“Traveling,” said Mme. de Staël, “is a melancholy pleasure.” I’m inclined to concur, despite the chorus of protest that will rise with discordant variations on the theme of You’re Missing Out. After my “Adventurous Recluse” column appeared in March, cornetist Ed Polcer (whom Professor Cunningham celebrates in his essay this month) wrote, “You owe yourself the opportunity to hear this precious music LIVE. I still get ‘goose-bumps’ recalling the one time I heard Louis Armstrong in person. I heartily recommend your attending one of the jazz parties listed in TST. North Carolina and San Diego in February or Colorado Springs in October/November are all first class. Nothing tops hearing it LIVE.”
Yes. And my wife, who had the great advantage of hearing Pops (Armstrong) and Pops (Whiteman) in concert, has that over me. She even had the privilege of dancing to Guy Lombardo on his home turf on New Year’s Eve. I missed out there as well. How long would I travel to hear one of those late greats in performance—or indeed any of the jazz legends of the past—were it even possible? I’d say about four hours, by car—five, tops.
But I will admit that sometimes the inconvenience of travel is entirely worth it.
On March 31, my wife and I boarded the train to New York City in order to attend the historic Carnegie Hall performance by Richard Dowling of Scott Joplin’s complete piano works, played over the course of two concerts on the one hundredth anniversary of Joplin’s death, on April 1, 2017.
Travel by train is archaic and uncomfortable, as opposed to air travel, which is inhuman, or travel by automobile, which, though it provides a measure of control for the traveler, is by turns wearisome and terrifying. Absent from this jaunt down the rails were obnoxious fellow passengers or long delays while the Amtrak service ceded the right of way to the freight line.
We arrived in Manhattan with time to get to our hotel (by taxi) and eat dinner. I was grateful for the cab, since it was raining fiercely, though I discovered that car manufacturers no longer make back seats designed for ease of human egress. It took a good minute or two for me to discover how to extricate myself.
New York City has evolved into a free-range Disneyland where every ride is an E Ticket. Any visitor who is a devout Cheapskate had better lose their religion and stop comparing the cost of things in the Apple to what they pay at home. We tried not to wince when looking at menus. If you think of all those Jacksons as Monopoly money, you’ll have a much better time. We had a grand time.
The concerts held on April 1 in Carnegie’s intimate Weill Recital Hall were magnificent. Richard Dowling, the subject of my profile in the July 2016 issue of The Syncopated Times, planned for three years to bring to complete works to the Carnegie stage on the centenary date. The excitement in the hall might be described, without hyperbole, as electric.
After some introductory remarks, Dowling played the selections in sets of two, three, or four, with contrast in tempo or tone to provide a satisfying narrative arc for each session. We all have our favorites by Scott Joplin but very few of us know all of his piano music. There is one piece that literally everyone knows. It has been the bane of my sporadic gigs as a jazz pianist to have people come up to me and ask for “The Sting.” I can play “The Entertainer” about as well as the ice cream truck does—but, as a bad sight-reader/memorizer, not as Joplin intended. Joplin, a serious composer, wanted all his various pieces—marches, two-steps, waltzes, and rags—played exactly as written.
Classical pianist Richard Dowling revealed Scott Joplin in the depth and breadth of his work as a great American composer, concluding to thunderous applause. Playing Joplin isn’t “slumming.” Joplin wrote delightful melodies, was a master of form, and his work, in the hands of a sympathetic, expert pianist, stands proudly beside Chopin and Schubert. He is as classic—and as vital—as Beethoven. But he brought something entirely new to music, which Chopin and Beethoven hinted at: syncopation as an end in itself.
At Carnegie, we heard the magnificence of Joplin as if for the first time. Hearing “The Entertainer” on Top 40 AM radio in 1974 was miraculous, but the miraculous should never become commonplace. “Wall Street Rag,” for example, is as deeply moving as any other piece of music played on the concert stage. It requires virtuosic mastery—as well as a full appreciation of the rag form—to perform it to proper effect. Classic ragtime is our classical music—and Richard Dowling, a disciplined, dedicated pianist who can also feel the beat, brings it to glorious life.
I’m still a bit sore from my Amtrak experience, but I wouldn’t have missed this excursion for anything. What lingers is the remembered majesty of the music I heard at Carnegie Hall—and the welcome realization that Scott Joplin still matters.
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