The Ragtime Revival of the 1970s

This blog post is part of my Ragtime Project, which encompasses an upcoming EP of Ragtime-inspired music, blog posts about the history of the music, and a forthcoming self-published collection of essay about what in this music and its history resonates with me as a performer and composer.


Ragtime is often considered the first popular music originating from the United States, reigning prominent from the 1890s until the mid-1910s. [1] Its popularity was displaced by Jazz, though the nature of this transition is disputed (Schuller, Early Jazz, p. 63). (I intend for this to be the topic of a future blog post.) There was a brief revival of Ragtime in the 1950s, but much of the music was highly commercialized and played on out-of-tune pianos to mimic old-time saloons. [2] 1950 was also the year in which scholars Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis published their seminal history book entitled They All Played Ragtime. However, the most impactful Ragtime revival occurred in the 1970s, the events of this time truly securing the art form’s place in the United States culture.

There are several important projects that contributed to the Ragtime revival of the 1970s, several of which will be outlined here.

1. The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake

In 1969, Columbia Records released The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. Prior to this double-LP, Blake had a successful career as a songwriter with hits such as Charleston Rag (1899), I’m Just Wild About Harry (1921), and Memories of You (1930). [3] He collaborated with Noble Sissle on the Broadway musical Shuffle Along (1921), which renewed the popularity of Black musical comedies and launched the careers of many Black actors including Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Paul Robeson. [4] The release of The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake gave Blake’s career a second wind. [5] As one of the few surviving musicians from the Ragtime era, Blake became a beloved celebrity and torchbearer for the music. [6]

A playlist of The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake

2. Piano Rags by Scott Joplin

In 1970, pianist/conductor Joshua Rifkin released Piano Rags by Scott Joplin on the Nonesuch label. In contrast to the Ragtime recordings of the 1950s which featured out-of-tune pianos to caricaturize a by-gone era [6], Rifkin treated Joplin’s music with the utmost respect and taking into account all of Joplin’s directions. [7] In 1971, the album was nominated for two Grammy awards for Best Album Notes and Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (Without Orchestra). [8] It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame this year. [9]

A playlist of Scott Joplin Piano Rags

3. The Red Back Book

In 1973, the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, under the direction of Gunther Schuller, released The Red Back Book. The album won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance that year. [10] The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble became in-demand for performances and events across the country. [11] The collection of Joplin pieces featured on the album was thought to be lost, but Schuller came into contact with someone who had possibly the last surviving copy of the Red Back Book. [12]

A playlist of The Red Back Book

4. The Sting

The contribution that had perhaps the most broad impact on the Ragtime revival was the film The String (1974). The soundtrack featured an abridged version of Joplin’s The Entertainer (1902), which rose to the top of the pop record charts. [13]  

The Sting soundtrack

5. Producing Treemonisha

The 1970s also saw the first performances of Joplin’s second, though only surviving, opera entitled Treemonisha (c. 1911). [14] In 1972, the Atlanta Symphony and the Morehouse College Music Department gave the first full performance of the opera. [15] In 1975, the Houston Opera gave the first fully produced performance of Treemonisha. Gunther Schuller was responsible for the orchestration for the performance and the subsequently released recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label. In his lifetime, Joplin did not orchestrate the opera. He self-published the piano score, which he played in a reading of the opera for potential financial supporters in 1915. [16] Joplin tragically passed away at the age of 49 without living to see his opera produced.

A playlist of Treemonisha, as recorded by the Houston Grand Opera and orchestrated by Gunther Schuller

Because of these key events and the public’s overall positive reception to them, Ragtime music will continue to be a remembered and cherished part of the unique musical heritage of the United States.


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

Encountering Gunther: Reminiscing in Tempo

This post explores two of my favorite artists – Gunther Schuller and Duke Ellington. After reading Gunther’s A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, it is evident that he has a deep admiration for Duke’s incalculable contributions to jazz. I share Gunther’s infatuation with Ellington’s music, and have since I was a kid first discovering jazz.

