RAGTIME PIANO ROLL (VOLUME 3)
Jazz Archives #1000(10”)
Frogs Legs Rag (2:33) (James Scott)
Magnetic Rag (2:50) (Scott Joplin)
The Entertainer’s Rag (2:44) (Jay Roberts)
Cannon Ball (2:00) (Joseph Northup)
Glad Rag (2:22) (Ribe Danmark)
Chinatown Rag (2:28) (G. W. Meyer)
The Smiler (2:14) (Percy Wenrich)
Weeping Willow (2:00) (H. A. Fischler)
This is the third Riverside LP devoted to recreating one of the most important and enjoyable facets of musical Americana: the wonderful ragtime music of the turn of the century. Like the two preceding albums,* this is actually far more than a ‘recreation.’ This is the music itself , exactly as it was heard a half-century ago, which is one good reason why these piano solos possess a vitality and compelling appeal that makes them seem not at all like musical antiques.
To begin with, of course, these were not recordings – they antedate all but the very earliest of records. Originally, they were a series of oblong holes cut on long sheets of paper, rolled into cylinders, and played in homes and saloons throughout a country that found its musical entertainment by pounding the pedals of the pianola. They have now been transcribed directly from the original player piano rolls, to appear on records for the first time.
These albums dig deeply into a long-neglected musical storehouse. For it has been a good many years since the player piano was superseded by the phonograph; there is only one company still actively making piano rolls (Imperial Industrial Company, manufacturers of QRS rolls), and even they have not retained either master rolls or copies of material so long out of fashion as this. But Riverside has gradually been able to build up a sizeable library of ragtime performances, acquiring them largely from the handful of avid collectors of such rolls.
Although this LP includes the work of such major ragtime figures as Scott Joplin and James Scott, it turns as well to some of the many totally forgotten composers who – as the selections here indicate – were also quite adept in this vein. As for the performers, while the first volume of this series featured versions of their own tunes played by great composer pianists, and the second included Joplin’s own performance of his Maple Leaf Rag, in the other selections of Volume 2, and in all cases here, the pianist is unlisted on the original roll, and therefore must remain anonymous.
This omission of credit is frustrating, but can’t be taken as a reflection on the abilities of the pianists, as these rolls quickly prove. For this is authentic ragtime at its best, and it makes it easy to understand why this brilliant musical style became a national craze during the first two decades of this century, and why it was able to make lasting contributions to both jazz and popular song.
Ragtime evolved, in the gradual way that musical styles are apt to come into being, out of the folk melodies and plantation songs of the Southern Negro. It is related to he cake-walk, and probably owes credit for its original popularity to the fact that this dance was sweeping the country during the 1890s, when ragtime was first solidifying itself into recognizable form. It is primarily a piano music, and its basic premise is simple enough to describe. It merely involves syncopation (accents on hat are normally the weak beats of the measure) with the right hand, while the left plays a regular, precise bass. That much is simple enough: the beautiful, rhythmic, complex melodies, with three or four different strains to each, are far from simple. Nor is the skill and brilliance with which these numbers were played at all easy to achieve – as any current pianist who has tried it can certainly tell you.
Although ragtime had long been considered a sort of branch of jazz, it now seems clear that it was a quite separate movement. However, many early jazz musicians knew and loved rags. They were part of the repertoire of the first New Orleans bands, and the earliest jazz pianist took over elements of ragtime and fused them into the mainstream of their music (Jelly Roll Morton is, of course, the prime example of this), so that strong traces remain, if indirectly, in almost all of jazz.
Like jazz, this was originally a music played by and for Negroes; like jazz, which first flourished in the red light district of New Orleans, ragtime grew up in an area of honkytonks and brothels. This was the East Main Street section of Sedalia, Missouri, where a footloose piano player named Scott Joplin settled down in the ‘90s, Joplin was born in Texas in 1868; he died in 1917, which was just about when the music with which his name is almost synonymous was dying out- stifled and watered-down by the song-mechanics of Tin Pan Alley. But before this came to pass, Joplin and his colleagues had many years of success and satisfaction: their rags played everywhere; piano roll versions of their melodies in great demand; national ragtime competitions drawing enthusiastic crowds everywhere.
Joplin himself is remembered for many brilliant tunes; Magnetic Rag (1914) is one of his last and not among his most celebrated, but it has a charm and complexity that few other ragtime writers could hope to equal. Frogs Legs Rag is the work of a man ranked second only to Joplin: James Scott, who saw his music die out as he live on quietly until 1938, working as an organist in a Kansas City theater much of the time.
Percy Wenrich was a prolific song-writer and one of the few white men able to write effectively in the true ragtime vein. The Smiler (1907) was subtitled “A Joplin Rag,” which has often been thought a reference to Scott Joplin. But Wenrich clarified this point when interviewed in 1950 by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis for their valuable book. “They All Played Ragtime.” He had, it seems, been known as “The Joplin Kid,” after his Missouri home-town and the publishers had added the subtitle with that in mind. “But,” Percy noted, “if they had meant Scott Joplin, it would have suited me. I made (that rag) real ‘Negro,’ the way I felt it.”
The Entertainer’s Rag (1910) was always an applause-getter in its day, with its simultaneous counterpoint of Dixie and Yankee Doodle. As for the other numbers here, they must speak for themselves entirely. Aside from the fact that they were all early-1900s pieces, and that Weeping Willow is not to be confused with a Joplin rag of the same name, nothing at all is known about them other than the names of their composers, as noted on the piano rolls.
*The earlier volumes in this Riverside series are:
RAGTIME PIANO ROLL (RLP 1006)-
Original rags; Scott Joplin’s New Rag; Fig Leaf Rag; The Entertainer; Grace and Beauty; American Beauty Rag; St. Louis Rag; Ragtime Oriole
(rags by Joplin, Scott, Turpin, Lamb – played by their composes)
RAGTIME PIANO ROLL, Volume 2 (RLP 1025) –
Maple Leaf Rag; Evergreen Rag; Grizzly Rag; Bear Rag; The Cascades; St. Louis Tickle; Jungle Time; States Rag Medley #8; ‘Possum and “Taters.
Issued by special arrangement with Imperial Industrial Company, manufactures of QRS piano rolls.
Produced by Bill Grauer
Notes by Orrin Keepnews
Cover by Paul Bacon
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GARUER PRODUCTIONS
418 West 49th Street New York 19, N.Y.