Features and Reviews
Dick Zimmerman—50th Anniversary Concert (10/1/06)
By Andrew Barrett
I recently attended Mr. Richard Zimmerman's concert given at Old Town Music Hall. Mr. Zimmerman has been celebrating 50 years as a ragtime performer. Though the attendance at the music hall was not what it should have been, nonetheless a representative few turned out to see this historic event.
After being announced and introduced by OTMH co-founder/proprietor Bill Field, Richard Zimmerman took the stage and noted that this concert will be a bit different from most of those he has given in the past: Not only would there be the familiar and unfamiliar musical selections, but as a 50th Anniversary special, he would also be reminiscing and playing pieces from throughout his career.
The rest of this article will be devoted to listing the pieces that he played, with composer/date information to the best of my knowledge/research, as well as comments and remarks on the pieces as well as many salient things that he said in between the selections.
1. Maple Leaf Rag (Scott Joplin, 1897/1899) – As an introduction to the music, Mr. Zimmerman noted how he got interested in ragtime: His magic teacher played a record of this rag for him as by "one of the great American composers, Scott Joplin." He was immediately intrigued and hooked. He then made some remarks on the phenomenon of honky-tonk piano which proliferated in the 1950s and how, although it is no longer quite as attractive to him as the real thing, it was also a contributing influence in his developing interest in ragtime in the '50's.
2. Down Yonder (L. Wolfe Gilbert, 1921) – interpolated a' la Del Wood – He mentioned hearing Ms. Wood's recording of this song and being interested by the "jangly sound" of the recording.
3. Patricia Rag (Joseph Lamb, 1916): He mentioned being introduced to "real ragtime" by a college classmate and was given/loaned some of his sheet music to further pique his interest/enjoyment.
He then talked about playing piano in college (Stanford) as part of a melodrama called "Under the Gaslight." At one point at that time, he nervously played for an all-girl audience once and discovered that young people loved ragtime when they heard it.
4. Hilarity Rag (James Scott, 1910) – Introducing this piece, he noted that many rags were either specifically written or later adapted for band and orchestra, and the many instruments in the ensemble allowed for more interesting countermelodies and inner lines than a single piano performer. He further noted that piano roll arrangers (who didn't actually have to be able to play what they arranged) very often arranged rolls from the band or orchestra score rather than the piano music, since the player piano has no problem reproducing a complex, multi-layered band arrangement. He then proceeded to explain and play his version of "Hilarity Rag" with an original countermelody part added in on the repeat of the D section.
5. When Rosie Riccoola, Do The Hoola Ma Boola (sic) – (Arthur Lange / Andrew B. Sterling, 1917). He noted that ragtime songs were the most popular and "most heard" style of ragtime in the era. Mentioning the late jazz great Rosy McHargue, he noted how Rosy's career stretched back to playing in 1920s dance bands, where he got his nickname from singing this song frequently. He then proceeded to play this piece in a performance "dedicated to Rosy." After playing the piece through as written, Mr. Zimmerman then created a wonderful raggy re-arrangement of the song, to make a great finish.
6. The Sycamore (Scott Joplin, 1904): He then told of borrowing original sheet music of works by the "Big Three" from Pete Clute and learning them while on break from work in San Francisco. He noted that this is one of the least heard Joplin rags. He also mentioned his "Complete Works of Scott Joplin" recording series (which is available in a multiple-CD reissue). After playing this piece very well, he changed topics to "discovering early Latin American music."
He made a brief mention of the first "hit" of a Latin-American piece brought up by bands, which was popular around 1870. (He then played an excerpt of the piece in question, "La Paloma"). Following this, he illustrated the similarity of Latin-American syncopations to early cakewalks, by playing the bass of "La Paloma," followed by "Hello Ma Baby" (both hands).
7. Zacatecas – March (Genaro Codina, c. 1900) – After making note of how this Mexican march survives in the repertoire of some mariachi bands, he then proceeded to play it all the way through more or less "straight," then started it over again from the beginning, really ragging the A strain. After this rousing performance, he mentioned the period disapproval of ragging "good" or serious music, and the ban put on the practice by certain musical organizations of the time.
8. Sweet and Sour Blues – (Henry Lodge, 1923) Introducing this piece, he mentioned the relationship of blues to ragtime, and how they existed more-or-less concurrently, later influencing each other once the blues became popular and known to the general public. He then played this composition, discovered as a lead sheet (melody only, no chords) at the Library of Congress. His own arrangement (a necessity, given the next-to-nonexistent nature of the music) was some very good blues, not necessarily strictly in the style of Lodge, but very down-home and enjoyable.
After this tune, he talked about his recording set "The Collector's History of Ragtime," relating to us a few anecdotes about recording it at Harold Lloyd's mansion, etc. Of interest to ragtime record collectors/enthusiasts, he noted that he just bought the rights to his 5-LP set, so after being long out-of-print, he may choose to re-issue it on CD in the future. He then talked about Clarence Woods, including a thumbnail biographical sketch, with the requisite mention of how Woods played organ with the Barnum and Bailey circus in the later part of his life.
