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Glenn Jenks Ragtime Compositions, Vol. I

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Album Notes


1.  RED BEARD RAG (1972) - Written in 1972 when Jenks was 25 years old and known primarily as a folk guitarist and singer in piano-bars and honky-tonk saloons throughout New England, Red Beard Rag is simplistic in its harmonic and rhythmic structure found within its first two strains; reminiscent of Jenks ragtime performances on guitar. It is the exciting change from C to A-flat in the TRIO section that gives us a glimpse of Jenks’s masterful composition skills. What follows is a non-traditional set of strains starting with a C strain that utilizes a walking bass turn-around reminiscent of Joplin’s Magnetic Rag, which leads into a short “breakstrain” (or sometimes called a “dogfight”). A non-repeated stand-alone strain with a charming “catch-the-beat” syncopation in the right hand brings home the final D strain in a true 3-over-4 grand ragging style.


2.  SINCERITY RAG (1974) - A conventional, authentic rag in standard AA-BB-A-CC-DD form, Sincerity Rag is more a Cake-Walk than a traditional rag with notated 2/4 time signature and two heavy beats per bar. Influenced by the originators of ragtime, this rag denotes syncopations and harmonies from the turn-of-the-century works by James Scott and Scott Joplin; yet subtle hints of internal counter-harmonies start to emerge that will later become a Jenks staple. Listening to the subtle strains, as performed by Swearingen, one might think it a parlor rag written in 1904 rather than 1974.


3.  THE FLORIDA RAG (1974) - The introduction and first strain pays tribute to Joseph Lamb’s Bohemia Rag; while the B strain begins to display the virtuosity of Jenks’s piano skills and his skillful writing for the instrument. The playful ascending off-the-beat arpeggiations and turn-around phrases demand an experienced performer. Strains C and D once again pay homage to the classic rags of Lamb.


4.  BACHELOR’S TWO-STEP (1974) - Jenks was keen to say that he was a “composer first and a pianist second.” As a composer he wrote entirely away from the piano and only brought his compositions to the keyboard once they were completely finished. In this way he was not influenced by what he could play, but guided by what the music led him to compose. With his fourth rag, Jenks already proves he is a master of the ragtime genre. Dedicating it to his favorite ragtime composer James Scott, the work itself sounds and reads as if the great ragtime composer wrote it himself. From the 8va echo effect in the C strain to the repeated B strain as the final strain (musical mannerisms synonymous with Scott’s writing style), Bachelor’s Two-Step immortalizes Jenks as a great ragtime composer.


5.  THE SPICE BOX (1974) - Curiously named The Spice Box, this rag is one of 12 original ragtime compositions Jenks recorded on his 1988 album Ragtime Alchemy. In keeping with the title, this charming spice-filled rag contains unconventional dotted jazz-style rhythms not usually found in ragtime. With a fast paced tempo marking of 72 to the quarter note and instructions to “Swing where indicated,” the juxtaposition of straight against swing in the B-strain sets up the lively chromatic ascending triplet run in the TRIO section perfectly. In Jenks’s own recording, he improvises a flourish of embellishments on the repeat of the final strain to finish out the rag with a pinch of spice. Swearingen’s light classical approach paired with a novelty ragtime zest gives it just the right flavor.


6.  THE HARBOUR RAG (1975) - Dedicated to Jim and Reeny Gilbert, proprietors of The Camden Harbour Inn in Camden, Maine, where Jenks performed regularly with fellow musicians throughout the 1970s. Following his Planxty Jim Stewart, The Harbour Rag is Jenks’s most performed, recorded and recognized work for piano. Employing classic ragtime conventions, the music is thoroughly Jenks. Structured with an AA-BB-A-CC form, an extended dogfight breakstrain reintroduces strain B as a final fortissimo strain in the manner of a grand Sousa march.


