Reminiscing in Ragtime
As Told to George W. Kay

Jazz Journal

Reminiscing in Ragtime


As Told to George W. Kay

Roy J. Carew, age 80, former Government auditor living in Washington, is one of the leading authorities of early ragtime, blues and New Orleans life and customs. He first became interested in ragtime as a youth in New Orleans. In 1904 he met Tony Jackson and he followed the career of this legendary figure until Jackson left New Orleans in 1909 to reside permanently in Chicago. Several years later, in 1937, Carew became a close friend and benefactor of Jelly Roll Morton during the time Jelly was struggling with his night club in Washington. Carew was responsible for encouraging Jelly to revive those marvelous ‘Spanish Tinge’ tunes for the Library of Congress and several of the rags and blues included in the New Orleans Memories album for General. It is no accident that Carew is mentioned frequently by author Rudi Blesh in ‘They All Played Ragtime’, the most important and definitive book ever written on ragtime.

This interview is directed primarily toward the origins and influences of the various styles of ragtime. Were the Midwestern, New Orleans and East Coast styles developed independently or were they interrelated and extensions of several styles? Did the so-called ‘classic’ ragtime provide the source material for the music of the early marching bands in New Orleans? Did Tony Jackson, who has been credited as a major resource in shaping Morton’s piano style, play classic Midwestern ragtime or Eastern stride piano? These are some of the subjects discussed by Roy Carew, one of the few surviving ragtime authorities who can rely on his own memory for the true facts and not the memory of others.

Q.  Tell us about your arrival to New Orleans and your observations relating to ragtime?

Carew:  The questions of how ragtime progressed in New Orleans comes up occasionally and you have asked me to comment on some of the aspects of New Orleans ragtime with which I was a bit familiar. I lived in New Orleans from September 1904 to August 1919. First, I’ll say that ragtime basically is syncopation — an uneven melody over a regular beat. Syncopation is old and the name ragtime came into use in the late 1890s. In New Orleans, the ragtime beat was known and used very early. Louis Gottschalk, in his composition, La Bamboula, wrote ragtime into several measures of the score. He was a native of New Orleans and the number was supposed to have been inspired by the dances in Congo Square by slaves. It was published in the 1850s.

In 1885 a tune called The Cactus, composed by W. T. Francis, was published in New Orleans and the piece was a sort of Mexican dance with a ragtime treble and Spanish bass. Both Gottschalk and Francis were highly educated musicians. I mention these two numbers to show that New Orleans had good musicians long before 1900 who were familiar with the ragtime beat.

Were there unskilled musicians who actually originated or composed popular tunes?

Carew:  Although there were many well educated musicians in New Orleans, there were also competent musicians who could play instruments acceptably, but who couldn’t read music. They learned their tunes by listening to those who could play from music or who could compose something catchy. Consequently, a class of musicians developed who could follow the tune, but would take liberties with it, improvising according to their individual ability. Just what compositions those untutored musicians played will never be known.

When I arrived in New Orleans in 1904, the local bands were still playing, or trying to play, the popular tunes of the day. Many of the tunes were composed by New Orleans writers, such as Bob Hoffman, Fred Schmidt and Al Verges. Other New Orleans composers were A. H. Tournade who wrote Easy Money (Ragtime Sonata) and Opus 38, and Laurent Comes who wrote Playful Willie. Sam Gompers and Sebastian Lutz also had ragtime numbers published. These were early composers whose numbers I was familiar with. There were earlier ones, for example, Paul Sarebresole, who composed Roustabout Rag, published by Grunewald in 1897, the year the first rags were published. I feel perfectly safe in saying that there was never any dearth of good ragtime players in New Orleans in the early days who could also score for the piano. Even if the ignorant player composed a good tune, he would have no trouble getting someone to arrange it for him. And if a good player who couldn’t read music wanted to learn a popular tune of the day, he would have had no trouble getting someone who could read to play it for him until he knew it.

What kind of music were the early bands playing in New Orleans?

