Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The St. Louis Years — Part 2 • The James A. Drake Interviews

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The St. Louis Years — Part 2
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> Read  The St. Louis Years — Part 1

 

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Scott Joplin

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There’s so much to ask you about Scott Joplin, so may I begin by noting that you are one of the few major figures in the music industry who can speak authoritatively about Scott Joplin because you worked with him.

I think your word choice, “worked with him,” makes my association with him sound more important than it was. I went several times to the Maple Leaf Club to pay him to help me learn to play ragtime the way he wrote and played it, and when he moved from Sedalia to St. Louis, which was around 1900, [1] I did a lot more work with him. But I was just one of several pianists who were studying with him in St. Louis, so I don’t want to give the impression that we became colleagues or friends or anything that would suggest a close relationship.

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This St. Louis Dispatch article from February 28, 1901, pre-dates Joplin’s move to St. Louis, still referring to him as a “Sedalian.” The European trip never materialized.

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Even if you had wanted to do that, would it have been possible with segregation? Wasn’t St. Louis as segregated as the rest of the South and much of the Midwest?

There were what you might call “black areas” and “white areas” of St. Louis, but I have to say that being a river town there was more interaction between blacks and whites in St. Louis than in many other cities. [2]  I’ll give you what I think it was one of the reasons why the races got along better in and around St. Louis: Mark Twain’s novels. I can still remember so many passages from Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

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About Scott Joplin, there are at least two photos of him—one as a young man about the time that his first ragtime pieces were published, and another when he was probably middle-aged. How would you describe his appearance when you were working with him?

 We were about the same height—I was six feet tall, and he may have been an inch shorter than I, if that much. He was stocky—he had put on a few pounds over the years, and his hair was rather thin. His speaking voice was in the baritone range, but it’s hard to describe how he spoke. The way I would put it is that he spoke with authority. He knew who he was, and how important he and his music were. [3]

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Joplin’s first St. Louis residence was an apartment at 2658A Morgan (since renamed Delmar Boulevard), which is now maintained as a Missouri state historic site. He and Belle later moved to a large house at 2117 Lucas, which has since been demolished.

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Did he live well? By that I mean, did he seem to enjoy his success?

Oh, yes—definitely. As I said, he moved from Sedalia to St. Louis, and he and his wife, whose name was Belle, had a sizable home with well-kept grounds. [4]  You have to remember that at that time, he was one of the most famous men in popular music in this country. He had written several of those great ragtime pieces by then and had also written one opera [A Guest of Honor] and was writing another one [Treemonisha]. So he was well-known, not just in Missouri but everywhere that ragtime, which he essentially “invented,” was being played.

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Joplin and company rehearse “A Guest of Honor.”
(The Sedalia Weekly Conservator, August 22, 1903).

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What was a typical session with him like? How much time did he allot for each of your “lessons” with him?

Usually each session was about an hour, sometimes more, but I’d say an hour on average. He would have me sit at the keyboard, and he would sit to my left on a piano stool.

 

Am I correct in assuming that you only played his music?

Sure, of course. That’s why I did everything to persuade to let me pay him to teach me how to refine my playing of his rags. I spent practically a whole year with him, usually once a week.

 

Was he a stickler about tempo?

Most definitely! He hated hearing his music played too fast. He told me, and I think everyone else he talked to about tempo, that ragtime must never be played fast. I think he may have even had that printed on the sheet music of his songs.

 

I don’t believe that Scott Joplin ever made a phonograph recording, but I’m told that he did make piano rolls, so at least we have some idea how he sounded.

No, you can’t say that because those piano rolls are not reliable. I know because I’ve heard a piano roll of him playing “Maple Leaf Rag,” and it’s definitely not the way he played it. Many piano rolls were embellished—notes and chords were added to them—and the Joplin roll of “Maple Leaf Rag” has a bunch of bass notes that he never played.

Those bass notes were added to the roll—maybe with his permission, and maybe not, I don’t know. But what I do know is that there are far more bass notes in that roll than he ever played. Now, the style I had developed as a pianist had a lot of bass, and Joplin noticed that right away when I started [studying] with him. He said to me, “You’re pretty heavy with that left hand, and I’m going to need you to cut out a lot of that when you’re playing my music.”

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Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” as originally published by John Stark in Sedalia (top), and a later, far more common printing made after Stark moved to St. Louis (center). A long-forgotten song version was published in 1903, with the addition of trite lyrics by Stark office-boy Sydney Brown (bottom). Joplin biographer Edward Berlin notes that the arrangement, which uses only the rag’s opening strain, “is uncharacteristic of Joplin and was probably made by someone else.”

 

You made piano rolls too, am I correct?

Yes, I made about a half-dozen of them when I brought my band to New York City to make recordings that I could sell in St. Louis. I went over to Newark, which was then the capital of the piano-roll industry. There were several labels that each company had. The biggest company was QRS, which is still in business. I made my rolls for a smaller label called “Artempo.”

 

Was there a special piano you had to play to make piano rolls?

Well, there were two methods—maybe more, I don’t know—but there were two methods that I learned about in Newark and each one had a specially made keyboard. [5] One method required the pianist to play at about half the tempo he’d use if he were playing it for an audience, for patrons of a club or some other public place. That particular method had the piano keyboard rigged up to a series of individual “blocks”—small rectangular blocks that were made of oak and were slightly rounded on each end.

