My mother purchased an LP for me one afternoon. It was one of those checkout lane items – a budget record costing a couple of dollars but whose subject had caught my mother’s attention. Its title was “SCOTT JOPLIN, the Entertainer featuring His Greatest Hits”. Richard Zimmerman was listed as the artist.
I was thrilled to get the record. It was likely the summer before I was to start what is now referred to as middle school. My mother was always on the alert for interesting items that might catch my interest, assuming they didn’t cost too much. This was perfect in both categories.
My mother was aware that I lit up around ragtime, although I had yet to play any of it on the piano which I had been studying without a break for about three years. My first lesson happened when I was five years old. A man who provided dinner music for patrons at the Scandia Room – the Smorgasbord dining room of the Flamboyan Hotel my father managed on Ashford Avenue in San Juan – offered to teach me piano. After experiencing me for a lesson or two he informed my parents that I had the musical acumen of an adult. At least he was impressed with something, though sadly, the lessons were short-lived. He moved on, and we eventually left the island. I still have the big note Thompson book, though as a souvenir.
Now years later in Ohio, I placed the Joplin record on our good stereo in the den, the Braun Schallplattenspieler my father had sought out about six years earlier when we’d lived in Santurce, Puerto Rico. This phonograph had been a link to the cultural world beyond our apartment for all these years, and it was about to take me on yet another journey. Side one of the Olympic Records disc (part of a so-called “Gold Medal Collection” showing a poised discus thrower) began with “The Entertainer” – at the time the most widely-heard Joplin work - mostly due to the recent film “The Sting”, which had brought the piece out of relative obscurity. The performance of it was crystalline and brilliant. I was determined to learn that rag, someday soon, like a lot of kids who could at least rattle through its primary air at breakneck speed.
As to the rest of that side, the tracks included works that I didn’t recognize. One work was a sentimental waltz called “A Picture of Her Face” – interesting in its period decoration, but otherwise a drab piece of bric-a-brac to my young ears. Could it be that the record contained only the one hit?
I turned the record over and lowered the stylus onto Track 1: “The Maple Leaf Rag”. I was instantly transported by a shockwave I had been seeking. The chromatic chords I had heard on a record player in my last months in elementary school suddenly were there again. This was that dark piece! Zimmerman not only played Joplin’s notes but added a few arpeggiated leaps and ornaments. It was breathtaking – stunningly impressive to me, and altogether impossible to imagine playing.
I presented my ragtime wishes to Mrs. Livingston – my piano teacher at the time. She owned a Steinway D – the same model you would find on the Carnegie Hall stage as well as on most of the concert stages of the world. Her cottage-size house seemed barely able to accommodate this limo of an instrument, but I was thrilled to play it, even though its lid was never opened. A fluorescent lamp aimed up at the music rest. A plastic shield protected the fallboard and its “Steinway & Sons” logo and insignia.
Mrs. Livingston, kindly teacher, ordered a copy of “The Entertainer” for me, and she surprised me with it one afternoon. I opened the page and found quite a number of notes missing. Not only did it exclude a number of sections of the work, but the famous octaves were missing. She had purchased a dumbed-down copy of the rag – a simplified-for-young-fingers, show-mom-how-well-you-play-it four-page edition that only resembled a synopsis rather than the real work. I was greatly disappointed. “I thought you weren’t ready for it yet,” she said, surprised at my reaction.
Apparently, Mrs. Livingston had been responding more to my inability to sight-read more advanced material, rather than my great need, my passion to fly free into the world of more complex tonality and rhythm. She had missed the signs. Aside from studying and achieving a movement of the Moonlight Sonata (as published) with her, we worked on specialty material for designed for students until I’d had enough. I quit her, amicably, and moved on to two successive teachers.
Some morning in my sophomore year of high school an upper classman named Jeff took to a spinet piano and began reeling through “The Maple Leaf Rag”, roughly but determinedly. It was almost like a repressed memory coming alive in me – The Maple Leaf, of course. I had wanted to learn it four years earlier and had lost the scent. Hearing someone play it with such casual abandon set me off on a course that had to result in me playing that rag, as written. Jeff kindly lent me the sheet music.
The score was like ascending a mountain peak with endless promontories of jagged stone. On the straightaways it was like peddling slightly uphill in first gear. The left hand had to move laterally and vertically while the right hand had to embroider, all while establishing a kind of danceable rhythm and tempo. Learning the leaps in this 1899 rag required hours of repetition through five different themes and transitions. It took me a total of six months before, saddle sores and all, I could ride that rag around the neighborhood without falling off. It had become a bicycle in music form.
I played it for a recital my current teacher Mrs. Katz had arranged for her students. A Bach invention went well until I had a memory lapse and had to wretchedly meander out of the piece on improvised notes. I paused over a single breath and tore into The Maple Leaf Rag. It was a house sensation receiving a great ovation. My mother dutifully recorded the performance on a cassette recorder, and during the applause, on playback, I heard someone quip to her “He’s gonna be a jazz player.”
It was a nice moment, having finally escaped the surly bonds of a simplified “Entertainer”.
By chance, last week, now decades on from the story, I had a moment of musical intensity come over me (I was blowing off steam) at the same moment that I found a piano in a free studio at my place of work. I also had a video device with me. I decided to play this rag that I had learned and almost started to forget, even after I had learned it again for a Martha Graham Dance Company stage audition in the early 90’s. I wanted to see and hear what would come out if I just struck while the iron was hot and the spirit was beckoning.
I had not recorded this piece in many years and had never video recorded it. The last theme had been in shambles for a long time, and I had recently been restoring it to my hands, happy that it was not lost after all.
The result is here. I’m simply paying tribute to a work that has stayed with me through all the years of corporate and artistic labors. I thank Scott Joplin, I thank Jeff, and I thank Mrs. Katz, my mother, the 16-year-old me, and all of you.
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