Its mid-November - which means its time to start getting ready for Christmas! This year I thought I'd spice up "Silent Night" by playing it in the style of Scott Joplin. Coming up with this arrangement was a bit challenging. If I played the melody with only minor embellishments, I thought it didn't sound ragtimey enough. But if I tweaked the melody too much, it wouldn't sound like "Silent Night" enough. So I had to find the right balance. Here is what I came up with:
Cole Porter’s Love for Sale (1930) is about a madame advertising her services. I can think of lots of love songs in the Great American Songbook, but this is the only pay-for-love song I can think of. So Love for Sale is pretty unique. Due to its edgy subject matter, it was not played on the radio when it came out. And I think that’s reasonable, you don’t want impressionable 12 year-olds singing lyrics like: “If you want to buy my wares, follow me and climb the stairs” or “If you want the thrill of love, I’ve been through the mill of love.” Of course, those lyrics are wonderfully clever and sophisticated. So if I caught my 12 year old singing this song, I would give him only a light punishment. Actually….on second thought…...Who am I kidding? If I caught my kid singing Cole Porter, I’d be thrilled! I’d double his allowance.
Here’s a song called "Whispering" (1920). It was originally credited to the songwriting team of John Schonberger (music) and Malvin Schonberger (lyrics). Later when the copyright was renewed, Richard Coburn was credited as the lyricist and Malvin Schonberger’s name disappeared, and Vincent Rose was added as co-composer. I don’t know what happened there, clearly there was some behind-the-scenes intrigue going on at "Whispering" headquarters.
"Whispering" was the bee’s knees in 1920 when Paul Whiteman made it a big hit. Since then, it has remained a staple of the swing repertoire. It passed into the bebop era in the form of Dizzy Gillespie’s "Groovin’ High," which uses the chord changes of "Whispering." I like "Whispering" because it’s such a catchy little earworm. I also like the title. I try to play at least parts of the song extra quietly to evoke literal whispering. Before I was a full-time pianist, I was a librarian for two years. I’m not kidding. So I know a thing or two about whispering. As a pianist and former librarian I feel particularly well-suited to interpret this classic by the Office of Schonberger and Schonberger (or should I say Schonberger, Coburn, and Rose?). Anyway, I know Whispering so well that I can play it in any key, and I intimately refer to it not by its name, but by its Dewey Decimal number: 783.62W.
My rendition is very much indebted to two of my favorite pianists, Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller. Teddy Wilson liked to walk tenths in the left hand and play slick clarinet-like single note lines in the right. Fats Waller liked to play things that...well….things that sound Fats Wallery. Its hard to explain. All I know is that I can’t seem to play a song for more than 20 seconds without a few Fats Wallerisms creeping in.
One day, I decided it would be nice to spice up my repertoire with some Latin flavor. So I turned to the romantic Mexican-inspired waltz "Ramona," a massive hit from 1927, composed by Mabel Wayne. I was aware that "Ramona" was a hit movie in the 1920s starring Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio. The cover of the sheet music and various images from the film that I found on the internet, led me to assume that the movie was some kind of fluffy romance that takes place in old Mexico.
Not having seen the movie, I concocted an elaborate arrangement of "Ramona" in which I incorporated various Latino melodies, like "La Paloma," "Cielito Lindo," "Leyenda" (by Albeniz), and of course, "La Cucaracha." I call this arrangement "Ramona Rhapsody Español."
I have been playing this arrangement of Ramona at many of my concerts for the past several years. I still haven't seen the movie. But I finally read Ramona - the novel from 1882, by Helen Hunt Jackson. This was what the movie was based on (and please do not confuse it with the Ramona Quimby childrens' books!). Upon reading the novel, I discovered that my assumptions about the "Ramona" story were way off. First of all, it technically doesn't take place in Mexico, but in California in the mid/late 1800s. But the main thing that I got wrong was that Ramona was no fluffy romance. It was intense. Here's my very watered-down synopsis:
Ramona, who is raised as part of the old Mexican/California aristocracy, and Alessandro, a Native American, fall in love. They elope, and along with the rest of the Native American communities in California at that time, they experience grave injustices that make your blood boil. As part of the 1862 Homestead Act, Native American land was sold to white settlers, and the Native Americans were driven from their homes. They found themselves desperate and without means of making a living. Ramona and Alessandro have a baby, try their best to survive, but they are beset by tragedy.
