Making new friends and learning more about older acquaintances is one of the many rewards of being part of the on-line ragtime community. I am also reminded that for all its negative aspects, the Internet enables an ability to communicate that we have not previously known.
Recently a young nineteen-year old self-taught ragtime pianist inquired about acquiring some rather obscure sheet music. I am always excited when I note a new correspondent especially with a foreign address, so an email from Matthias Norpoth in northwestern Germany immediately caught my attention.
Matthias has been fascinated by the music of Scott Joplin and has taught himself to play ragtime from CDs he acquired. Recently he had discovered Tom Brier’s recordings of vintage titles Matthias was as intrigued by Tom’s pianistic talent as he was by the early syncopations he was playing. Matthias sent me a list of his favorite compositions from Tom’s CDs and inquired if the sheet music is available.
Matthias was aware of Tom’s debilitating accident in August 2016. After a considerable time in a coma, Tom woke to severe paralysis and had difficulty speaking. With his initial therapy his manual dexterity and speech began to improve but then he was placed in a care facility that lacked the therapy program he needed, and his condition seems to have deteriorated. Thus, I realized sadly, Tom would not be a resource, himself.
I then thought of an old friend, Elliott Adams and his massive collection. I recalled Elliott had written the liner notes for Tom’s CD Rising Star, a collection of vintage compositions among tracks of Tom’s original work. Finally, I remembered an Internet note Michael Chisholm had recently posted about a project he was working on with Tom before the debilitating accident. So, I called Michael and had a most fascinating conversation.
Michael is a performer and composer I have followed on the Internet for several years now. Originally from Sugar Land, Texas, Michael moved permanently to Riverside, California three years ago having attended and performed at numerous west coast events. At twenty-three, he is self-taught and has been playing for twelve years. Like so many performers, he was first ragtime-inspired by JoAnn Castle on the old Lawrence Welk TV show re-runs and then from 2013, by attending some west coast ragtime events. Hearing the performers and especially Elliott and Tom playing duets was as he described it, like a transcendental experience that inspired him to delve much further into the field of ragtime.
He is also an accomplished flautist often seen in Internet videos playing with Julia Riley or her Raspberry Jam Band or just jamming with an after-hours group. Julia is another close friend of Tom’s who faithfully visits him and reports on his condition. (Thankfully, Tom seems to have many regular visitors, encouraging him and hoping for his more pronounced recovery.)
I was fascinated by Michael’s own story but remembered I was calling about a request for vintage sheet music. Michael had been enticed into vintage sheet music collecting and had quickly amassed a large personal collection thanks to many friends. Michael explained that Elliott Adams had been very generous in sharing. I knew Michael had also acquired copies of old music from Max Morath’s collection and Tom Brier had given him copies of all of his vast accumulation. However, finding the selections Matthias was requesting would have been a challenge had I not remembered the mention of Michael and Tom’s scanning project.
The men had begun the ambitious project of acquiring, conserving, scanning, and indexing every piece of syncopated sheet music they could find. They defined the genre loosely, anxious that nothing escape their attention. Their efforts were well begun when Tom was injured and for the last three years Michael has been working on their project with the ample assistance of many of his friends and fellow collectors.
The ambitious project was originally to create a piano sheet music resource for performers and researchers. However, in the process, it has become apparent that instrumental orchestrations also exist in abundance. This is evidenced by the recent acquisition of the Johnny Maddox, 1,200-piece collection, by Andrew Green for his Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra (“dedicated to the preservation and performance of America’s first popular music: ragtime”). Another ensemble with a similar dedication is director William Pemberton’s River Raisin Ragtime Review. They have just acquired the massive collection of Dr. Karl Koenig, a ragtime and jazz bandleader, and historian, to add to their already extensive archive.
It is anticipated that these groups and others with unique ensemble scores will provide index lists of available titles and instrumental parts and will eventually scan the pieces for sharing.
This brings me back to Michael Chisholm’s project. He gets excited talking about the whole process of collecting the music and preserving it, but his real passion seems to be in sharing what is in the public domain with the ragtime community and other interested musicians. I began this column by explaining that I had received a request for copies of what I figured were pretty obscure titles. However, within less than 24 hours, Michael had graciously provided excellent scans of the ten requested pieces, and they were on the way free of charge to Westphalia, Germany, and a very pleased Matthias Norpoth.
So many in the ragtime community are active collectors of both originally published ragtime and also copies of the original pieces. They are anxious to increase their own accumulations and to enlarge their repertoires. I have written of this before several times (See, Restoring Virtue to Archiving, The Power of Internet Connection, and Reflections on the National Recording Registry) and will look into other sources of vintage music available to the public.
Since the ragtime era ended and was later resurrected, thousands of syncopated titles have been composed and published. There is a great unheralded benefits of ragtime concerts and festivals that transport performer-collectors around the world. These talented people are musical history vacuums, sweeping up long forgotten and neglected music in all the many forms in which it was produced and carefully (I would even say lovingly) preserving and sharing what they find.
I call to mind the now famous story of the discovery, four years ago, of only the fifth known first (Sedalia) edition of Maple Leaf Rag. The copy emerged when Michael Chisholm was performing in St. Louis and went hunting for sheet music with Bryan Cather of the Friends of Scott Joplin. At a saxophone shop in the antiques district, owner Mark Overton produced a stack of music for sale with the rare sheet Michael found among the titles. Overton, owner of SaxQuest, donated the original to the Scott Joplin House collection in St. Louis.
Chisholm is a few months from having his collection scanned and cataloged though he will always be searching for additional titles. Since the bandwidth for displaying the scans on-line is prohibitively expensive right now, he plans to publish his catalog on a dedicated web-site and consider requests for scans to be emailed. I must remind readers that Michael has invested endless hours and many dollars in this project so though he doesn’t plan to charge for his service right now, a reasonable contribution would be appreciated though not expected.
There are other altruistic collectors like Michael and Tom sharing what they have as well as more and more institutional collections on-line making the music available. By the way, I could not find the titles Matthias requested in the Library of Congress on-line catalog, illustrating the importance of the private collectors.