7.  A RAGTIME SEABREEZE (1975) - A Ragtime Seabreeze was dedicated to Nick Apollonio, a lifelong friend and fellow pub musician at “The Thirsty Whale”, a tavern at The Camden Harbour Inn. As Apollonio recalls: “We would all gather at the tavern and sing folk songs and sea shanties with Gordon Bok, Cliff Haslam, Tom Judge and Bob Stuart. I first recorded with Glenn back in 1979. He wrote many fiddle tunes for me - which were great fun to play … these were good times.” In 1974, Jenks called Apollonio seeking a rental in the Camden area for under $150. “Good luck!” Apollonio replied, and hung up. Shortly after, he remembered 9 Bonnie Brae: the house Jenks would live in for over 40 years until his death in 2016. “Maybe that’s why he dedicated A Ragtime Seabreeze to me,” Apollonio once remembered. As for the personal note that Jenks incorporated in the second half of the C-strain: “Just a zephyr” - a zephyr is a “soft, gentle breeze”; and Rockport harbor has a lovely sea breeze which is very nice for the Rockport Opera House on a hot night. Jenks was very instrumental in helping Apollonio found the Penobscot Folk Festival in July 1972; which drew musicians from across the country and Canada for over 25 years.


8.  PACIFIC COAST RAG (1975) - With only a year and four rags separating Florida Rag from Pacific Coast Rag, Jenks reveals a skillful command of harmony and syncopated counterpoint that is “nonpareil”. The playful cross rhythms in the final D strain and the inventive turn-arounds that are now synonymous with the composer’s style, is clear by 1975. Jenks is in top form with the standard AA-BB-A-CC-DD rag. Whereas Jenks’s 1988 recording is direct and fast-paced, Swearingen cradles the subtle nuances of the writing and brings out the tender images of a simpler time around the turn of the 20th century.


9.  THE NEW BLACK EAGLE RAG (1975) - This piece was written for the New Black Eagle Jazz Band, a New Orleans style jazz band founded in 1971 and based in New England. Both Jenks and Max Morath wrote a New Black Eagle Rag; and both jokingly thought theirs was better than the others. Jenks’s New Black Eagle is not written for the piano but more a piano transcription of the orchestral composition composed for the 7-piece jazz band. The left hand showcases the solo capabilities of the trombone; while the right hand encompasses the upper registers with the clarinet, trumpet and flute. A charming TRIO sections introduces an even, steady, duple rhythm that allows a bouncy syncopated bass to play off it. The final strain builds from a small theme to a full New Orleans jazz cadence.


10. THE BLACK PREACHER (1975) - Dedicated to American minister and 1960s Civil Rights Movement leader Rev. James Bevel, this AA-BB-A-CC-DD form rag is the first of Jenks’s works to incorporate a dotted 16th “swing” in the minor key. An early example of off-setting the regular 2/4 beat is shown in the very first strain where Jenks emphasizes the left hand strongly from the up-beat of the previous measure into the down-beat of the next. The teasing of an approaching “walking bass line” throughout the Rag brings the element to an all-and-out showcase in the final strain where the left hand displays a turn-around from the dominant to the 7th back to the dominant with an authentic swing style boogie-woogie bass. Jenks was in his element whenever he performed this rag and pulled all the stops out when he “brought it home” in the final few measures.


11.  THE EXEMPLAR (1976) - Simply attributed: “For Max - THE EXEMPLAR”, this rag is a true “Classic” rag as defined in the original years of the ragtime era by Scott Joplin’s publisher, John Stark. It is a full, rich and perfectly structured work, implementing all styles of elevated ragtime. One would be hard pressed to find a better written rag to set the form than The Exemplar. The C strain embodies the unrivaled talents of ragtime composer and arranger Artie Matthews with its left hand octave work; while the final D Strain represents the classical musings of Robert Hampton.