Carew:  Many small bands in New Orleans were playing popular tunes of the day in rather crude ragtime. I saw every Mardi Gras parade from 1905 to 1917 (the 1918 and 1919 parades were called off because of World War I). I heard those marching bands which doubtless included Jack Laine’s and I knew they played rather poor ragtime. But they did play popular tunes in their fashion — tunes like Bill Bailey. If they played traditional New Orleans tunes that had not been copyrighted I don’t recall them. If I liked a tune I heard I seldom had any trouble buying it from a local music store. If the traditional tunes they played were blues, they were not ‘popular tunes’ until W. C. Handy showed they could be published for good money, in 1912. Incidentally, many of the tunes played by the smaller marching bands were popular ragtime songs, not classic rags such as those composed by Joplin and out-of-town writers. Ragtime songs were the rage, and they were the numbers the public would ask for. Songs like Bill Bailey, Ain’t That A Shame, Good Bye Dolly Gray, songs that were sung in the minstrel shows, vaudeville shows, etc., at The Orpheum, The Crescent, and other show places. There were also a few rags that were played, but Panama was composed by a Jamaican Negro named William H. Tyers, and published in New York. High Society was composed by Porter Steele, a New York composer, and the stirring clarinet part appears in an early New York orchestration for the piccolo. The Original Dixieland One-Step is a 2-minute selection, of which 3/5 was taken directly from Joe Jordan’s Teasing Rag, published as early as 1909.

Do you think the ragtime era, which supposedly started in Sedalia, Missouri and later developed in St. Louis, existed prior to the development in New Orleans and New York?

Carew:  I think the idea was developing in the minstrel shows in the Midwest with these songs that had ragtime in them. Of course, the minstrel shows wanted lively dances, so they developed ragtime songs. The first publications, though, did not have ragtime accompaniment. For example, Turkey In The Straw and Buffalo Gals had ragtime melody that they sang with chords for the accompaniment. Now, the banjo was a popular instrument in early ragtime development as an instrument to listen to. But I don’t think it was an instrument most people would buy to play at home. The piano and organ were the popular instruments in the home.

Of course, the early rag writers were not all honky tonk players. Musicians of all classes saw the possibilities, and minstrel and vaudeville performers were already singing ragtime songs. But the classic ragtime developed in the Midwest.

Is it true that pioneer Midwestern ragtime players such as Scott Joplin, Louis Chauvin and Tom Turpin, played as composers with the written score in mind?

Carew:  They did just after Joplin published his first rag. Of course, Turpin had published his first piece before Joplin. His composition was The Harlem Rag, published in St. Louis in 1897. It was a very good rag and fairly simple. After that time, in 1898, Joplin put two of his tunes into scores — The Original Rags and Maple Leaf Rag. He sold Original to Jenkins in Kansas City and Maple Leaf to John Stark. That really started the trend in the Midwest. The fellows who were playing in the honky tonks and sporting houses saw a good chance to get their tunes published too, and Stark was willing to publish them. Most of those players were tutored to the extent they could read.

Did the New Orleans pianists play like Joplin?

Carew:  I don’t know of anyone around New Orleans who played like Joplin. He was a precise player but I don’t know how he played. However, he played well enough to be in demand for dances and that sort of thing. Someone from Memphis once told me that if the people there could get Joplin for one of their dances they were satisfied. I imagine he played just about as he wrote. He probably didn’t vary his style a great deal. However, the New Orleans players were all fakers to some extent. They would get a tune and play it by ear more or less, because so many of them were untrained.

Did Tony Jackson adopt the Midwestern ragtime style of Joplin or the stride piano style of James P. Johnson?

Carew:  I would say Tony sounded more like Johnson. I am judging what Joplin wrote as I never heard him play except on player piano rolls. When Joplin put his tune into print he was satisfied with it and he didn’t try any variations. Tony Jackson put a lot of his natural ideas into his playing from what he learned from notes. I know he sang many songs that he had to learn from the music. And I know he wrote rags because he tried to sell them to the music houses in New Orleans but they wouldn’t take them.

Rudi Blesh, in his book ‘They All Played Ragtime’, speaks of Tony Jackson’s ragtime style containing the single walking bass, the double walking bass, broken octaves, etc. Do you recall these devices in Tony’s playing?

Carew:  I don’t recall hearing the double walking bass anywhere, but I may not understand the meaning of the term as Blesh uses it. Tony played a good firm bass and he used a descending sort of way in ending a piece. I tried to imitate it in New Orleans but I never could learn it. James P. Johnson’s playing of Keep Off The Grass sounded a lot like Tony. Johnson’s music was written in good ragtime style and is about as he played it. Or you can take Jelly Roll’s scores as good examples of what Tony’s piano style would have sounded like if written down. The best examples are found in King Porter Stomp, Kansas City Stomps and Grandpa’s Spells. However, The Pearls was a little sort of variation, a different sort of change in harmony and I never heard anything like it in New Orleans. King Porter Stomp was more on the order of the type of ragtime that was played by Tony Jackson in New Orleans. The reason that tune is a good example is because of the reminiscenses (reminiscences) of Joplin with the broken chords.

The walking bass didn’t make much of an impression upon me until Artie Matthews introduced Pastime Rag No. I. The last part of that rag had the walking bass. A popular song in the East called That Peculiar Rag, written by Erdman and Fagan around 1910, had a few measures of walking bass.

