Keepin' in stride

Oct 28, 2009 at 12:00 am

Entering pianist Taslimah Bey's Rochester Hills townhouse, you'll immediately notice two things. There's a handsome portrait of Harry P. Guy, a largely forgotten ragtime pianist, composer and arranger from Detroit. And there's an antique Star brand piano in Bey's living room. Ragtime giants such as Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson played that model, and Bey took her first piano lesson on one. Bey bought hers at a church rummage sale for just $50, but she spent that many times over having it refurbished. 

It's a gloomy late Saturday afternoon. Bey has just finished running her errands, and she's back at home sitting at a kitchen dinette table in a white T-shirt and jeans, her hair down, sipping a cup of herbal tea and discussing her interest in ragtime music and why it's become a crusade for her.

Bey is 51. She's tall, and has the build of a track and field athlete. She's a bit uncomfortable talking about herself. The woman would rather talk about the history of ragtime musicians. She may be reluctant to boast, but some respected jazz musicians were quick to brag about her mastery of ragtime. Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave summed up Bey's style and knowledge this way during a recent telephone interview. 

"She's continuing that ragtime tradition. She's classy and she embodies all the soul of all those great ragtime musicians, and she has the technique to back it up," Belgrave says.

Ragtime music is a combination of African rhythms and European classic march forms. It's a jovial and hard-swinging style that bears traces of the blues and has influenced the development of later jazz. There are clashing accounts of its origins. Some historians contend it started in New Orleans in the late 1800s. 

Others believe it was developed and refined in St. Louis, in a neighborhood dive called the Maple Leaf Club, which Scott Joplin immortalized in his classic "Maple Leaf Rag." But after sweeping the country, ragtime largely — but never entirely — faded away as a distinct style. In 1973, ragtime got a major boost with the Academy Award-winning hit film The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, which brought Joplin's compositions again to a wide audience. 

Detroit figured into the history of ragtime as well. Based here, Jerome H. Remick & Co. was a major publisher of ragtime tunes. Ragtime musicians such as pianists Harry P. Guy and Fred Stone, and violinist Theodore Finney were stationed in Detroit and led ragtime bands. Regional as well as nationally known ragtime ensembles performed at the popular Knoppin Club on the east side. 

Bey could talk about the history of ragtime for hours. In her own right, she's added to Detroit's ragtime history. She self-released two exceptional ragtime albums A Tribute to Ragtime and Taslimah Bey — Live! On the albums, she covered such ragtime staples as "Maple Leaf Rag," "High Society" and "King Porter Stomp." Her playing is precise as a carpenter's measurements, and she gives each composition a personal touch.

"When I play ragtime, it's like coming home," she said. "It resonates through me. I knew this was the music I wanted to play. I really relate to it, and I have been trying to figure out why because this music is so old."

Bey grew in
the Detroit. At age 11, she started playing the piano. Her mom, Phyllis Hall, and her grandmother, Emma Beard, loved singing. As a teen, Bey was part of a summer program at Berklee College of Music in Boston. "Spending the summer at Berklee was paradise 24-7, playing jazz with musicians from all over the world," Bey recalls. 

After graduating from Cody High School, Bey studied music at Wayne State University in the mid-'70s, with hopes of becoming a professional classical musician; on weekends, she even took private lessons from pianist Boris Maximovich. Two incidents crushed her dreams. One music history professor told Bey she lacked the refinement to pursue a career in classical music. Another professor was harsher when Bey asked why he never discussed classical music composed by African-Americans. 

"He said because black people didn't know how to read and write back then, let alone read music. He came down on me pretty hard," Bey recalls. "I was pretty much dissatisfied with Wayne State's music department back in 1976. I loved classical music. I was taking a music history course. We were studying classical American composers. This was a turning point in my life."

Bey dropped out, but continued private lessons, and she began researching African-American composers in earnest with the intention of giving a recital. She had an I-will-show-them determination.

