3 Compelling Stories from They All Played Ragtime

Reading Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis’ seminal work They All Played Ragtime (1950) was a transformative experience. Each page was packed with information, but presented as compelling stories, a page-turner. As the first full-length book chronicling the birth and development of ragtime, Blesh and Janis piece together the fascinating, sometimes tragic, stories of the pioneers who created and championed the music.

My fascination with ragtime is fairly new and there is still so much of it that I need to hear, read, and experience. Here are three moments from They All Play Ragtime that have really resonated with me.

The strenuous life of John Stark

John Stillwell Stark is best known as the primary publisher of Scott Joplin’s music. However, he has a fascinating story of his own. Stark was born into a large family, the 11th of 12 children, his youngest sibling and mother dying in childbirth. He was raised by an older sibling. Stark had several ventures before becoming a music publisher – serving in the Union army, farming, selling ice cream, and selling Jesse French cabinet organs with the help of his Conestoga wagon. Tired from his labor-intensive occupations, Stark moved to Sedalia, Missouri and opened a music store. He went on to coin the term “classical ragtime,” the sub-genre of the music exemplified by Scott Joplin. Stark championed music by composers across gender and race, even in the face of the booming Tin Pan Alley publishing industry that emerged toward the end of his career.

The Ragtime School of Axel W. Christensen

Pianist Axel W. Christensen created a network of nearly 100 music schools across the United States that specialized in teaching ragtime piano technique. He also published numerous popular method books that were used at his schools and beyond. At the peak of his business, Christensen had about 200,000 students enrolled in his ragtime schools across the nation. While Christensen’s entrepreneurship was impressive, some felt that his methodology oversimplified ragtime and promoted a level of mediocrity. Regardless, Christensen’s schools and books were responsible for engaging countless new fans of the music.

James P. Johnson on bebop

In an interview for They All Played Ragtime, stride pianist James P. Johnson shared his thoughts about the musical trends contemporary with the book (late 1940s, 1950):

Why do these composers, and the beboppers, too, try to get away from melody? It shows a weakness. No melody is in them and they know it.

They All Played Ragtime, p. 205

The so-called “beboppers” such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie introduced a new fiery technique and complex harmonic language to jazz that has irreversibly influenced how jazz is created and taught today. The faster tempo of the music challenged dancers (though it could be done) and the melodies jam-packed with rapid notes and angular leaps challenged vocalists and lyricists (though this could also be done). Perhaps these are the words of a man who was disgruntled by what the young people were doing with music, but I personally think there is more to it. His words made me think, what would jazz sound like today if bebop never came into being? We will never know for sure, but perhaps this could be an interesting idea to explore in a future post…

While these are a handful of the stories that have stayed with me, there are many others I could share. I highly recommend that anyone with an interest in ragtime read this book. Much of the information comes directly from the source with contributions being made by James P. Johnson, Joseph Lamb, Eubie Blake, and the families and peers of Scott Joplin, John Stark, Tom Turpin, and many others.

Listening Log: Week 7

Election Day – Sissle & Blake

After reading They All Played Ragtime, I started looking further into the music of Eubie Blake. This song from his groundbreaking collaboration with Noble Sissle, the musical Shuffle Along. It still rings true today, especially in the face of the upcoming election.

Lyrics for “Election Day.”

High Heart – Ben Wendel

Ben Wendel’s latest release High Heart is full of delightful melodies that gradually unfold throughout each piece. The way his saxophone blends with vocalist Michael Mayo to create a unified sound is remarkable.

Tom Sails Away – Charles Ives

This is a difficult song about Charles Ives watching the United States join World War I. The rendition I am familiar with is on Helen Boatwright’s album Songs of Charles Ives and Ernst Bacon.

Listening Log: Week 6

I have deeply missed putting out my weekly Listening Log. October has been an intense month as school and work have ramped up. I also released a new single with Henry Godfrey called Cabin Fever. To make my posts less daunting to write, I decided to trim down my log to three entries rather than five. I’m ready to bring back the Listening Log and look forward to sharing more wonderful music with you.


Ragtime Dance No 1 — Charles Ives

I am fortunate to be taking an incredible class about the music of Charles Ives. I am just beginning to explore his Ragtime Dances and am fascinated by how he honors the aesthetic of the music yet carries it forward in a new direction with rhythm, form, and orchestration.

Sunflower Slow Drag — Scott Joplin & Scott Hayden

This collaboration between two important figures in establishing the classic rag is a delightful piece. I have enjoyed listening to Richard Zimmerman’s solo piano rendition and the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble’s brisker take on the piece.

