It was 1973 when Paul Newman and Robert Redford released their second buddy movie, The Sting (the first being Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid). Set in the depression of the 1920’s, one of the things the movie was noted for was its period soundtrack, featuring the music of Scot Joplin. Joplin was notable for being the person who originally popularized Ragtime at the beginning of the twentieth century. His song, “The Entertainer,” from the movie’s soundtrack, became a hit close to 50 years after it was written.
Like everyone else at the time, I was infatuated with the song, but I’ve never been much of a fan of ragtime since. Most of the performances I’ve heard have been boring, frankly. This is because of the seemingly endless repetition of the same theme.
I was interested to read something traditional Jazz pianist Wally Rose had to say about why ragtime originally died out. According to Rose, it was too demanding for the pianist who didn’t have classical training. “It requires a rugged touch,” he’s quoted as saying. “Like Beethoven’s.”
What I found most interesting about that comment was that I’d read it after I had listened to Delmark Record’s new release, Whippin’ The Keys, a compilation of two Wally Rose recordings from the old Blackbird label: the original Whippin’ The Keys, recorded in 1971, and Rose On The Piano, recorded in 1968.
The very first thing I noticed when listening to the first track, “Whippin’ The Keys,” was how untypical it was of any ragtime playing I had heard before. There was something about his playing that made me immediately think, “Here’s a man with at the least a classical music education.”
There was a body and texture to his piano playing that only comes from having to play the more complicated arrangements and subtleties I’ve come to associate with classical compositions. As I listened to the songs on the disc, I realized he was approaching the music more as a pianist would approach playing variations on a theme, instead of merely repeating the same melody like so many are wont to do with ragtime.
As a point of reference, one of the most famous variations on a theme is the song most of us know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” One of the variations, as written by Mozart, has the performer begin by playing the tune we are all familiar with. As the piece progresses, he plays variations on the melody that become increasingly complex. While the ragtime pieces on Whippin’ The Keys don’t have the same potential for variations as Mozart’s, Wally Rose is able to take their basic melodies and expand them in ways I’ve never heard from anyone else.
On his version of “Cannonball Rag,” by Joseph Northrup, he comes up with an elaborate introduction and, at various points throughout the piece, he adds fills with both his right (melody) and left (rhythm) hands that add texture and depth to the tune. It’s also quite amazing what he is able to accomplish simply with volume. Whether it’s repeating the same phrase with just a minor reduction in volume or a slight increase, it makes a world of difference when it comes to breaking up what would otherwise have been tedious repetition.
One of the other pieces of ragtime I was most familiar with prior to listening to this disc was “Elite Syncopations” by Joplin. Just after The Sting was in the theatres, The National Ballet of Canada deviated from their predominately classical repertoire of the time to perform a work based on the music of Joplin and his contemporaries that took its title from the song. With “Elite Syncopations” providing the basis, the orchestra played a medley of orchestrated arrangements of Ragtime variations that would return on a regular basis to the signature tune.
What I remembered being impressed by most (aside from the crush I had on the prima ballerina at the time, Karen Kain, and the fact that once she finished dancing she sat two rows behind me and I don’t remember any of the dances that came after) was the way the music had been elaborated on sufficiently to allow the choreography to be more than just music hall dance steps you would find in a Hollywood movie.
Only having a piano at his disposal, Mr. Rose wasn’t quite able to come up with anything so elaborate. He was still recording albums of Ragtime — not adaptations — and was only interested in playing the pieces to their fullest potential. The version of “Elite Syncopations” he recorded in 1968 sounded like it could have been the piece the arranger for the ballet had used as his, or hers, starting point.
Rose took this song, and the rest of the material on the disc, as far as he could go without actually re-writing the music. It was like he was able to take each phrase in the song and bring it to its full potential musically – finding and playing all the nuances possible while still maintaining the integrity of the original composition.
Ragtime music was composed to be played over the noise of a crowd in the honky-tonks, whorehouses, and taverns of the early 20th century in the days before there was amplification. It was full of loud notes and easy refrains that could muscle their way through almost any competing sound. What was appropriate for that atmosphere is not exactly music designed for listening to while sitting around at home.
Wally Rose’s Classical music training and performance experience allowed him to take the songs of people like Scott Joplin and elaborate their sparse frameworks to give them a life outside of being merely background noise. Whippin’ The Keys is a great example of just how accomplished a musician Rose was, and how successful he was in adapting Ragtime music for a contemporary audience.