While I cannot say I know every single piece Duke wrote, I am very familiar with quite a few. My personal interests tend to lie at the opposite ends of his career – the early three-minute recordings with the Washingtonians and Duke’s illustrious extended works toward the end of his life. The interesting thing is that these two “extremes” are actually rather connected. Duke’s early works were the foundation from which he grew. While the recordings of the pieces may have not exceeded three minutes, his live arrangements would. Additionally, even in this early period, Duke was pushing the boundaries of compositional form in the jazz idiom.

Duke Ellington’s first major extended piece on record is Creole Rhapsody (1931). With a duration of more than six minutes, the piece took two sides of a record, meaning the record needed to be flipped in the middle of the piece. This did not make an ideal listening experience and was a tough sell to record producers. In his memoir Music is My Mistress, Duke recalls the following:

“… I went out and wrote Creole Rhapsody, and I did so much music for it that we had to cut it up and do two versions. One came out on Brunswick and the other, longer one, on Victor. Irving [Mills] almost blew his connection at both companies for recording a number that was not only more than three minutes long, but took both side of the record.

Music is My Mistress, p. 82
Duke Ellington’s Creole Rhapsody (1931)

The next extended work of Ellington’s that I was aware of was Black, Brown And Beige (1943), which was premiered at his Carnegie Hall debut that year. It is another masterwork and showcases Duke’s expanding imagination.

Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown And Beige (1943) live at Carnegie Hall

For a composer as prolific as Duke Ellington, the 12 years between Creole Rhapsody and Black, Brown And Beige are universes apart. What was Duke writing in between?

Gunther pointed me toward the answer in his memoir. He mentioned a Duke Ellington piece I had never heard of before (a rarity) – Reminiscing in Tempo (1935). It was surprising to read about this groundbreaking piece that, after many years of being a devout Ellington fan and earning a degree in jazz composition, I never encountered before. Perhaps this is a testament to how vast Ellington’s compositional output was.

Duke Ellington composed Reminiscing in Tempo while he was on the road with his band. He was contemplating the untimely loss of his mother earlier that year.

Duke Ellington’s Reminiscing in Tempo

In the context of A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, Gunther mentions Reminiscing in Tempo because he programmed the piece in his legendary 1957 Brandeis concert. He did this to recognize the piece as a “forerunner of extended compositions in jazz.” Reminiscing in Tempo was in good company on the concert; new works by Charles Mingus, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, John Lewis, Milton Babbitt, and Gunther himself were premiered.

The Birth of the Third Stream (1957), recordings from part of the Brandeis Third Stream festival

Upon reading Gunther’s memoir, I took a listen to Reminiscing in Tempo. I was amazed by what I heard. At 13 minutes, it was substantially longer than Creole Rhapsody. More impressively, the development of the piece is so logical with a very natural flow. Even more astounding, Duke was able to convince his record label to release this piece, which took up four sides! Duke writes:

I reflected, and I wrote music, and it came out as Reminiscing in Tempo, which eventually ran to four record sides, two more than Creole Rhapsody. This meant that Irving Mills had twice as much trouble with the record companies, who threatened to throw us out of the catalog! That was unimportant to me, because I had written my statement. Hearing it constituted my total reward, and in it was a detailed account of my aloneness after losing my mother…”

Music is My Mistress, p. 86

Gunther dedicated a substantial amount of space in his seminal text The Swing Era (1989) to Reminiscing in Tempo. He eloquently explains what makes this piece so important. I have attempted to summarize his key points:

  1. Ellington is pushing against the current conventions of swing/dance music of his time. Reminiscing is intended for listening rather than dancing. The piece is lengthy and through-composed rather than having a short repeating form.
  2. Reminiscing solidified Ellingtons skill of writing to the strengths of his players. It is often said that Ellington’s true instrument was his band, rather than the piano. (Duke disagreed with this, based on his memoir Music is my Mistress. Perhaps a blog for another day?) He knew how to utilize each player’s unique timbre to achieve his sonic goals. For instance, he gives the lead alto part to Toby Hardwick or Johnny Hodges to achieve different sounds.
  3. Duke left no room for improvised solos. However, he did have fully composed solo written to showcase that specific players’ strengths.

