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|Novelty Piano Pieces|
|Nola - A Silhouette for the Piano Lyrics|
Felix Arndt - 1915: What the Mississippi Rag is to piano ragtime, Nola is to the genre of Novelty piano solos. While actually not a true novelty rag, it was certainly a pioneering effort in that direction and one of the most well known pieces of a style that would ultimately become a display of pianistic prowess. Arndt started out as a self-taught pianist and later studied with some of the best teachers in New York. He became a staff musician for the Duo-Art reproducing piano company, cutting many spectacular rolls totaling 3000 in all during his short tenure there. Nola was composed for his fiance of the time, Nola Locke, who was both a vocal teacher and professional concert singer. This piano solo caught on very quickly, and lyrics were later added to a simplified version of it. There was even a modified fox trot edition in the early 1920s. Unfortunately for all, Arndt's life was cut short during the world-wide flu epidemic of 1918. Based on his few published compositions, he certainly had the potential to equal the talents of Billy Mayerl or Zez Confrey, both successful novelty and jazz composers.
Edward Elzear "Zez" Confrey - 1921: This was Confrey's first novelty piano publication, preceding his benchmark Kitten on the Keys by perhaps a couple weeks, and released simultaneously as the B side to a KOTK recording. Composed in a typically horrid key (B minor for starters), it is a good example of the art of pitch bending on a piano through the use of alternating chords. The opening figure, used several times throughout the first half, demonstrates his control over dissonance, which is organized into a very listenable format. In the B section, one can hear the pattern that would also represent the foundation for Kitten on the Keys and other pieces. There are several innovative plays here on common syncopated patterns, creating a sound that was entirely Confrey's. The C section is simple, followed by a grandiose ending that brings all of the styles in the piece together one last time. This final section was originally preceded by a rather difficult strain that appears only in piano roll form, and was dropped from both the music and the initial phonograph recording. Based on just these two pieces, the Confrey household must have had some rather rambunctious animals running about!
|Kitten On The Keys Lyrics|
Edward Elzear "Zez" Confrey - 1921: Novelty ragtime is typically traced back to Felix Arndt's Nola (1915) and the initial pieces of George Cobb (Russian Rag, Rubber Plant, etc.). However, the true master of the popular novelty was Confrey. He also wrote a great deal of serious work throughout his life, but is best remembered for Kitten On The Keys, My Pet, Nickel in the Slot, and Dizzy Fingers. One of the most memorable novelty pieces around, Kitten was an instant hit, partially because it was released almost concurrently with a phonograph record of the tune played by the composer. Prior to this, publishers viewed piano rolls, and in particular, phonograph records as potentially detrimental to sheet music sales. In spite of its difficulty, KOTK sold very well, likely because of the recordings rather than in spite of it. As was a common practice of the time, it was released as a song a year after its debut. Confrey probably played on more piano rolls than we will ever know about, and developed his unique style by "tricking up" rags with fuller arrangements to create rolls that would sell better. Kitten starts with a consistent three over four pattern found in earlier rags such as Black and White or 12th Street. I have reversed direction in a few of the riffs here for interest. It is the trio that is most challenging with its octave heavy left hand in the opening measures. And now for a "kitten" story, Max Morath tells of a cat in his youth in Colorado Springs, name of Alexander, that liked his mothers gentle playing, and loved listening to classical music, but seemed to hate ragtime. In fact, he would often hiss and arch his back at the very sound of it, particularly when Max played. The family finally just called this "Alexander's ragtime bend." :-)
Roy Bargy - 1920/1922: So what exactly are Jim Jams? In England that is one way they refer to pajamas. However, the more common American terminology is slang of the 1920s meaning the shakes or the heebie jeebies, possibly derived from the affliction known as Delirium Tremens (the title of another delightful novelty piece). This is one of the extraordinary series of Piano Syncopations that oft-overlooked composer Roy Bargy penned from 1919 to 1922. While not enjoying longevity of fame in the general public, ragtime and novelty pianists still visit these works frequently. Copyrighted in 1920, this one was finally published two years later. My first exposure was Ray Turner's fabulous (although sped up) take on the first ragtime LP, Honky Tonk Piano, from 1950. The composer also recorded a nice turn on the tune in 1924. Little innovation is required to augment the well-conceived score, although I have found a couple of tricks here and there. Of note in the B section is a device sometimes used by "Jelly Roll" Morton, placing the chord on the downbeat and the bass octave afterwards. It is very effective in the context of the section. So don your jammies and work out those jim jams!
