Ragtime lover to song preserver

October 24, 2002 12:00 am
RAGTIME MUSIC performed on the keyboard by Irwin Schwartz is transferred to a computer for archival preservation. (Amy Alonzo/Copyright 2002, The Union Democrat).
RAGTIME MUSIC performed on the keyboard by Irwin Schwartz is transferred to a computer for archival preservation. (Amy Alonzo/Copyright 2002, The Union Democrat).

By ERIC BURKETT

Their names are among the pillars on which American music is built: Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum and Fats Waller, among others.

Their music was ragtime.

Mention ragtime to most people, observes Twain Harte area resident Irwin Schwartz, and they think of "The Sting," the 1973 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

But it's so much more.

Ragtime was popular from the last years of the 19th century — about 1899 — to the first World War, when it was replaced as the popular music of the time by patriotic war songs. Think Irving Berlin and "Over there." Never mind that "The Sting" was set in the 1930s, when most people were listening to jazz or the newer music form, big band.

Ragtime laid the foundation for much of popular American music, Schwartz said.

"This genius community of black musicians created ragtime, which created jazz, which created rock," he said.

Schwartz, 59, remains true to ragtime.

In fact, he is passionate about ragtime the way some are passionate about Italian cooking, English literature or NASCAR. And like other such passionate sorts, Schwartz — who teaches high school mathematics in Oakdale — does more than just listen to the music. He has studied the musicians — their successes, their disappointments, their lives.

"It deepens my understanding of the people who wrote that music," he said.

There are other passions in Schwartz' life, such as writing. He is the author of two published works.

His first book, a novel called "The Piltdown Confession," is based on an historic 19th century archaeological hoax. It was published by St. Martins Press in 1994.

"Piltdown" did all right, he said, and is now out of print. Plug the title into a search engine online, and the Internet pulls up several references to the book.

His second book — a text book —was less widely received, but a little more influential. While "Phase-Conjugate Optics" — published by McGraw-Hill in 1996 — never made the New York Times bestseller list, it remains the work with which Schwartz is most pleased.

Rather than actually writing it, Schwartz translated it — from Japanese. At that point, there was little information on the subject — the then-new science of holography in English, as most of the work had been researched by Japanese and Russian scientists.

Schwartz calls the book "my proudest intellectual work."

‘Ragtime was stolen' Schwartz, who moved to the Twain Harte area three years ago with his partner, Maria Cayne, was born in Brooklyn. If his accent isn't a dead giveaway, the Brooklyn Dodgers jersey hanging over his desk is.

Like a lot of new arrivals to the foothills, Schwartz moved here from the Bay Area, Silicon Valley specifically.

"I was a professional liar," he said of his work in public relations. He's held other positions, as well, including working as a Japanese-to-English translator.

Introduced to piano as a child, Schwartz discovered ragtime about 10 years ago.

"I just liked the music," he said.

Eager to learn more, he began to explore the music's history, its background. And he began to wonder.

In its heyday, ragtime was written by blacks, performed by blacks, and enjoyed by blacks. As Schwartz — a white guy — began attending ragtime festivals organized by whites and contacting modern — white — ragtime musicians and scholars, he began asking himself "Where the hell are all the black guys?"

The more he looked into ragtime's history, the more he learned.

And he found something that disturbed him.

"Ragtime was stolen," he said.

Schwartz' relationship with ragtime is an intimate one. Schwartz not only plays ragtime in addition to his studies of ragtime's roots, but he's working both to preserve it and make it more accessible.

Schwartz has recorded and uploaded — or sequenced — about 300 ragtime songs, 200 of which are on on the Internet, in MIDI format (MIDI stands for "musical instrument digital interface").

Using a synthesizer, Schwartz has recorded rags such as "The Entertainer," "Maple Leaf Rag," "Charleston Rag," "Daintiness Rag," "Perfect Rag," "Poor Billy Green" and "Tickle the Ivories," a mere handful of the estimated 6,000 rags written between 1899 and 1917, Schwartz said.

Don't be put off, though, by Schwartz's use of MIDI technology. In the wrong hands, MIDI recordings can be lifeless and flat. Even the most lively tune can sound like something from a cheap music box.

But in Schwartz' hands, MIDI is piano, full of subtle undertones, and the distinct contrasts between notes, the gentle difference in the pressure applied to piano keys. Sequencing the music means turning it into something a computer can read, he said.

"Painting a musical picture using the computer."

But as he painted that picture, Schwartz began to see another, darker side to the music he loves so much.

When Schwartz said the music was stolen, he meant it, literally.

As ragtime grew in popularity, white producers and musicians took it, Schwartz said. They bought the rights to the music, often from financially desperate composers, for next to nothing.

And, finally, the image of ragtime was turned against its black creators, as well. Schwartz has books filled with the covers of popular scores of the time, with titles like "Coon, Coon, Coon," and "All Coons Look Alike To Me."

"Ragtime and stride" — ragtime's musical offspring — "are a very strong commentary on socioeconomic conditions of the time," said Schwartz. "Blacks were treated exactly as you see depicted."

Most Blacks Americans are embarrassed by the music now, and simply prefer to forget about it, he said, much as many Jews can't listen to the music of Wagner without being reminded of the Holocaust.

If Schwartz seems emphatic in his anger, it's not without cause. Jewish, Schwartz said he has seen discrimination and he has seen what it can do.

"You can't deny the history," he said.

And you can't deny Schwartz' enthusiasm.

Ragtime is more than just an historical curiosity, or a novelty CD tucked in a much larger collection of pop and classical music.

When Schwartz fell in love with ragtime, he didn't know where his interest would take him.

Ragtime has meant the growth of friendships, of shared experiences; it has given Schwartz an enormous amount of pleasure simply because of what it is.

"I like the music because I like the music," he said.

To hear Irwin Schwartz' MIDI recordings of ragtime, log on to: www.members.aol.com/midimusic

Sierra Views is a weekly feature profiling various people and places of the Sierra foothills; every one has a story. Have a profile suggestion? Call the editor at 532-7151 or 736-1234.