Something Doing

Ragtime Happenings in the Southland



Rose Leaf Ragtime Club September Meeting (9/25/2005)

Reported by Gary Rametta

A gathering just shy of 40 players and members joined us as the Rose Leaf Ragtime Club kicked off our 11th year of celebrating the joys of syncopated music.

The September meeting opened with Phil Cannon on electric banjo and Andrew Barrett at the piano performing two fine rags from James Sylvester Scott. First was "Sunburst Rag" from 1909, featuring a great, hum-along first section and a whimsical trio that portended Novelty-era piano stylings. Next was the challenging and ironically titled "Efficiency Rag" from 1917. I say "ironic" because, although the rag is definitely logical and streamlined in its development of themes within the classic rag format, it is anything but efficient in terms of the player being able to put all the pieces together! Kudos to Phil for fingerpicking these tough pieces with his six-string instrument and expressing their wonderful musicality.

Nancy Kleier got an early start this month, offering up a theme consistent with the scorching late-summer heat: "I'm in the Mood for Watermelon!" First was Edna Chappell Tiff's "That Cherry Rag" from 1914, followed by two Nashville rags: Charles Hunter's "Tennessee Tantalizer" from 1900, and my favorite of the set, Thomas Broady's "Tennessee Jubilee," a creative and interesting minor-keyed piece from 1899.

Bob Pinsker brought his usual academic insights to a terrific set, focusing on Chicago ragtime and one Axel Christensen. Christensen, a vaudeville entertainer, wrote a series of popular ragtime instruction books and publications, including "Ragtime Taught in Ten Lessons" and a periodical called "Ragtime Review." He also authored a number of syncopated pieces.

It turns out that, according to Bob's studious research, Christensen was probably no different than the many other music industry swindlers in Chicago who thrived during the ragtime and early jazz years. These individuals had working knowledge of the music publishing business and copyright laws, and went about appropriating (or downright stealing) the music of black musicians and copyrighting it as their own.

According to Bob, Christensen's early rags were unremarkable?until his 1925 "Syncophonics," which shows him to suddenly have found a whole new language of musical expression: blues and boogie-woogie. Bob illustrated a prime example by playing "Symphonic No. 4," which he showed was a liberal lifting of blues and boogie-woogie sections from earlier piano rolls cut by (now) legendary pianists James Blythe and Clarence Pinetop Smith, both of whom lived and played in Chicago during this time.

Bob's next piece was a transcription of a James P. Johnson piano accompaniment to blues vocalist Bessie Smith's performance of "Lock and Key." Stride piano enthusiasts regard it as a full-bodied piano part worthy of solo performance. British stride/jazz piano roll maker and MIDI artist John Farrell did the transcription honors.

Bob finished a fine set with another great Jimmy Blythe piece?oops, I stand corrected. The piece was Axel Christensen's "Syncophonic No. 6," at least two-thirds of which came straight from a Jimmy Blythe solo called "Dixie Dreams."

Bill Mitchell popped a ragtime quiz on us with his set, asking us to guess the common thread among the three pieces he had in store. First was Charles "Doc" Cooke's "Blame it on the Blues" from 1914. Despite its name, there's no doubt it's a rag, and a great one at that. Bill played the heck out of it. Next was James Scott's "Evergreen" rag from 1915, which seems more like a light dancing piece with its gentle march rhythm and sweet melodies. Finally, Bill let out all the stops on Joseph Lamb's stirring "Bohemia" rag from 1919.

The answer was correctly guessed (by a few players, of course): all the pieces are in the key of G major, which Bill admitted to being one of his favorite keys to play in.

A new performer, Larry Evans, was next up at the Yamaha upright. Larry has an ongoing cabaret show at the Holly Street Bar & Grill in Old Town Pasadena, and he invited everyone to check out his feature. In the meantime, he played the first three sections of Scott Joplin's "Magnetic Rag," easily the most autobiographical of the composer's works, and also one of his most difficult to interpret. Larry's was a nicely rendered reading on this amazing rag. We hope he continues to join us at the Rose Leaf Ragtime Club!

