Title: Black Manhattan, Volume 3
Artist: The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Label: New World Records
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: November 10, 2017
Rick Benjamin, founder/conductor of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, recently gifted us with Volume 3 of his series, Black Manhattan (Volume 2 was previously reviewed in Black Grooves). The title derives from James Weldon Johnson’s 1930 book about New York’s black music and theatre communities from the 1890s to 1920s, profiling “an amazing group of achievers . . . whose work profoundly transformed the cultural life of this nation.” Benjamin has made it his mission to bring to light previously unrecorded works by these composers using authentic scores. With the release of the third volume, we can now experience “60 works by 32 outstanding African-American composers, spanning the seminal years of the 1870s to the early 1920s . . . [closing] this gap in America’s cultural memory.”
Volume 3 continues the exploration of prominent Clef Club composers and their works, including founding member Alphonso Johns (“Ianthia March” written in 1902 for an African American bicycle club), Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (“Love Will Find a Way” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry” from Shuffle Along), Clarence Cameron White (“Chant” from The Bandana Sketches and the spiritual setting of “I’m Goin’ Home” from Cabin Memories), Scott Joplin (“Wall Street Rag” written two years after his move to Manhattan), Frederick M. Bryan (“The Dancing Deacon” premiered by the Clef Club Orchestra in 1915), Will H. Dixon (“Delicioso: Tango Aristocratico”), J. Leubrie Hill (the newly discovered Overture to his celebrated musical My Friend From Kentucky), and J. Turner Layton (“After You’ve Gone” and “Dear Old Southland” orchestrated by Will H. Vodery). The set also sheds light on the works of lesser known African American composers, as well as works by prominent songwriters not featured in earlier volumes.
The disc opens with the “Pork and Beans Rag” (1913) by Philadelphia native Ch. Luckeyth “Luckey” Roberts. Known as one of the founders of Harlem stride piano, Roberts was also a talented theater composer and orchestra conductor who took over as the “leading purveyor of high society music” following the death of James Reese Europe. This aggressive yet charming Eastern-style rag, which he later orchestrated, was among his first published piano compositions, as well as the first piece taught to his piano student – none other than a young George Gershwin. Two additional works by Roberts are also included: “Jewel of the Big Blue Nile” written for the 1919 stage production Baby Blues and sung here by noted soprano Janai Brugger, and a later orchestration of “The Tremolo Trot” (1914), notable for its infusion of classical music elements. Tragically, though Roberts remained a very prominent fixture in Harlem until his death in 1968, little of his vast output survives.
Another Philadelphia-born pianist-songwriter, Q. Roscoe Snowden, is known primarily for a pair of 1923 recordings on the OKeh label. Benjamin has uncovered another instrumental, “The Slow Drag Blues,” published by W.C. Handy in 1919 and later orchestrated by a young William Grant Still. Though the success of this rendition is largely due to Still’s compositional technique, Snowden’s work is still a significant fusion of a 19th century African American social dance with blues, ragtime and jazz.
Baritone Edward Pleasant is featured on James Bland’s enduring 1879 minstrel song “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers,” a parody of the spiritual “Golden Slippers” popularized by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Bland was born in Queens and, like his highly educated parents, attended university before gravitating to African American minstrel troupes. He was one of the first black composers to be published and achieved wide acclaim at home and abroad, yet never moved beyond the minstrel genre. By comparison, Benjamin refers to Black Manhattanite Sidney Perrin as “a key transitional figure between minstrelsy and vaudeville,” who likely composed hundreds of songs over his forty-year career. Regrettably, the majority of his 50 surviving works were published between 1897-1910 and only document his early years. Benjamin opted for Perrin’s 1904 cakewalk “Well Raise the Roof To-Night (Whoop ‘Er Up Boys),” the title indicating the celebratory nature of the composition performed with aplomb by the PRO.
Cincinnati’s Gussie L. Davis was one of the most successful African American songwriters of his era, but has not previously been featured. After relocating to New York in the 1890s he achieved considerable success composing musical revues, but died suddenly of heart failure in the midst of his first touring production. Chosen for this set is Davis’s most successful ballad, “In the Baggage Coach Ahead,” which sold over a million copies of sheet music. The Victorian-era parlor song is performed convincingly by tenor Chauncey Packer, accompanied by Benjamin on piano. Packer is featured again on the 1905 hit song “Just One Word of Consolation” by Tom Lemonier, another founding member of the Clef Club. This lovely ballad was originally featured in the black musical comedy Rufus Rastus and later become part of the standard repertoire for early 20th century American tenors. As Benjamin points out in the liner notes, many of these singers likely assumed the composer was French, just as many had assumed Gussie Davis was a white woman.
Brooklyn-born, Howard University educated pianist-composer Clarence G. Wilson burst onto the scene as conductor of the Smart Set, one of the last major black touring companies. Yet, after serving in WWI under Will H. Vodery in the 807th Pioneer Infantry Band, he returned to Harlem and all but disappeared. Benjamin uncovered one of Wilson’s early works, “The Zoo-Step,” composed in 1916 as a dance number for his anti-war musical How Newton Prepared. A stellar example of the music of the era, the PRO performance encapsulates what Benjamin describes as “raucous, hilarious, virtuosic, stylistically [representing] the unique territory between the circus, Dixieland jazz, and the Folies Bergère.”
Another historically interesting work is “Royal Garden Blues,” composed in 1919 by Clarence Williams and Spencer Williams. Taking its title from a well-known black café in Chicago, the song was immortalized by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1921. Benjamin discovered the original 1919 orchestration by African American band leader Dave Peyton, which notates every improvised slide and “hot solo.” Again, the PRO gives a fine performance, bringing life to an arrangement clearly intended for those uninitiated in jazz.
Volume 3 concludes with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” composed by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson and performed by sopranos Janai Brugger and Andrea Jones, tenor Chauncey Packer and baritone Edward Pleasant, accompanied by the PRO. According to Benjamin, this rendition is the world premier recording of the original 1900 score. The vocal harmonies are similar to the earliest recorded version by the Manhattan Harmony Four (1923), but the PRO’s rendition brings full glory to the Johnson brother’s masterful composition which became the national anthem of the African-American community.
As with previous volumes, the CD is accompanied by a 48-page booklet with meticulously researched biographies of the composers, several previously unknown to me. Once again, Rick Benjamin and The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra offer a carefully curated project celebrating the many composers of Black Manhattan, shedding light on lesser known composers and works, and advancing the study of American music of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss