Joplin and more
The prime root of American roots music is ragtime. The love child of Sousa's marches and African Americans' syncopations, ragtime preceded jazz and was there at the birth of the blues. And though jazz and blues ultimately proved more popular, ragtime proved just as durable, with notable revivals in the 40s, 50s, and especially the 70s, when Marvin Hamlisch scored a major hit with Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," from the score to The Sting.
In our time and place, the ragtime band to beat is the River Raisin Ragtime Revue. Based in Tecumseh and with a number of killer classical players from Ann Arbor in its ranks, the Revue has played gigs with the Detroit Symphony and run programs through Greenfield Village, as well as appearing once a season in town. This year, they'll be performing a Black History Month concert at the First Congregational Church on Sunday, February 13.
On the program will be music from Scott Joplin's epoch-making opera Treemonisha and from Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk, the first African American musical revue to play on Broadway, plus assorted works by Jelly Roll Morton, Maceo Pinkard, James Reese Europe, and others. The Revue will be joined by the Metropolitan Opera soprano Anita Johnson for the Joplin as well as selected intimate settings of chamber music by African American composers.
I've heard both of the Revue's CDs--The Red Back Book: Standard High Class Rags and Ragtime Detroit! Michigan's Contribution to America's Original Music--and they're snappy, snazzy, stylish, and altogether charming. Made up of five horns, a string quartet, piano, tuba, and drums, the Revue currently features such well-known local classical players as Kiri Tollaksen on cornet and Barbara Sturgis-Everett on violin, and it's a delight to hear the band cut loose on the merry melodies of "Maple Leaf Rag" and the robust rhythms of "Rastus on Parade."
The Revue isn't simply a latter-day cover band going through the motions of a dead musical form; these musicians are playing
red-blooded music they know and love, and their performances make the most of its sly syncopations and spicy arrangements. It'll be a pleasure to hear them rip into Sydney Perrin's "We'll Raise the Roof Tonight," Joe Jordan's "That Teasin' Rag," and Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Bump."
Soprano Anita Johnson is Ann Arbor-born and Ypsilanti-raised, and local audiences will remember her from her time at the U-M. A national audience remembers her from her drop-dead gorgeous performance of Stevie Wonder's "I Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer" at the White House last February at a ceremony honoring the composer. It'll be a particular pleasure to hear her take on Joplin.
[Originally published in February, 2011.]