Ragtime and Novelty Piano solos by Phil Ohman, George L. Cobb, and others
wizard Phil Ohman (1896-1954) was among the most
popular entertainers of the 1920s and 1930s. Christened “Fillmore
Ohman,” he was born in
piano duet team, Ohman and Arden made a name for
themselves in vaudeville and small clubs. Their innovative harmonies,
virtuosity, and toe-tapping rhythms won them remarkable success in
comedy appearances. In 1924, they were featured in the pit orchestra
Gershwin musical Lady, Be Good, the
first of many shows in which they were involved. The other Gershwin
which they appeared were Funny Face, Tip-Toes,
Oh, Kay! and Treasure Girl. They
also appeared in the Rodgers and Hart show Spring Is Here.
Ohman appeared solo in
the Rodgers and Hart musical Heads Up.
In addition to their piano duet recordings, Brunswick Records also
to front a large studio dance orchestra, which recorded exclusively for
and Ohman went their separate ways in 1934, though a
brief reunion produced several recordings for the
Throughout his career, Ohman issued a small but steady stream of novelty piano solos. This CD may represent the first attempt to record every known piano solo composed by Ohman.
1. Piano Pan (copyright 1922 by Richmond-Robbins, Inc) Phil Ohman
In 1922, the fledgling music publisher Richmond-Robbins decided to capitalize on the success of Zez Confrey’s novelties by producing their own series of modern piano solos in the jazz idiom. They turned to Ohman, who provided them with three spectacular piano pieces. The charming “Piano Pan” is remarkable for its syncopation and for the advanced chromatic harmonies in the trio.
2. Up And Down The Keys (copyright 1922 by Richmond-Robbins, Inc) Phil Ohman
In a more introspective mood, “Up And Down The Keys” boasts a haunting first strain in a minor mode. The only known vintage recording was made in 1923 by Mike Loscalzo for the rare and short-lived Olympic record label.
3. Try and Play It (copyright 1922 by Richmond-Robbins, Inc) Phil Ohman
With its provocative title, “Try and Play It” features Ohman’s characteristic pyrotechnics and a very imaginative use of the whole tone scale. When new, it was recorded by Mike Loscalzo (Olympic 1426), Arthur Schutt (Regal G8032), Tom Waltham (Pathé 9608), and Willy White (Pathé 21102). Arden and Ohman also featured it in a piano duet version in their 1927 Vitaphone short Phil Ohman and Victor Arden, Piano Duettists.
4. Dixie Kisses (unpublished, circa 1919) Phil Ohman
This delightful novelty rag was never published or copyrighted. Ohman, however, did record it for the QRS piano roll company in 1919. The trio strain begins with a humorous quotation from the popular song “Everything is Peaches Down In Georgia” (1918).
5. Broken Glass (unpublished, circa 1924) Phil Ohman
provocatively bluesy “Broken Glass” and its companion
piece, “Jacquette” were never published. Neither was a copyright ever
for “Broken Glass.” Mercifully, this masterpiece was saved from
oblivion by the
discovery of a 78 RPM test pressing that Ohman made in 1924. This rare
found in the archives of Phil’s younger brother, Ernest Ohman, who had
inherited his brother’s possessions. In the same cache, three other
pressings were also discovered: “Jacquette “(about which we shall hear
piano solo recording of the 19th-century song “Silver
the Gold,” and an otherwise unidentified piece labeled as “Waltz in E
test pressings give no indication of their provenance or the company
recorded them. It is highly likely, however, that the tests were made
7. Ivory Chips — A Modern Piano Solo (copyright 1929 by Robbins Music Corp.) Phil Ohman
8. Sparkles (copyright 1935 by Robbins Music Corp.) Phil Ohman
While clearly in the novelty style, the trio section of “Sparkles” is full of the lush harmonies that distinguish the sophisticated popular music of the mid-1930s. While the ruck of novelty piano solos of the 1920s and 1930s generally sacrifice melody for largely non-melodic syncopated patterns, superior composers like Ohman understood the importance of a gorgeous, song-like melody line and had no difficulty combining melody with texture.