Like many masterworks, Reminiscing in Tempo was not always received positively at the time of its creation. In his scathing Downbeat Magazine review, John Hammond scoffed at Reminiscing for its “pretentiousness” and claimed the piece was void of “true jazz spirit.” I would have never imagined words like that describing Duke Ellington’s work. I did not know if I should laugh or cry!

I am thankful that Gunther’s memoir brought this piece to my attention. I have enjoyed listening to it, learning about it, and now sharing this with others.


Sources

Ellington, Edward Kennedy. Music is My Mistress. Garden City, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973.

Schuller, Gunther. A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty. Rochester, University of Rochester Press, 2011.

Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.


Learn more about my Encountering Gunther blog series.

Encountering Gunther: Celebrating MBS

It was an honor to perform a concert with the New England Conservatory Jazz Orchestra celebrating the life and legacy of Gunther Schuller. We were joined on a couple pieces by special guest George Schuller, Gunther’s youngest son. This video is of George’s composition MBS, in memory of his mother (Gunther’s wife and pillar of strength and inspiration), Marjorie Black Schuller. After reading Gunther’s autobiography, A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, it was clear to me that he would never be satisfied with a celebration of his life that didn’t acknowledge his cherished counterpart. It was a great honor to be featured on this moving memorial to a strong woman.


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Encountering Gunther: My First Encounter With His Music

Last semester was the first time I ever performed music written by Gunther Schuller. As part of New England Conservatory’s Jazz50 Celebration, the NEC Philharmonia and NEC Jazz Orchestra combined forces to produce the third performance of Gunther’s tour-de-force Encounters (2003). The piece was originally written to commemorate the centennial anniversary of Jordan Hall, NEC’s prized historical concert hall.

There were many challenges involved with putting together Encounters. The first is the sheer number of people required to perform the piece, approximately 150 musicians (comprising an orchestra, a jazz orchestra, three jazz soloists, and a 6-piece jazz choir). It was difficult to schedule sufficient rehearsals for the full ensemble and to fit everyone and their instruments comfortably on stage.

Further, Gunther calls for the use of some more obscure instruments such as Heckelphone, Bb Contrabass Clarinet, Bass Trumpet, and a Quarter Tone Piano. At first, I thought this to be somewhat excessive, but as I became more familiar with the piece, I came to appreciate the unique colors that only these instruments could provide to the piece. Through reading his autobiography, I learned of Gunther’s passion to create repertoire for underrepresented instruments. I also admire Gunther’s ambition to take advantage of the resources he had. He knew that NEC had access these rare instruments and was teeming with many students and faculty eager to play boundary-busting new music. Gunther puts it best in his program notes:

One doesn’t have an opportunity very often (if at all) to write a work for a “symphony” (classical) orchestra and jazz orchestra (“big band”). My earlier Third Stream pieces in the 1960s were either composed for one or the other, or for a classical group with jazz soloists (e.g. Modern Jazz Quartet). I must say that the chance to write for the two just-mentioned types of orchestra was most inspiring, to the point that it caused me to write various things (gestures, phrases, instrumental combinations, “classical” ideas played by jazz musicians and vice versa, etc.), that is, musical ideas which A) I would probably never have thought of had I only had one or the other orchestra at my disposal, and B) ideas which I could only have had if both types of orchestras and musicians were available to me.

