Something Doing

Ragtime Happenings in the Southland

APRIL, 2005


Rose Leaf Ragtime Club March Meeting (3/27/2005)

Reported by Gary Rametta

If you were among the 40 or so lucky attendees at our March meeting, you're probably still buzzing when you think about the wonderful show we witnessed.

Adam Yarian, the Maryland native, USC freshman and "old-time piano"-playing champion, absolutely thrilled us with his spectacular performance. So also did club veteran Bob Pinsker, who drove up from the San Diego area and was in his usual expert form.

We started the meeting off with Phil Cannon on his six-string banjo/guitar. He gave us two James Scott tunes, "Frog Legs Rag" from 1906, the first Scott tune to catch on with the public, then "Great Scott Rag" from 1909, the year in which John Stark published four of Scott's greatest compositions: "Great Scott," "Ragtime Betty," "Grace and Beauty" and "Sunburst Rag." Phil put a coup-de-grace on his performance with a stirring reading of Joplin's 1908 "Sugar Cane."

Nancy Kleier put together a combination of rags befitting the Easter season and the onset of spring. First was "Bunny Hug Rag," written in 1912 by Harry De Costa. The bunny hug was one of the many new "animal" dance steps that appeared in the early 1900s, along with the Grizzly Bear, the Texas Tummy, the Turkey Trot, Lindy Hop, Fox Trot, et. al. Next was Jean (as in French for "John") Schwartz's fine "April Fool Rag" from 1911. This very interesting rag has a snippet or two of Bowman's "12th Street Rag," but it's mostly highly original. Schwartz, a Hungarian by birth, was a Tin Pan Alley writer and composer of show tunes as well as rags. The Trio, break and finale of "April Fool" illustrate the advanced sense of rhythm, flow and lyricism that Schwartz brought to ragtime. Nancy concluded with Robin Frost's "Spring Fervor," whose title is a tongue-in-cheek homage to Rube Bloom's great "Spring Fever" novelty piano solo. Nancy played it at about half-speed, and since I hadn't heard it before I wasn't as struck by it as I have been with other Frost pieces. Let's just say I'd like to hear it again. There's still a lot of springtime left!

For his first set, special guest Adam Yarian opened with, naturally, "Maple Leaf Rag." But as one might say, this wasn't your father's "Maple Leaf Rag." Adam began Jelly Roll Morton-style, using more of a 4/4 beat than a strict 2/4 ragtime beat in the intro and first section. In the second strain, he reconfigured the left hand and used moving chords in the bass. After playing through the piece in this general style, he then revisited it again, this time in a fast, straight 2/4 ragtime style. His playing was like a dynamo, steadily spooling up and then unleashing a fury of energy to the audience.

Next was a brilliant rendering of James P. Johnson's "Snowy Morning Blues," one of Johnson's most melodic and beautiful pieces, and one that the father of stride piano recorded more than any other he wrote. Adam delivered a terrific improvisation in the B section, and included a variety of embellishments like 32nd-note arpeggiated cadenzas. In all, he totally transformed the piece, making it his own yet keeping true to Johnson's underlying melodic and harmonic structure.

Adam's third piece was a real barnburner: Eubie Blake's "Kitchen Tom" written in 1905-1907 and named after a Baltimore pianist Blake had heard. The rag is briskly paced and has fast-moving octave triplets that call for great precision on the pianist's part. The only other ragtimer I've heard play this piece is Mimi Blais, which must attest to the difficulty of mastering it. Adam performed it with fluency and fluidity, while adding rhythmic displacements and personal touches that gave it a hard-blues feel. For me, it was the ideal version of "Kitchen Tom."

Adam closed his first set with Sousa's "Stripes and Stripes Forever," performing his own arrangement that he originally put together a few years ago and played in front of 10,000 people. The Rose Leaf crowd roared with delight as he concluded his set.

