RAGTIME!: TONY PARENTI’S Ragtime Band and Ragpickers Trio
Ragtime Band (#1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 12): “Wild Bill” Davison (cnt) Jimmy Archey (tb) Tony Parenti (cl) Ralph Sutton (p) Danny Barker (bj) Cyrus St. Clair (tu) Baby Dodds (drs)
New York; November 22, 1947
Ragpickers: Tony Parenti (cl) Ralph Sutton (p) George Wettling (drs)
New York; January 22, 1948
1. Grace and Beauty (2:39) (James Scott)
2. Crawfish Creole (trio) (2:56) (Tony Parenti)
3. Hiawatha (2:44) (Daniels-Russell)
4. The Entertainer's Rag (3:10) (Jay Roberts)
5. The Lily Rag (trio) (3:14) (Charles Thompson)
6. Praline (3:00) (Tony Parenti)
7. Swipesy Cakewalk (2:38) (Joplin-Marshall)
8. Nonsense Rag (trio) (3:12) (R. G. Grady)
9. Sunflower Slow Drag (2:28) (Joplin-Hayden)
10. Cataract Rag (trio) (3:11) (Robert Hampton)
11. Redhead Rag (trio) (2:48) (Franklin-Green)
12. Hysterics Rag (2:38) (Biese-Klickman)
This is ragtime: a music of great vitality, force and beauty; an early and enduring part of the American musical scene.
Or, to be more strictly accurate, this is one way of approaching ragtime. These seven-piece and trio versions, as played by two groups led by New Orleans veteran Tony Parenti, are certainly not rags in their most familiar role. To most people, this music is strictly a solo piano form-and of course it was as piano music that it was first created and played at the turn of the century by such men as Scott Joplin and James Scott. Although and occasional full-band treatment of a rag will turn up in the tools of some of the groups that feature a traditional-jazz repertoire, the idea of devoting two recording sessions entirely to more-than-piano treatments of rags was quite an innovation when these selections were first cut. That was in the late 1940s-and it remains every bit as unique a concept now.
The idea was Tony Parenti's in the first place, and it would seem to have appealed to him largely because it wasn't so much a new thought as a sorely neglected one. Ragtime as a band music was to him an ever-fresh memory belonging to a childhood spent in New Orleans in the earliest days of jazz. But in later years ragtime had fallen out of use and into disrepute. Bastardized, ricky-tick piano versions were about all that were left of a once-proud and melodic music. To clarinetist Parenti, who in the '40s had returned to jazz, his first love, after some years of detour into radio studio work and the Ted Lewis band, this was sacrilege. Tony had long been a collector of old and rare ragtime sheet music, and it was from his own files that he selected tunes to arrange for band and trio treatments.
The men gathered together to play this material had a thorough grounding, by experience and by choice, in the patterns of traditional jazz. Baby Dodds and Danny Barker are veterans whose careers began in New Orleans in the great days-a time when the slightly younger white musicians, like Parenti, were eagerly listening and learning. Jimmy Archey and Cy St. Clair belong largely to an early Harlem jazz tradition that included strong elements of ragtime influence. Ralph Sutton was at this time rather newly arrived in New York (these were his first recordings), and among the piano skills he brought with him from St. Louis was a considerable ability to play rags with a most authentic, though nonarchaic, touch.
In recalling the circumstances of the Ragtime Band session, Parenti notes that only Bill Davison, basically a Chicago-style horn, had no ragtime in his background. Actually, there was no trumpet man on hand with that sort of experience; Davison was picked as probably the best around on his instrument-and because Tony guessed that he's prove a strong enough and capable enough player to handle the difficult assignment with honors. As the results here show, that guess was quite correct.
Bill's task was eased somewhat by one non-standard feature that Parenti had from the start planned for these band arrangements: the clarinet is, for the most part, the lead horn here. Dealing with material originally written for the piano, Parenti had felt that the clarinet was much better suited than a trumpet for interpreting an essentially pianistic melodic line.
The great beauty of rags is in their melodies, those complex, individualized strains. Thus, Parenti notes, he conceived of his arrangements as primarily setting for the original melodic structure. There is some room for improvisation in the later portions of each band number, and in the trio recordings, for which Tony kept Sutton and added George Wettling (whom he considers "the finest of all small-band drummers"), clarinet and piano are necessarily left with more freedom to improvise. But on the whole this is a collection designed to honor the ragtime tradition by sticking rather close to the line.
Considering that "ragtime" is a much abused and distorted word, it's of interest to take note of Parenti's attempt to set things straight regarding early usage. Before the term "jazz" came into being, he points out, "just about everything was called ragtime." Thus, when the word turned up as part of the name of early white New Orleans groups, it was largely as a trademark, not as any indication of the specific nature of their repertoire. The bands that played a "true" ragtime, derived from the piano style, Tony recalls, were those led by Creole like A. J. Piron and Joseph Robichaux, bands that played in the rather fancy, exclusive New Orleans clubs. But by now, time has obscured this distinction, creating a confusion in historical terms that just possible has led to some overestimating of the early tie between ragtime and traditional jazz.
But the standard argument as to whether or not ragtime was the major influence in the early shaping of jazz is one fight we propose to stay out of just now. It is certainly clear that it was among the several significant influences; and surely the skilled, sympathetic and zestful way in which rags are treated by the thoroughly experienced jazzmen to be heard on this LP demonstrates the existence of a basic link.
Parenti is one of the relatively few early jazzmen with a background of legitimate musical training, which may have a lot to do with his abiding affection for ragtime, which is a music with very definite form, and a most difficult music to play really well. Born in August, 1900, in the French Quarter, Tony remembers playing his first jazz date at the age of 14, in a band that included Eddie Edwards and Nick LaRocca, both of course later of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
He quickly became a 'regular,' sharing clarinet jobs with, among others, Larry Shields and Leon Rappolo. He went on to lead his own groups in New Orleans, then came to New York in the late 1920s. For a time there was steady, non-jazz work (in radio; in the Radio City Music Hall orchestra; then the Ted Lewis stint) but jazz drew him back in the early '40s, and he has since been a major figure on the local jazz scene, except for a few years in Florida with Preacher Rollo's Dixieland group. He was in the original line-up at Eddie Condon's club in Greenwich Village, has led bands at Jimmy Ryan's, the Metropole and elsewhere, and his continuing vitality and freshness have been the high spots of more jazz concerts than anyone would care to count.
(These recordings originally appeared, in 78 rpm form, on the Circle label, but have never before been issued on LP.)
The original music of the great early ragtime pianists, as transcribed from player-piano rolls, is available on 10-inch Riverside “Jazz Archives LPs:
RAGTIME PIANO ROLL, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 (RLPs 1006, 1025, 1049)
Outstanding present-day traditional and Dixieland jazz performances can be heard on many RIVERSIDE albums. Among them are this 12-inch LP:
JOE SULLIVAN: New Solos by an Old Master (RLP 12-202)
… and such 10-inch collections as:
WILD BILL DAVISON (RLP 2514)
SIDNEY BECHET, with Bob Wilber (ROLP 2516)
GEORGE LEWIS (RLPs 2507, 2512)
LU WATTERS: 1947 – Yerba Buena Jazz Band, with Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey, Wally Rose, Bob Helm (RLP 2513)
BOB HELM’s Riverside Roustabouts (RLP 2510)
The “Stride” Piano of DICK WELLSTOOD (RLP 2506)
Notes by Orrin Keepnews
Cover by Gene Gogerty
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street New York 36, N.Y.