9. Dancing With A Deb
(copyright 1941 by
Ragtime evolved first into the popular jazz music of the 1920s and then, by the late 1930s, into swing. Ohman was perfectly comfortable in the new idiom of swing, as evinced by “Dancing With A Deb.” Its riffs, blue notes, syncopations, and four-beat stride owe much to the piano style that “Fats Waller” developed in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
10. Bluin’ The Black Keys (copyright 1926 by Robbins Music Corp.) Arthur Schutt
Schutt (1902-1965) began his professional music
career in 1915, at the age of 13, accompanying silent movies on the
1918, he was hired by the Paul Specht Orchestra. Throughout the 1920s,
worked with numerous bands, including the Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra.
late 1920s, Schutt was a sought after studio musician in
For such a marvelous piece, it is surprising to discover that “Bluin’ The Black Keys” never seems to have been recorded as a piano solo on record or piano roll. It was, however, recorded by Roger Wolfe Kahn and His Hotel Biltmore Orchestra as an instrumental dance number on 19 February 1926 for Victor Records (matrix 34635-1-2-3). Unfortunately, it was rejected, and the recording never issued.
11. Something Doing — A Ragtime Two Step (copyright 1903 by Val. A. Reis Music Co.) Scott Joplin and Scott Hayden.
While Scott Joplin (1869-1917) was busy completing his first ragtime opera, A Guest of Honor, he found time to collaborate with his friend Scott Hayden (1882-1915) on the fresh and inspired rag “Something Doing.” The second strain of this rag has a beautifully flowing melodic line that contrasts nicely with the final strain that is marked by a delightfully jaunty strutting rhythm.
12. The Trot — A Novelty One Step and Trot (Maxixe) (copyright 1916 by Will Rossiter) George L. Cobb
Linus Cobb (1886-1942) was a prolific composer best
known for his first-class ragtime compositions. He was also a prolific
of ragtime songs, collaborating chiefly with Jack Yellen. Their
success was in 1913 with “All Aboard For Dixie Land,” which was
into Rudolf Friml’s Broadway musical production High Jinks,
where Elizabeth Murray’s thrilling interpretation of
the song made it the unqualified hit of the show. Cobb scored his
instrumental hit with the “Russian Rag” in 1918 and spent the rest of
musical career as a staff composer for the
“The Midnight Trot” is a beautiful and tuneful rag whose publishers slapped the word “Maxixe” on the cover in the hope of capitalizing on the latest dance craze even though Cobb’s rag does not have any of the characteristic rhythms of this Brazilian dance. Cobb’s rag was used by Vaudeville toe dancer Mazie King during her 1916 season.
13. Static And Code
14. Hop House Blues
15. Owl On The Organ
The title was most likely chosen for its richness of flavor and semantic possibilities rather than as a deliberate evocation of the historic and scandalous origin of the term — invented in 1907 by defense attorney Delphin Michael Delmas at the end of the sensational trial of millionaire Harry K. Thaw (husband of ex-chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit) for the murder of famous architect Stanford White. In his summation, Delmas declared: “If Thaw is insane it is with a species of insanity that is known from the Canadian border to the Gulf. If you expert gentlemen ask me to give it a name, I suggest that you name it Dementia Americana. it is that species of insanity that persuades an American that whoever violates the sanctity of his home or the purity of his wife or daughter has forfeited the protection of the laws of this state or any other state.”
By 1925, the term entered the language and was now free of any association with the scandalous trial that electrified the nation 18 years earlier. The titles for the individual movements in Cobb’s suite remain puzzling. “Static and Code” refers to the technology of the telegraph. Indeed, the second strain of this movement evokes the tapping of the telegraph key. Each movement of the suite first appeared individually in serial form in Jacob’s magazine Melody. The descriptive blurb for “Static and Code” declared:
STATIC AND CODE — George L. Cobb. The first number in the new suite, Dementia Americana, by this well-known writer. The eccentric and pleasing melody, the restless harmony and the quickly moving staccato rhythm give this number pleasing originality and decided character. For all its brilliant effectiveness, it is not very difficult to play.
A “hop house” is a building used for the drying of hops, the key flavoring ingredient in beer. This meaning, however, is incongruous with the strong oriental flavor of Cobb’s music. The blurb in Melody succinctly described it as:
HOP-HOUSE BLUES. George L. Cobb. The second number in the Dementia Americana suite. A fine example of modernized, pleasing eccentricity in “Blues” writing.
origin of the term “Owl On The Organ” is unknown, but
Cobb’s music here is wonderfully evocative of haunted house music
silent films. “Savannah Sunset” must have had a personal meaning for
suspect, however, that a “Savannah Sunset” is a type of cocktail. The
of melancholy that pervades the beginning and end of this movement is
the uplifting middle section with its haunting church bell tonalities.
