Story & photos by BOB DORAN
THE MUSICIANS STRAGGLED IN ON A RAINY THURSDAY night. Cornet player Michael McClimon was the first to arrive. He had the key to Fortuna High's music room, practice space for the Humboldt Ragtime Band.
Drummer Michael LaBolle showed up next. His drum kit wasn't elaborate, but it took a while to set up. There was small talk as the rest of the septet arrived. While David Demant unpacked his tuba, he spoke with LaBolle about that day's big news: the elimination of 40 teaching positions at Eureka City Schools. (Both teach music in Eureka, and both were relieved that music programs have so far escaped the ax.) Once all seven musicians were in their seats, McClimon gave the word, "All right ragtimers, let's get to work."
The band worked its way through a series of compositions in ragtime, a music form that was popular 100 years ago. While an untrained ear might confuse ragtime with Dixieland jazz, McClimon had explained earlier that there's a "very clear" difference between the forms. "Ragtime is not jazz -- it's ragtime. When you go to a Dixieland festival you're constantly reminded of turns of phrase that come from the vocabulary of ragtime; the same tunes are used in a lot of cases. It's interesting how much jazz owes to ragtime, yet most people don't know much about it."
Those interested in learning more have some golden opportunities in the next couple of weeks. This Saturday, McClimon's band is giving a concert at the Morris Graves Museum entitled, Ragtime: The Roots of Jazz. The following weekend the band will make its ninth appearance the Redwood Coast Dixieland Festival, playing at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 28 at the Red Lion and at noon Sunday, March 30 at the Eureka Inn.
Above right: The
Humboldt Ragtime Band.
Spawned along the Mississippi
Okay, so what, exactly, is ragtime? The Journal sat down with McClimon last week to find out.
Soft-spoken and far from tall, McClimon doesn't seem the bandleader type, but when it comes to ragtime he speaks with passion and authority. Leaning forward in his chair, he began with some history.
"Ragtime was dance music played around the turn of the century in bars and for dances," McClimon related. "And [of course] you had the `professors' who played [piano] in the parlors of brothels. That's where ragtime got its bad name because of its association with prostitution."
Precisely where ragtime first developed is hard to say. It came from a time when the recording process was in its infancy, when popular music was primarily spread through sheet music sales. The new form first surfaced in the Mississippi River Valley, up the river from New Orleans, among itinerant musicians, most of them black, who blended march tempos and minstrel-show songs using a "ragged" syncopated beat, maintaining the rhythm in the bass line, but playing the melody just off the beat.
"The very first ragtime piece published was 1898," said McClimon. "Scott Joplin's `Maple Leaf Rag' was published the next year. Joplin was from Sedalia, Mo., that's kind of a Mecca for ragtimers; they have the Scott Joplin Festival there every year. He solidified the form -- he was the most articulate in the way he wrote it down." [Scott Joplin, photo at right]
At first the music was played solo on piano. "But it was natural for a bass player or a tuba player to come in and start plunking along, then maybe a trumpet would say `I want to play along too.' By 1905, they were already publishing stock dance band arrangements. [In addition to solo piano music], you could get [sheet music] for a mandolin quartet, for piano and violin, for piano and cornet, all the way up to dance band orchestrations."
Joplin, the peak, revival
By 1910 the ragtime craze was going full tilt. The sheet music for "Maple Leaf Rag" had become a best seller, Joplin has moved to New York, and rags, some well-written, some not, turned up on pianos in parlors across the country. Ragtime orchestras formed to play in dance halls. Tin Pan Alley songwriters like Irving Berlin drew on the form. (Berlin published "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911; some ragtime historians suggest that he "borrowed" the melody from Joplin.)
According to McClimon, the craze ended when World War I began. Jazz was taking hold, using some of the same concepts, particularly the syncopated rhythms, but loosened up. "Ragtime died off kind of suddenly when Dixieland jazz took hold, and then the swing bands came in."
How is ragtime different from jazz? "No. 1, there's no improvisation in ragtime. Everything's written down, just like Mozart. They used the same tunes in the Dixieland era, but they jazzed them up, they swung them more.
"Another thing is the style of playing ragtime is more square: You play clean, clear, even eighth notes instead of swung eighth notes. We always have to make sure we don't let loose when we play our ragtime, because we try to play it authentically."
When Scott Joplin died in 1917, his rags faded into the background, but they weren't totally forgotten. In 1950 two authors, Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, published They All Played Ragtime, a book based on interviews with figures from ragtime's past, including Joplin's widow. "That book really started the ragtime revival," said McClimon.
It began slowly as part of what was imprecisely called Gay '90s music. Across the United States people heard rags in Shakey's Pizza Parlors, a chain that used silent movies and ragtime piano players to draw customers.