Roy Bargy - 1922: This is clearly the universal favorite of the eclectic series of Piano Syncopations that composer Roy Bargy composed. As with Jim Jams and Rufenreddy, I first heard this played by Ray Turner, among the best of interpreters of Bargy's works, and on his only complete solo ragtime LP for Capitol, Kitten on the Keys, from 1953. This one is clearly all Bargy in parentage, and not a note is wasted within. Of notice is the relentless nature of the piece, never letting up, but requiring more of the pianist than just what is written on the page. In order to keep focus on the right hand trickery, some of Bargy's arrangements (and even recordings) seem to be a bit thinner on the left hand, requiring a little extra fill in in terms of octaves and tenths. There are plenty of moving octaves within as well. Note that it opens and closes with the 32 bar A section, with no repeats of it in-between. There are similarities in concept with the outrageous "rubber-band" trio of Luckey Roberts' Pork and Beans, building into a frenzy throughout the section. I'm not to sure what the name indicates, but if you can find the piano amidst all the notes, that may explain it somewhat.
Roy Bargy and Charley Straight - 1918/1922: Another very descriptive name signifies one of the more famous of the fantastic series of Piano Syncopations that composer Roy Bargy penned, at least for the most part, in the 1920s. As with Jim Jams and Pianoflage, I first heard this played by the great interpreter and friend of the composer, Ray Turner, on his only complete solo ragtime LP for Capitol, Kitten on the Keys, from 1953. The actual parentage of this piece will likely remain obscured to some degree, since Bargy's collaborator, Charley Straight, more or less may have let Bargy take credit when the piano rolls of the Eight Piano Syncopations were transcribed into sheet music form. It is likely that Straight wrote the bulk of the composition in 1918, and Bargy added many of his individual touches to it in the performance, the end result being that there is some of each of them within. So get good and ready to get Rufenreddy.
|Coaxing the Piano|
Edward Elzear "Zez" Confrey - 1922: Kitten on the Keys had caught on by this time, both on player piano rolls and phonograph records. The sheet music also sold briskly, as everyone from the caliber of professional vaudeville pianists to parlor players wanted to see and hear just what made it work. Encouraged by this, Mills Music asked for, and Zez provided, more of the same. Most of his pieces of this era saw a triple simultaneous release, represented by sheet music, phonograph recordings, and piano rolls. Coaxing the Piano is of a higher difficulty than Kitten on the Keys, and is in the often challenging key of Db. The A section figure is simple, and easily learned. It's the descending figure in the last four bars of this section which give it that unique Confrey edge. The B section is little more than octave chasing between the hands, but the interlude into the C section picks up the pace again in terms of skill level. The C section itself is simple, but leaves big holes for improvisation on the repeat, as heard here. Aptly named, Coaxing the Piano will certainly get everything possible out of the instrument.
Edward Elzear "Zez" Confrey - 1923: While novelty piano pieces were becoming the rage of the early 1920s, Confrey's in particular, there was still an underlying problem with them. Many people had a copy of Kitten on the Keys or My Pet on their piano, but largely for show, as they were just too darn difficult for the average pianist to perform at a listenable speed. In spite of good, even stellar sheet music sales, most performances of this nature were actually heard via piano rolls or gramophone recordings. Confrey, a brilliant pianist and piano roll arranger, was likely aware of this when he composed Dizzy Fingers. It is simple enough that I have heard some talented ten year-olds whip it off at a decent clip. All one needs to perform this is a little sense of rhythm (it contains virtually no syncopation), and a grasp of fundamental scales and arpeggios (and yet I seem to be able to perform it fairly well...). The difference in interpretation is less a matter of speed and more of bringing out the many carefully placed accents in the score, which will often unearth a counter-melody over the moving figures. I have added some additional counter-melodies and a couple of surprises within. I always warn folks that want to take pictures of me playing this that they better have high speed film!
