William Bolcom: Musical Influences and Colleagues

Dr. William Bolcom celebrated his 83rd birthday this year. Few musicians can compare with the diversity of his abilities. He has studied with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen. He also became an admirable pianist, recording music which had been heretofore neglected—both as a soloist, and as accompanist to his wife, singer Joan Morris, with whom he shares an abiding interest in American popular song of the late 19th century to the late 1920s. He even studied poetry writing with Theodore Roehthke. And he was the first Pulitzer-prize winning composer to win for a piano work instead of an orchestral, or so-called “large-scale” work.

While his musical activities may be diminishing, in the following conversation, I found both him and Ms. Morris (with whom I spoke a little), to be delightful, engaging, and witty. The purpose of this interview was to attempt to delve a little into Dr. Bolcom’s musical and personal relationships in the arena of ragtime.

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Matthew de Lacey Davidson: In what specific compositional ways did Alban Berg’s music influence you? Did he influence your piano music?

William Bolcom: I remember a major early experience—I was 11 years old and heard the Julliard Quartet play Berg’s Lyric Suite. They were touring in the 1950s, and I listened to them [live while I was sitting] in the balcony [of a concert hall]. As I heard it, I followed the score at the same time and I was absolutely entranced. I felt that he [Berg] had created an expanded complex tonality with strict tonal references, wherein the ear is attracted to certain tones. I also played his one movement [piano] sonata. It’s a beautiful piece.

If I may be so bold, I’d like to ask about the use of consecutive thirds and sixths in the “Ostinato” section of Berg’s Lulu Suite. They sound incongruous in a pantonal/serial environment. I notice that there are similar consecutive thirds in the second half of the third bar and beginning of the fourth bar of your rag, Epithalamium. They are largely non-chord tones within the key of A major. They appear incongruous, but their effect is similarly pleasing. Might this be a definite connection between Berg’s music and your own?

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It’s possible, but no influence on me is ever direct. There’s no cause and effect. It would be too simple to say that I took a certain idea from other compositions and put them into my own. It’s better to say that inside of me is everything that I’ve heard—certain effects are there in my ear, they stay there, and then I’m hearing them in the musical background while [I’m] composing.

What about Bela Bartok? He had a life-long interest in “non-western” music. Do you find a “kindred musical spirit” in his approach and use of “folk music”?

In my opinion, Bartok had a sociological axe to grind. For me, ragtime was simply a missing link in American music, and [Scott] Joplin exemplified an ability to make that connection between African-American and European music.

When you were eleven, you studied at the University of Washington one day a week with John Verrall and Berthe Poncy Jacobson. Your composition teacher, Darius Milhaud, from whom you started learning at Aspen in 1957, was also interested in more “popular” musical forms. Did he encourage an interest in this?

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Milhaud was open to many different things, but he also didn’t encourage any musical eccentricities, or one idea over another. I felt that his music was extremely varied, and he wrote a lot of music! However, with Milhaud, there was never any sense of a mission. My classes with him were never one-on-one. But I thought that in the [classroom] process, I found the atmosphere in his classes to be good. He was open-minded. There were some who liked Boulez or Stockhausen, and he didn’t discourage that. He didn’t encourage us to do anything, but he would certainly not pull any punches regarding training. In his composition classes, he expected [students to already have] a solid foundation in harmony and theory. When other people came to his class who did not possess that background, he did not have patience for it. But he liked what he liked. And he enjoyed my first sonata. But if he didn’t like something, he sure let you know and that was OK. But he didn’t banish you from the class because you didn’t agree with him. He had his strong opinions, but he was a great gentleman. He was complimentary to me, and thought I had had a very solid training.

How do you feel John Verrall’s teaching helped you? With your piano rags, one senses a movement away from traditional “boom-chick” march patterns in the left hand and greater independence of voices. Have you orchestrated any of your rags other than the Graceful Ghost paraphrase for violin and piano?

