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MMD > Archives > August 2001 > 2001.08.01 > 05Prev  Next

Ragtime Music Performance Styles
By Charles Davis

I won't forget my first exposure to a player piano was in a western
movie where the player piano was sitting in front of a store (or
saloon).  It was back in the early 1950s, so some details are not that
clear.  However I do realize now that if the time period of the movie
was before 1900, that kind of player was not around.  Am I right about
this?  That enclosed players did not appear until the early twentieth

When I think of the best music for a saloon scene I immediately think
of Brun Campbell and those two wonderful LPs on Paul Affeldt's Euphonic
label.  The Delmark label in Chicago has recently bought out Paul's
label and is starting a reissue series on CD.  But the Campbell
recordings are the best way to find out what music sounded like in
saloons, since he played in saloons in the Oklahoma territory before
the turn of the twentieth century.

As I got in to ragtime in the 1960s, I first heard Knocky Parker,
then I heard Bob Darch.  A few years later I heard Roy Carew who had
a stately, genteel style that probably was the way ragtime was played
in most homes as he was growing up during the ragtime years and
hitch-hiked across the country at the turn of the twentieth century
listening to different pianists.  Three entirely different styles of
playing ragtime, but their roots were the same.

I say this because I am tired of the parvenus who think that the
classically styled way of ragtime is something special.  What happens
is that the classical style robs the music of forward thrust, i.e.,
a steady tempo.  Accents on the down beat are important to help set up
the syncopations which should always be accented.  This sets up the
"tugging" effect of cross rhythms which is an innate part of the
Afro-American tradition in music as well as the African music.  Just
listen to any field recordings of jungle drums in Africa.

So the classical style really changes ragtime into beautiful character
pieces but takes away the inherent rhythmical stress.  It is no longer
ragtime.  Ragtime has a strong aural tradition which can be found on
contemporary recordings that have been remastered to CDs.  Piano rolls
show the stylistic techniques of different pianists of the period and
theirs are the lessons of how to add to the music the way it was done
during the time in which ragtime was written.

Although Knocky Parker had a very free approach to his playing of
ragtime, he told me to study piano rolls and early records to get the
elements of style.  And he was very correct in this, as time has shown,
although no one has followed in his style of playing and his own style
had more of a "country swing" flavor.  He was very adamant about
learning the "fundamentals", as mentioned above, and there are many
fine pianists today who follow these fundamentals and, because of their
own individual craft, very few sound like each other because they have
refined their craft into the realm of art.

Charles Davis

(Message sent Wed 1 Aug 2001, 04:21:46 GMT, from time zone GMT-0400.)

Key Words in Subject:  Music, Performance, Ragtime, Styles

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