Charleston Rag — Eubie Blake

Eubie Blake, along with Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Luckey Roberts, pioneered the Eastern take on Ragtime, which evolved into the stride piano style. Preceding his performance of Charleston Rag on the album The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake, he shares that he composed the rag in 1899, the same year that Scott Joplin’s groundbreaking Maple Leaf Rag was published by Stark & Son. Blake also explains how he combined the walking bass line (sometimes referred to as a boogie-woogie bass, but Blake preferred the term walking bass) with ragtime rhythmic ideas.

I was also able to find this incredible live performance of Charleston Rag as played by Blake at the age of 85.

Eubie Blake performs Charleston Rag live in 1972.

What music moved you this week?

Jazz and Trains: A Connected History

It is no secret that Jazz musicians, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, had a fascination with trains. Piece after piece has train whistle imitations and train references in its title. Where did this interconnectedness between Jazz and trains come from?

Constructing Railroads in the United States

American music has a long-standing connection to trains that reaches back before the advent of Jazz in the late 1910s.

Railroad construction in the United States began in the late 1820s, the first railway to charter freight and passengers being the Baltimore and Ohio constructed in 1827. By the 1870s, there was already a vast network of railroads spanning the country, allowing for unprecedented travel of goods and people.

One of the reasons that railroads were able to be constructed so rapidly was the use of slave labor. Southern railroad companies began buying slaves in the early 1840s and used enslaved labor almost exclusively to construction their lines. Thousands of enslaved African Americans were working on Southern railroads by 1850. In spite of the immense hardship of this labor, trains became a “symbol of hope and transformation” for enslaved people and their descendants (Davis, p. 82).

Pullman Porters and the Great Migration

Shortly after the Civil War, businessman George M. Pullman hired thousands of African American men to work on his luxury railroad sleeping cars. While these men were often severely overworked and underpaid, porters were paid more than many other Black workers at the time.

In 1925, Pullman porters established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union to represent Black workers because the American Railway Union refused to include them. They were trailblazers, securing the first-ever agreement between a union of Black workers and a major U.S. company, successfully bargaining for a more reasonable work schedule and better wages. This accomplishment was monumental and lead to further economic mobility for Pullman porters and their families.

The Great Migration was crucial to the development of American music and every facet of society. From 1916 to 1970, more than 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West. They sought better economic opportunities and an escape from the segregation of the Jim Crow South. In moving, they brought their music, cuisine, and customs with them. This newfound means of travel allowed for a broader and more rapid exchange of ideas.

Trains in Early Black American Music

The Crush Collision March, Scott Joplin

This piece was written to commemorate the train crash in “Crush, TX.” The train crash was a marketing scheme for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company. They built a fake town and named it Crush after the railway agent William Crush who planned the event. Two soon-to-be retired trains were commissioned to crash into each other, head-on. About 40,000 people showed up for the spectacle, including Scott Joplin. Two people died and many were injured, but spectators still rushed toward the collision to find a piece of the exploded trains as a souvenir.

More on the Crush Collision.

Linin’ Track, Lead Belly

Huddie Ledbetter (c. 1888–1949), better known as Lead Belly, performs Linin’ Track. He was legendary for picking a 1,000 lbs of cotton a day, and lining the railroad tracks.

Famous Jazz Pieces Incorporating Trains

Daybreak Express, Duke Ellington

Ellington uses his orchestra to emulate the sounds of a speeding train.

Chattanooga Choo Choo, Glenn Miller

In his WBUR interview, Rob Kapilow breaks down the music and lyrics behind Chattanooga Choo Choo. Regarding the lyrics:

“The lyrics immediately give you a feeling of what the Civil Rights situation was at the time. I mean, it’s amazing how lyrics embed American history within them. You know, ‘pardon me, boy, is that the chattanooga choo choo?’ Then they go, ‘yes, yes, track 29.’ ‘Boy, you can give me a shine.’ I mean, in just those few lines yo get the whole situation of the south in the 1940s with luxury train travel in which white passengers are served by Black pullman porters and Black shoeshine boys, which was almost the only regular employment that you could get at the time. And in just those few lines, you get the world of Plessy versus Ferguson, of separate but equal, of segregated luxury train travel.”

– Rob Kapilow

Further Learning

This is an area of American history that I am just beginning to explore. I was inspired to learn more after reading Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz, in which a passing reference to train whistle imitation sparked my curiosity dig deeper.

Here are a few more resources to explore:

Choo Choo Boogaloo: 5 Jazz for Trains, A Blog Supreme

Railroads in the African American Experience, book

Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, The Syncopated Times

The Train in Jazz & Blues podcast, from the The Joys of Jazz

New Single: Cabin Fever

Today, Henry Godfrey and I are releasing a new single on Bandcamp!

“Cabin Fever” is a short burst of energy, representing the angst caused by social isolation.

And check out the music video!

On the first Friday of each month, Bandcamp has generously been waiving their cut of the sales to the artists. It’s a great day to support your favorite artists by purchasing their music and merch through Bandcamp.