Interest picked up at the end of the '60s when classical pianist/musicologist Joshua Rifkin rediscovered Joplin's rags while looking into 20th-century American composers. He made a recording of rags for the Nonesuch label that became a modest hit, perhaps because, unlike the "honky-tonk" style favored in pizza parlors, Rifkin took Joplin's music seriously, playing it with a wistful elegance.
Meanwhile, a New York librarian, Vera Brodsky Lawrence, began a project collecting sheet music for all of Joplin's known piano works. "She came across this little band book the musicians at the turn of the century called The Red Back Book," explained McClimon. "It was published by John Stark, one of Joplin's main publishers. He published what he called `15 high class rags' in this book; eight of them were Scott Joplin pieces, including `The Entertainer' and `Sunflower Slow Drag.'"
Gunther Schuller, who headed the New England Conservatory of Music, cleaned up some of the Red Back Book band arrangements, recorded them and published them. Again the project was a bestseller. With more pianists jumping on the bandwagon, Joplin suddenly dominated the classical charts.
The ragtime revival reached its zenith in 1973 when Marvin Hamlisch used Schuller's arrangements of Joplin's music in the soundtrack of The Sting. Hamlisch took home an Academy Award for "Best Musical Score" when the movie swept the 1973 Oscars.
"The story wasn't set in the ragtime era, more like the '20s, but it got even more people interested in ragtime," McClimon pointed out, going on to explain that those same Red Back Book arrangements were crucial to the foundation of the Humboldt Ragtime Band.
Left: Pianist Dana Christen. Right: Clarinet/saxophone player and composer/arranger Frank Stover.
Evolution of a musician and a band
Born and raised on a farm in Iowa, Michael McClimon learned to play the cornet in school bands, and then played trumpet in jazz bands in college and in a swing band when he was in the Navy.
Based in San Diego, the Navy swing band took a couple of trips up the coast that included stops in Humboldt County, and when he finished his naval career in 1974, he and his wife decided to move here. After earning a teaching credential at Humboldt State University, he taught music at a number of schools in the region while his trumpet remained mostly in its case. "I taught music for close to 15 years without playing much," he recalled. "Then about 10 years ago I decided to start gigging."
Among the bands he played with: Titanic Swing Band (now known as Big Band Swing) and the Evelyn Johnson Orchestra, a dance band that has been around "for something like 50 years." He did a stint with the local Dixieland outfit, the Hall Street Honkers; and assembled a German band, Hans' Oom-pah Band, for Octoberfest.
For the past 27 years he's directed the Scotia Band, "a little community band that's been going since 1935." He got up from his desk to take a photo of the large band from the wall. The band plays traditional Souza marches, medleys from musical theater and popular tunes. "We've been rehearsing every Monday at Fortuna High for years," he said. The Humboldt Ragtime Band grew out of the Scotia Band.
In 1985, the Scotia Band marked its 50th anniversary with a celebration that included -- in addition to dinner, cake and punch -- some ragtime.
"I bought several of [Schuller's] Red Back Book arrangements for the occasion and we played some of them for the party, played maybe a 30-minute set at the cake cutting. Ten years later the arrangements were out of print. Today you have to rent them if you want them."
Except for that brief foray into ragtime, the arrangements McClimon had collected gathered dust for a few years (they are now out of print). Then in 1992 a group in Fortuna started up a concert series at a place called the Monday Club.
The first band drew on McClimon's friends and associates in the Fortuna area, his flautist daughter, Sarah, among them. Another original member was tuba player/vocalist David Demant, who's still with the group. Of course, piano was central; a drummer, a trombonist and a clarinet/sax player completed the lineup.
"My concept was always to be a little ragtime dance band," said McClimon. "So we don't use a string bass, we have a tuba. A lot of the stock arrangements have full string parts which we don't use."
Over the years players have left the area or dropped out. In 1994 Frank Stover came onboard as clarinet/saxophone player and composer/arranger, Scotia native Dana Christen signed on as pianist, and trombonist Jimmy Durchslag joined.
Christen has been teaching music at Scotia School for 21 years. Those who follow the local music scene will recognize Durchslag as a founder of the salsa/Cuban music label Bembé Records, a former member of Kachimbo, current member of Ponche! and of Humboldt Time, a southern Humboldt bebop combo that gathers once a month for a gig at the Redwood Pub.
A couple of years later Jill Petricca took over the flute/piccolo chair; she is well-known in Humboldt's classical scene and as a jazz player. Another music teacher, Michael LaBolle, joined around the same time on drums. LaBolle teaches at Lincoln School in Eureka and has been active in Humboldt's Latin, samba and world music scene for years.
McClimon seemed genuinely surprised that some of these high caliber musicians have joined in an exploration of what some might see as an obscure musical form.