I do believe that through his [Verrall’s] teaching, I learned more about orchestration from him than from anybody else. [Concerning counterpoint]…it’s all part of a vocabulary to have at your fingertips. In regards to orchestrating my rags, I don’t think so—although I did, of course, arrange three rags for string quartet—The Graceful Ghost, Poltergeist, and Incineratorag. But other than that, I never made any big orchestrations of my rags. But you know, it’s still piano music.

Your piano teacher, Mme. Jacobson, encouraged your examination of French music. Did she encourage any interests in more “popular” piano pieces?

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William Bolcom: Musical Influences and ColleaguesNot out and out—the stigma [against “popular” art forms] was still very powerful. At that particular point in time, popular music was to be eschewed. You went to school to learn the canon. However, my piano teacher was a friend of Francis Poulenc’s, and a couple of times, he sent her collections of his and other French piano music, which she would then give to me. I remember [in those days] you had to cut the pages because they were still attached! So I had to very gently cut the pages [so I could read and turn them]. Basically, we just looked at a lot of [baroque to romantic] literature. But I felt I became a pianist out of necessity.

Who are your favorite (a) ragtime composers; and (b) “classical” composers?

I have people sending me their rags all the time. Very rarely do they strike me as strong. However, Peter Winkler has written a few which are charming; Billy Taylor wrote a few which I also thought were nice; and William Albright’s were excellent. But [Scott] Joplin was really the one who was a revelation to me, as were [Joseph] Lamb and [James] Scott who wrote very lively pieces. In particular, I felt that Lamb’s rags were very sensual, but all of them [Joplin, Scott, and Lamb] had a greater grasp of musical style than others [amongst their contemporaries].

With modern classical…oh gosh…I love the whole canon—Debussy and Bartok in particular. And Mahler had a terrific influence on me back in the 1960s and 1970s—all these composers built my ear and filled in my vocabulary. But nowadays, I rarely play music at home, and we rarely even watch television. We mostly read, Joan and I. When we were touring, we [constantly] went to local bookstores and mailed a lot of books back home, but then we wondered when are we going to get around to reading them? But we are both so thankful that we have all these books around, because now we have the time [to read them].

I believe Rudi Blesh was your colleague when you were teaching at Queens College. Did Mr. Blesh gently guide your introduction to ragtime music? And if so, in what direction?

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Norman Lloyd, a composer in the Schumann tradition and who allocated money for various foundations, was a very good friend [of mine] and we’d have lunch fairly often. He would often sit and shake his head and say that he was tired of the same old music which orchestras would play—they would always play the “standards.” By this time, I had already written two of three operas I would write for actors, [one of which was Dynamite Tonite. Dr. Bolcom’s first opera for singers and opera houses was McTeague for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which premiered on October 31, 1992]. One day Norman asked me, “Do you know the name of Scott Joplin?” This was in the mid-1960s. Now, I had heard that name, but Norman told me that Joplin had written the Maple Leaf Rag, and that he had also written an opera! He said to me, “You should look into Joplin.” So I went to various places, like the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress, and asked, “Do you know anything about Joplin’s opera?” The Library of Congress told me, “We have a card but no score. If you find it, please let us know!”

William Bolcom: Musical Influences and Colleagues
Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, perform at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on Oct. 7, 1976. (Photo courtesy William Bolcom)

At Queens College, every office had ten names on the door and three desks, and the professors there hardly talked among themselves as a rule. Rudi [who shared the same office] was teaching jazz appreciation to three hundred kids at a time. So I asked him one day, “Mr. Blesh, could you help me to find the score of Treemonisha?” This was the first time I had ever said more than “Hello” to him. Blesh says sure, I’ll bring it in next week. I was bowled over. When I got the photocopy, I just fell in love with it. It was like a home-made grand opera. It had a cohesion between African and Western elements and I found it so useful. I did what I could to try and get it performed. We got a performance at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and they did a first performance in 1974, I believe. I had something to do with the [initial] orchestration. They wanted sixteen players which was probably what Joplin may well have had in mind. So, Gunther Schuller was brought in to create a bigger orchestra, including a banjo—which I thought was the wrong idea. Vera [Brodsky] Lawrence then became involved—a fine editor who worked on that score. She became a Grande dame of Joplin. A very fine editor, but a terror as a person.

