Bad Haircut, Good Ragtime


In westerns, the saloon pianist never gets any respect. Always a foil and never once a hero, he’s there in a thousand movies, utterly nondescript in his bowler and gartered sleeve—a professional dweeb who plays “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” too fast and if he’s lucky gets to accompany Ann Sheridan or Angela Lansbury, but whose primary job is to duck like a clown as soon as the fists or bullets start flying. Who is this guy? Was he schooled, did he have a wife and kids, did he audition for the gig, could he read music, did he have a day job, was he paid tips or salary, was he a solid citizen or a drifter, where did he find material, did he ever get applause, did he have to bring his own garter? In real life, the job was not without allure. The adolescent Irving Berlin, for one, could think of no grander position.

Chicago-based Delmark, now in its fifth decade, which documents blues, traditional jazz, the avant-garde, and anything else owner Bob Koester admires, has just issued a surpassingly strange disc that restores to posterity a barroom pianist known in his day as the Ragtime Kid. Brunson Campbell is well known to ragtime experts, because in addition to privately making a handful of records in the 1940s, one side only (“If they want to hear two tunes,” he told writer Floyd Levin, “let them buy two records”), he was an influential propagandist for the postwar ragtime revival. If Campbell and his compatriots remain unknown to the rest of us, blame the lingering paranoia, snobbery, and ignorance that segregates jazz from its predecessors. Eubie Blake spent decades in the wilderness before his amazing comeback in 1969. Grove’s new three-volume jazz guide doesn’t even have an entry for Scott Joplin. Compared to them, Campbell is a footnote’s footnote, but one worth savoring.

Campbell’s fame rests on his standing as Joplin’s first and possibly only white pupil. Though only 14 when he ran away from his Kansas home to pound the keys, Brun, who was born in 1884, would stroll into saloons and play rags or back barbershop quartets to “pick up easy money” from the customers, who, during 10 years on the road, included outlaws Cole Younger, Henry Starr, and Emmet Dalton, as well as Pawnee Bill, Buffalo Bill, Lew Dockstader, Bat Masterson, and Teddy Roosevelt. “In those days,” he wrote in Art Hodes’s magazine, The Jazz Record, “pianists played on old battered square pianos. Some were inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and none I ever played on were in tune.” He witnessed his share of fights and shoot-outs, but his eureka moment came early, in an Oklahoma City music store, in 1898, when ragtime pianist and composer Otis Saunders showed him a handwritten manuscript of “Maple Leaf Rag” and told him he was on his way to join its composer in Sedalia. Campbell headed that way, too, and Joplin taught him how to play his first four rags.

In 1908, when ragtime was at its height, Brun abandoned professional music and married. Twenty years later, he established himself as a barber in Venice, California, where he quietly plied his trade until the 1940s, when young enthusiasts discovered him; with a little encouragement, he would close shop and regale them with stories. Turk Murphy told pianist and historian Terry Waldo, “You could always tell the guys who were going to see him, because of their haircuts. He wasn’t really that good of a barber—but he played good ragtime.” He was also, by all accounts, a good man; his early encounter with St. Louis’s black ragtime elite washed away any taint of racial prejudice the South might otherwise have instilled. He argued passionately for recognition of the superior black players, recorded for the sole purpose of sending royalties to Joplin’s ailing widow (“Of all Scott’s old friends, you are the only one who has ever offered to do anything for him,” she wrote him), and helped establish the Joplin memorial at Fisk University.

After Campbell’s death in 1953, Paul Affeldt released some of his recordings on his label, Euphonic, a catalog that Delmark has been reissuing over the past year. The Campbell collection, Joplin’s Disciple, includes about 20 numbers and fragments—most of them under two minutes, previously unissued, and presented in master and alternate versions. The sound is primitive, but the raw spunk of the playing is amplified by spoken comments, Campbell’s homage to Joplin, and Joplin’s piano roll of “Maple Leaf Rag,” pumped by Campbell. Is he any good? Yes and no. His chops are limited, he makes mistakes, his rhythms are as pumped up and automated as a pianola in overdrive. His “Maple Leaf Rag,” for example, is almost as studied as Joplin’s roll, though he makes the key melody sing as few interpreters do. In short, he sounds like nobody else. If the sedate Joplin promoted in the 1970s by Joshua Rifkin and Marvin Hamlisch put you in a coma, consider Campbell’s ur-rock and roll approach an antidote.

