Kitten On The Keys
Ragtime, Novelty, and Stride Classics
Frederick Hodges, one of the finest pianists of our time, debuts in his first solo album for Aristophone Records. His playing is a virtual encyclopedia of the history of early jazz piano – from ragtime and stride to novelty piano. If there is a pianist, or for that matter a musician on any instrument, who comes close to doing everything best, it is Frederick. The sheer scope of his playing amazes musicians -- particularly pianists. “Kitten On The Keys” contains the most diverse repertoire ever performed by Frederick on a single recording, including works by Eubie Blake, Zez Confrey, George L. Cobb, and Lucky Roberts. It is a virtuoso performance whose subtleties bear repeated listening.
The rollicking, joyous rhythms of ragtime find full expression in the delightful selection of solo piano pieces on this CD, spanning the years 1900 to 1921. These two decades were among the most creatively rich in music history. The pure and simple outpourings of authentic American folk music of the Midwest in the late 19th century, as preserved in Charles Hunter’s “A Tennessee Tantalizer,” launched a process of musical evolution, culminating in the dazzling technical and harmonic innovations of the novelty piano music of the 1920s, the most influential example of which was Zez Confrey’s classic “Kitten On The Keys.”
While ragtime originated in the Mississippi River Valley, it soon spread across the nation, finding an especially receptive audience in Harlem, where professional Black pianists such as Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, and Charles Luckyeth Roberts gave it a new character and transformed it into “stride” piano music. Pieces such as “Fizz Water,” “The Chevy Chase,” “Palm Beach,” and “Daintiness Rag” embody the electrifying excitement of stride ragtime.
The term “ragtime” in its day was synonymous with popular music in general and was never equated with a restricted and codified repertoire of published piano solos. Ragtime was an improvisational performance style, employing dance rhythms, syncopations, harmonic jumps, riffs, and breaks that could be applied to any type of vocal or instrumental music. Not only were there ragtime songs, but the principles of ragtime were applied to every possible dance rhythm, including the waltz, tango, and even the short-lived “half and half,” a dance in 5/4 time pioneered by Vernon and Irene Castle and represented on this CD by “Drawing Room Echoes.”
Published piano rags met the huge popular demand for syncopated instrumental music. The group most eager to march into music stores and slam down fists full of dollars in exchange for ragtime sheet music were young amateur home pianists who were entranced by ragtime, but were unable to apply ragtime rhythms to songs or classical music. It was much easier to let a professional composer like George L. Cobb drop Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Minor” into the ragtime machine and pull out the “Russian Rag” rather than figure out how to do it yourself.
Given that most buyers of ragtime sheet music were young girls who had been taking piano lessons for a few years, the skilled editors at the publishing houses recognized that sheet music sales were better and profits higher when piano music was simplified and transposed into easy keys that would not intimidate the prospective customer. Thus, published rags rarely resembled the versions performed by their composers. For instance, if Eubie Blake had been allowed to publish “The Chevy Chase” in 1914 the way he actually played it, very few would have bought the sheet music. Its difficulties and technical demands would have frightened away the little home pianist. Some rags, such as James P. Johnson’s “Daintiness Rag,” were so difficult that no attempt was ever made to publish them in any form. The full version of “Daintiness Rag,” however, was preserved in Johnson’s own piano roll arrangement.
The professional pianist, however, correctly understood that sheet music was to be used as a guide or a blueprint for constructing a full and satisfying piano solo. The masters of this art were the piano roll artists, whose documented approach to arranging reveal how professionals actually played ragtime. The object of arranging was to personalize the performance so that your version of any particular piece was completely different and distinguishable from that of any other professional pianist. While the home pianist struggled just to play even the simplified notes on the page of the published sheet music, the professional strove to create a unique and special arrangement that gave the piano roll and record buying public a good reason to buy yet another record of the rag hit of the day.
Employing this historically correct approach, I have taken delight in creating my own arrangements of the rags on this CD. Only in rare instances do my arrangements reflect the published sheet music, and then only when the published arrangement or sections thereof were so musically satisfying that little embellishment or expansion was required. Nevertheless, my goal has been to perform these rags in an authentic manner, fully consistent with the performance styles of their composers and of the best professional pianists of the ragtime era. So, sit back and enjoy the richness and excitement of genuine ragtime.
The scintillating and danceable rhythms of Frederick Hodges are perfect for those who enjoy something new, refreshing, and sparkling in the field of piano music. His dazzling interpretations of classic American songs, played in an authentic 1930s manner, are well known to piano music aficionados across the country.
California native Frederick Hodges specializes in the piano music and popular songs of the ragtime era, the 1920s, and the 1930s. Classically trained and groomed for a career as a concert pianist, he was happily lured away from this path after he found a stack of turn-of-the-century sheet music in his grandmother’s piano bench. Repeated exposure to the rollicking rhythms of player pianos and 78 RPM phonograph records sealed his fate, and he set out to master the sophisticated piano playing styles that had captivated him.
While still an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, he was hired by Don Neely to be the pianist with the famed Royal Society Jazz Orchestra. Soon, Frederick was playing solo piano for society parties and holding down steady gigs at legendary Nob Hill establishments such as L’Étoile, Masons, and the Ritz Carlton Hotel. For more than twenty years now, Frederick Hodges has performed solo, with jazz ensembles, with the Peter Mintun Orchestra, and with the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra on stage, television, and radio. He has entertained royalty, stars of stage and screen, captains of industry, and even Tin Pan Alley composers. Frederick is also a noted silent film accompanist and is regularly featured at silent film festivals around the country and also serves as one of the house pianists for the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. Frederick is a favorite at jazz and ragtime festivals around the world.