The Brilliant, Surreal Roots of Jazz and Third-Stream Sounds Rescued From Obscurity on the Latest Black Manhattan Collection
Since the 1980s, pianist Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra have built a vast living archive of rare ragtime and theatre music from the late 1800s to the early 1920s. Possibly hundreds of these pieces might have been lost forever if not for Benjamin’s tireless sleuthing. He and the orchestra have a new album, Black Manhattan, Volume 3, streaming at Spotify, continuing an amazing tradition that’s just as fun to hear as it is to read about – his exhaustive liner notes are essential for anyone seriously interested in New York music history.
Benjamin named the series after James Weldon Johnson’s 1930 history of New York black artistic life. This latest volume – the first and second are both streaming at Spotify – follows the pattern of previous editions, a dynamic mix of dance numbers, colorful theatrical themes and ballads, many of them marking the magic moments where ragtime and blues began to morph into jazz.
The composers run the gamut from the legendary to the most obscure. It may come as a shock to discover that the world premiere recording of the original 1900 score of Lift Every Voice and Sing is on this album. Incredibly, it’s been over a century since J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson wrote the iconic secular hymn. It reveals itself as peppier than you might think, sung with operatic passion by the album’s four vocalists: sopranos Janai Brugger and Andrea Jones, tenor Chauncey Packer and baritone Edward Pleasant. For anyone wondering how far afield from the blues the quartet are, the answer is that by 1900, the western bel canto style had become so pervasive in urban areas in this country that most professional singers were trying to emulate it.
The rest of this lavish archive includes a grand total of 22 tracks, from cakewalks to struts to foxtrots. The oldest song is James Bland’s Oh Dem Golden Slippers, published in 1879, its puckish signification matched by the band’s slyly jaunty interpretation. The most recent is a bubbly, violin-driven version of famed pianist Eubie Blake’s I’m Just Wild About Harry, proof that Presidential candidates long before Bill Clinton were mining the pop hits of a previous generation for their campaign songs.
Many of the composers immortalized here were members of the Clef Club, a black counterpart to the fledgling New York music unions of the era. Black musicians here could be in charge of the music at the Ziegfield Follies, and stage Carnegie Hall concerts, but weren’t allowed to join the white-controlled unions. Luckey Roberts, a major Clef Club figure, is represented by a handful of tracks, among them the Tremolo Trot, which is actually more staccato – and Italian. By contrast, his 1919 song Jewel fo the Big Blue Nile, sung by Brugger, is a lavish, orchestrated take on stark 19th century spiritual sounds.
Packer matches the careful, mutedly plaintive cadences of Benjamin’s piano in Gussie L. Davis’ 1896 waltz In the Baggage Coach Ahead, inspired by a morbid poem of the time. A brisk, blustery take of J. Turner Layton’s 1918 hit After You’ve Gone – popularized by Bessie Smith and thousands after her – sits side by side with Will H. Dixon’s lushly enigmatic Delicioso: Tango Aristocratico, from four years previously. Likewise, the themes run the gamut from Scott Joplin’s perhaps intentionally balmy Wall Street Rag to the boisterously lavish Overture to My Friend from Kentucky, a 1913 musical.
Plenty of marquee names have passed through this band over the years. Vince Giordano is an alum; the great clarinetist Vasko Dukovski gets to flex his blues chops here. The rest of the cast seems to be having a great time, including Keiko Tokunaga and Melissa Tong on violin; Colin Brookes on viola; Lisa Caravan on cello; Max Jacob on bass; Leslie Cullen on flute and piccolo; Paul Murphy and Michael Blutman on cornets; Michael Boschen on trombone; Mike Dobson on drums and Diane Scott on piano. Fans of the surreal third-stream mashups that are being mined by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – featured on this page yesterday – will find an amazing precedent to all that here.