Solo Transcription: Lou Donaldson’s “Minor Bash”

I always enjoy learning a Lou Donaldson solo. He plays with great clarity, intention, and inventiveness. All his lines feel great under the fingers. And his sound is incredible — full but not overwhelmingly bright with the perfect subtle, warm vibrato at the ends of his phrases.

His solo on “Minor Bash” from a 1970 Blue Note record is a short and savory masterpiece. Donaldson’s ideas unfold with perfect pacing, drawing in the listener. But what captured my attention and fascination with this solo is how he subtly drew upon several facets of the Jazz tradition. Perhaps these references were intentional, a subconscious part of his musical persona, or this could be me reading into the performance too deeply and interpreting it through my own biases and aural understandings.

Download a copy of the transcription and get ready to dive in deep.

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In measures 38-40, Donaldson quotes the melody from “Habanera,” one of the famous themes from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen.

Maria Callas performs “Habanera” from Carmen in Germany, 1962

While this may seem like a minor and possibly humorous detail, this tradition goes back to one of the paramount figures in American music and culture, Louis Armstrong. In his book Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman (from my summer reading list), Joshua Berrett discusses Armstrong’s affinity for opera that came about early in his life. Musician Jon Batiste shared in an interview how opera influenced the way Armstrong approached playing trumpet playing, with a singing quality.

Jon Batiste discusses opera’s influence on Louis Armstrong

Ricky Riccardi, director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, points to one of Armstrong’s most celebrated recordings, “West End Blues,” to showcase opera’s profound impact on the artist. Riccardi writes, “The opening unaccompanied cadenza, fueled by the trumpeter’s love of opera, might well be the most famous 12 seconds in jazz.”

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five perform “West End Blues,” (1928)

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Back to Lou Donaldson…

Another moment of his solo on “Minor Bash” that caught my attention was his rhythm in measures 70-71. The accented (emphasized) beats line up with the classic “Charleston” rhythm made famous by James P. Johnson’s 1923 composition by the same name. This iconic rhythm harks back to an earlier time in this music’s development, giving a nod to the fore-parents of this tradition.

James P. Johnson performs “Charleston,” 1923

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This is perhaps the most outlandish sonic connection I made, but it is unshakeable once I heard it. At the very end of the solo, Donaldson plays a short quarter note followed by a longer accented note on the second beat. I immediately connected this with one of the themes from Charles Mingus‘ “Fables of Faubus.” This was perhaps aided by the fact that one of the areas where this rhythm occurs is on the same pitch as it appears in “Minor Bash,” though the pitch is the tonic in “Minor Bash” and the fifth scale degree in “Fables of Faubus.” The placement of this rhythmic stress goes against the grain and does not appear particularly often, which made it

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What do you think of this solo and the musical connections that resonated with me? Let me know in the comments.

And in case you didn’t get your copy yet…

or browse my full collection of transcriptions.

Listening Log: Week 5

Minor Bash — Lou Donaldson

Lou Donaldson has such an incredible sound on the saxophone. The clarity and development of his solos is always mind-blowing, and his playing on this track is no exception. I will be sharing a transcription of his great solo soon!

I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling — Louis Armstrong

I have been digging into Louis Armstrong’s album Satch Plays Fats. Every song is outstanding in its own right. I first heard this tune on The Gellers and really enjoyed it, but failed to investigate its roots. It was a joy to hear it reimagined by Pops.

Blues for Booty Green’s — Roy Hargrove

One of my classmates shared this Roy Hargrove track with us. The sincerity and intention behind every note is captivating, a rare intensity that brings few to mind, most notably Louis Armstrong.

Rosetta — Earl Hines

I mentioned a rendition of this Earl Hines song in a previous Listening Log, one that he recorded with Johnny Hodges. The version I am sharing today is from the album Earl Hines in New Orleans. This is an album worth checking out in its entirety.

The World is Waiting for the Sunrise — Benny Goodman

I came across this live Benny Goodman video when searching for music to share with some of my students. The spirit of this performance is electrifying.

Summer Reading List 2020

Music is My Mistress,
Duke Ellington

The celebrated memoir in the words of Duke himself. Ellington’s flowery and sophisticated use of language draws a direct parallel to his music. This is a delightful read containing stories of travels around the world and colorful depictions of the many characters in Duke’s band over the years.

The Everyday Language of White Racism,
Jane H. Hill

This book explores racist language from the perspective of a linguist. Dr. Hill illustrates some of the ways our language can uphold racist beliefs. I found this to be a very insightful read from a point of view I have not encountered before.

Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development,
Gunther Schuller

Early Jazz was among the first books of its kind, delving into the complicated origins of Jazz. While some of the language and evaluations in the book are dated, the book is well-researched and contains numerous transcriptions of historic solos and arrangements.