So, although "Ramona" is a lovely and pleasant tune, the story is dark, political, and outrage-inducing. I recommend you read the book. It has some great drama and romance, it paints an interesting picture of 19th century California, and you learn some disturbing and shameful aspects of American history along the way. But if you want to just close your eyes and think of romantic images of Spanish missions, orange groves, and pretty senioritas, please enjoy my rendition of this lovely song from 1927.
Here’s my take on the old New Orleans standard, "Basin Street Blues:"
This tune has a rich and interesting history. Basin Street was in the heart of the New Orleans red-light district, known as Storyville. There were brothels up and down the street, and they had live music, so Basin Street was a great place for music. Say what you will about legalized prostitution - it fostered the environment in which jazz developed and blossomed.
During WWI, the US Navy grew concerned that sailors on leave in New Orleans were getting a little too distracted. So the New Orleans City Council decided to criminalize prostitution. The legal brothels lining Basin Street closed down, and the jazz musicians had to seek their fortune elsewhere.
One of the musicians who left New Orleans was composer/pianist/singer Spencer Williams (1889-1969). Williams wrote “Basin Street Blues” when he was living in New York in the 1920s. For most songwriters, nostalgic songs about the south were pure fiction. They were usually written by northerners who hadn’t been south of Atlantic City. But “Basin Street Blues” was legit. Spencer Williams had actually lived on that street.
When they closed down those brothels, Basin Street was renamed North Saratoga Street. But by the 1940s, “Basin Street Blues” had been immortalized by Louis Armstrong, and it was pretty clear that this North Saratoga business had to go. In 1945, native sons Sidney Bechet, Bunk Johnson, and Louis Armstrong returned to their hometown for a much heralded concert at Municipal Auditorium, and it was then that North Saratoga was officially changed back to Basin Street. Such is the power of music!
A few years ago, I gave a concert at WHYY studios in Philadelphia. It was a Downton Abbey themed concert, with soprano Melinda Whittington. It was a special donor event - one night only. I flew in the night before, and they put me in a hotel right in historic Philadelphia, near Independence Hall, which is where the founding fathers debated and adopted the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. I was hoping to have time to visit Independence Hall before the concert. But I could not...because I was sick.
You see, just hours before the concert I was a total mess. I had some kind of bug, and my body was trying very hard to expel it from my body. I also had a fever and could barely stand up for more than a few seconds without getting dizzy.
But the show had to go on.
Somehow I summoned the fortitude necessary to walk the two blocks from my hotel to WHYY. As I walked incredibly slowly, taking breaks to catch my breath, I noticed another major historical landmark - the Liberty Bell. The bell is inside a building, but you can glimpse it from outside, through a window. As I took a moment to check out the ol' Liberty Bell, I felt an inexplicable jolt of energy and determination. Hey, if George Washington could cross the freezing Delaware, I could cross Market Street and make it to this concert. Slowly but surely, I marched down the street, humming John Philip Sousa’s "Liberty Bell March," of course. I arrived at the concert hall, sat down at the piano, and to my relief, felt great. And the concert went swimmingly! Afterwards, when I got back to my hotel room, I immediately collapsed and went back to being sick for the evening.
This was a very interesting experience. I was truly worried that I was not going to be able to give this concert. But I did. Was it adrenaline? Was it God? Or was it the invigorating spirit of the Liberty Bell? I think it might have been the Liberty Bell. So here is my offering of gratitude to America’s enduring symbol of freedom:
As you may know, I have a big hit on the internet: a video called “Fur Elise in Ragtime.” Currently, it has over 4 million views. Why is it so popular? Well, my theory is that people are sick to death of the traditional Fur Elise. So it's a form of therapy to hear somebody mess with it.