9. Sleepy Hollow Rag. (Clarence Woods, 1918)– After a very nice rendition of this interesting, oft-programmed rag, he noted how rags were adapted / played to suit various performances in order to suit the character of the venue. He then talked a bit about Ian Whitcomb and performing with him; and mentioned meeting a real "Ragtime Rosie," who volunteered from the audience to sub as organist at a church where he and Ian were performing. Naturally, he then had to play:
10. When Ragtime Rosy Ragged the Rosary: (Lewis Muir, Edgar Leslie - 1911) – "player-piano version." He related a story about Lewis F. Muir, L. Wolfe Gilbert and F.A. (Kerry) Mills, regarding a tune the former two wrote together, and Mills' originally lukewarm reception of the new song. After a funny turn of events changed his mind, Mills published it and it became the hit below. Before playing this selection, Mr. Zimmerman did a little humorous plugging of his recordings and sheet music for sale.
11. Waitin' For the Robert E. Lee. (Lewis Muir – L. Wolfe Gilbert, 1912) – As a further introduction, he made mention of the lyrics of this piece, and how the Mississippi River doesn't run anywhere near Alabama(!) He also talked about the vintage practice of interpolating songs, and finally proceeded to play his "player-piano" style version of "Waitin' For the Robert E. Lee," interpolating "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" – also by Muir – in the middle. This rousing performance led us into the break.
After the break, Mr. Zimmerman talked a bit about relatives and descendants of ragtime composers. He mentioned meeting Charles L. Johnson's nephew, and finding out that Johnson was a practical joker, among other things. He then played the rare
12. Peek-A-Boo Rag (Charles L. Johnson, 1914) – A very nice foxtrot rag. After this, he talked about Afro-American performers and themes in music, and then how "exotica" such as this opened the door for the later fad of oriental themes. He then played
13. Down In Bom-Bombay (Harry Carroll – Ballard McDonald, 1915). After a nice rendition of this ragtime-era song, he changed the subject to modern ragtime, and noted how ragtime has never really completely died. He made mention of modern rags. Then he felt obligated to play
14. The Lost Rag – (Herbert Ingraham - 1909) A brilliant piece, and strikingly modern in the development and rhythmic conception (though not necessarily harmonies), I was fooled into thinking that this was a modern rag with the same title as the vintage Ingraham piece, which I had seen listed in ragtime references, but never heard until now. This is an extremely well-written "serious" classic rag a la Jean Schwartz, and was the highlight of the concert for me. Herbert Ingraham (not to be confused with the less-prolific Robert George Ingraham, composer of "Mando Rag") is one of Richard Zimmerman's favorite composers, and with good reason; of his several works, the few I have heard and played are uniformly excellent. After playing the heck out of this brilliant piece, Mr. Zimmerman talked about how advanced and modern the rag sounds, and talked about Ingraham's career as an orchestra leader in Chicago; being hired as an unknown at Shapiro music publishing in New York. and tragically dying of tuberculosis at age 31 in 1910. Ingraham had an all-too-short career which nonetheless left us with some great music. Let's hope Mr. Zimmerman puts out a collected works folio. (I'm first in line).
After this, Zimmerman went on to mention "nickelodeon" (coin piano and orchestrion) rolls in the '20s, and how their raggy jazz-era arrangements kept much of the spirit of ragtime alive during the time when the name "ragtime" was old-hat. To demonstrate, he then played a medley of late '20s tunes in the style of "nickelodeon" rolls.15. Medley – Dream Train (Billy Baskette – Charles Newman, 1928); Sweet Jennie Lee (Walter Donaldson, 1930); My Baby Just Cares for Me (Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn 1930).
After this medley (which the audience certainly enjoyed), he then went back in time, historically, to talk about ladies playing piano and guys playing violin in the parlor. Cleverly, he used the topic of Parlor music (a form of entertainment) to lead into parlor magic (another form of entertainment).
For those of you who might not know, Mr. Zimmerman is an accomplished magician as well as a musician, and though he mostly tries to keep the two occupations separate, since he feels that there must be some relevance to combine one with the other, he nonetheless managed to incorporate some magic into the concert as a special treat for his 50th Anniversary of performing. Needless to say, the audience was delighted. Mr. Zimmerman is very skilled and low-key as a magician, and he did a few sleight-of-hand tricks with such ease and talent that I (and probably the rest of the audience) was thoroughly fooled and very impressed.
After the magic segment, he then talked a bit about Percy Wenrich, and played his great rag.
16. The Smiler (Percy Wenrich, 1907) – After a great rendition of this fine rag, Mr. Zimmerman got up and left. Apparently this was the last scheduled piece of the concert.
Naturally the audience would not stand for it and most of us (myself included) gave throaty shouts of "Encore!!!"
Caving in to popular demand, Mr. Zimmerman came back and talked a little bit about his own efforts in composing ragtime. As an encore, to finish the concert, he played one of his own rags
17. An Autumn Afternoon (Richard Zimmerman, recent, unpublished) – This was a beautiful classic rag with some interesting twists and a wonderful way to end up the concert.
Mr. Zimmerman had nearly left the stage, when Tracy Doyle came running up to present a bouquet of Autumn flowers to the star of the show; a fitting tribute to his 50 years as a performer. After a few last remarks, Mr. Zimmerman left the stage, and left us audience members with a fine musical and historical experience to treasure.
More Dick Zimmerman at OTMH Reviews: