Ragtime Society

From Classic Ragtime Blues Folk Skiffle R&B Soul We Derive Our Lives

History: from Rudi and Me, my memories of my grandfather (unpublished)
            articles: Skiffle, Ragtime to Hendrix (and coming soon) Rudi and Buster 
Ragtime to Hendrix

When my grandfather Rudi Blesh taught Jazz, Blues and African Music at Queens College in the 1960s one of the other professors was the young William Bolcom.  One day, in 1966, Bill poked his head into Rudi’s office area and asked: “What’s this I hear about a Scott Joplin opera?”  Many date the modern Ragtime revival from that meeting.  Certainly the world’s rediscovery of Treemonisha (from the folios entrusted to Rudi and Harriet Janis by Lottie Joplin) started a lifelong friendship between Bolcom and Blesh, two true lovers of music.

Rudi’s other classes, at NYU held their own surprises.  Often Rudi would end one of his evening study groups with a trip to a local club or even a performer like Eubie Blake right there in person.  One time during my assistantship in 1968  Stride pianist (and RCA producer) Mike Lipskin demonstrated different piano styles for the class.  Mike loved the old music and paid for RCA Vintage reissues by producing the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.  

In the 1980s he confided in me that they were both “shit groups”.  Mike Lipskin was the one who introduced the Tuna to Ragtime/Blues violinist Papa John Creach.  Big improvement.

(note: in the 1980s Mike told me he was upset with Rudi for having typed him (and fellow Stride pianist Ralph Sutton) as Ragtime piano players years before the era of The Sting - Ragtime revival.  I really didn’t have much sympathy for Mike on this one to be honest.  Rudi didn’t have anything to do with The Sting)

Another night in 1968, not on class time, Rudi took me to a small club in the East Village known simply as Slugs.  A plain room off the street with a few tables and a blanket on a wire for a curtain, the place was filled with menacing Black power types and blank faced White hipsters with sunglasses.  Suddenly from behind the blanket there was a huge commotion of steam and presence and a huge Black man with wrap around sunglasses charged out playing three horns at once.  This was Rahsaan Roland Kirk the blind saxophone genius whose music defied categorization.  All that power blowing at you from a few feet away can be a life changing experience.  This was certainly that for me.  Whether he was bringing the Blues, or Swing, or Bop, or Pop back to life it really didn’t matter.  Rahsaan’s music had a sweetness to it that others could never even imagine.  Nectar was the only word to describe what I received that evening.  And Rudi knew it too.  

Because, after his initial shock at Bop back in 1946 Rudi Blesh had warmed to the mellower (less angular/mechanistic) Modern Jazz where elements of the Blues were reintroduced into the Bop mix to create a moody soundtrack to urban existential life.  Discordant elements persisted however.  Once Rudi told me that he’d been out walking with his buddy and fellow Jazz author Marshall Stearns around Washington Square when they ran into Miles Davis and his beautiful blond wife.  Bending down to admire their baby Rudi was pushed aside by Miles Davis.  “Keep your white hands away from that child.”  Shortly thereafter Rudi gave me a copy of Miles’ Bitches Brew with it’s twin album cover sides, the pictures of the beautiful Black woman and the horrible White hag.  “Here’s some of the most important music being made right now” Rudi told me.  Had he outgrown the grudge?  Or had Modern Jazz simply outgrown it’s punk roots and re-assimilated the older (eternal) elements?  Rudi wrote an elegy for John Coltrane for Life (Look?) Magazine after attending Coltrane’s funeral in 1967.  A Love Supreme was one of Rudi Blesh’s favorite records.  They all played Ragtime, right?

They All Played Ragtime the book was a slow but steady seller.  You could find it in many public libraries.  For many folks, piano players in particular TAPR with the scores in the back was the intro into a life of Ragtime music.  This was admittedly sometimes little more than a classical exercise, and as in it’s day, the ragged music still sparked controversy.  Scott Joplin himself had written “Don’t Play Ragtime Fast!”.  But that’s all people had done for decades, making of it a joke element for period movies.  The Black “professor” entertaining the clientele at the house of ill repute.  There was an element of truth in this, but Scott Joplin himself spent his whole life trying to disprove that notion, dragging the charming lilting music into the world of popular sheet music sales.  With his training at the George Smith College of Music in Sedalia he found a way to clearly annotate the clever syncopations he had learned from the banjo pickers, traveling piano players and such.  Next stop for Scott should have been the established music schools and the finer concert halls but that had to wait until the 1970s and the expiration of his copyrights.  Along the way They All Played Ragtime remained the major initial impetus for most people, the Ragtime Revivalists’ bible carrying them through the years with it’s messianic message.

Some people got it right all along.  Max Morath, who became a lifelong friend of Rudi’s learned to play this style from his mother who played in movie houses in Colorado.  His touring show, his television series on Public Television and records for Vanguard were always instructional and inspirational.  But of course I didn’t really know about any of that when I hit NYC in 1968 as an ungrateful NYU undergrad.  One of the first things Rudi did was to take me to Max’s one man multi-media show.  Max Morath at the Turn of the Century, at the Jan Hus Theatre.  Using slides and movie clips Morath created a television program on stage.  Dressed in period costume he ran down the social history of the Ragtime Era like a stand up comedian instructing from laugh to laugh.  His visuals were amazing, much better I thought even than the light show at the Fillmore East.  Every time Max would refer to a song that was popular, of course he would sit down and sing and play it with all the feeling it had in it’s day.  You could learn a lot and be much entertained by Max Morath.  Kind of like They All Played Ragtime as a one man musical show.*  After the Max Morath show Rudi took me backstage and afterwards, I went with both of them to a local bar.  Max offered me a beer and I had to be honest with him.  I was eighteen and I’d never tried beer, only pot and LSD.  That got a laugh.  So I drank the brew.  Didn’t you have to support the Vietnam War to drink beer?  (That's the way it was in Marblehead - the potheads vs the beeries).   “No way” said Max, “I drink beer and I HATE the Vietnam War”.  I was still learning stuff.  A few minutes later Max decided he should also try to teach me how to pick up women at the bar.  I didn’t actually realize it at the time but I had just gained an honorary uncle.

*In addition to Max Morath, Terry Waldo has also put together Ragtime period retro-orchestras over the years that have always captured the enthusiasm, the youthful spirit of the original era.  A true Emersonian, Terry’s also still at it today.

Another Ragtime connection of course was Bill Bolcom.  Now recognized as America’s premier composer, in the 1960s Bill was an up and coming musician who had studied with Darius Milhaud.  (Rudi’s favorite story he’d heard from Bolcom about Milhaud involved the composer’s family after dinner, when they would all pull out matching silver toothpick cases.)  At the time when Bolcom was starting to hook up with Rudi to bring Scott Joplin’s Opera Treemonisha back to life Bill also recorded at least one record that seemed to play Joplin’s and some of the other Ragtimers’ piano music at just the right tempo, not too fast and not too legato.  Stately but still, lively.

At the other end of the spectrum from the tack piano - speed demon school of Ragtime piano playing was young Joshua Rifkin.  A former member of the Even Dozen Jug Band (with Maria Muldaur, Steve Katz, Stefan Grossman, Peter Siegel, John Sebastian, Dave Grisman) Rifkin recorded Joplin for Nonesuch (Elektra) Records at a pace that was close to sonumulant.  Slow.  With no actual association with Rudi the Rifkin school defined the boundaries of the studied delicate classicist school.  You couldn’t imagine anyone dancing to a Josh Rifkin Rag interpretation but they did make for charming easy listening background music in stores.  With aggressive marketing Rifkin’s Joplin recordings on Nonesuch were the big sellers of the 1970s Ragtime Revival era.  So, now you had the Rifkinites doing artistic / commercial battle against the Rudiites represented by Bolcom and Morath.  And that meant the Jazz Wars all over again.  The axe again, I’m afraid.  Rudi was big on principle.  Rifkin played it wrong (too slow).  Bill Bolcom played it just right for the classical approach and Max Morath played it right for the period - historical approach.  The speed merchants like Knocky Parker, Jo Anne Castle and to a certain degree, Ragtime Bob Darch, and many others playing way too fast with little or no feeling on their tack pianos represented the evil stereotype.  It was simple.