All About Love,
bell hooks

bell hooks shares powerful explorations on the topic of love, its power and why we may lack it in many aspects of our lives. These essays are moving and are a catalyst for self-reflection. In reading the book, I came across several moments that were profound to me. I shared one of these during #wisdomwednesday a few weeks ago:

Louis Armstrong & Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz,
Joshua Berrett (in progress)

Louis Armstrong – as a musician and person – has served as a vital source of inspiration in my life. While Paul Whiteman’s music is not as familiar to me, I have begun exploring it because of Gunther Schuller’s deep interest in Whiteman’s music and contributions to Jazz. Back when libraries were still open, I was perplexed when I came across a book juxtaposing Armstrong and Whiteman’s careers. The book is an informative and page-turning read.

Listening Log: Week 4 (Bandcamp Friday Edition)

This week, I am going to write two Listening Logs, this first one being dedicated to the great music I picked up on Bandcamp Friday in recent months. On the first Friday of each month, Bandcamp has been waiving their revenue share to help artists during the COVID pandemic. Each month, I make sure to purchase music from artists I admire, many of whom I am fortunate to call friends, colleagues, and teachers. For this Listening Log entry, I will share some of my favorite Bandcamp Friday finds.


She Moves Just Like the River — Henry Godfrey

Henry Godfrey is a near-and-dear person in my life, in addition to being a frequent musical collaborator. He released the LP version of his Love Finds Everyone on a Bandcamp Friday. I am fascinated by the concept of having both a studio and live version of the same piece. On She Moves Just Like the River, Henry takes us on a journey through lush orchestrations, backdrops for compelling solos, and driving rhythmic pulses.

Mr. Con Edisons Conspiracy — Takuma Matsui

Takuma Matsui is one of my good friends in the Berklee Jazz Composition program. In his first EP 47|48, Takuma does an incredible job synthesizing all the rich musical traditions he has studied into these heartfelt, inventive, lyrical pieces. During this unprecedented time in history, the fourth track entitled Mr. Con Edisons Conspiracy speaks to me.

Bebopper — Frank Carlberg & Ran Blake

Gray Moon is an exciting album that, while containing familiar songs, adds a new dimension to them. I particularly enjoyed Bebopper for its playfulness, the seamless interplay between Frank Carlberg and Ran Blake, and their refreshing take on and expansion of the bebop tradition.

Abracadabras — Lolivone De La Rosa

Lolivone De La Rosa is another Berklee friend who is putting out wonderful music. In her single Abracadabras, she showcases her prowess on the guitar and her incredibly expressive voice — the first time she has recorded herself singing. I look forward to hearing her continue to explore her voice as a guitarist and vocalist.

Call It — Jacob Moore

Jacob Moore and I met during the Boysie Lowery Living Jazz Residency in 2018. Much like my EP The New Groove, Jacob released his project The Trap somewhat impulsively as a testament to being able to create meaningful music in a short amount of time with the relatively limited equipment available at home. While Jacob refers to the project as “really janky,” I hear a compelling artistic voice that drew me in from the first track, Call It, immediately. These songs really speak to this moment in American history.

What have been your favorite Bandcamp Friday purchases this year? Who’s music is keeping you motivated during this time? Let me know in the comments!

Listening Log: Week 3

Part of this week’s listening was guided by my reading of Joshua Berrett’s Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz. And there are a few more recent releases in the mix.

Changes – Paul Whiteman feat. Bing Crosby

As hinted at by the title and described in its lyrics, Changes meanders through different key centers in an exciting and unusual way. It is a catchy tune and, when combined with Bing Crosby’s vocals floating over it, irresistible repeat listenings ensued.

Source – Nubya Garcia

Source, the debut album of saxophonist Nubya Garcia is powerful. Her tone is full of energy and her notes are packed with intention and intensity. I particularly enjoyed the title track for its synthesis of Reggae grooves.

Undertow – Joshua Redman

The original members of the Joshua Redman Quartet reunited after 26 years to record his latest album, RoundAgain. I was drawn in by the first piece, Undertow. The piano ostinato at the beginning is hypnotic, like watching the waves of the ocean.

Rhapsody in Blue from King of Jazz (1930) – Paul Whiteman

There are many things about this film that I would not call “inspiring,” namely the racial stereotyping “voodoo dance” and using women as decorations. But, I decided to include this here as a historical record. Another point of interest is that King of Jazz was the first film to use a pre-recorded soundtrack.

Lianne La Havas: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

Thanks to my friend Ian Buss for introducing me to this wonderful artist and her NPR Tiny Desk concert. Lianne La Havas has an powerful yet nuanced voice that is perfectly framed by her inventive compositions. Even though her band is merely a trio, the sound is full-bodied and never lacking depth or texture.

What do you think of this week’s log? What music has been inspiring you these days?