12. ROULETTE RAG (1977) - Lesser known among the Jenks’s rag, Roulette Rag is a masterful “novelty” work for piano filled with humor and agility. The music evokes a gambling establishment with a pianist providing background entertainment for the gamblers. An AA-BB-A-CC-DD rag, it demands a “hold on to your hats” performance in the final strain. Instructions to “Place Your Bets!” from the composer readies the pianist for a fast-paced 5 over 2 cross-the-bar polyrhythm symbolizing a trackball speeding around the fast spinning roulette wheel. With multiple repeats marked “Faster Still” and “sempre 8va” the music ends in a blinding dizzy as a final full tremolo fermata chord rings out, symbolizing the trackball coming to rest in a roulette pocket.


A RAGTIME TRILOGY (1986) - This trilogy is the first of two musical trilogies; The second being TRISKELION published in 1993. It is comprised of three individual works: French Lace, Desperation Tango, and The Ragtime Hurricane. Each a masterwork all their own, the writing exhibits an orchestral flare for the piano that spans far beyond the mere rag confines; utilizing the entire keyboard with a virtuosic command and technical voicing of the instrument not usually found in standard ragtime music.


13.  FRENCH LACE (“A Concert Waltz in ‘Ragged Time’ where in Scott Joplin meets the famous Johann Strauss”) - This frilly bon-bon calls upon a century’s old musical trick of “ragging” the classics. Jenks brilliantly references several well-known waltzes of Johann Strauss II; giving them a syncopated waltz treatment for the concert pianist. Jenks became known for “ragging the classics” with later works such as Gymnoraggy (1993) and his skillfully clever Stolen Memories (2003).


14.  DESPERATION TANGO (or, “You Think You Have Problems”) - A musical pathos, this tango descends to an almost breaking point, weeping by chromatic half-steps before returning back with a habanera-like flourish to its minor dominant. The tempo marking for this piece is “Grave”; which next to “Larghissimo” is the slowest tempo one can play in music. Jenks’s original recording of the tango is almost tongue-in-cheek and fits in well with the subtitle: (or, “You Think You Have Problems”). It is difficult not to smile at the thought that this music is crying out: “Oh woe is me!”


15.  THE RAGTIME HURRICANE - One of Jenks’s fastest ragtime works, this rag clocks in at a whirling 124 to the quarter note. As the title suggests, it is a tour-de-force to perform; and does not let the pianist rest for even a second throughout the rag. At times, pressing the performer to run the keyboard in ascending arpeggiations spanning over four octaves, while introducing a 16th-note walking bass line in the final strain, The Ragtime Hurricane proudly holds ranks with the handful of performance encore pieces that only the most experienced ragtime pianists can play.  


16.  THE RAGTIME HERMIT THRUSH (1986) - Dedicated to Amelia Lamb, Patricia Lamb Conn and to the memory of Joseph Lamb, (without whose music this rag could not have been written), Jenks uses musical mimicry to imitate the hermit thrush within the first strain, blending its call elegantly within the ragtime form. Revealing further a masterful artistry of inner-harmony and multi-voiced syncopated themes, Jenks weaves both polymetrically together. Subtitled (An Ornithological Serenade), Jenks was well known as an expert ornithologist and dedicated this rag to Amelia Lamb - Joseph Lamb’s wife - and their daughter, Patricia, in honor of Lamb’s own: Ragtime Nightingale (1915).


17.  ELEGIAC RAG (1986) - Set in the solemn key of B-minor, there is nothing standard about this rag. Placing the syncopation in the left hand while weaving an intricate series of chordal changes leading from B-minor to Eb-minor, A-7th to D, G-7 to F-7 back to B-minor, cements Jenks’s standing among serious composers. With an AA-BB-A format, the first and second endings of the C strain seamlessly bring each cadence either back to the beginning or on to the D strain with another series of inventive chord changes. Jenks mysteriously repeats the B strain once more before adding a Coda that floats ethereally up the keyboard until a fermata rest places the final chord below in a tender B-major resolve. This non-traditional ending can be described perfectly with words by ragtime historian David A. Jasen who once wrote of Scott Joplin’s Coda to his Magnetic Rag: the “smiling little coda”. Swearingen chose well to complete Volume I with this rag.

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