Donald Ryan’s Salute to Ragtime

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Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame Presents Donald Ryan’s Salute to Ragtime

The acclaimed Tulsa pianist Donald Ryan, who began playing at the age of three in his native Trinidad, grew up aware of ragtime music. He just didn’t play it.

That all changed in the early 1970s, with a new awareness of that turn-of-the-century style brought about by the runaway success of the 1973 film The Sting, a period piece propelled by the music of ragtime composer-musician Scott Joplin. Suddenly, Ryan – a working pianist — found himself peppered with requests for the movie’s Joplin-penned theme, “The Entertainer.”

“So I learned it,” he recalls. “Then I bought a book of Joplin rags, an anthology, which I still have, and I learned a couple of other pieces. After that Rod Tillman, the founder of the Ragtime for Tulsa Foundation, asked me to be on its board, and I said, `sure.’ That was when I started getting more involved with playing it and learning it.”

Since then, Ryan has become one of the premier performers of ragtime in the world, playing several times at the Scott Joplin Festival in Joplin’s hometown of Sedalia, Mo, and, in 2006, serving as artist in residence for the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation. (That same year, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.) Ryan’s solo-piano show Sunday will include selections written by the composers he calls “the big three of classic ragtime,” Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb.

portrait of Scott Joplin
portrait of Scott Joplin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


“Of the three, James Scott – from his writing – was more of a natural piano player,” notes Ryan. “His stuff just kind of ripples out. It’s scintillating, and very pianistic, whereas Joplin’s is well-crafted, but it doesn’t always flow as easily from the fingers.

“Charles Lamb is the one who sounds the most polished. He was from New Jersey. He was white. And Joplin liked his stuff. He complimented Lamb when he said one of the rags Lamb played for him was `a real Negro rag.’ But Lamb’s influences were not just black or white or Midwestern. He was very influenced by that melting pot of cultures in [turn-of-the-century] New Jersey. Without reservation, my favorite rag of his is called `Bohemia.’ It sounds like Hungarian music. If you take away the rag aspect of it, it sounds like it could’ve been composed by Brahms or Dvorak.”

In addition to selections by those three giants of the genre, Ryan intends to perform some examples of what came to be known as “novelty rags” at Sunday’s show.  Among them will be tunes from a musician named Zez Confrey, whose 1921 composition “Kitten on the Keys” is one of the best known of the novelty rags.

“The novelty rags were written by guys who’d had piano lessons, and they used a lot of impressionism,” he explains. “There’s a lot of florid writing; it just goes faster. Think tap-dancing, and that’s the tempo of a novelty rag. By and large, it’s just faster.”

“Kitten on the Keys” came along more than two decades after Missouri’s Scott Joplin had begun the ragtime boom with his 1899 composition “Maple Leaf Rag,” and the difference between those two songs illustrates how the music evolved. It would continue to change, and that’s one of the things that attracts Ryan to ragtime.

English: Copy of sheet music for Maple Leaf Ra...
English: Copy of sheet music for Maple Leaf Rag, published in US pre-1923. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I like history, and that part of it appeals to me – the evolution of American popular music,” he says. “It all started with ragtime. Ragtime was the first identifiably American popular music. People from other nations, especially in Europe, who heard it knew it didn’t come from there. It didn’t come from Africa. It came from America.

“So the historicity of it appeals to me. And then the growth, how it spread to novelty and then to stride [piano], and here came jazz into the mix.”

Of course, there are other reasons Ryan remains attracted to the genre.

“”I like the two-fistedness of it,” he says. “In ragtime, each hand has something to do. So it’s quite athletic and, interestingly enough, I find it good practice to keep my technical chops up.”

Donald Ryan is set to begin his concert at 5 p.m. Sunday, March 10, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First St.  Tickets can be purchased at the depot or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-1008. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.  Refreshments will be available for purchase.

The Donald Ryan ragtime performance is a part of the Jazz Hall’s Winter Concert Series.

The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomansthrough preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.

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