|Terry Waldo at his birthday concert, November|
2013, Bungalow Jazz, Columbus, Ohio.
Photo by James Loeffler.
Here's Waldo's opening from November's birthday concert, "The Pearl," by Jelly Roll Morton:
Acute timing, articulation, and improvisation all leap out from this and all Waldo's performances, the latter being central to his understanding of the music. Over the years, he reports, he's been dragged into "pissing contests" with musicians for whom playing ragtime is a matter of copying old records. "It's not jazz," says Waldo. "You're always doomed to failure. If you're copying records note-for-note, musicians on the stand aren't listening to each other: It's not alive. I get into a lot of shit about that," he confesses. "My recordings are originals. Jelly Roll Morton wouldn't have done a tune the same way twice." How many ways has Waldo played Eubie Blake's "Troublesome Ivories?"
Waldo's education in ragtime and traditional jazz is the result of curiosity and the opportunities of a great scene in Columbus and Dayton. When he was in high school and college in the early '60s, he benefited from the legacy of the '40s traditional revival. He knew the great Johnny Ulrich, who played piano with one hand and trumpet with the other, who had played with Bobby Hackett and did Jackie Gleason's arrangements. He heard and learned from Gene Mayle and the Dixieland Rhythm Kings, the Gin Bottle Seven, and trombonist Pee Wee Hunt, who taught him banjo. He founded his own band, the Fungus Five, in 1963, as a high school student, and a star was born. Or, at least, an indomitable artist was.
|Selection of Waldo's releases, including 26-hour Public|
Radio series, "This is Ragtime." Photo by James Loeffler.
During his student summers, Waldo played in a banjo band at the Red Garter in the French Quarter of New Orleans and got to know musicians still living from the original days of ragtime and New Orleans jazz. He worked in San Francisco during the '70s Dixieland revival, this time as a tuba player at Turk Murphy's club as a member of Earthquake McGoon's band.
In short, Waldo learned his art from the ground up as a young man, playing with and learning from the first generation men (and women—Alberta Hunter) who made his music.
Although Waldo was both a band member and leader (his bands included the Ralph Emerson Waldo Jazz Band, Waldo's Ragtime Orchestra, and his Gutbucket Syncopators, which recorded several great CDs), he reminds us that ragtime is principally piano music. It was offered as sheet music; it's longer form than jazz; and compared to jazz band music of the Dixieland era, it's very complex harmonically.
|Illustration from This is Ragtime by Terry Waldo, Jazz at Lincoln|
Center Library Editions, 2009. Wlado's High Society Stompers
with Sandra Day O'Connor on washboard.
Many casual listeners enjoy ragtime thinking it essentially uniform and predictable. But hearing Waldo play James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout," you can hear how the music veers among keys in both hands, changing colors crazily, rushing tempos, and making the listener stagger to keep up. We can tap our feet to it, but ultimately we have to just surrender to the exciting succession of tremblers that mark its irregular course. This goes back to interpretation and improvisation. While lots of sheet music exists for Ragtime tunes, as Wynton Marsalis points out in the introduction to Waldo's book, This is Ragtime, "Many times what you write is so much less than you can play."
During our evening with Waldo, it was interesting to hear him distinguish between band and piano music when a request was made for him to play the Lil Hardin delight, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," a Dixieland band favorite. The music is from his period, but he's a ragtime pianist, something quite different: Hear Waldo's reaction to this request. His brief performance could convince someone unacquainted with the tune that it had been a piano rag all along.
|Waldo greets fans at Bungalow Jazz. Photo by James Loeffler.|
A friendship was formed that resulted first in Waldo's arranging a tour for Blake of colleges in central Ohio (Ohio State declined the pleasure). Eventually, Waldo transcribed most of Blake's music and resided with Eubie and Marion for several years as student and assistant. Waldo takes amused—but very sincere—pleasure in Blake's having referred to him as his "ofay son."
In this video of Eubie Blake himself playing "Charleston Rag," one is reminded of two aspects of ragtime that are always shine from Waldo's performances. First is that, for all the fun, it is cerebral music. The rhythmic and harmonic intricacies—What work it must be to transcribe a performance!—are great. Glad as it makes us feel, there is nothing simple about it, certainly in conception. The other thing is that despite its musical demands, ragtime is always presented lightly, as an amusement for the performer and audience alike. Eubie Blake puts himself through his paces, but not without intermittent jokes about his ability to recollect the tune.
Waldo's material is accessible and engaging: "I see it as show biz." He sees himself as actively in the vaudeville tradition because even Dixieland jazz bands played vaudeville. When they did, they played no more than fifteen-minute sets with maybe five tunes per set, including drumstick showmanship and visual gags. It would be part of a larger entertainment with "singers, jugglers, comedians, an unnatural sex act—whatever made it work."
|Terry Waldo's history of ragtime and early jazz piano.|
"I do know vaudeville, and I act in my shows. Eubie was a great actor and performer," Waldo told me. "As a Black actor, he was like a boxer: You go out and give 'em everything you've got—Bam bam, no apologies, you don't be messing around! You have to have a sense of humor: Give them comedy; give them novelty songs: 'I like bananas because the have no bones.'"
For these reasons, Waldo the entertainer, the vaudevillian, takes exception to many existing presentations of ragtime, especially to people who record hour-long "archival" CDs with no breaks, simply one tune after another without suffusing any essential levity to keep it various and interesting.
Terry Waldo's knowledge about ragtime is the result of unbridled, lifelong curiosity, pursued since his 'teens. He's plunged into any opportunity he could find or create for his whole life. His book about ragtime is only one form in which he has transmitted his knowledge about early jazz. His National Public Radio series is available through his website. He has also recorded lectures for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which are available on YouTube. In these videos we can appreciate the entertainer, but we primarily see the excellent pedagogue who knows his material so deeply that he needs no recourse to academic or obfuscatory language to impart either facts or enthusiasm to his audience. He assumes we are interested and listening: He makes it fun: Terry Waldo Discusses Ragtime. Here you can hear his own performance of the "Charleston Rag" as well as Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag."
Terry Waldo's an artist I admire because the depth of his knowledge is based on his experience of his art—he understands it from the ground up, through his ears and muscle memory, through observation and conversation, trial and error. I also respect Waldo's lover-like commitment to what he knows and does. "I'm a dinosaur," he once told me. The revival of the '70s is long gone and the people who are interested in playing traditional jazz come through academic historical interest to a music of guts and laughter. I'll show up to his party, though, as long as it lasts, just to "come and hear."