One day in the mid 1960s Rudi got a call from a young man in the West Village.  He said his name was Donald Ashwander.  It was obvious from his gracious accent he was from the South.  Mobile, Alabama to be exact.  He gave Rudi the usual They All Played Ragtime changed my life story and of course Rudi loved to talk to people like that because they usually had something interesting to tell him.  What Mr. Ashwander had to offer was the fact that he wrote Ragtime music right then, in 1966.  This wasn’t actually all that unusual.  Max Morath also wrote his own Rags, one of them dedicated to Harriet Janis.  Bill Bolcom was experimenting with the form, later that was to be one of his claims to fame.  Rudi asked the young man on the other end of the telephone line if he could play him one of his Rags and so Donald pulled the telephone receiver over to the piano and played Rudi his Business in Town Rag right on the spot.  It was really a great Rag, full of melody and that wonderful lilting quality that of course would be epitomized by the gracious city of Mobile.  They made a date to meet so Rudi could hear more.  About a half hour later Donald Ashwander called Rudi back again.  “You’re not going to believe this Mr. Blesh but my apartment building just burned and I have absolutely nowhere to go.”  So Donald came over and stayed on the day bed at Rudi’s East 4th Street apartment until he could get himself a new place to live.  After staying with Rudi Donald Ashwander kept writing Rags.  One of them, Astor Place Rag, was dedicated to Rudi’s favorite liquor store.

During this period there were many suspicious fires in Greenwich Village as landlords did what they thought they had to do to get out of what was perceived to be a doomed market.   Hundreds of tenements in the Lower East Side were abandoned by landlords falling into the hands of drug dealers, squatters, derelicts, arsonists.  The saying went that if you had a nice landlord he would let you know before they torched the place.   It would appear that Donald’s landlord wasn’t one of the nice ones.  The sad thing was that if the property owners could wait it out, the NYC White flight real estate panic of the late 1960s into the 1970s finally played out when White people figured out that Fair Housing laws didn’t destroy the neighborhoods and Black and Puerto Rican people were mostly great people to have as neighbors.  The folks who waited out the 1960s-1970s stupidity panic stood to gain richly as values first dropped and then rebounded mightily in the 1980s.

One day in 1967 after Donald had found another apartment he and Rudi were having lunch together at Ratners, a Jewish dairy restaurant on Second Avenue that was actually right next to the Fillmore East at that time.  Eating their blinzes they were a bit surprised when a young Black man came over and said he would like to shake Rudi’s hand.  He said that he had recognized Rudi and wanted to pay his respects.  Rudi thanked him very much and the young guy went back and sat down at his table.  “Nice young man”  Rudi commented.  “You don’t know who that is?” Donald asked him.  “Not really”.   “That’s Jimi Hendrix sitting over there at that table, Rudi...”  “Jimmy who?”  So Rudi went out and bought Jimi’s first record.  Most of it was just too fast and furious.  “The Blues should always breathe” Rudi had told me when I’d eagerly awaited his reaction to Cream doing Robert Johnson’s Crossroads.*  But one cut on the first Jimi Hendrix Experience album just knocked Rudi out.  The Wind Cries Mary.  It’s hard to believe but that one slow Blues was one of his absolute favorite songs.  The two sacred touchstones of the Blues for Rudi Blesh from then on in were always: Robert Johnson’s Hellhound on my Trail and Jimi Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary.  Though each somewhat unique, the two songs resemble nothing in the world more than each other.  Just like bookends.

*In addition to the Blues “breathing”, the other sacred Rudi rule for the Blues was that your song had to be about yourself, a true personal lament.  This got complex when you had someone like Billie Holiday who sang both Pop music and her own sad songs.

One of the things Rudi recorded in the 1940s of course was Skiffle, rhythm music from the rent parties where people made noise to dance to mostly without horns or violins, the usual lead instruments.  Also known as Jug Band Music, this, along with Jump Jazz, the stomping piano from the Southern turpentine camps, the Blues, Black/White Spirituals and Cowboy Songs became the original basis for the tough pulsating music later known as Rock and Roll.  Rudi put out South Side Shake as Skiffle, but he wouldn’t have called it Rock and Roll.  In the same way, he’d disparaged Elvis Presley in a later edition of Shining Trumpets, but for an interesting reason.  Why would anyone want to hear primitive Black Folk Music sung by a White imitator?  

