The jitterbug champ. That was Leo. Even his obituary noted it, in a long list of ways he endeared himself to family and friends, colleagues and caregivers.
Alzheimer’s disease didn’t seem to slow him down much. As long as I played something danceable, Leo was on his feet. Occasionally a woman would jump up and join him. But she always collapsed back into her chair long before Leo’s battery ran down. His energy seemed boundless. He was happiest—jubilant, really—when I played his special request: “12th Street Rag.” Then he’d jitterbug, his thick white hair flying. If I had a picture of him in those moments, I’d caption it “sheer joy.”
Ragtime piano music features a syncopated melody in the right hand: notes are accented in places you wouldn’t expect them to be, creating a ragged rhythm. This is accompanied by an even, march-like beat in the left hand. Ragtime pieces aren’t my favorites. I find them hard to play, especially in their original solo piano versions. The big, complex chords move all over the keyboard.
Most of us come up with the name Scott Joplin when we think of ragtime. His music was all the rage around the turn of the 20th century, starting with “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899. In the 1970s, there was a revival of interest in Joplin after Marvin Hamlisch adapted several of Joplin’s ragtime pieces, including “The Entertainer,” for the score of the movie The Sting.
There were many other important composers of rags: Charles Johnson, James Scott, Joseph Lamb, Eubie Blake. Irving Berlin cashed in on ragtime’s popularity with his first major success, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” in 1911. But that’s a song about ragtime, not one composed in ragtime style.
Leo’s beloved “12th Street Rag,” a classic by Euday Bowman, appeared as a piano solo in 1914. (Bowman also wrote “6th Street Rag,” “10th Street Rag,” and “11th Street Rag.” They remain unpublished. Most of his other compositions were blues pieces.) Over the years, three set of lyrics have been added to “12th Street Rag,” the first in 1919 by James Sumner, another by Spencer Williams in 1929, and a third by Andy Razaf in 1942. This wasn’t the only time that Razaf added words to songs primarily known as instrumentals. He did it for “In the Mood” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy” too. The 1942 lyrics end with:
I’m swing bent, my brain is sent on a jag
When I hear that 12th Street Rag.
Razaf must have had someone like Leo in mind when he wrote those lines.
Ragtime’s popularity waned after World War I, but there were still some hits in the genre, including Dixieland trombonist Pee Wee Hunt’s 1948 recording of “12th Street Rag.” Leo’s enthusiasm for the tune probably came from hearing that.
I lost touch with Leo for a few years. His illness progressed, and he moved to a different memory-care facility. Then one day I played the piano in his new home. He hurried over. I’m pretty sure he didn’t recognize me; he would have been excited regardless of who sat at the piano. He had just three words to say to me: “12th Street Rag.”
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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