I am confident that this recording represents the world’s first commercial recording of Cobb’s masterpiece “Dementia Americana.”
17. Rackety Rag (unpublished, circa 1920) J. Milton Delcamp
Milton Delcamp (1892-1931) was born in
18. The Music Box Rag — Fox Trot (copyright 1914 by Jos. W. Stern & Co.) C. Luckyth Roberts
Luckeyeth Roberts, better known as Luckey Roberts
(1887-1968) was born in
An astute businessman, Roberts became a millionaire twice through real estate dealings. He also owned restaurants, led dance orchestras, and was the featured radio pianist for Moran & Mack, a.k.a “The Two Black Crows.”
Like most rags, “The Music Box Rag” was published in a highly simplified arrangement designed to appeal to young amateur pianists who never would have purchased the sheet music had it reflected Roberts’ own performance technique. A recording of the rag that Roberts made in 1946 for Circle Records, reveals a richly textured virtuoso rag full of whimsy and delight. It incorporates Robert’s characteristic trick of imitating a hammer dulcimer by executing rapidly repeating single notes. My arrangement sensibly avoids imitating Robert’s famous recording and instead represents my own musical ideas.
19. Shy And Sly — Fox Trot (copyright 1915 by G. Ricordi & Co. Inc.) C. Luckeyth Roberts
As with “The Music Box Rag,” the published edition of “Shy and Sly” bears little resemblance to Robert’s own recorded version of the piece from 1946. Sheet music publishers were not in the business of faithfully recording for posterity the performance styles of pianists and composers: They were in the business of making money for themselves and for their composers. Making money required that the arrangement be simple. Professional arrangers understood the technical limitations of the average sheet music purchaser.
side note, it was worth noting that neither Roberts nor
his various publishers ever settled upon a definitive spelling of his
middle name. Frequently, it was spelled “Luckyth,” but one also finds
on sheet music. On “Shy and Sly,” the spelling includes the “e.”
20. The Lion Tamer Rag — A Syncopated Fantasia (Copyright 1913 by A.F. Marzian) Mark Janza
Janza was most likely a pseudonym for publisher and
composer Albert Frederick Marzian (1875-1947). Born in
Among his other notable ragtime compositions are counted “Aviation Rag” (1910), “Angel Food Rag” (1911), and “Bale O’ Cotton” (1914). “The Lion Tamer Rag,” however stands out not only as the best of his compositions but one of the best and most exciting rags ever published. Accurately replicating the performance style of circus bands, this rag combines acrobatic pianistic pyrotechnics with unexpected musical surprises that have no counterpart in ragtime literature. Like a circus clown car, trick after trick tumble out of the “The Lion Tamer Rag” — and just when the listener has been lulled into thinking that he has seen the last of the musical tricks, out pop another series of delightful musical thrills.
About The Artist
specializes in the piano music and popular songs of the ragtime era,
and the 1930s. While still in college, he was hired by Don Neely to
pianist and singer with the famed Royal Society Jazz Orchestra. Soon,
Recording and mastering engineer: Steve Sundholm
Recording location: NightBird Studios,
Recording dates: 7 and 8 October 2008
Piano: Yamaha Mark IV Pro Disklavier 9-ft Concert Grand Piano (Model DCFIIISPRO)
Producer: Frederick Hodges Music Productions, Inc.
Graphics and Production: Sienna Digital,
Tray card photographer: Lewis Motisher
I would like to give special thanks to Bob and Bonnie Gonzales and Ann Culbertson, without whose help this CD could not have been made. I am especially grateful to my mentor, the great pianist Peter Mintun for supplying me with copies of Phil Ohman’s original test pressings of “Jacquette” and “Broken Glass.” I am also deeply indebted to Tom Brier for his masterful transcriptions of the two Ohman rarities mentioned above as well as his piano transcription of “Dixie Kisses.” Special praise is also due to David Ohman, the great nephew of Phil Ohman who generously provided me with the photograph of Phil Ohman standing next to a car. I am also proud to give heartfelt thanks to Vincent Johnson for sharing his piano roll transcription of “Rackety Rag” with me. To Alex Hassan, I pay special tribute and acknowledge a deep debt of gratitude for opening up his fabled archives and supplying me with a copy of “Dementia Americana.”
notes copyright 2008 by Frederick Hodges