Ragtime Revue revives the music of Glenn Jenks

By Susan Mustapich | Aug 22, 2019
The October Glenn Jenks Ragtime Revue updates the tradition of autumn ragtime revues at the Camden Opera House throughout the 1990s.

CAMDEN — The inaugural Glenn Jenks Ragtime Revue will bring song, dance, humor and ragtime to the Camden Opera House Oct. 5, reviving a tradition that Jenks began and continued throughout the 1990s, while introducing his music to a new audience.

Jenks, who died in 2016, produced the annual Harvest Ragtime Revues from 1989 to 2000, bringing top ragtime artists and entertainers from around the country to the Midcoast.

For years he performed in concerts and festivals around the United States, but preferred life in the Camden area with his wife, Faith. Here he was a prolific composer of ragtime and other works; a conductor; a private music teacher with a full roster of students and also involved with high school, adult and community education; and an avid birder and gardener.

The new Ragtime Revue will include a "marvelous addition," according to Aaron Robinson, the show's producer. For the first time, each performer will spotlight numerous works by Jenks, along with music from the Ragtime era of 1890 through 1920, and contemporary pieces.

In the spirit of a true revue, a variety of acts will entertain the audience with music, song and dance. Top-billed performers are ragtime pianists Martin Spitznagel and Sue Keller, vocal artists John D. Adams and Joelle Morris, Sean Fleming and his Ragtime Orchestra, guitarist Grégoire Pearce and Studio Red's dancers.

Spitznagel, an award-winning musician, is known for powerful, energetic performances that are full of surprises. His ragtime interpretations may include tunes from Disney's "Mary Poppins" or themes from well-known video games. A huge fan of "Star Wars," he has even composed a Star Wars/ragtime mashup, “Chewie Fingers.”

Ragtime pianist Keller, who has recorded several albums, published the works of little- known ragtime composers, and served as the artistic director of the Scott Joplin Foundation, will be presented the first Glenn Jenks Emeritus Award.

Adams and Morris are classically trained singers, who toured extensively throughout their careers before moving to Maine. Adams, known for his rich and flexible bass-baritone, has enjoyed a distinguished career performing as a soloist in opera and musical stage roles, and with professional vocal, instrumental and choral ensembles. Morris is a mezzo-soprano who performs on the concert stage and in intimate jazz and cabaret settings. She has toured with the Jean-Marie Reboul Jazz Trio in Europe, sings with the Colby Faculty Jazz Ensemble in Maine and was featured in Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.

Studio Red will perform dances inspired by the music and movement of the era, including "Granite Hall Rag" from The New England Ragtime Suite and “Hot Honey Rag" from the musical "Chicago."

The genius and legacy of Glenn Jenks

Back in 1989, Robinson was a high school-age musician living in Waldoboro when he met Jenks at the first ragtime revue. Robinson loved ragtime, and was already composing pieces. When he worked up the courage to ask Jenks to listen to some of his rags, Jenks immediately said, "Come on over!” Robinson recalls. Jenks encouraged Robinson's composing, and became a musical mentor and friend. The way Robinson tells it, his early meetings with Jenks “just absolutely opened the world to me.”

Over the years, while Robinson was in college and involved in his musical career away from Maine, he would check in with his mentor from time to time. Although they did not reconnect for years, “he always had his thumb on the pulse of what I was doing, even from far away,” said Robinson. “When I asked him to do the liner notes for one of my CDs, it surprised me when he knew all the things I had done.

“That's just who he was. It was like he had an extended family of his kids out there, that he really cared for and that he took an interest in. He always, always has been there for me,” he said.

Robinson is now an accomplished pianist, music educator and composer for film, television and stage. He also produced concert versions in Maine of Scott Joplin's opera, "Treemonisha," and a rare performance of the Langston Hughes-staged Christmas musical, "Black Nativity," which has been recorded in documentary film.

Robinson once sought to avoid being pigeon-holed as a ragtime pianist, yet finds himself returning to the music over and over again.

The new Glenn Jenks Ragtime Revue actually grew out of Robinson's desire to publish a folio of Jenks' ragtime pieces, so others can play his music. This became "The Complete Ragtime Works for Piano," now close to publication, which he has devoted himself to over the past few years. The project began with asking Faith if she would allow him to do it.