|Nickel in the Slot Lyrics|
Edward Elzear "Zez" Confrey - 1923: Confrey recalled a favorite nickelodeon or (automated orchestra device) which he had listened to often in his teens, and that had continually fascinated him. This piece is an attempt to emulate the sound of that roll-playing device on the verge of breakdown. It is somewhere between being nearly out of control and a broken record, a fascinating effect. His recording, released concurrently with the music, displays this effect through his flawless technique. Confrey got his start primarily as a roll arranger, and in his career in that position he cut so many great arrangements that even today, nobody knows what all of them are. Some of his pieces are actually made up of patterns that are less difficult to play than they sound, making them accessible to pianists of average or greater ability. The A section is a relentless variation of the famous Kitten on the Keys lick that employs constant motion, even through the break. The B section employs a lot of rapid triplet figures to balance out the underlying three over four pattern employed throughout. The beginning of the C section is innovative as it does not establish the new key right away. It has a rather difficult break using even more triplet figures. It was popular enough that it was released as a song also, with lyrics by Leo Wood, composer of Somebody Stole My Gal. If this were composed today, would it be called Dollar in the Slot to adjust for inflation? :-)
|Dog on the Piano|
Ted Shapiro - 1924: It was inevitable, dontcha think? In 1921 Kitten on the Keys became a runaway hit for its composer (Zez Confrey) and Jack Mills Music due to good exposure on piano rolls and records. So three years later, the other shoe dropped and the competition (the canine cartel - still Mills Music, however) had their say. Confrey and fellow composers Roy Bargy and Charley Straight set a pretty high bar for novelty piano composition, and Shapiro approached this as best he could. While this dog is not quite so dogged as other novelty compositions, it did well because of the cute cover and the fact that it was actually easier to play than the more complex entries in the catalog. The only real novelty hallmarks within occur in the shortened but well-crafted B section, and the interlude. The trio makes nice use of off-beat pulses and gaps. The final iteration of the opening section has a rich variation that contrasts with the sparser first iteration. Dog on the Piano represents half of Shapiro's published output. Although he was a talented recording pianist, composing was not something he engaged in very often. All in all though, it's a good piece to bone up on.
Copyright ©1924/1951 by Belwin Mills/Warner Music.
|Bluin' the Black Keys|
Arthur Schutt - 1926: While Schutt was not a prolific composer, he was still an extraordinary and challenging one. He was known more for his awesome technique on records, which brought new life to the pieces of Phil Ohman, Roy Bargy and other contemporaries. This piece and Ghost of the Piano from the previous year remain his best known, and Bluin' perhaps his most feared. Starting out with an intimidating set of long reaching left hand chords it doesn't let up for at least three minutes. When dissected, this piece, like most novelties, is made up largely of patterns. Executing those patterns is still a challenge, but adding some variations here and there to tune it to a particular player's style does help, as I've done on the repeats for both the A and B sections. Going into the trio, both the player and listener are delighted and challenged by a series of whole tone chords and scales. Then the real fireworks begin in the 32 bar trio. I worked with this piece for a couple of years before my arm was broken in 2002, but took it up again in 2008 and found it to be a little less scary, so have run with it. Or at least sauntered. It is also now in the live repertoire, so one can hear it at one of my concerts or festival appearances, but no guarantees on whether me or the piano come out alive!
Copyright ©1926/1954 by Robbins Music Corporation.
George Linus Cobb - 1929: There are very few meanings for snuggle pup or snuggle-pups (the latter related to female anatomy), but it is essentially an affectionate person, or a dog, that likes to cuddle or be held. The more likely application of the title here is related to a 1920s newspaper comic strip called Snuggle Pups, whose characters also appeared in a 1923 show called Make it Snappy with Eddie Cantor featuring a song of the same title. In the case of this piece, Snuggle Pup is simply a title, not a description, but an attractive combination either way. While Cobb started as a ragtime composer, he became quite adept, starting with Russian Rag, at composing novelty piano pieces such as this. One of the secrets to a successful novelty is the wink and nod to the consumer-pianist who buys it and finds that it is much easier to play than it sounds. This is a relatively short piece at only two sections, but unlike many more complex novelties, it allows some room for improvisation, as you'll hear within, including my little nod to Dardanella, also popular at the time. So snuggle up, kick off your Hush Puppies, and enjoy.
Copyright ©1929/1955 by Walter Jacobs/Warner Music.
Edward Elzear "Zez" Confrey - 1931: Although Confrey was widely known for his novelty piano works, he occasionally went in other artistic directions. Buffoon is not quite a novelty piece, not quite a rag, and not quite a song. In its most famous guise it was used as a backdrop for the opening of the 1935 Ub Iwerks cartoon Balloon Land (sometimes known as The Pincushion Man). In the piano rendition one can hear how fitting Buffoon is as early animation music. Iwerks cartoons, like those of his contemporary Max Fleischer, were known for their astounding dimensionality in both foreground and background drawings, as well as bizarre characters that occasionally instilled nightmares in their target audience - children. This particular one in two-strip Technicolor is not great art but certainly psychedelic (or psychotic) in nature. From Steamboat Willie (1927) through the mid 1930s, cartoons often had a pulsating musical background with action to match. Buffoon is a simple three part tune in rondo form, with a very simple (for Confrey) left hand. Listening to it, one can imagine the bizarre little Pincushion Man rhythmically bopping around the screen popping perfectly innocent balloon people just for the sheer meanness of the act. Buffoon also makes for good creepy background music.
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