Back in November, those of us interested in all things ragtime were excited to learn of Brian Wright’s Grammy nomination in the Best Liner Notes category for The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin (2017 Rivermont Records) played by Richard Dowling. His remarkable notes, detailing unique aspects of each of Joplin’s piano compositions is beautifully illustrated by the original covers digitally restored by Bill Edwards. The little booklet packaged with the 3-CD set is an important volume for any ragtime or jazz library by itself and with the Dowling CDs it is a grand addition to any Joplin library.
At the 60th Grammy Awards afternoon ceremony, another nominee received the coveted Grammy award with the impressive “gilded” gramophone trophy. The Liner Notes Grammy has been presented in the category since 1964.
Over the years I have lost track of the “Complete” Joplin sets that have been produced. The first such effort I acquired was Richard Zimmerman’s Scott Joplin: His Complete Works, first as an LP Set (Murray Hill, 1974) and then on CD. The release coincided with the first Sedalia Joplin Festival that Richard directed. Another large collection of Joplin Rags by Joshua Rifkin had been issued by Nonesuch in 1970 and I had those by 1974.
Over the years I have accumulated several more “Complete” Joplin piano works. Ann Charters recorded 12 Joplin rags as A Joplin Bouquet in 1958 and later enlarged her repertoire on The Genius of Scott Joplin and included many of Joplin’s ragtime compositions. “Knocky” Parker followed with his complete works set for Audiophile in August 1960.
Beginning with Arnie Caplin in the 1970, most of Joplin’s piano music was released on Arnie’s Biograph label as recordings from piano rolls, including of course the ones cut by Joplin himself. When I first met Arnie, he was working out of his home in Caanan, New York in the Catskills and his basement was packed with cases of his piano roll recordings. In 1972-73 Max Morath issued most of Joplin’s works as The Best of Scott Joplin and The World of Scott Joplin on the Vanguard label.
John Arpin’s recording of The Complete Piano Music of Scott Joplin came out in 1988 on the Fanfare label. Scott Kirby began recording a complete Joplin set in (1989-1990) on the Green Pastures label. Also in 1989 William Albright produced his complete Joplin Rags recording for Musicmasters.
In 2017, along with Richard Dowling’s Joplin Centennial set, a complete set by William Appling was issued nearly a decade after the pianist’s death on Appling’s own label. But I digress…
This is not the first Grammy nomination for Bryan Wright’s Rivermont label. In 2010 Mark Beresford’s liner notes for Dance-O-Mania: Harry Yerkes and the Dawn of the Jazz Age, 1919-1923 was nominated.
It was a privilege to be in touch by email with Richard Dowling and Bryan Wright while they were engaged in producing the Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin 3-CD set and Dowling’s Souvenir Program for his Carnegie Hall Joplin Memorial Centennial performances. Their work was intense and demanded considerable time, a wealth of knowledge about the music and its history, and finally their own considerable performance experience.
First, the deliberation and collaboration that went into the ordering of the programmed selections was incredible. Both men are so knowledgeable about Joplin’s oeuvre and attuned to traditional audience responses to the music that they came up with what should probably become a standard concert presentation order of Joplin compositions.
Second, Bill Edwards spent countless hours cleaning up and digitalizing the original Joplin sheet music covers from his collection and some from Elliott Adams. The liner notes include a beautiful full-color copy of each cover. Bill also worked from not only an intimate awareness of the history of the music, but he has thoroughly if not definitively researched the publishers and cover artists. Finally, he is a master at all things digital and brought all his talents to the project along with his enormous passion for the music.
Richard Dowling undertook the April 1, 2017, Carnegie Hall performances as a tribute to memorialize the 100th anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death. He wanted to honor Joplin’s genius and the enduring quality of his music. Richard is a tireless performer who prepared for years to undertake the concerts and tour; so far, including over 80 engagements. The tour has been exhausting and each performance demands the dexterity and endurance of an Olympic athlete (my grandson would declare him in the American Ninja Warrior class). Richard’s performance on the Rivermont CDs illustrates his extensive classical training and concert experience. But it also demonstrates his emotional connection to Joplin’s music.
And finally, I find my way to heap praise on the nominee himself, Dr. Bryan S. Wright. Bryan is a native of Lynchburg, VA. In college, he studied historical musicology at the College of William and Mary and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburg where he teaches in the music department. His wife Dr. Yuko Eguchi Wright also lectures in ethnomusicology there. They are a remarkable couple and between them bring the expertise of so many talents and interests to their work.
Brian started Rivermont Records in 2004 to preserve and promote ragtime, jazz, and “Hot Dance” music. Rivermont has a diverse catalog featuring reissues of vintage recordings and current ragtime and jazz performers. In addition to his teaching and recording ventures, Bryan also hosts a regular “Shellac Stack” podcast featuring programs of vintage 78 rpm records he has collected most of his life. He has just aired Number 107.
To read Bryan Wright’s liner notes for Dowling’s Joplin recordings is to feel like you are getting exclusive information right from the composer. The author’s exhaustive knowledge of not only Joplin’s music but also of the music of Joplin’s generation and of the music derived from the composer’s classic ragtime gives me a sense of getting a kind of behind the scenes background and information few others can access.
Yuko’s website tells us of her favorite tea ceremony expression,“Ichi-go-ichi-e.” It means treasure every moment because it may never occur again. I treasure every reading of Bryan’s liner notes and every opportunity to listen to Richards performance. If I never have the experience again, I will have enjoyed their greatness. They, on the other hand, have many more award ceremonies to attend.
Larry Melton can be reached at [email protected]