Recently, I reworked my Fur Elise arrangement into a 4-hand version. It is to be played by two pianists. For best results, these pianists should be sick of Fur Elise the classical way. I guess you can call this arrangement a form of couples therapy?
Here it is performed by me and my friend Emily Jarrell-Urbanek, who is a classical pianist here in Charlotte. She does a lot of accompanying for Opera Carolina, so she has a great sense of musical dramatics. If you and your piano partner would like to give this a shot, you can download it here.
In 2015 I gave two concerts in Lugano, Switzerland as part of the LongLake Festival. To prepare for my Swiss debut, I learned a song from the 1920s called “I Miss My Swiss” (which is on my CD "By the Sea"). “I Miss My Swiss” is very cute, and has some musical imitations of yodeling and cuckoo clocks. Catnip for Swiss people!
Some time after my return from Switzerland, it occurred to me that the novelty effects of “I Miss My Swiss” would work well in the “Beer Barrel Polka,” which I get a lot of requests for (unlike "I Miss My Swiss"). So here's my Swiss-inspired rendition of the "Beer Barrel Polka" -- complete with yodeling/cuckoo clock interlude.
Today I’d like to revisit the first song I ever learned in my life: Heart and Soul. When I was nine years old, the Uslan family became first-time piano owners. Our neighbors were departing with their Wurlitzer Spinet and we took it off their hands for a good price. To my knowledge, no Uslan had ever successfully learned to play a musical instrument, so if I could get Mary Had a Little Lamb going with two hands together, it would’ve been seen as a success.
I remember the day the piano was moved into the house. I thought that playing the piano would be easy. I was skilled at picking my nose, so picking out a tune couldn’t be that hard. Boy was I wrong. Mary Had a Little Lamb was proving elusive. But then my mom came over to the piano and said “Watch this.” And she showed me how to play Heart and Soul. It blew my mind.
Now, most people are familiar with the ubiquitous Heart and Soul piano duet. It’s a foundational part of the non-pianist’s repertoire. If you are not familiar with it, you can get up to speed by watching the following video, which is performed in part by a cat.
Although that cat is a tough act to follow, here is my Heart and Soul rendition. It’s a bit more complex than what my mom taught me in 1988. It’s also a tad more sophisticated than the feline interpretation. But keep in mind I’ve been working on this tune for 31 years, and unlike the cat, I have opposable thumbs.
I’d also like to mention that Heart and Soul is a real song, with words and everything. This might be shocking to those who are only familiar with the famous duet version. The music was by Hoagy Carmichael and the words were by Frank Loesser. Both men were songwriting heavyweights of the 1930s and 40s. Here are two of my favorite recordings of Heart and Soul, both of them from 1938, when it first came out.
In the Larry Clinton/Bea Wain version, it opens with that familiar vamp from the duet. To me, that is evidence that the whole piano duet thing was inspired by this recording.
Here is a version with Billy Mayerl on the keys. Billy Mayerl was a wonderful British pianist who I can't get enough of.
And that concludes my blog post on Heart and Soul. I’ll get around to revisiting Chopsticks eventually, so please stay tuned.
As part of the Ravinia Festival's "Reach*Teach*Play" program, I visited four Chicago public schools, interrupting their regularly scheduled classes to give them their own personal concerts. One of the schools was an elementary school. I played the Tiger Rag as a “freeze dance.” During the “hold that tiger” part, they all roared. It was ferocious!
For the high school students, the concerts were followed by Q&As. The questions were not just about the music, but about myself and how I came to be a professional piano player. Among other things, I told them that when I was their age I began to practice piano in a disciplined way on a regular basis, and I got better and better not overnight, but over a long period of time. And yes, there were times I wanted to quit! Music, like most meaningful pursuits, takes practice and effort over many years, and the younger you start, the better. I don't fancy myself a motivational speaker but I do like passing on my limited wisdom to the young whippersnappers. I don't want to go around giving unsolicited advice, but these were curious kids who literally raised their hands and asked for it!