[The following includes excerpts from the journal Black Grooves by Brenda Nelson-Strauss.]
Rick Benjamin, founder/conductor of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, recently gifted us with Volume 3 of his series, Black Manhattan (Volume 2 was also reviewed in Black Grooves. See more links below). The title derives from James Weldon Johnson’s 1930 book about New York’s black music and theatre communities from the 1890s to 1920s, profiling “an amazing group of achievers... whose work profoundly transformed the cultural life of this nation.” Benjamin has made it his mission to bring to light previously unrecorded works by these composers using authentic scores. With the release of the third volume, we can now experience “60 works by 32 outstanding African-American composers, spanning the seminal years of the 1870s to the early 1920s... [closing] this gap in America’s cultural memory.”
These collections contain an astounding breadth of styles, from blues, ragtime, ballads, one-steps — even a Viennese waltz and a Brazilian-themed tango by Will H. Dixon (who Benjamin considers to be a long-lost genius). Other composers featured are W.C. Handy, Eubie Blake, Frederick M. Bryan, J. Leubrie Hill, Al. Johns, Chris Smith, Scott Joplin, J. Tim Brymn and James J. Vaughan. Only a few of the compositions were recorded during their heyday.
As with his recording of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (2011), Benjamin strives to achieve an accurate restoration of this music as opposed to a reconstruction. Hence the musicians of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra perform on period instruments and the vocalists take care to follow the performance practices indicative of early 20th century music theater. Add the authoritative 48-page booklets that shed new light on many of these African American composers, and you have a truly spectacular packages that perform a great service to the advancement of the study of American music.
Browse the complete Paragon Ragtime Orchestra collection on New World Records.