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Oddities

A curious collection of experiences, some with media enhancement, and a story you will never forget.

 

As an example of creative musicianship, I considered a statement sometimes made by musicians: “I can play that piece forward and backward.” In the case of ragtime players, they are often referring to the major repertoire piece, “Maple Leaf Rag.” At a ragtime concert, I presumed the audience had often heard it played forward…

Video: Gar Fael Elpam

 

One of the great characters of 20th-century popular music was the venerable Eubie Blake. His “Charleston Rag” is a classic of the repertoire: It showcases all the piano tricks (playfully referred to as “Eubieisms”) that immediately identify it as his own extraordinary, complex composition. But the mystery about this piece (originally called “Sounds of Africa”) is that he claimed to have written it in 1899. This is quite early in ragtime history, and there is no example of another piece from the time which could have been an inpiration. One might think that he originally wrote a simpler piece, more in the sedate style of the day, gradually adding the Eubieisms over time. Scholars stand by their claim that the piece was created completely formed in 1899.

I decided to carry out a ragtime thought experiment. I created an orchestration of the original rag, editing out all the Eubieisms, as if it had been written by a typical intermezzo writer of the period. The result should theoretically sound like a decent salon piece, and my American Ragtime Ensemble performance would clearly demonstrate the point. For the uninitiated listener, it is just that – pleasant and uneventful. But for anyone who knows the original piano rag (the way Eubie wrote it) it is missing Eubie in the most remarkable ways. (Is this an example of something being less than the subtraction of its parts?) Here then, as adapted for violin and piano…

Video: “Charleston Rag – Reverse-Engineered Version”

 

Custom crostic puzzle creations: More challenging and intricate than the standard crossword puzzle, a completed crostic produces lines of quoted text in the solving grid. The name of the writer or speaker of the quotation, and the topic or title of the quoted work are spelled out in the initial letters of the answers to the list of clues. I not only solve these tricky bits of linguistic knots, I compose them! I can do this for you, and it makes a superb gift for your thinking friends. You supply the general or specific interests of the giftee, and I will write a personalized crostic that is perfectly focused within the clues and quoted material.

 

 

The Peter Mintun Orchestra often convened for New Year’s Eve on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco for midnight dancing. This authentic re-creation of a 16-piece big band, plus vocal trio, magically brought back the 1930s by virtue of the original orchestrations and the direction of Mr. Mintun. I was the lead violinist and contractor for the band. Go through this other magic portal, the Internet, to a sample performance direct from the stage…

Video: “Auld Lang Syne”

 

The national anthem of Texas fiddle tunes, “Orange Blossom Special” was performed by David with renowned trumpeter Doc Severinsen and back-up rhythm section, plus chorus and full concert band, in a world-premiere virtuosic orchestration by U.S. Air Force staff arranger Michael Davis, in front of a full-house, down-home Texas audience, for a concert and live recording session.

No pressure.

Audio: Orange Blossom Special

The Red Back Book

A coincidence for all time, a story you will never forget.

While earning my degree at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, I worked in the school’s audio department, recording concerts and recitals. In my senior year, we recorded a group of players for an album of Scott Joplin rags. The LP was called “The Red Back Book,” and it became the top classical album of the year and earned a Grammy. It was part of the inspiration for the use of ragtime as adapted by Marvin Hamlisch for the movie,The Sting,which in itself caused a national rediscovery of ragtime music.

The Red Back Bookis a nickname for a collection of ragtime orchestrations, issued about 1912 by Joplin’s publisher, John Stark. Its real title isStandard High-Class Rags.The nickname came from the distinctive red covers of the 11 instrumental part-books. The rags had originally appeared as piano solos. This folio was produced in a limited edition and sold to orchestra leaders. After a few years, as popular tastes turned to jazz, copies of the collection were lost or destroyed. The Conservatory group, conducted by jazz historian and Conservatory president Gunther Schuller, was working from surviving photostats of one of those lost sets.

The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, as the little band was called, gave its first public performance at the Conservatory in a concert that I ushered just two days before my graduation. I was so inspired by this rousing, capacity-crowd performance that I immediately decided this is something I want to do – start a ragtime orchestra. In fact, this is what I did in creating The American Ragtime Ensemble.

The Conservatory group stayed together, renamed The New England Ragtime Ensemble, with the students now graduated as professional musicians. For 25 years it was a popular touring band. I was recruited as lead violinist for their final four years of tours. Everywhere we played, pieces like “The Entertainer” fromThe Red Back Book remained at the core of our ever-expanding repertoire. My experience with them thus came nearly full circle, but it was soon to connect completely in a rather mysterious way.

The Red Back Bookfascinates me as an artifact of music history. It is the only known example of acollectionof ragtime orchestrations published in that period. The 15 individual rags it contains were all issued separately, but publisher Stark had the ingenuity to group his most popular rags together in one volume for the convenience of orchestra leaders. And it turns out that an original edition is extremely hard to find, and impossible as a complete set. Most musicians have seen sheets of turn-of-the-century piano pieces. But imagine the odds of 11 fragile little booklets, a limited edition in the first place, being kept together for nearly a century! Over the years, a few individuals or institutions have found perhaps one or two of the part-books, but I only ever knew of one collector who was reputed to have the complete set.

Having given public talks, professional seminars, and written articles about the almost mythicalRed Back Book,and performed the pieces with my own ensemble, I’m considered a specialist within the ragtime community on this particular subject. Years ago, I was in a music store in San Francisco. The manager, who was aware of my interest in ragtime, asked if I would like to take a look at some items in a box of recently donated music. I instantly experienced one of those moments of unreality, when what you’re looking at can’t possibly be there. In my hands were nine of the 11Red Back Bookparts – in fabulous condition without markings, tears, stains, signatures, or anything else to show its age of nearly a hundred years. It had even been kept out of sunlight, as it still retained that original deep red color. She gave me these as a gift, and having accepted it, I immediately went on the hunt for the two missing parts. Knowing most of the people who’d had any contact with this music in recent decades, I was able to locate the parts. They were graciously supplied by the legendary Thornton Hagert of Vernacular Music Research. I thereby became only the second person known to have the complete set.

For me, the most amazing part of this story is that, of all people – one of only a handful of musicians in the world who have a professional interest in this collection, who has been associated with it through my entire career, and who for more than 40 years has been directing the type of group for which it was published – I would be in that store just at the moment when this artifact was discovered.

A coincidence on this scale is extraordinary. I like to think of it as a good bizarre event that makes up for a few bad bizarre events.The Red Back Bookis now safely stored away. It and the tale of its discovery are among my most prized possessions.

Flute part, Standard High-Class Rags, aka The Red Back Book, Stark Music Company, St. Louis MO, c.1912, from one of only two known complete sets extant. (The American Ragtime Ensemble collection)
Flute part, Standard High-Class Rags aka The Red Back Book Stark Music Company, St. Louis MO, c.1912, from one of only two known complete sets extant. (The American Ragtime Ensemble collection)


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