The album illustrates two theories. In This Is Ragtime, Waldo describes ragtime as an “expression of the mechanical age . . . its haunting quality [arising] from the juxtaposition of the older, lively Negro folk tunes within a hollow, metronomic framework.” If you can accept a metronome that rushes, Campbell is QED. In Rags and Ragtime, pianists and historians David A. Jasen and Trebor Jay Tichenor put forth a case for the folk rag, a generic kind of ragtime based not on specific scores but on a pool of melodies and rhythms mixed and matched at the performer’s will; Campbell is cited as one of the first proponents. The new CD has many examples, though the piece they consider his masterpiece, “Chestnut Street in the ’90s,” is the only Campbell recording not included, presumably because it never appeared on Euphonic.

The pianist enters like a moose on “Essay in Ragtime.” Had Brun encountered any tuned pianos in his Midwestern travels, his left hand would have undone them. The force is so startling that you may not notice the modest embellishments or blues strain inserted at the trio. Campbell likes to combine two formats—the traditional 16-bar (or 8 + 8) ragtime strain and the 12-bar blues—and sometimes he doesn’t seem to know which way he’s headed until he gets there. Whenever he opts for the blues, it’s either a variation on “Frankie and Johnny” or “Frankie and Johnny.” For the rag of that name, he begins with blues choruses, switches to a 16-bar B strain, and then alternates the two, rushing the blues sections. “Lulu White” reverses the process, beginning with a 16-bar strain, played twice, followed by an F&J variation, then alternating them. On the second take of “Frankie and Johnny,” he gets lost in the third chorus, as the left hand goes one way and the right another until he settles on the blues; he cuts the last chorus short by about seven beats.

That may sound like a mistake, but with Campbell you can’t be sure. On “Campbell Cakewalk,” which he seems to be making up on the spot, he begins with a 28-bar strain: 8 + 12—though the 12 is not a blues— + 8. The B strain (touch of “Who’s Sorry Now?”) is 16 and so is the C (touch of “Twelfth Street Rag”). About seven bars into the D strain, he suddenly turns the rhythm around, gaining two beats (or losing six) in the process and continuing with the new rhythm for another seven, thereby ending up with a strain of 14 and a half bars. If you think that, too, must be a mistake, consider “Barber Shop Rag,” which hints at “Twelfth Street Rag” and “Muskrat Ramble” before arriving at a C strain that loses two beats in the 10th bar, ending up with an episode of 15 and a half bars. It also sounds like a mistake, except there are two takes and it comes out that way every time.

Sometimes, as on “Ginger Snap Rag,” he winds himself up into a state of near euphoria, but more often he gives sway to a blustery contrariness, as in three distinct takes of “Twelfth Street Rag,” the first ending with a phrasing of the melody that unmistakably presages the theme from The Third Man, the second accentuating the counterpoint between melody and bassline, and the third additionally embellishing accents. For sheer asymmetrical pulsing jollity, nothing beats “Rendezvous,” which begins with a five-bar intro, followed by blues choruses and a 16-bar strain that in its second and final incarnation winds up 17 and a half bars, as though he were about to extend the last eight into a blues but thought better of it.

On the B strain of “Rendezvous,” Campbell flashes a treble gliss, recalling a segment from “Lily Rag,” the best-known rag by Charles Thompson, who Campbell says on his album was “the best of all of ’em.” Recordings culled from two parties Thompson played shortly before his death in 1964 were released last year as Neglected Professor, one of Delmark’s first Euphonic releases. If Campbell’s life was transformed by Joplin, Thompson’s was turned upside down by James P. Johnson, the Broadway composer and piano god whom he had met between 1912 and 1917, when Johnson was first getting started. The encounter encouraged Thompson to expand the ragtime idiom to include a wider range of rhythmic attacks, including boogie-woogie and stride. He recorded little and few people heard him outside of St. Louis, where he operated a club. Thompson lacked Johnson’s inventiveness, virtuosity, and spirit, but he had enough technique to evolve his own intimidatingly flashy style. Except for a couple of ponderous standards (“How Deep Is the Ocean,” “Tennessee Waltz”), the Delmark disc is an impressive showcase for a pianist who replaces Campbell’s brute force with razzle-dazzle syncopations and flourishes—he employs Johnson’s Charleston beat on “Dicty’s on 7th Avenue.” Thompson, who became legendary for besting Tom Turpin in a much celebrated contest, could play and write rings around Campbell (“Lily Rag” is a peach). But he was also more conventional and there are passages when his technique can’t hide the windup aspect of a mechanical music. Through Thompson’s polish and Campbell’s primitivism, however, we can experience part of the foundation from which jazz and swing arose, and credit the rowdy world of card sharps and wild women who paid the bills.