Source: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/composer/work/32660

Each group of musicians rehearsed separately at first. Once we were ready to rehearse as a full ensemble, new challenges emerged. We had to learn how to balance and blend our sounds, how to come together as one unified orchestra. Us jazz musicians struggled at first to follow the orchestral conducting style, being ahead of the beat (customary for orchestral conducting), went against much of our training. The classical musicians were not accustomed to accompanying improvisers. We navigated these challenges together, with patience. This was an opportunity for us all to learn new musical customs and be exposed to new sounds.

While the process of putting Encounters together was intense, it was a rewarding pursuit. When I stumbled upon the video of our performance (embedded below), I enjoyed listening and watching, reminiscing about the experience. While we may have not perfected every minutia, I would like to think that Gunther would have still found delight in knowing that his music continues to bring together young musicians of two streams (“jazz” and “classical”) together to create something monumental.

NEC Philharmonia + NEC Jazz Orchestra: Encounters
October 30, 2019

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Encountering Gunther: Charlie Parker’s Lament

It is no secret nor surprise that Charlie Parker is one of my greatest musical heroes. I’m well acquainted with the classic recordings, have transcribed numerous solos, and try to emulate his stylings in my own playing. So then it should be no surprise to the reader that one of the most intriguing parts of Gunther’s autobiography is his final encounter with Charlie Parker.

This took place in 1955, months before Parker’s untimely death. The two had a chance meeting at the Baroness’s (Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter) apartment. The conversation started with Parker’s lament about the current state of jazz. He was frustrated by the stagnation perpetuated by the continual use of convention forms such as 32-bar tunes from the Great American Songbook and the 12-bar blues. Gunther recounted:

. . . Bird began expressing his extreme frustration with where jazz was going; he felt that it was stuck in a rut, in routine and stifling formulae. . . . with a lot of pain and anguish in his voice, he asked if I realized how many thousands of times – and ways – he’d played the blues. He’d had enough of that. He felt that there had to be something else out there. It wasn’t just the blues; it was, he said, the exhaustion of the thirty-two-bar song form, the increasing codification and delimiting conformism of harmonic changes, the boring, fettering, stereotypical standardization of jazz performance and form, i.e., the head, followed by a series of improvised choruses, and repeat of the head.

Schuller, p. 450

I must admit, this shook me to an extent. For all these years, a decade now, I have been enjoying and imitating Parker’s playing on these standard progressions. I admired Parker for what I took as his insistence on keeping the blues in his repertoire, something that has become, in my opinion, largely lost today. But I was clearly mistaken. This should not have been so surprising to me. It is no secret that record executives were very controlling in their interactions with Parker in terms of the flow of the sessions and distribution of royalties. But I always took Parker’s playing as being so sincere. He played so convincingly that I could not imagine that he would rather be playing another song, another note than the one he was playing right in that moment. But it was only an illusion.

While his frustration with regards to form in jazz was likely largely warranted, I was surprised that he did not become more involved with his peers who were already experimenting with form on a high level – Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, J.J. Johnson, Gil Evans, Jimmy Giuffre, Tadd Dameron, Mary Lou Williams, and surely many others. I wonder what held him back from putting himself right in the middle of this renaissance he was so craving. Perhaps his addictions prevented him from reaching out to those around him for the musical nurturing he desired.

Gunther goes on to share the next level of Parker’s lament:

He told me that lately he had been listening increasingly to modern classical music, mostly on recordings, music of Bartók and Stravinsky, and how exciting and refreshing that was, how he wanted to explore more of that kind of music. He said something like: I know there’s a whole lot of great music out there, I want to know more about that. Can you help me? I’d like to study with you. He said this in such a pleading tone, as if this would be his musical salvation. I of course said yes, I’d be more than happy to get together with him whenever he wanted. He should just let me know.

Alas, that was never to happen. I never saw Bird again. He died a few months later, on March 12, 1955.

