Pianist Richard Dowling doesn't come right out and say it, but he's got such a feel for saloon music that he must have moonlighted in the pubs around New Haven when he was a student at Yale. It might be easy to dismiss it as lowbrow, but what if you play like a superstar and nobody knows it yet? Or maybe you have a new tune you'd like to test drive. Take yourself to where the people are gathered and if they've tipped back a few pitchers, that's all the better.
Understandably, the kind of music one plays in a noisy, crowded saloon needs to have some oomph to it--something with a strong bass line, a compelling beat and enough fancy fingerwork to turn some heads.
Just before the turn of the last century, a new kind of music was developing in the saloons and brothels of Missouri. Almost always played by easy-to-hear pianos, the new music was march-like but in a sassy, syncopated, ragged way.
Within a couple of decades, "ragtime" had spread across the country, constantly incorporating new flourishes and layers of difficulty that led to sub-genres like novelty ragtime and stride. What these styles all had in common was the bass that didn't march so much as bounce, busy right-hand melodies and the expectation of improvisation. If this sounds suspiciously like jazz to you, you're not mistaken.
This was back in the day before one had to declare one's allegiance for either popular music or classical music. The line was pretty blurry and each side borrowed from the other to the benefit of both.
A great example: Zez Confrey takes a familiar bonbon by Dvorak and recasts it as a foot-stomper in a tune called "Humorestless," a play on Dvorak's "Humoresque."
The door swung both ways, though. In the 1920s, when composer and concert pianist Abram Chasins wrote his Three Chinese Pieces, he used the syntax of ragtime to describe an imagined scene: rush hour in Hong Kong.
Richard Dowling is returning to some familiar territory with his latest release; he recorded another collection of his favorite rags several years ago. This CD, "Rhapsody in Ragtime," explores not only straight-ahead rags by usual suspects like Scott Joplin and Euday Bowman but also explores the rag-influenced writings of jazz greats Fats Waller, Bix Beiderbecke and Eubie Blake. This is music that's close to his heart and he clearly has a lot of fun with it. It's hard to resist coming along for the ride to join in the fun.