People have been asking about Ragtime. (Who you talkin’ ’bout , Willis??? Never mind) Aside from being a clever but in the end disappointing book title by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime is a 100+year old American musical genre that sprung up out of those wonderful turn-of-the century John Phillips Sousa marches. An African-American innovation, Ragtime was quickly adopted/co-opted/shared by white musicians too. Ragtime is fun music. Its trademark syncopation is still exciting.

Scott Joplin is Ragtime’s most famous composer. Unfortunately his “recordings” were pre-phonograph piano rolls, which have a stilted sound. Joshua Rifkin, W. Albright. Dick Hyman, and a host of others have recorded his music more recently, and I recommend them all. I remember seeing the great Eubie Blake (composer of The Charleston Rag and I’m Just Wild About Harry) in concert back in the early 70’s. Eubie was 93 at the time and could still tinkle the ivories with the best of ’em. His hands were around three octaves big.

I do not understand exactly why Ragtime is generally considered separately from jazz. There’s no improvisation in Ragtime, but the chord patterns – together with the blues – are the basis for jazz (to my ears at least). I see Ragtime as early, fundamental American jazz. However, I wear glasses so my vision is a bit suspect.

I’m playing Irving Berlin’s first great hit here: Alexander’s Rag Time Band, which isn’t really a Rag, but it’s the best I can do at present. Writing in 1911, the young Jewish immigrant was clearly trying to emulate/copy the African-American musicians and the “shufflin’, “Uncle Tom” Negro stage presentations, but it’s a great great song nonetheless – one of the greatest hits ever. Bessie Smith’s 1922 rendition is the best I’ve heard.

So, “If you care to hear that Swanee River played in Rag Time, come on and hear” ….”

7 thoughts on “Ragtime

  1. Didn’t realise the link between Sousa (used to love those marches) and Ragtime. Especially like Alexander’s Ragtime band – nice choice of record there, enjoyed me some early morning listening.

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