The Ragtime Society in Toronto, Canada, reprinted the score to Treemonisha [in the 1960s]. A number of scores were discovered through them. We have Canada to thank for saving much of our ragtime legacy. No one else took the devoted point of view which those people up there did—people like Idamay MacInnes and Baron McCormick.

[At The Ragtime Society “bashes”]…I saw people who were learning to play a single rag for a whole year. I thought it was great! This kind of devotion was absolutely absent in classical music culture, or even the jazz world. Players working hard enough to get it done and make it happen [despite the obstacles].

Mr. Blesh wrote one of the first biographies of Buster Keaton. Did you share an interest with him for the general culture of the era of the ragtime years and then the 1920s?

In a general sense? No—I’m not a historian. We were friends. Every year after our touring during the summer, we [Joan and I] would end up with Rudi [at his] old 1790s house in New England, which used to be an Inn. It was just a relaxed kind of place, with nice restaurants nearby. This would be from the late 1970s to the early 1980s—I think? We were on the road for nearly 40 years until 2015, and we averaged 45 concerts a year. Rudi was just fine company.

Did you know Donald Ashwander or his music at all?

I only knew him a little. He had an apartment on First Avenue [in New York City], and when you walked into his place—and this was pre-air conditioning—it was hotter than hell [during the summer]…but there was always lattice work—everywhere. It was like you were transported back in time to the Old South. I knew some of his rags. We were colleagues.

I know you have a long working relationship with Max Morath.

Yes, Max Morath and I, we go way back! It was Rudi who put me onto Max, and he and Joan and I did a few concerts and recordings. I was very impressed by Max, he had a certain freedom of style, when a lot of people were very academic about ragtime. Now, when I recorded [the rag by Louis Chauvin and Scott Joplin] “Heliotrope Bouquet,” the reviewers berated me for not playing the C-strain twice! It was that kind of “academicism” which I disliked, and these individuals weren’t even academics. But I felt that that section [of “Heliotrope Bouquet”] was rather weak.

I agree that sometimes pre-determined notions can get in the way of the appreciation of a performance which doesn’t conform to what’s expected—and also, that that section by Joplin is not very strong.

But it was to Max to whom I owe my introduction to Eubie Blake. Eubie showed me the technique of sliding off the black keys onto the white, and the walking bass, although Luckey Roberts did those, too. Also, Erroll Garner, I believe. I remember Eubie often introduced each technique with the musician he got it from. For instance, he’d say, “This trick I learned from One Leg Willie Joseph.” An important thing that Eubie said to me was, “When you take someone else’s piece you have to make it yours.”

Oh yes, and I also met [William] Albright in 1966, during the only time I ever spent as kind of semi-student in Tanglewood. I was going to work at Queens college afterwards. [Whistles quietly]…all these memories are flooding back.

How did you happen to meet the late [pianist and Nonesuch recording artist] Paul Jacobs? How did he come to be playing your music? He seems a fascinating person whose life was tragically cut short.

Paul and I first met [at a concert] in Paris in the 1960s. I believe he was premiering one of Stockhausen’s “Klavierstücke.” He proved to be difficult to know at first. Anybody born since the Stonewall uprising in my neighborhood, when gay people finally rebelled against police brutality, would have difficulty realizing how most gay people knew persecution as a daily reality; it was hard for gay people to relax outside their community. I was one of the straight minority on Christopher Street [in New York City], but I’d had similar persecution for being in [the non-popular field of] music in all the rough mill towns in which I grew up. So I felt welcome, accepted, and at home there.

We met again in New York City, because I was recording for Nonesuch and [producer at Nonesuch] Teresa Sterne was producing Paul’s records, including those excellent Debussy préludes and Debussy études. He was very fluent in new music as well as other styles. Teresa would take me and him out to dinner, and then we became good friends.

[At this point, Joan Morris, who is listening, says: “Oh, Bill! You must tell that story!”]