Making his second appearance was Vincent Johnson from Sierra Madre. Vincent not only has an interest in old-time piano, he has talent for it. His first solo was a ragtime adaptation of the Beatles' "When I'm Sixty-Four," in his own arrangement. He followed up with another original ragtime arrangement of "Yellow Rose of Texas." Both were excellent. Keep 'em coming, Vincent. You've found a home at the Rose Leaf club!

Ron Ross assumed the microphone to announce our featured performer for our October 30th meeting, Frederick Hodges. Though I've yet to hear or see him play, Fred's a veteran of the major U.S. ragtime festivals is reputed to be one of the most technically accomplished players on the circuit today.

Ron's first solo was a request: his recently written "Cloudy," a ragtime waltz with a pleasant, dreamy quality. Next was a beautiful reading of Joseph Lamb's timeless "Patricia," a real joy to hear. For his coup de grace, Ron tried an "experimental" performance of a piano/vocal song of his own composition, "Afternoon TV," recounting a viewer's experiences watching television shows like "Jerry Springer" and others. Hilarious and insightful in lyrical content, Ron's new piece (like those shows) earns an "R" rating!

As we broke for intermission, Yuko Shimazaki gave a dose of Spanish tinge to the room's pulse with a ragtime-era tango from Argentina called "El Choclo." Bill Coleman followed up with a mellow assortment of standards from the early 1900s up to the 1970s.

Round two of our musicale opened up with Frank Sano putting together an ad hoc combo consisting of himself and Bill Mitchell at pianos, Phil on electric banjo and Andrew Barrett on washboard. The quickly worked out an itinerary of ragtime-era tunes and standards that included "Ain't She Sweet," "Five-foot two, Eyes of Blue," "Yessir That," "I Want to be Happy," "Taking a Chance on Love" and "China Boy."

Stan Long continued at the keys with "Over the Rainbow," as per the arrangement he put together for his grandson Kaden's upcoming performance. Next was "Flaming Mamie" from 1929. He put the finishing touches on his set with Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag."

Up for a solo set was Andrew Barrett. He began with a Charley Straight sleeper from 1915, "Red Raven Rag," then moved to Joplin's tender "Weeping Willow" from 1901. He finished off in grand style, saving his most confident playing for "One Too Many," a fantastic novelty rag written by Tom Brier in 1997.

Bob Pinsker's second set focused on Eubie Blake. Bob noted that Eubie loved waltzes and named several of them after the ladies in his life. "To Avis," was a 1914 waltz Blake wrote in honor of Avis, whom he married a couple of years earlier. Bob continued with "Firefly," a Blake tune to which lyrics were later added by James Hill Reddie. This piece, probably written during the midpoint of Blake's career (around 1940), shows the influence of jazz and show music, with some lush sounding chord changes. To finish off, Bob cranked out Lemuel Fowler's "Fowler's Hot Strut," a boogie-woogie styled strut (featuring a brilliant transition to the B section after the first repeat of the A section).

Fowler was another little-known artist similar to Jimmy Blythe. The piano rolls they cut are highly regarded among collectors, as are the sprinkling of phonographs they appeared on as accompanists. Fowler's story is unique in that, following a brief but successful career in the 1920s, he disappeared entirely from the music scene. He wasn't seen or heard from again until about 30 years later, when we walked through the doors of the QRS company in Brooklyn and met roll producer J. Lawrence Cook in 1961.

Nancy Kleier continued her musical fruit salad theme with three more refreshing rags: "Bunch O'Blackberries," an 1899 piece by Abe Holzmann, "Peaches and Cream," a la Percy Wenrich, circa 1905, and "Sweet Pickles" (an odd but interesting final ingredient to the mix!), written by George Florence, a.k.a. Theron Bennett, in 1907.

As usual, the 40 or so of us enjoyed a fine afternoon of ragtime-era music. And just like the Energizer Bunny, we'll keep it going. Now in our 11th year ? thanks to all the regular and guest performers, the handful of volunteers who handle administrative duties (Fred Hoeptner, John Tulley, Bill Mitchell, Phil Cannon, Ron Ross and Hal Leavens, to name a few) and our loyal, most valued friends with whom we get to share this wonderful music.

We look forward to seeing you next Sunday, October 30 for another rollicking good time!

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