The actual “roll” was two layers of brown paper that were separated by carbon paper. When the pianist struck a key, one of those “blocks” would strike the top layer of paper, which simultaneously made an imprint on the bottom layer. The carbon paper that was sandwiched between the two rolls is what made the imprint [on the bottom roll]. After the pianist had finished playing whatever tune it was, a technician would use a razor tool that looked like a scalpel to cut out those impressions that the blocks had made on the bottom layer of paper. That would become the “master roll,” the template for making identical rolls to sell to the public.

The other method was much better because the piano keyboard was rigged to a series of hole-punches that were air-powered. These small, round, sharp-pointed punches would keep poking holes in the roll of paper until the pianist lifted his finger and the tone stopped. Afterward, that vertical string of tiny holes would have a border drawn around them, and a worker would use a scalpel to cut a rectangular strip exactly the length of that string of tiny holes. When that missing strip passed over the pneumatic bar in the player piano, it would cause the appropriate piano key to be depressed. The advantage of that method was that the pianist could play at the tempo he was accustomed to using—not half-speed like that other method required.

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An excerpt from Scott Joplin’s School of Ragtime advising  pianists to “catch the swing, and never play ragtime fast at any time.” The advertisement is from February 1908.

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What sort of “tips” would Scott Joplin give you when you were playing his music and he was sitting there near you?

He would tap out the correct tempo, and would get me to augment chords and say slightly ahead of the beat in some measures, or slightly behind it in others. He like to use the metaphor of a swing—like a swing on a playground or a swing suspended by ropes from a tree limb. He’d say, for instance, that to get a swing moving you have to push it. So in a passage, or on a particular note, he’d say to me, “Now push it here,” which meant to play it more forte or to play it a little faster. If I was playing a passage a little too fast, he’d say to me, “Lay back now.” He would tell me to picture the swing when it reaches the peak of its arc—that moment where it’s just suspended in the air, right before gravity takes over and the swing begins a downward arc. He’d say, “Swing it now”—meaning to hold the chord, to pause before playing the next notes.

 

When Joplin died in 1917, it was reported that he had contracted syphilis when he was young. Medical journals of that period listed three stages of the disease—primary, secondary, and tertiary—and in the secondary stage, the gradual loss of muscle control in the hands and legs would be evident. Did you see any hint of that when you were with him?

None at all. Not only his playing, but everything about him—his concentration, his hearing, his walking, everything—was normal.

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From The New York Age: March 29 (top) and April 5, 1917

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I’m interested to know what you think of the ragtime revival today, and how accurate the playing of those who are making LPs of the Joplin repertoire is compared to his own playing.

This young man [Joshua] Rifkin plays “The Entertainer” the way Joplin played it, and he does a good job with “Maple Leaf Rag” too. He is careful not to play ragtime fast, which is the mistake most of these “revivers” make.

 

In the 1950s, there was also a “ragtime revival” on recordings by Crazy Otto, and on television by Big Tiny Little, Jr., and Joanne Castle on Lawrence Welk’s weekly program. What was your opinion of their “ragtime”?

Some of that got started by the popularity of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Old Piano Roll Blues,” but then it turned into a pop-music trend with Crazy Otto’s records. Tiny Little was just one of several Crazy Otto imitators, but of course he had the advantage of being seen and heard on television ever week thanks to Welk. Tiny Little was [Little] Jack Little’s son, and although he was probably as good or better a pianist than Jack was, his so-called “ragtime” playing on the Welk show was just “showy.”

Neither he nor Crazy Otto or any of those other imitators of the Crazy Otto style had anything to do with real ragtime. They were playing on uprights that were deliberately out of tune, and their fingering amounted to nothing more than playing the same note an octave apart by playing the higher note with the “pinky” and the lower one with the thumb. Most of them used rolling chords in the bass, which was all wrong. That’s the kind of playing that belongs in a saloon, and it has nothing at all to do with the ragtime of Scott Joplin.

— J.A.D.

 

Editor’s Notes

[1]  Joplin biographer Edward Berlin has Joplin moving to St. Louis in the spring of 1901 (Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his Era, pp. 97–98. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), which is consistent with the February 1901 St. Louis Dispatch article showing Joplin still in Sedalia.

[2]  Berlin identifies the area in which Joplin resided as St. Louis’ “red-light” district, bounded roughly by 12th Street on the east, Beaumont on the west, Clark on the south, and Morgan on the north (Berlin, op. cit., p. 90).

[3]  Haenschen’s recollections are in agreement with those of other Joplin acquaintances and associates, who described him as “not much socially,” “quiet, serious,” “unassuming,” and “always studying.” (Berlin, op. cit., p. 97).

[4]  In the previous installment, Haenschen recalled having first seen Joplin at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition; but based upon his recollection of Belle Joplin and the large house, the lessons probably took place during 1902–1903. Those were the only years in which Joplin is known to have occupied a house in St. Louis (a thirteen-room structure at 2117 Lucas, a portion of which the Joplins rented to boarders). The Joplins separated in 1903, and Scott Joplin’s only other confirmed St. Louis addresses were apartments.

[5]  Haenschen is referring here to methods used to produce “hand-played” piano rolls, an innovation that first appeared c. 1912–1913, as distinct from the more common practice of having technicians mechanically perforate the rolls.

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For More:

Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years

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© 2020 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.