Schuller, p. 450

I was somewhat surprised to hear about what Gunther interpreted as Parker having a fairly serious interest in studying with him. I do not know much about Parker’s experience with formal music education. (Perhaps this is something I can research and expound upon in a future blog post.) I am only aware of him studying saxophone extensively on his own, particularly his interest in the Klosé etudes, his collaborative experiments with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and others of the era, and his on-the-job training playing in bands such as Billy Eckstine’s.

Charlie Parker in the legendary Billy Eckstine’s band

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from Charles A. Harris and Beatrice Harris in memory of Charles “Teenie” Harris

After reading Gunther’s unexpected story, I did a little more research and discovered that he was not the sole recipient of a plea for lessons from Parker. Edgar Varèse recounting similar experience:

He stopped by my place a couple of times. . . . He’d come in and exclaim, “Take me as you would a baby and teach me music. I only write in one voice. I want to write orchestral scores.” . . . He was so dramatic it was funny, and I finally promised myself I would try to find some time to show him some of the things he wanted to know. I left for Europe and told him to call me up after Easter when I would be back. Charlie died before Easter.

Woideck, p. 205

Parker also confirms his interest in studying with Varèse in a 1954 interview with fellow altoist Paul Desmond:

CP: Well, seriously speaking, I mean, I’m going to try to go to Europe to study. I had the pleasure to meet one Edgard Varèse in New York City, he’s a classical composer from Europe. He’s a Frenchman, a very nice fellow, and he wants to teach me, in fact, he wants to write [radio static] for me some things for me for a – you know, more or less on a serious basis, you know?

PD: Mm hm.

CP: And if he takes me over, I mean, after he finishes with me, I might have a chance to go to Academie de Musicale in Paris itself and study, you know. And, well, the principal – the prime – my prime interest still is learning to play music, you know. (unintelligible)

PD: Would you study playing, or composition, or everything?

CP: I would study both. I never want to lose my horn.

Woideck, p. 204
Paul Desmond’s Interview of Charlie Parker

The idea of Parker digging into what Gunther and Varèse had to offer is thrilling to me. We can only imagine what glorious creations would have resulted from these unfulfilled encounters. In his book Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, Carl Woideck offers some interesting speculations about Parker’s potential trajectory had he lived longer. Of course, I would imagine that these accomplishments would have been contingent on Parker committing to sobriety. There is no question that his various addictions stifled his productivity musically and otherwise.

Perhaps the best way we can honor Parker is to not do as he did, but rather take music in new directions as he imagined for himself but did not live to fulfill to the extent he desired.


Learn more about my Encountering Gunther blog series.

Introducing Encountering Gunther

When I knew I wanted to attend New England Conservatory (NEC), I wanted to understand the history behind America’s first private music school and the first to have a full-fledged jazz department. I quickly found that perhaps the most influential figure in NEC’s recent history was horn player/composer/conductor/historian/author Gunther Schuller. I wrote a paper about him in my final semester at Berklee College of Music. I then began reading his monstrous autobiography A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty over the summer. After being “sidetracked” by my first semester in graduate school, I prioritized the completion of the book over winter break, and just finished it two nights ago. As I neared the end of the book, I realized that my journey with Gunther was far from over.

Gunther’s narrative opened more questions for me than he answered and this has inspired me to conduct some of my own research. As a name for my project, I came up with Encountering Gunther (or #EncounteringGunther in hashtag form, which I also intend to use). I chose this name for two reasons. 1) Gunther used the word “encounter” and its variants frequently throughout his autobiography. 2) Gunther wrote a demanding piece called Encounters for the centennial celebration of Jordan Hall. I was fortunate to be in an ensemble that performed it last year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of NEC’s jazz department (one of Gunther’s major accomplishments as the president of NEC).

I have many plans for the directions of the research. Some writings will focus on specific musicians or albums while others will be more philosophical or ideological. I look forward to sharing my “encounters” with this American icon and hope others will be as interested in this exploration as I have been.