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.

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.

Meet the Gellers

Sometimes it can be a struggle to put on some new music. I find a lot of comfort in listening to my favorite albums over and over again. While I do deepen my understanding and appreciation of this music when I listen to it again, it is important to be exposed to more artists. I am really thankful one of my incredible mentors Allan Chase (who has his own amazing blog) introduced me to the music of Lorraine and Herb Geller.

Pianist Lorraine Geller (1928-1958) was born in Portland, Oregon. From 1949 to 1952, she played with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm led by Anna Mae Winburn. She played with many legendary West Coast jazz artists including Zoot Sims and Stan Getz.

Alto saxophonist Herb Geller (1928-2013) was born in Los Angeles, California. He attended Dorsey High School long with saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Vi Redd. Herb worked with Billy May’s and Claude Thornhill’s orchestras in New York.

In 1949, Lorraine and Herb met at a Los Angeles jam session. They married in 1952. The Gellers were vital contributors to the West Coast jazz scene of the 1950s and played with the likes of Jimmy Giuffre, Bud Shank, and others live and in the studio.

Lorraine was diagnosed with asthma prior to giving birth to her daughter, Lisa. The birth took a toll on Lorraine’s health and shortly after she suffered pulmonary edema and an asthma attack, tragically passing away at the age of 30.

Lorraine only recorded one album as a leader entitled At the Piano, released a year following her untimely passing. It is a gem, a sampling of the soundscape of a burgeoning artist gone too soon.

Lorraine Geller’s sole album as a leader

The couple recorded together as well. They cut a record aptly titled The Gellers which I have been listening to obsessively for the past week or so. The tunes, a mixture of standards and originals, are catchy yet find ways to surprise and delight the listener. The music feels effortless, even on the burning opening number “Araphoe,” a contrafact over the Ray Noble classic “Cherokee” (first made famous as the theme for the Charlie Barnet band but then became a bebop anthem with the rise of Charlie Parker). I found myself taking particular interest in “I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling” for its driving swing and nuanced arrangement.

a playlist of the masterful collaboration between the Gellers

I look forward to further exploring the music of the Gellers and their affiliates. Their music has been a gateway for me to learning more about the West Coast jazz stylings, an area in which I would like to be better versed. What do you think about the Gellers’ music and story?