"It took me a few years to get enough compositions by African-American composers. I started at the Hackley collection, and there were shelves and shelves of music by black composers. There were classical pieces, sonatas, ragtime, boogie-woogie," Bey recalls. 

The E. Azalia Hackley Collection of the Detroit Public Library's main branch was the mother lode in her search. Established in 1943, and named for an African-American opera singer from Detroit, the collection houses rich archives relating to African-Americans in the performing arts. There she found music by Tom Turpin, Eubie Blake and Harry P. Guy.

During the day, Bey worked as a receptionist at Wayne State's Center for Black Studies. Drifters used to loiter at the center. One approached her one day. He started talking about classical and ragtime music. Bey befriended him.

"I don't remember his name. He wore this black overcoat. He didn't look great. When he stopped by my job, my co-workers would say. ‘Your boyfriend is here to see you.' He was a ragtime pianist, and one day he came by with this suitcase. He said I'm going to give this to you, and he gave me the suitcase. After that day, I never saw him again."

The suitcase contained stacks of out-of-print music such as "Finger Buster" by Willie "the Lion" Smith, "Nancy Goes Honky Tonk" by Meade "Lux" Lewis, "Roll 'em Pete" by Pete Johnson and Joe Turner, and the Scott Joplin ragtime songbook. Finally, she had enough music to do the recital she dreamed of at the Detroit Public Library. It was a big hit. 

In the '80s,
Bey became indirectly involved with Detroit's growing avant-garde scene. She dated avant-garde saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey. She also converted to Islam and changed her last name. She says the saxophonist added another dimension to her maturation as a musician. 

In 1986, she needed a change. She moved to California where she took music courses at the University of California, Los Angeles. A year later, she returned to Detroit, had a son and resumed performing. With a grant from the Detroit Council of the Arts, she produced a ragtime concert at Orchestra Hall, sharing the bill with the Sun Ra Arkestra. 

Bey's dedication to ragtime music caught the attention of Detroit saxophonist Charlie Gabriel, a ragtime tradition-bearer in his own right. Gabriel became her mentor.

"I told her early on that she was reading and playing ragtime music perfectly, but that she needed to take the music off the page and make it a part of herself," Gabriel recalls when reached via telephone in New Orleans where he's gearing up to tour Europe with the Preservation Hall band.

Gabriel is from a prominent musical family in New Orleans — some of whom migrated to Detroit — whose roots go back to the time of ragtime. Bey's interest in the music impressed the saxophonist so much he took the pianist to see the Crescent City where she rubbed elbows with some authentic ragtime musicians. 

"I wanted to show her how ragtime music is perceived in New Orleans. This music is in the air, and in the food. I brought her here to see firsthand how this music is delivered," Gabriel says.

Bey returned to Wayne State (with help from a scholarship named for the flamboyant Liberace), earning a BA in music education in 1995. A decade later, she received a master's degree from Oakland University, where she is now working on a doctorate in music education. Meanwhile, she teaches music full time at Law Academy, an elementary school in the Detroit public system. 

Ragtime may be little heard by the general public these days, but it has its latter-day adherents like Bey around the country; there are even enough musicians and fans to maintain three annual ragtime festivals around the country, including the Scott Joplin festival in the master's hometown. Bey played that one for the first time last summer. 

Still, Bey thinks ragtime should be taken more seriously. She does her part to make her students aware of that part of the African-American musical heritage; she wants to have an impact on the way they view their ancestors and the way they view themselves.

"I want them to see this music as a model of excellence. When they study Bach, I also want them to study Scott Joplin," she says. "When they study Mozart, I also want them to study Jelly Roll Morton."

The Taslimah Bey Ragtime Quartet performs at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 4, as part of the Jazz Forum series at Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church, 17150 Maumee St., Grosse Pointe; $13. Call 313-961-1714 for information. The performance will include a short feature on Lil Hardin Armstrong and her role in the early success of her husband Louis.

Charles L. Latimer writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]