Yes, this is a wonderful story! He was very fluent in avant-garde music, and European, but not so much with the American popular music canon. One time, the New York Philharmonic [with whom Paul Jacobs was the official pianist from 1961 to 1983] were just reading through a Richard Rodgers medley. Finally, they come to “My Funny Valentine.” Paul didn’t see the key signature [of the arrangement in C minor] correctly, and [he] played it… [in C major by accident]. The New York Philharmonic Pops concerts were publicly sight-read under Skitch Henderson. So “My Funny Valentine” was publicly played in C major! It has a wonderful weirdness that way. Imagine how Rodgers [must have] felt hearing it in concert!

At any rate, we [Paul and I] became very good friends. He and Teresa Sterne decided that he should record it [The Graceful Ghost on Paul Jacobs plays Blues, Ballads, and Rags]. I was [teaching at the University of Michigan] in Ann Arbor at this time. It was only ninety dollars for a round trip to New York, so I would see him quite often, even in his last year [of his life] in 1983. Every time we went back to New York, he was a bit worse. Joan and I were in town and saw him the weekend before he died. In the last days of his life, he had just had delivered an 1850s Erard grand piano from Paris. He had intended to record Chopin and Mendelssohn on it. He was too sick to play it, so he asked, “Would you play something for me?”, so I sat down and played him the Chopin Waltz in B minor [Op. 69, No. 2]. And he died a couple of days after we saw him. I remember that when we had to pick up the phone [at his abode, we had to]…clean our hands with disinfectant, because AIDS was such a new disease, no one knew how it was spread at that time. Everyone was so scared—even his agent wouldn’t come and see him. I wrote my piano études for him and I wish he’d had the chance to play them. About a month later at a memorial concert I premiered the ninth of my études for his memory. What a wonderful musician he was. He could seem so very shy, but if you were his friend you were absolutely his friend. I always enjoyed the time we spent together.

Paul Jacobs was, probably, the first classical-music victim of AIDS whom everyone knew in that world, dying in, I think, 1983. And, as I said, I’d been composing the 12 New Etudes for him to premiere. We were close friends—non-sexual of course. I still miss him.

How did the Jazzology album of you playing your rags come about? Was that arranged by Rudi Blesh? Do you remember the circumstances under which you recorded?

Rudi knew the producer at Jazzology [George Buck], and he and I arranged the recording venue in New York.

Do you know if there’s a reason why your “Heliotrope Bouquet” and “Artie Matthews/James Scott” [Pastimes and Piano Rags] vinyl albums on the Nonesuch label were never re-released on compact disc? I found them to be exceptional, and could easily have been re-released as a single disc.

Generally speaking, recording companies never tell you anything and you have zero input. Unfortunately, Teresa was gently booted out of Nonesuch, and the new owners didn’t take much interest in the old LPs [to turn them into CDs]. They didn’t care two hoots about her, and after 1980 she was gone, and every time I contacted them, I heard nothing. It’s a penny business anyway. Very little money is involved for the companies themselves, and the royalties you get are minimal.

Have any of your students arrived on your musical doorstep with an interest in ragtime or early American vernacular? Did any of them develop an interest in these types of music after studying with you?

I certainly never advocated for it with my students. Some might have had a little interest. But for us, it was more a question of trying to get musicology departments to take vernacular seriously. But it’s very hard. There is a transition that American musicology went through, and they wouldn’t take it seriously. They had a colonialist disdain for the home product. They thought, “It can’t be any good, because it’s American!”

In my experience, I found it profoundly sad that when I went to school in the US, music departments generally seemed to show a disdain for early American vernacular music. But when I visited Buenos Aires, everywhere I and my wife went, we saw Tango being danced to, played, or talked about. Tango—everywhere. They really appreciated their native music. But most music professors in the US looked down on my interests.

Not so much here! A complete lack of self-esteem for American music.