Cut to the history of the Minstrel Shows from the early plantation days, to Ben Harney in the Ragtime era, to Bill Haley and Elvis to Mick Jagger.  They may have lost the blackface but the combination of derision and adulation in the traditional Black imitator show is pretty much a constant through popular musical history.  Rock and Roll is here to stay.  Rudi would put down Eric Clapton for his lack of finesse or Ray Charles imitator Stevie Winwood for his “fluffs” but he had genuine respect for some of the young recording artists of the 1960s playing R&B.  Whenever I played a classic Rolling Stones cut (with Brian Jones) for example, Rudi was always impressed.  “Those guys can really lay down a shuffle.” “ Sounds just like Jimmy Reed.”  Obviously the Stones with Jones knew how to make the Blues “breathe” back then.  Likewise Doctor John who started as a strange Voodoo character, The Night Tripper.  In those days I thought this would be too far out for Rudi but of course, as Donald Ashwander pointed out to me, that type of psychedelia was an old New Orleans tradition.  Traditional Psychedelia.  Okay...

So how would Jimi Hendrix have known about Rudi Blesh?  There are two possibilities I can imagine.  One of course is that he might have read Shining Trumpets.  What going to the library in 1946 - 1966 and looking up Robert Johnson in the card catalog would have brought up most likely.  I would wager Jimi, Eric Clapton, Brian Jones and Keith Richards all read Rudi’s elegy in Shining Trumpets dedicated to Robert Johnson.  Until Sam Charters’s Country Blues came out in 1959, it was really the only thing in print on the subject.  Bill Wyman refers to Shining Trumpets explicitly in his Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey book.  Stripped of all biographical information or even a picture of Robert Johnson the artist, writing in the mid 1940s, my grandfather had simply reverted to poetry:

"The voice sings and then--on fateful descending note--echoes its own phrases or imitates the wind, mournfully and far away, in huh-uh-uh-ummm, subsiding like a moan on the same ominous, downward cadence. The high, sighing guitar notes vanish suddenly into silence as if swept away by cold autumn wind.  Plangent, iron chords intermittently walk like heavy footsteps, on the same descending minor series.  The images--the wanderers voice and its echoes, the mocking wind running through the guitar strings, and the implacable, slow, pursuing footsteps--are full of evil, surcharged with the terror of one alone among the moving, unseen shapes of the night.  Wildly and terribly, the notes paint a dark wasteland, starless, ululant with bitter wind, swept by the chill rain.  Over a hilltop trudges a lonely, ragged, bedeviled figure, bent into the wind, with his easy rider held by one arm as it swings from its cord around his neck."  -Shining Trumpets: A History of Jazz, 1946

One of my favorite writers is Peter Guralnick.  His first book was a short monograph on Robert Johnson.  In it he takes Rudi somewhat to task, for his florid language I suppose.  Here's what Guralnick wrote about Rudi Blesh:

"Sometimes I can evoke the breathless rush of feeling that I experienced the first time that I ever really heard Robert Johnson's Music.  Sometimes a note will suggest just a hint of the realms of emotion that opened to me in that moment, the sense of utter wonder, the shattering revelation.  I don't know if it's possible to recreate this kind of feeling today--not because music of similar excitement doesn't exist, but because the discovery can no longer take place in such a void.  Or perhaps there is someone right now who will come to Robert Johnson, or a contemporary pop star, or a new voice in jazz, or some music as wild and unimagined, with the same sense of innocent expectation that caused my friends and me to hold our breath, all unknowing, when we first played Robert Johnson's songs on the record player.  Let me just quote a passage from Rudi Blesh on which an older generation of blues enthusiasts--Mack McCormick, Paul Oliver, probably Sam Charters--was nurtured and which expresses, I think that same sense of pure romantic surrender. It describes Johnson's masterful "Hell Hound on my Trail" in words that come close to mocking their meaning and yet evoke that same sense of awe I am trying to suggest.”  

The only part Peter got wrong was the self mocking part.  Rudi loved those old nineteenth century words.  Remember he was a spelling bee champ back in Guthrie.  There were certain phrases he would pull out for special sacred occasions.  I’m sure there were tears in my grandfather’s eyes when we wrote those lines about Robert Johnson.

So perhaps Jimi understood as well what it was Rudi was trying to express about Robert Johnson in Shining Trumpets.  Lord knows both artists had hellhounds on their trails.  The other possibility is that Jimi Hendrix knew Rudi Blesh from sitting in on a class at NYU or perhaps a public Jazz film showing or talk Rudi had given locally.  Jimi Hendrix was virtually homeless when he lived in the Village, before being discovered by Chas Chandler and being whisked off to England in 1966.  A free lecture on Jazz on a cold day with a girl friend would have been just the thing.  But whatever the reason for the introduction, the bond was then created on both sides Rudi to Jimi and Jimi to Rudi. 

That’s really the Blues that breathes.
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