"It takes some chops to play ragtime; it's a challenge to play it right. I feel like the Humboldt Ragtime Band has gotten to a point where we're doing more than just playing what's on the page. We have some really good players who have been together for years."
Left: Tuba player and vocalist David Demant. Right: flautist Jill Petricca.
Attention to detail
"I'm amazed at some of the nitpicky things we talk about at our rehearsals," McClimon continued, "things we never dreamed of discussing five years ago. We were just getting through it before, now we know it."
Listening to the band practice at Fortuna High last Thursday, the "nitpicky" attention to detail was evident. It was also clear that, while McClimon is ostensibly the leader, the whole group participates in decisions about how any given piece is played. Most of the players are teachers, everyone takes the music very seriously and no one is afraid to express an opinion.
Durchslag initiated a spirited discussion on how to handle the dynamics on "Scott Joplin's New Rag." A new approach to the fourth strain shifted the nuance, and after a couple of practice runs everyone agreed that it sounded better.
While Joplin was central in the history of ragtime, and was dominant in the revival, he was just one of many composers who used the form. The next tune rehearsed was "Alaskan Rag" by Joseph Lamb, another major ragtime figure.
The piece is an example of how the Humboldt Ragtime Band works. McClimon and Stover found it in the appendix to They All Played Ragtime while looking for material for a score they assembled for the Charlie Chaplin film, The Gold Rush, performed at the Broadway Cinema for the Dixieland festival a few years back.
All they had was the piano part, so Stover, who also works as a classical composer, wrote parts for the rest of the band. He has also written a number of original rags; the band will play two of them at the Graves concert.
Stover, who typically writes much more complex works, described composing in the ragtime form as "a pleasant distraction."
"It's not exactly my style, I usually write orchestral stuff," he said, explaining that writing rags is relatively easy. "For one thing, ragtime is rarely very adventuresome in the harmonic, tonal sense. The melodies aren't very complex."
McClimon concurred. He said simplicity was part of the music's charm. "We're not talking about some real stuffy kind of music that people will politely sit through," he said with a laugh.
"This is fun music, and we have fun with it," he went on. "We've pulled out an arrangement called `In My Harem' that's kind of topical right now. It's a hilarious piece of Tin Pan Alley schlock written by Irving Berlin. We got it from the Barkdull Library (see accompanying story). David Demant has a ball singing it.
"Ragtime is really happy, very positive, upbeat kind of music. It reflects a beautiful time in American history; there was all this optimism at the beginning of the 1900s. [That optimism] basically ended when we entered World War I. Scott Joplin died [in 1917], we entered the war that same year."
Rekindling that optimism is part of what has kept McClimon interested in ragtime. He had this to say about the most recent turn of the century: "I was thinking this is going to be a great time for America to feel optimistic again. We were going into a new century and had all these new things to look forward to. Unfortunately it didn't work out that way. The economy looks terrible, and I can't believe we're on the verge of war, maybe two wars. I try to stay positive -- it's not easy -- but playing this music helps me feel optimistic."
The Barkdull Orchestra lives again
THE HUMBOLDT RAGTIME BAND plays more than ragtime.
When bandleader Michael McClimon and other band members began looking for additional music to play, they learned about the Barkdull Library, a local collection of popular tunes from the Roaring `20s, right after the ragtime era.
"It's sheet music that came from Charlotte and Calvin Barkdull; they were brother and sister," said McClimon. "They had a small group, about six people that played all around the Eureka area."
About 20 years ago Humboldt State's music department got a call from Charlotte Barkdull Niskey. (Some time after the band broke up she married Frank Niskey, a Humboldt County judge.) She said she had some sheet music she wanted to donate to the university.
The college sent out Gil Cline, a music professor who specializes in jazz. He met Niskey at her Eureka home; at the time she was over 80.
"From 1919 until 1923, when she was still a teenager, Charlotte and her brother had a working band," said Cline. "It was sort of a jazz band, although they may not have called what they played jazz. They called it the Barkdull Orchestra.
"Charlotte played piano and violin, I think her brother [Calvin] played saxophone. They played the dance circuit, played everywhere: Eureka, Trinidad, Clam Beach, Loleta, they played in Falk, the logging town, all over."
After chatting with Niskey in her living room, Cline was led downstairs. "The music was sitting in her basement, laid out on tables, about 400 pieces. They were published arrangements of the pop tunes of the day mostly from Tin Pan Alley in New York. You bought them in stores or on a subscription basis through the mail.
"[The arrangements] were intended for dance bands and for bands that played in vaudeville houses; there was a plethora of this kind of music. The collection is representative of that era."
Cline gathered up the music and took it back to his HSU office. With help from students it was catalogued. "Now it's tucked away in a closet [in the music building]. We make it available for research purposes, but that's infrequent because not many people actually want to play this music."
-- reported by Bob Doran
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