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Carnegie/Bridgeville

Allegheny City Ragtime Orchestra a privilege to hear perform

| Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, 1:33 a.m.

The Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall is a major cultural asset in this local area, regularly offering a wide variety of outstanding entertainment and historical programs. It was my privilege recently to attend one that combined both genres.

In commemoration of the Centennial of the Armistice that ended World War I, the Allegheny City Ragtime Orchestra presented a program of World War I era music, focusing on compositions by James Reese Europe.

Born in 1880 in Mobile, Ala., Europe was the leading figure on the African-American music scene of New York City in the 1910s. His Clef Club Orchestra made history with the first “proto-jazz” concert at Carnegie Hall in 1912. His orchestra opened that concert with “The Clef Club March”; it was also the Allegheny City Ragtime Orchestra’s opening selection in the concert I attended.

The Ragtime Orchestra played a number of songs that Europe composed for Irene and Vernon Castle, including “The Castle Walk.” All told, they performed 15 different selections, including a medley from the 1921 Broadway show “Shuffle Along,” with music and lyrics by two of Europe’s colleagues, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.

When the United States entered World War I, Europe and Sissle enlisted in the 369th Infantry Regiment, the first African-American unit to go to France. Europe was director of its Regimental Marching Band; Sissle, bandmaster and vocalist. They are credited with introducing ragtime music to Europe, as well as serving as outstanding morale boosters. Unfortunately, Europe’s career was cut short in 1919 when he was killed by a percussionist in his orchestra following a disagreement after a performance that resulted in Europe getting stabbed.

The Allegheny City Ragtime Orchestra was created by Tom Roberts in 2012 to preserve the heritage of ragtime composers and musicians in the Pittsburgh area. This was my first opportunity to hear them in person; it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Tom Roberts is a remarkably versatile musician, with accomplishments in a wide variety of roles — jazz pianist, orchestra leader, music arranger for movies, composer of music for silent films, and jazz historian/lecturer. I was especially impressed with a lecture he gave titled “The Forgotten History of Pittsburgh Jazz: Pittsburgh in the Roaring Twenties.”

The Ragtime Orchestra included a rhythm section of Roberts on keyboard, Jose Puentes on string bass and Joel Martinez on percussion; Maureen Conlon Gutierrez on violin, Elisa Kohanski on cello, Kira Bokalders on clarinet, Julie McGough on flute, Galen McKinney on cornet and Aaron Pisula on trombone. Each of them came across as an excellent individual musician; together they play superbly in ensemble. A week later, when I went to the Pittsburgh Opera production of “Hansel and Gretel,” three of them were playing in the pit orchestra.

Vocalist Michael Warren was an excellent complement to the orchestra. He sang the World War I hit “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm?” popularized by James Reese Europe’s orchestra in 1919; Europe’s “Good Night Angeline” and a medley of Sissle/Blake “Shuffle Along” songs concluding with “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”

This was an evening planned especially for an audience fascinated by music and history, and it was a major success. I eagerly anticipate my next opportunity to hear and see the Allegheny City Ragtime Orchestra again.

John F. Oyler is a contributing writer. You can reach him at 412-343-1652 or joyler@icloud.com. Read more from him at mywutb.blogspot.com.

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