“It's not uncommon that there are those in the music world who catalogue composers,” Robinson said. “It has happened for hundreds of years. Vera Brodsky Lawrence did it in the '70s with all of Scott Joplin's work,” he said.

In his mind, he is simply completing the work Jenks would have done himself.

Working with Faith, who maintains her late husband's archives, Robinson compiled the handwritten, digitized, recorded and some previously published versions of Jenks' music. He has sat at his piano playing Jenks' ragtime pieces, and consulted with those who knew and studied Jenks' music – all for the purpose of understanding each piece as Jenks “wanted it to be.” Robinson also saw that Jenks dedicated many of his songs to people he knew, so he reached out to those who are still living for comment.

In doing this work, Robinson made several discoveries beyond his initial expectations. He found there is far-reaching admiration of Jenks among musicians and performers; realized “the true genius” of Jenks' works, which are developed far beyond the simple form of ragtime, and discovered he is still learning from Jenks.

The educator and music historian in Robinson took over as he reached out to leading ragtime historians and musicians who know Jenks' works. He went further, seeking out people to whom Jenks dedicated many of his ragtime works, and will include some of their comments in the forthcoming folio.

“When I started reaching out to the circle in the ragtime world, which I'm not a part of at all, I didn't realize how much weight his name had in the ragtime world and outside of the ragtime world,” Robinson said. “That there were so many people who were not only playing his works, but had admired him as a composer, as a man, and a mentor who had influenced their writing and playing."

Looking at Jenks' music, Robinson found “composition that comes from being a topnotch composer. He did not write at the piano, he wrote away from the piano, which is very rare for any composer to do — especially ragtime, because it's so organic.

“No other writer of ragtime can compare with Jenks' command of counterpoint. His signature use of inner harmonies present a unique Jenks sound that also offers demanding performance requests that are not usually found in ragtime," Robinson said.

Robinson sees the 36 ragtime works Jenks composed between 1972 and 2014 as a huge legacy, and says “each one of them is a masterpiece.” This large body of work is something no composer has done since the turn of the 20th century, when ragtime was American's first popular music, according to Robinson.

Moreover, Jenks' "Complete Ragtime Works," according to Robinson, defines “what Ragtime is and was: Classic Rag, Novelty Piano, Slow Drag, music that has been "ragged," as well as the dance styles of Fox-Trot, Tango, One-Step, Two-Step and Cakewalk — and the modern approach to the style. Glenn wrote in all mediums and triumphed with each of his compositions in that style.”

He emphasized the point that Jenks “wrote orchestral, choral and ensemble works, the list just goes on.

“Glenn is not just a ragtime composer, Glenn is a composer. Glenn was a historian, Glenn was a teacher. He was a musician, he was a pianist, he was a mentor. But he was never just anything," Robinson said.

Reflecting on what he calls “the absolutely wonderful process” of going through Jenks' compositions, Robinson said it “makes me a better composer. ... He's actually teaching me through this process.” And through all this, Robinson has discovered that Jenks is still with him.

"It's been a labor of love. And here's what I'd really like to get across," Robinson said. "I do not throw this word out lightly, but the one word that I keep saying over and over is that it's absolute genius."

For information about the Oct. 5 Glenn Jenks Ragtime Revue at the Camden Opera House, visit camdenoperahouse.com/events/glenn-jenks-ragtime-revue, the Glenn Jenks Ragtime Revue Facebook page or subscribe to the Glenn Jenks YouTube channel.

Pianist, music educator, composer and concert producer Adam Robinson is bringing the Glenn Jenks Ragtime Revue to the Camden Opera House Oct. 5.
A not-yet-published folio of "The Complete Ragtime Works for Piano" will make the music available for those interested in playing any of Glenn Jenks' 36 ragtime works. (Courtesy of: Aaron Robinson)
The poster for The First Harvest Ragtime Revue in 1989 features the performances of nationally known ragtime musicians and Camden's own Glenn Jenks.
"Alchemy" accurately describes the genius of Glenn Jenks' ragtime music, which can be heard on the Glenn Jenks YouTube channel.
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