Bob Pinsker took us in another, equally inspiring direction with a performance of the second movement ("April in Harlem") of James P. Johnson's "Harlem Symphony." Written in 1932, it was one of several orchestral works composed by Johnson late in his career. These works, according to Broadway pianist and conductor Leslie Stifelman, were "the first orchestral pieces created by an African-American." "April in Harlem" is a medium-tempo movement with a romantic mood, punctuated by sharp rhythmic accents.

Following was a transcription of a James P. Johnson accompaniment to a Bessie Smith vocal on "Lock and Key." Bob played both of these advanced works with expressiveness, rhythm and soul. It's not surprising. He has been championing the work of the stride masters (Johnson, Fats Waller, Willie The Lion Smith) for the past few years and has become a sought-after authority on the genre and its progenitors. Bob was featured on piano in a performance with the North Coast Symphony Orchestra of Johnson's "Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody," at Mira Costa College in October 2002.

The first half of our meeting came to a delightful close with Ron Ross at the keys and on vocals in "Studio Sensation." He continued with "Sweet is the Sound," a lovely habanera, and a new piece called "Cloudy."

During the break Bill Coleman treated us to an extended medley of standards and pop tunes. Yuko Shimazaki brought the intermission to silent attentiveness with an extremely beautiful classical piano solo, Johann Brahms' "Intermezzo in A Major" from "Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118."

The first performer of the day to give the old Gulbrandsen a whirl, Stan Long got the second-half of the meeting going with Charles Daniels' "Hiawatha." Next was a medley of standards played with ragtime feel, including "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and "New York, New York." He finished up with Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag."

Phil, Bob and banjoist Howard Steffins combined for a six-string banjo/piano/4-string banjo rendition of Joplin's "The Entertainer," followed by a lively and engaging rendition of "When You're Smiling," featuring Bob on piano and vocals. Bob's piano solo was a highlight.

To begin his second set, Adam soloed on his spectacular arrangement of the jazz classic "I Found a New Baby." It was this arrangement and solo that earned him the 2004 title of "World Champion Old Time Piano Player." His dazzling keyboard work included lightning-fast right-hand runs played with rippling lightness, totally inventive and complex bass clef movement, and a nearly imperceptible key change that catapulted the piece to its climax.

To prove his equal adeptness at playing within the confines of a written score and expressing its innate beauty, Adam continued with two Joplin favorites: "Elite Syncopations" and "Weeping Willow." Next, by (my) request, he donned his Jelly Roll cap and flawlessly executed Morton's bright, energetic and difficult "Pep."

To conclude his appearance, he pulled out all stops and put his entire arsenal to bear on Spencer Williams' "Royal Garden Blues." I'm not exaggerating when I say Adam was treated to hoots, hollers, wolf whistles and a standing ovation when he finished the piece. Well, maybe not wolf whistles.

Bob Pinsker was invited back up to solo and he did so grandly, playing a transcription of a 1926 Cliff Jackson piano roll performance of Spencer Williams' "Hock Shop Blues." He continued with an unpublished and unrecorded Willie The Lion composition, "Spanish Rag," that he unearthed at the U.S. Library of Congress. The sheet music he found was simply a melody lead sheet, without chord symbols or harmonies. Being well versed in Smith's style, Bob put together what he called "a conjectural reconstruction" of the piece. I don't know if he would or could play it exactly the same way again, but it was brilliant! He closed with another piece by the Lion, "Zig Zag," which he transcribed from a 1949 recording by Smith.

The meeting winding to a close, Fred Hoeptner took over the Yamaha upright and performed his own award-winning composition, "Dalliance." Bob then returned to close the house down with Eubie Blake's "Charleston Rag," a.k.a. "Sounds of Africa."

One thing for certain, you'll not likely be disappointed if you mark your calendar for Sunday, April 24 at 2:30PM and join us at the Pasadena IHOP for another rousing three hours of syncopated music.

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