Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Like a Coke bottle striking the head of a Kalihari bushman, I took in my mail the other day and found that a letter of introduction and two new CDs had tumbled unannounced from the heavens. The package was a fan letter from someone of whom I was myself already a fan, Rick Benjamin, founder, director, conductor etc etc of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra.
I’m sure I alarmed him when I told him the first time I saw (heard) his band perform I bust out bawling. I’m not insane, just an incurable sentimentalist. There is no stronger physical evidence of the metaphysical power of music to transcend time and space than the PRO. Essentially, Benjamin’s modus operandi is to play American popular music from around the turn of the last century, with absolute, complete, scientific fidelity to the original. Aided by his vast personal collections of pit arrangements, old cylinders and disks, historical notations and recollections, etc, he gets the music as close as humanly possible to the original, with no compromises or sops to contemporary taste. You can find hundreds of crappy nostalgia records out there containing half-assed versions of Joplin, Eubie Blake and so forth, but they’re always adulterated by weak-sister choices — this mistaken idea that you “have to” meet the contemporary audience halfway. That just waters down the whiskey, man! The proof that Benjamin’s approach is the right one is the stunning power of his music. It is an EXPERIENCE. It is like living Jack Finney’s Time and Again.
So, I want to plug these two new CDs of their’s.
The first is Black Manhattan: Music of James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook, and Members of the Legendary Clef Club. The injustice of James Reese Europe’s present obscurity exceeds even that of Bert Williams’. In the years just prior to the advent of jazz he was the undisputed leader of black American music, not only one of its principle shapers, but its ambassador to the broader (white) world. For many years he was the leader of the celebrated Clef Club, a kind of union and professional organization for African American musicians. The record here contains not only music composed by Europe, but by his Clef Club cohorts, such as Will Marion Cook, best known as the composer of Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk. See this blog in February for a birthday post on Europe himself. Or buy the disk now and read Benjamin’s extremely thorough liner notes.
Even more amazing is their new release You’re a Grand Old Rag: The Music of George M. Cohan. This disk delivers Cohan’s music as you’ve never heard it, mostly because later producers and arrangers have considered modern tastes “too sophisticated” for the Father of Broadway’s music as it was intended to be played. (And they consider themselves too sophisticated for Cohan in general — a universal error I would love to contribute to correcting.) Best of all they got this guy Collin Pritchard to do “Cohan’s” vocals — and he is a ringer — a ringer. He nails the Rhode Island accent like a native (something this native Rhode Islander considers an extreme rarity), and speak-sings even better than Cagney. And for dessert, a very funny six minute speech by Cohan himself, delivered in 1938. He ends it with something I thought I would never hear with my own ears — Cohan’s age-old sign-off: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you…” And so I began the day by weeping in my kitchen. I take it back — I am insane!
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.