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The “Black Virtuoso Tradition” of Ragtime

By Javier Burdette

America has a reputation for being a country that produces innovation and leadership. In the 1800s, it was believed that the U.S., developing as rapidly as it was, would give birth to its own brand of classical music, one resembling the European style. It was a widely-held belief that, one day, Americans would sit in theatres and listen to American operas and traditional American classical music.

This American dream never came to fruition; instead, we got jazz. However, there was a  vaguely-defined genre of music that precursed jazz, one that blended its successor’s penchant for improvisation with much of the structure of the classical: ragtime, or rag for short.

Last Thursday evening, UCI Illuminations hosted an event — a pseudo-concert — featuring the works that exemplified this style, dubbed “The Black Virtuoso Tradition.” Pianist Steven Mayer and genre expert Joseph Horowitz put on “a one-of-a-kind piano event,” highlighting compositions from composers ranging from Fats Waller to George Gershwin.

Steven Mayer is renowned for his work with the ragtime style. The New York Times once called his proficiency at tickling the ebonies and ivories “piano playing at its most awesome.” He is the only pianist to have extensively studied the work of Art Tatum, an icon among jazz pianists.

Presenters Steven Mayer and Joshua Horowitz pictured with music students. Photo courtesy of Julia Lupton.

There is, however, something rather stereotypical about Mayer. He fits that “cool jazz cat” mold quite snugly. For the performance, he wore that black-on-black-on-black uniform jazz musicians seem to hold so near-and-dear to their hearts. He wears his facial hair in a style  reminiscent of a chinstrap. As he goes to work on the piano, what’s left of his hair tosses about with great vigor.

The guy can really play. He started the night up with Gottschalk’s “The Banjo,” made his way through several pieces to Dvorak’s “Humoresque No.4 in F Major” and wrapped up the show with Ives’  “The Alcotts.”

The audience absolutely ate up every song. At intermission and at the end of the concert, Mayer had to bow out twice just to quell the enormous amount of applause.

As first year Alexander Garcilazo-Moreno,  a concert attendee, put it, “He was just … incredible, it was mesmerizing.”

In the pauses between songs, Joseph Horowitz would take the stage and impart little history lessons for the crowd.

One particularly interesting anecdote he shared concerned Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. In the 1890s, Dvorak was recruited to help develop a tradition of American classical music. Dvorak is quoted having said, “In the Negro melodies of America, I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”

He, along with many others, was influenced greatly by the the work of Black American musicians and composers. In today’s world, such borrowing would be decried as cultural appropriation.

Horowitz and Mayer managed to both encapsulate the musical spirit of the era and present the history of ragtime in a truly appreciative and entertaining fashion.