William Bolcom: Musical Influences and Colleagues
Unidentified woman (left); John Verrall (center); William Bolcom (right). University of Washington, 1957. (Photo courtesy of William Bolcom)

Finally, I believe you have laid a significant cornerstone for future performers and composers of note, regardless of how some of your seminal ragtime recordings are no longer “available.” Vinyl and CDs are obviously not prevalent like they used to be. What is your hope for the future dissemination and appreciation of ragtime?

I don’t think that there is really any point of hoping for the future of any sound. It will either be found necessary, or it won’t. I’ve never felt terribly interested in what happens to my music after I’m gone, because I won’t be here. And you never know any reason why anything catches on. It just does. I saw a list of the one hundred best 19th century American authors. They omitted Herman Melville, and he is probably one of the most important surviving 19th century authors by far. Why is he not appreciated? Who knows? Nobody can.

I got into ragtime because of Joplin. He brought about a marriage of African-American and European elements with perfect taste and created a fine, unified music. I think it was Benny Goodman who asked me about my feeling about changing the notes [in Joplin’s rags]. I told him about my sad experience when some people got very angry with Mary Lou Williams because of the way she changed notes. But that was what was expected of people [back in the early 20th century]. I’m tired of people saying, “You can’t do this,” or “You can’t do that!” In Eubie’s day, as I said, it always expected that a performer would change the score! When Eubie played something by W.C. Handy, he would say that he was going to play it the way Handy played it. Eubie Blake apologized [once] for not having done his own version of [the] Memphis Blues [by Handy], [which is] what Jazz people expect from each other—as do jazz audiences. [The] Classic ragtime [community]’s refusal to accept any freedom with text may limit its future, I fear. Black people are essentially eschewed. This bothers me deeply.

And I’m not even sure why one should really appreciate “ragtime” as such. I appreciate Joplin—yes! And Jelly Roll Morton—yes! But as composers! What ragtime can be, however, is a very good thing for piano teachers, so you can get a kid in their teens to not quit the piano.

It [ragtime] was fun to do. Bill [Albright] and I would send them through the mail [to each other]—like crossword puzzles. And then you played those rags right away. It was just a worthwhile thing. So, I just wrote one and then another. But I had no mission—I had no purpose. I just wrote whatever came to me. What I can say is that ragtime will survive in the best of us. And I do see there are young people playing it, still.

Marc-André Hamelin is currently [creating a] recording of 27 of my rags. It will be coming out on Hyperion next winter. He recorded it in a wonderful 19th century hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, with superb acoustics. I have to say that being in my office, and watching it all happen on Zoom with me making comments and talking to the recording engineer without being physically displaced—and blowing four tons of carbon [getting to Massachusetts]—this is much nicer than having to travel. He [Hamelin] recorded them extremely quickly, and brilliantly. And it [Hamelin’s recording] may turn out to be the recording [of my music] which touches me the most.

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As a part of this project, I listened again to Dr. Bolcom’s 1970s Nonesuch ragtime recordings—and discovered a degree of subtlety and nuance that may initially have been lost to some at the time: added inner voices, and other slight changes which add to the appreciation of the pieces played.

Both Dr. Bolcom and Ms. Morris have undeniably made an indelible imprint on American music and American culture—as creators, interpreters, and teachers. Both of them I found to be, what I would call, “a musician’s musician.” There is a total absence of any hidden agenda, and a profound open-mindedness. For them, everything can, and must, be expressed completely within the music, and nothing else. They believe in the highest standards of their craft, and apply their technical skill with intelligence, good taste, and élan. But for me personally, I found talking to them for the short period of time that I did, to be a thoroughly rewarding and erudite experience—and one which I will never forget.

Matthew de Lacey Davidson is a pianist and composer currently resident in Nova Scotia, Canada. His first CD, Space Shuffle and Other Futuristic Rags (Stomp Off Records), contained the first commercial recordings of the rags of Robin Frost. His second CD, The Graceful Ghost: Contemporary Piano Rags (Capstone Records), was the first commercial compact disc consisting solely of post-1960 contemporary piano ragtime, about which Gramophone magazine said, …a remarkably talented pianist…as a performer Davidson has few peers…”

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