Blesh refers to the earliest ragtime in both the East and Midwest as a rocking music in medium tempo known as slow drags in the East. He states that the Eastern development was a different sort from the Midwest; that the Eastern shout was based on a different rhythm from the classic Midwest ragtime.

Carew:  The slow drag was one of the earliest forms in the Midwest. I don’t believe there was anything published in the East with the name Slow Drag as early as the Sunflower Slow Drag written by Joplin around 1900. There was another slow drag published by Jacobs in Kansas City around 1903 called Peaceful Henry. I can’t recall offhand any early Eastern tune that bore the title of Slow Drag. Of course, the name Shout was used for early ragtime songs even in the commercial field. Ragtime shouters were featured in minstrels and vaudeville. They were called coon shouters.

The ragtime songs as they were developed in minstrel shows were published in New York as early as anywhere else. New York was the Mecca for performers of all classes. Chicago also published music but not to the extent of New York as a publishing centre. Ragtime songs were being published in New York as early as 1896 and soon thereafter the Joplin and other St. Louis rags began to appear. One thing that bolsters my claim that New York heard ragtime from the Midwest is the fact that Tom Turpin’s tune, Harlem Rag, had a picture on the original cover showing a Harlem tenement scene with a clothes line and ragged clothes fluttering in the breeze. That indicates that Turpin at least made a trip to New York where he got the idea of the name, Harlem Rag. There was such a drifting and interchange of Eastern and Midwestern players, wherever there was money to be made.

Shepard N. Edmonds said that most of the early ragtime players in New York came from the Midwest to play for contests. Edmonds was an Eastern writer, player, publisher and promoter of ragtime contests in New York. I first met Edmonds in 1919. I was strolling around Times Square and I saw a sign in a second-floor window — ‘Shepard N. Edmonds Detective Office’. I went up and had quite a conversation with him. He was a Negro and he had been in some first rate vaudeville acts, in addition to publishing ragtime songs by Negro writers and promoting ragtime contests. It stands to reason that the New York players who went to these contests were out to get ideas. So it’s very hard to say that a unique New York style developed when so many Midwestern players came to the contests and gave them hints.

We know that James P. Johnson was one of the pioneers of the stride piano and that he was an accomplished musician — ragtime or otherwise. Do you recall the beginning of the Charleston beat?

Carew:  I think it was around 1908 that Cecil MacPherson (Mack) and Chris Smith wrote a ragtime tune called You’re In The Right Church But In The Wrong Pew. That tune had the ragtime beat in the centre of the measure which was advanced a fraction and then held. It was the Charleston beat. In 1922 when they were writing music for the show Shuffle Along, MacPherson and James P. Johnson composed the Charleston which has the identical beat.

When Louis Chauvin came to New York in 1907, he joined with Chris Smith who was a contemporary of Edmonds and they wrote a song called Babe, It’s Too Long Off and they used that same Charleston beat. So the Charleston beat wasn’t anything new but the dance probably was.

Let’s talk about Jelly Roll and your association with him during the late ’30s when you persuaded him to resurrect those wonderful piano solos.

Carew:  One of the tunes I brought to Jelly’s attention was The Naked Dance. It was during 1937 when Jelly was struggling with his night club on U street in Washington. Actually the tune was composed by Tony Jackson especially for me when I knew him in New Orleans around 1904. Jelly made his version of the tune and called it The Naked Dance. One day he asked me for a copy of Maple Leaf to play for Lomax on the Library of Congress sessions. He played two versions of Maple Leaf — first as it was written and then he went ahead and played his version. He said, ‘In my estimation there is a world of difference.’ And there was, no doubt about it! He played Creepy Feeling about three times as long as any instrumental piece at that time.

When I first saw jelly at his club I could see that business was very bad. That was when I asked him to play some Joplin rags in his style. I took some tunes to him one night and when he played them through he liked them. However, he thought he could do better with his own songs. Then he showed me some of his tunes and asked me to write the lyrics. I wrote the words to the chorus of Why and If You Knew and the verse to Sweet Substitute, and changed a few words in the chorus. He wrote Swinging The Elks for the Negro Elks convention in New York and he went all over town trying to sell it but nobody would buy it. He was broken-hearted. He wrote a full orchestration for the tune but nothing happened. We formed the Tempo Music Publishing Company to protect Jelly Roll’s interests through copyrighting his tunes. It was a tragedy that it happened too late for Jelly to realise a decent return for his hard work against insurmountable handicaps.

The above article was published in the Jazz Journal magazine, dated November 1964, Vol. 17, No. 11, pages 8—9.

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