragement throughout her skyrocketing development. Her subsequent performances of two Joplin classic rags, "Elite Syncopations" and "Fig Leaf," were, in a word, amazing, played with a swung, dotted-eighths rhythm and delightful accuracy. How about we christen Ruby "The New Princess of Ragtime" and hook her up with Mimi Blais?
Next was Phil Cannon, whose guitar/banjo work is always fresh, innovative and interesting. His first selection was Henry Lodge's highly-regarded "Red Peppers, A Spicy Rag," from 1910. In comparison to "Temptation Rag," which is generally considered his greatest composition (it was his most commercially successful), it is, as the title suggests, more up-tempo and adventurous. Phil handled its complexities with seeming ease, a credit to his fine musicianship. Next was Percy Wenrich's 1907 rouser "The Smiler Rag," expertly played by Phil and lots of fun to listen to, notwithstanding the fact that its third section is an unabashed lifting of the C section of Joplin's great "Peacherine Rag."
Following Mr. Cannon was keyboard meister Robbie Gennet, a writer and reviewer for Keyboard magazine and professional piano/keyboard man in his own right. Robbie plays and enjoys a variety of piano styles, including rock, blues, New Orleans, stride, boogie-woogie and ragtime. His playing is electrifying and really gets the crowd going. Before he sat down at the keys, he commented on his enthusiasm for what the Rose Leaf Club is doing: keeping alive the music that pioneered today's musical forms and influenced scores of legendary pianists, from yesteryear to now. He also said he's extolled the virtues of our piano club to his editors at Keyboard. Perhaps we might get coverage in a national publication. Who knows?
Robbie contributed two self-composed tunes. First was "New Orleans By Nine," which I believe he said is included as a cut on his CD (available from his web site www.pianarchy.com). It was a strong performance, with a heavy blues and boogie-woogie flavor, great variation in dynamics, and lightning-fast arpeggiated runs that really stirred the audience. Following an overwhelming round of applause, he went on to play an exciting improvisation that showcased his block-chord skills. It turns out the piece was based on a song by heavy-metal group Iron Maiden. An apt metaphor indeed, for although we weren't physically bound, our attention was seriously rapt. Mr. Gennet's playing was thoroughly exhilarating.
One of our strongest-ever shows continued, with Bob Pinsker taking the reins. In keeping with the spirit of Black History Month, Bob chose to share with us his exploration of theatre music written by ragtime writers. His opening number was a splendid medley of score selections from Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's "Blackbirds of 1930." Many Blake/Sissle-penned tunes from this show became popular standards, including "You're Lucky To Me," on which Bob sang as well as played. He segued into "Green Pastures," then the immortal "Memories of You," and tied a nice ribbon around the medley with "That Lindy Hop." Bob's playing on all the tunes captured the soulful essence, and included many of the advanced pianistic devices and stylings employed by Blake himself. Mr. Pinsker's level of artistry demonstrated his deep understanding of the music, and his increasing fluency with the piano.
Bob followed up with what was perhaps Blake's greatest rag, "Charleston Rag," a.k.a. "Sounds of Africa," which Blake claimed to have written in 1899 when he was 15 (his stated year of birth was 1883). Ever the investigator, Bob noted that recent research reveals that Blake was actually born in 1897, which would have made him all of 12 years old when he wrote this seminal piece. Unlikely, of course, especially after Bob explained that the earliest it is known to have appeared was on a 1917 piano roll. Bob's revelations gave me a chuckle, as I thought about how much controversy Jelly Roll Morton endured for his claims regarding the dates of some of his early compositions, as well as the year of his birth. It seems to have been a common practice at that time, kind of like a youngster of today doctoring his driver's license in order to get served in a bar. In the early days of ragtime and jazz, young Black artists were surely captivated by the social and racial equality of this music. It offered them a means of self-expression and of earning an income. However, the places where they could listen to, learn and play it were primarily adult establishments. Hence the need to add a few years to one's age.
