Ragtime had a unique signature


THE HEYDAY OF RAGTIME, from about 1890 to 1920, is already shorter than rock 'n roll's history. More's the pity.

Woven from African and European strains, ragtime was a black-born Midwest music that quickly became interracial among composers but, typically, didn't move most Americans until white Europeans began playing it.

With its simultaneously happy and sad face and its absolute insistence on pure melody, it was as American as the cakewalk that preceded it and the jazz that followed.

As Center Stage opens its ragtime-tinted drama "The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin" by Eric Overmyer, it is time to ask, "What was ragtime?" The question is topical since ragtime has been revived in the last two decades by the movie "The Sting," ubiquitous TV ad music, players like William Bolcom and scholars like Rudi Blesh.

Whatever the imprint, ragtime had a unique signature:

* It had form. It was piano music usually written down on paper, not improvised, or composed while playing like jazz, Chauvin being a sad exception. Better rags were often difficult to play (try the most famous "Maple Leaf Rag" by Joplin).

* It had odd accents. The right hand played syncopated, or ragged, rhythms, while the left kept a heavy 2/4 beat. Normally unaccented beats were now accented.

* It had classic music structure. It was often a rondo or variation in which one section came back again and again between other, contrasting passages. Later rags varied tempos more.

All of this only begins to explain ragtime's "feel good" quality of music which infected much of the late 19th Century popular music from spirituals to John Philip Sousa's marches to Vienna's waltzes. Even hits like "After the Ball," with sad ridiculous plots, made people feel good. Melodies were always king; dissonance was the questionable gift of the 20th Century.

The Missouri Valley, led by Sedalia and St. Louis, were the flourishing gardens of classic ragtime. The vines spread to Kansas City, Chicago, New York. Texas-born Joplin, who would become "King of Ragtime," Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden began in Missouri. Later Joplin and James Scott, both black, would be recognized with the white Joseph Lamb as what Blesh and others call "classic ragtime's immortal three."

Along the way in St. Louis "sporting houses" where rags thrived, Joplin (1968-1917) met Louis Chauvin (1881-1908), often described in terms like "the wastrel Creole genius." They had a few things in common besides their friendship. Mainly they were excellent ragtime composers and players.

But like Schubert at 31, Mozart at 35, Mendelssohn at 38 and Chopin at 39, they died young. Chauvin, dead at 26, was far more the untapped talent than Joplin who died at 48. It has been suggested that both may have died of syphyllis.

Chauvin's lost creative life, a musical tragedy, is one big difference between the two. Joplin wrote his music down and left dozens of ragtime works and an opera "Treemonisha," revived in the 1970's, although other pieces such as the early opera "A Guest of Honor" are gone.

But Chauvin could not read or write music and though he played and composed almost daily late in his brief life, his great creativity disappeared with the wind. Or rather the smoke of the whorehouses. He left only three printed pieces, one of them the famous "Heliotrope Bouquet" (1907) which he wrote with Joplin, the subject of Overmyer's play about making art. Heliotrope is a plant whose purple flower turns to the sun.

Chauvin played the first two languid parts of the piece, Joplin wrote them down and composed the last two himself "as an affectionate postscript to Chauvin's sensuous two themes," Bolcom noted in jacket notes in a 1971 Nonesuch Record borrowing the rag's title. Bolcom tried somewhat successfully to recapture Chauvin's "gentle French-Creole quality" with his modern tune "Graceful Ghost."

The two other remaining Chauvin works, also collaborative, were "The Moon is Shining in the Skies" (1903), with fellow ex-vaudevillian Sam Patterson, and "Babe, It's too Long Off" (1906), "probably scored by Patterson," according to the New Grove Dictionary of American Music.

Chauvin goes unmentioned in many standard reference works but gets some space in the New Grove where his genius as "King of the Ragtime Players" is noted. It's an interesting distinction from Joplin's familiar title of "King of Ragtime."

"The Heliotrope Bouquet" is one of the standards of classic ragtime repertory, a lovely "slow drag two step" with the composers' warning, "Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast."

Though it was a joint effort, writing a ragtime piece with someone else was and is not uncommon. Joplin-Marshall, for instance, did "Swipsey Cake Walk" and Joplin-Hayden did "Sunflower Slow Drag" and "Something Doing." Bolcom in a recent year wrote "Brass Knuckels" with William Albright.

From "Ragtime Nightmare" to "Don't Jazz me Rag--I'm Music," ragtime was peopled by many other heroes: Tom Turpin, Charles Hunter, Charles H. Johnson, Artie Matthews, Percy Wenrich, Clarence Woods, Charles Roberts, James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith and Thomas "Fats" Waller. Joplin is the undisputed monarch. But the music of all of them lives.

Baltimore's Eubie Blake carried on the great tradition. He was among those who improvised on classic ragtime with a strongly accented left hand called striding, providing a walking bass and unusual syncopation. As ragtime lives, it changes. Sheet music, records and compact discs are available. You can look it up and play it.

Ernest F. Imhoff plays "Heliotrope" and some other rags but has never mastered Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag."

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