Graded on a Curve:
Terry Waldo,
The Soul of Ragtime

It’s been said that without the blues there would be no jazz, and while that’s a solid statement, just as important to the scenario is ragtime. The creators of this turn of the 20th century popular music are all long departed, but through the talents of veteran pianist Terry Waldo ragtime endures as a living art form. As the leader of assorted groups he’s been in the record business since the dawn of the 1970s, and his latest for the Tompkins Square label is an outstanding solo effort appropriately titled The Soul of Ragtime.

“I wanted some of that old, basic ragtime feeling…”
—Andrew Hill, on his composition “New Monastery”

By the early 1920s ragtime’s popularity had largely subsided. And to this day some simply consider it to be an early manifestation of the consistently developing music that overtook it, namely jazz, but it was in fact a unique entity. Along with blues and spirituals, ragtime’s impact upon the subsequent flowering of jazz is indisputable.

To “rag” a tune was to syncopate it and make it more vibrant and suitable for dancing, an African-American trend that by the end of the 1800s had developed into its own genre.  Even after its commercial fortunes had declined, rags remained a part of any well-rounded songster’s repertoire. Far into the 1930s, numerous guitarists later lumped into the category of country blues (Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller are two examples) employed the form as part of larger creative arsenals.

The retrospective renown of sophisticated ragtime dates back to World War II. However, its deepest appreciation came in the 1970s and mainly around the resurgence of interest in easily the genre’s most famous practitioner Scott Joplin. If ragtime was a popular music of its period, Joplin was ahead of it; his prominence while alive was based almost entirely on the 1899 publication of “The Maple Leaf Rag,” a steadily selling piece that more importantly proved influential upon the writing of many subsequent rags.

1970 produced both the 2LP The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin, the Greatest of Ragtime Composers, performed by Knocky Parker and the single disc Scott Joplin: Piano Rags, performed by Joshua Rifkin. Due in part to its release by classical label Nonesuch, the Rifkin shifted 100,000 units in its first year alone and by the end of the decade had sold a million copies.

In 1973 The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble under the direction of noted jazz historian, author and horn player Gunther Schuller recorded Joplin: The Red Back Book. Derived from an earlier collection Standard High-Class Rags, it went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance and was also named Billboard’s Top Classical Album of 1974.

Also appearing in 1973 was George Roy Hill’s film The Sting, the Paul Newman/Robert Redford-starring multiple Oscar-winning box office smash. Featuring a Joplin-based score via Marvin Hamlisch, it produced a left-field #3 hit single in “The Entertainer.” But this revival didn’t revolve completely around Joplin. For instance, E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 historical novel Ragtime referenced the music and evoked its period to popular and critical success.

There was also Eubie Blake. A pianist born in 1887 who straddled the eras of ragtime and jazz, unlike Joplin (who died in 1917 at age 49), he lived to the ripe old age of 96. In 1921 he wrote the Broadway musical Shuffle Along in collaboration with Noble Sissle. In 1979 he performed on Saturday Night Live with Gregory Hines.

One of Blake’s protégés was Terry Waldo, though by the time they met in 1969 the younger pianist had been playing in bands for nearly a decade. Forming The Fungus Five Plus Two in ‘61, he appeared with the group on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour two years later shortly after graduating from high school. From there he moved to New Orleans and then to San Francisco, where he worked in Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band. The year Waldo met Blake he returned to Ohio and formed the Gutbucket Syncopators.

As a historian, Waldo also assisted ragtime’s lasting popularity throughout the ‘70s. To start, his 26-part NPR series This is Ragtime served as the basis for the ’76 book of the same title. A major accomplishment that’s been awarded two subsequent editions, its most recent publication by Jazz at Lincoln Center Press is accompanied by an introduction from Wynton Marsalis. In the forward by Blake the book’s achievement is highlighted: “I believe Terry has written the real story on ragtime.”

But Waldo also taught through his music. Dividing his time between Ohio and New York City, in addition to the Gutbucket Syncopators he also formed Waldo’s Ragtime Orchestra and The Gotham City Jazz Band, two more groups helping to counteract the faulty notion that ragtime was solely based upon solo piano performance.

The Soul of Ragtime does find the pianist all alone. However, there is no shortage of educational insights throughout its duration. It opens with the traditional “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and in ragging this gospel warhorse Waldo offers the listener an immediate and rewarding three-way intersection between spirituals, ragtime, and the birth of jazz.

Amongst its hundreds of recordings by a variety of artists, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” remains a staple composition in the jazz funerals of New Orleans. Here, Waldo’s beautiful rendering expresses deep and individual feeling while establishing his playing as being devoid of gimmickry. Prior to the fairly studious atmosphere of the ‘70s, ragtime appreciation was and can still be, to borrow a term from Tompkins Square’s press materials, corny. In the ‘40s/’50s, the music was frequently offered via deliberately out-of-tune player pianos to spuriously promote the air of some nostalgic old barrelhouse.

On The Soul of Ragtime, Waldo is having none of that. The press kit does mention such terms as “dissonant” and “harmonically complex,” but don’t get the idea the pianist is grafting unnatural strands of modernity onto his presentation. His playing consistently avoids becoming overly reverent, but it also never strains for contemporary relevance.

As Blake explained in his forward to This is Ragtime, Waldo knew the notes before they met. But just as crucially, he also developed into a master of essence. As the Andrew Hill quote above illustrates, in the same manner as gospel, blues, and jazz, ragtime requires an appropriate application of feeling (“it don’t mean a thing,” y’know?), and if a sense of studiousness does envelop this confident yet casually unwinding collection, the pianist also wisely keeps the proceedings out of the museum.

Amongst the tunes here are four from the pen of Blake, “I’m Just Wild about Harry,” “Dream Rag,” “Memories of You,” and “The Charleston Rag,” the last one a tune Waldo was playing prior to meeting its writer. There’re also fine readings of other composers including Jelly Roll Morton (“The Pearls”), J. Russell Robinson (“That Eccentric Rag”), and of course Joplin (“Paragon Rag”).

But Waldo’s originals are perhaps the album’s most interesting aspect, with tracks like the tender “Janice Waltz,” the swinging and indeed dissonant “Ruby Lorraine” and two brilliant studies upon form, “Ragtime Ralph” and “Proctology,” fitting in seamlessly with The Soul of Ragtime’s various interpretations of standard material.

The program also holds excellent rags of Mozart (“The Turkish Rondo Rag”) and Wagner (“The Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser”), plus a version of J.P. Sousa’s “Stars & Stripes Forever” that miraculously avoids getting mired in cliché as it manages to offer major insight into the talent of its occasionally derided composer. Nothing radical occurs, but that’s not Waldo’s agenda; instead, the result is refreshingly listenable.

Fittingly, the Sousa is followed by a take upon J.W. Lerman’s “The Flat Iron March and Two-Step,” with this gesture just one example of the set’s depth and appeal. A great starter resource for novices, due to Waldo’s proficient execution it’ll also likely to go down a storm with ragtime fans of long-standing. In 2014 potential newbies greatly outweigh the buffs, but the latter group’s number will no doubt be increased by hearing The Soul of Ragtime.


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