Remembering Memphis' 'white Scott Joplin,' pianist Berl Olswanger

Berl-Olswanger.jpg The daughter of a key figure in Memphis music goes in depth on her father's legacy in a piece on Stay Thirsty. Anna Olswanger, who now lives in New Jersey, grew up in Memphis as her father, pianist Berl Olswanger, was a popular performer at public concerts and society events as well as on his own radio and TV shows. He also owned music stores in Memphis. After her father's death in 1981, Anna Olswanger discovered a trove of her father's original compositions, which she hadn't known existed. She contacted University of Memphis ethnomusicologist David Evans to find out more about the ragtime-influenced music:

The improvisational qualities of blues and its odd structure contributed to the breakdown of ragtime and led to the popularity of jazz, which was in full swing by the 1920's. Some piano rags were still being composed in the 1920's, but they often showed blues influence or were harmonically complex "display" pieces like your father's "Juice Harp Rag" and "Berl's Jazz Polka."

Anna Olswanger also talks to Floyd Huddleston, the singer and composer who worked with Berl Olswanger at the old Pepper Records label after World War II.

What would happen at a recording session? Was my dad the kind of composer who would put everything on paper first before he went into the studio?
Yes, he did. See, he had people in his orchestra that were unique to Memphis - they could read! Most of the people were like the ones over at Sun Records and places like that. They couldn't read a note. They knew maybe three chord changes, and that was it. Your dad wrote everything out and the guys could play it. They could all read and once in a while he'd bring in other players.

Huddleston adds that Berl Olswanger, whom he compares to "a white Scott Joplin," could have achieved wider acclaim but chose to stay close to home.

Why do you think he chose not to go out on the road?

Had he gone out on the road and formed a band, he could have been as big as any of these bands, but I don't think Berl liked the road. He told me several times, he had chances to go with different bands, but he didn't want to do it. I think he liked to stay home and have his friends and know everybody. He was a very loving person about his family.


The kicker? Anna Olswanger writes that one of her father's rags, "Chicken Bone Man," recently made its debut at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, alongside the premiere of a musical adaptation of Anna Olswanger's Passover-themed children's book, "Shlemiel Crooks."

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