In Memoriam: The Red Back Book

Sixteen years ago today my father was killed when a truck hit his bicycle while he was riding to work. He gave me my love of music and my love of computers, but he never saw a PC and never knew the internet. This special entry is about an album that drew us closer and helped smooth things over when they weren’t otherwise smooth. Thanks, Dad.

Ragtime isn't jazz, but it's close enough for meIn 1973 American music was re-introduced to Scott Joplin, one of its most important sons. From Hollywood, the classic film “The Sting” featured half a dozen of Joplin’s rags, as performed and arranged by Marvin Hamlisch (who made a hysterical appearance on the ‘Tonight’ show, almost entirely because he was being attacked by a previous guest – a giant owl, which had escaped from its trainer.) Hamlisch won three Oscars in 1974; two for “The Way We Were” (Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Title Song.) The third was for the score of “The Sting.” He is often credited with ‘single-handedly reviving interest in ragtime music’ but at our house, that honor goes to Gunther Schuller.

Born in 1925, by the age of 25 Schuller had already performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and the Metropolitan Opera. In May of 1972, nearly 30 years ago (and before the release of “The Sting”) Schuller and his talented young New England Conservatory musicians performed four Scott Joplin rags from the legendary collection officially known as “Fifteen Standard High Class Rags” but more frequently referred to by its New Orleans nickname, “The Red Back Book.”

An advertisement for some of Joplin’s rags published in 1904 read, in part: “If you were at the St. Louis Fair and heard the Kilties, or the Washington Marine Band play these classic rags, then we will not need to strain the tired language in a vain effort to describe them . . . If you are alive to impulse you felt the ground wave under your feet, and you dropped into sublime reverie . . .” If you know that feeling, you know what it’s like to hear Scott Joplin’s rags for the first time.

Schuller and the New England Conservatory recorded eight rags on their 1973 album “Scott Joplin: The Red Back Book.” All eight are performed by the 11-man ensemble in the original arrangements, but two are given special treatment. Both “The Entertainer” and “Sun Flower Slow Drag” are also performed as piano solos by Myron Romanul in what have become two of my favorite tracks of all time. Sadly, the CD version contains all eight orchestral versions, but not the piano solos.

The original song list of the vinyl copy of “The Red Back Book” is as follows:

  • The Cascades
  • Sun Flower Slow Drag
  • The Chrysanthemum
  • The Entertainer (solo piano version)
  • The Rag Time Dance
  • Sugar Cane (not a Red Back Book tune, but apparently Schuller likes it)
  • The Easy Winners
  • The Entertainer
  • Sun Flower Slow Drag (solo piano version)
  • Maple Leaf Rag

The Red Back Book and Scott Joplin became part of our lives. When we made our yearly trip to Disneyland, we always scheduled an hour or so to stand near the piano player on Main Street. Every year, my sister would request “Solace”, her favorite Joplin tune (featured in “The Sting” soundtrack) and after a couple years, when we’d walk up, he would smile and nod, and slowly, almost absent-mindedly, without waiting for the request, wander into “Solace” for my sister, my father, and I. It was the reason we went.

I’ve never been to Disneyland with my sister since my father’s death. My brother and I stopped playing guitars together as well. But ragtime is alive and well, and so am I. I just dug out Dad’s original vinyl copy of “The Red Back Book.” I think it’s time for a little solace.

Edit: Shirley Kaiser just told me she inherited a passel of turn-of-the-century ragtime sheet music from her grandmother, and wondered if there would be interest in a concert. I say, let’s record a whole album! Any time you’re ready, Shirley. (And thanks for the artwork.)