All this considered, Bob's performance of this ageless Blake rag was marvelous. He's played it a number of times in the past, but this rendition was the best I've heard from him; clear, vibrant, technically solid and faithfully interpreted.
We paused for a brief intermission, during which Bill Coleman entertained the troops with a nice collection of old cakewalks and popular standards.
Les Soper opened the second half of the program, first with an announcement of his upcoming CD "Ragtime for a Sunday Afternoon." I'm eagerly anticipating its release. Les is an accomplished pianist who plays with an excellent sense of time, lovely phrasing and a beautiful touch. His taste in rags is also exceptional. His first piece was by his favorite contemporary composer, Glenn Jenks. "Nutcrackers" is a delightful ditty featuring the use of stop time in the final strain. A number of members helped accentuate the missing beats by clacking spoons, as Les suggested. Next was James Scott's "Ragtime Betty," from 1909. One of Scott's most romantic-sounding rags, it seems to have been a dedication, however, since publisher John Stark supposedly titled all of Scott's pieces, it may not have been written for anyone in particular. It opens with the same broken chord as the A strain of Joplin's "Fig Leaf" rag (written in 1908), but its phrases are shorter. Scott further individualizes it by using beautifully moving chords in the relative minor to return to the tonic. Each section of this rag complements and builds on the preceding, leading to a heart-wrenching conclusion.
To complete his set, Les chose Joplin's brilliant and challenging "The Cascades" from 1904. Reportedly inspired by the water display at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, it represents, as Jasen and Tichenor wrote, Joplin at his most graceful and majestic. As always, Les' essay of this masterpiece was terrific.
Nancy Kleier followed, introducing her cleverly conjured theme of Raggedy Alfred being under the weather in the rainy month of February. To help him kick his sinking feeling, he agreed to visit his primary care physician. That would be Doc Brown. Nancy played "Doctor Brown," a foxtrot from 1914 written by Fred Irvin and published by Jerome Remick. It's characterized by a swung-eighths rhythm and a fun, light-hearted spirit. Upon examination, the good doctor diagnosed Raggedy Alfred with a "crazy bone." Nancy's next number was Charles Johnson's "Crazy Bone Rag" from 1913. A sort of companion piece to the composer's famous "Dill Pickles" from six or seven years earlier, the A section uses the same three-over-four rhythmic pattern, as well as the trombone-like bass line in the left hand in the B section. A favorite of military bands, this piece was recorded by the U.S. Marine Band the same year it was published.
To complete the Doc's diagnosis and her set, Nancy closed with Calvin Woolsey's "Funny Bones" from 1909. Though not as commercially successful as his "Mashed Potatoes" and "Medic Rag" which followed, it contains similar folk-rag strains that the talented and versatile Woolsey used in his best works.
Up for a second set was Bill Mitchell, performing two of Jelly Roll Morton's best-known and best-loved compositions. First was "The Pearls," Morton's piano masterpiece whose three sections invite improvisation and pianistic exploration. Bill's presentation of this piece is always memorable, a testament to the timelessness and inventiveness of Morton's musical thinking. Next was "Grandpa's Spells," Morton's favorite cutting-contest piece that features, as Bill put it, "indelicate" crashing chords in the left hand during the trio. The first time I heard Bill play Jelly Roll Morton (several years ago), I was hooked. I knew it was something I had to learn how to play. Even today, most of Morton's compositional portfolio still fascinates me, and though his music is not nearly as easy to play as Mr. Mitchell makes it seem, I continue to forge ahead.
Our next player was Stan Long, who first shared with us his enthusiasm for Nan Bostick and Tom Brier's CD "Duelin' at The McCoys'," which features the music of Charles Daniels, ragtime composer, arranger and publisher who's a family antecedent of Ms. Bostick. Before he delved into Daniels, however, Stan began his set with Joplin's haba?era, "Solace."
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