Another great show at the Poncan Theatre - this time Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra playing orchestrial accompaniment to Douglas Fairbanks 1920 movie the "Mark of Zorro." I talked to Mr. Benjamin before the show and asked him if he had a Wikipedia article about the orchestra and he told me there was an entry but that it was pretty bad. I told him that I wanted to take some photos of the orchestra after the show and expand his article as I had done for Dennis James when Dennis came to the Poncan Theatre last year and he thought that was fine.
I always enjoy researching and writing an article about artists that I enjoy and here is the one that I wrote today about Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra:
Rick Benjamin is the director and founder of the world renowned Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, formed and dedicated to the exploration and preservation of American popular styles. Benjamin has an active career as a pianist and tuboist as well as an arranger.
Early Interest in Ragtime Music
Benjamin's interest in ragtime music began in ther 1970's when he was eight years old. Benjamin was visiting his grandparents and wandered out to the garage and discovered an old 1917 Victorola with ragtime music from the turn of the century. "As music poured out of the dusty ancient machine, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of complete wonder: A new world, glowing with life, was calling out to me from another time," Benjamin says. "The sounds were somehow much more meaningful to me than the current pop music of the Gerald Ford era. ...I knew in my bones that these performers and their composers were expressing their sheer joy in life through their music."
Benjamin says he learned that ragtime was the first authentic American music. "Until ragtime came along, all our pop music here was imported from Germany or England," Benjamin says. "Suddenly, with this new ragtime music -- from the Midwest, from Chicago and St. Louis -- was America's first homegrown music product."
Formation of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Discovery of the Music of Arthur Pryor
Benjamin studied at Juilliard and intended to become a professional tuba player. While a student at Juilliard in 1985, had a "dental accident" while he was having a tooth extracted by a dentist that shattered his teeth. As a result, Benjamin was unable to play the tuba after his jaw was wired up. "I couldn't play, couldn't open my mouth any wider than a straw," says Benjamin. Unable to play, Benjamin was assigned a research paper on Arthur Pryor, an 1890s conductor and music director. In his search Benjamin found that Pryor's personal collection of over 4,000 pieces was in an old theater in Asbury, New Jersey that was about to be torn down. Benjamin was given the collection free for the hauling off and it rook him three days to cart it off.
The collection included rare musical scores and manuscripts. Even at the conclusion of this, I wasn't sure what I had," Benjamin said. Then he found signatures on compositions from Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy and Sousa. "I had pieces no one had ever heard of before." The manuscripts turned out to belong to the library of Arthur Pryor, a conductor, composer and arranger who led a touring band and a recording orchestra. The collection contained thousands of works from the 1920's by composers including Scott Joplin, Edward MacDowell, W.C. Handy, Victor Herbert, and Jerome Kern. Pryor had been first conductor for the Victor Talking Machine Co and as conductor, got to decide what was recorded to play on the new fangled Victrolas. "Anybody who was anybody in that era would send their scores to Mr. Pryor in hopes that they would be recorded," Benjamin said. The collection had been thought to have been destroyed in a fire.
In 1986 Benjamin decided to form a 14-piece orchestra of fellow Juilliard students to perform the music using authentic period arrangements of a similar ensembles from the ragtime era.
Benjamin had originally made a request to Juilliard to perform a concert of turn-of-the-20th-century American composers which was rejected by Juilliard's dean. "Absolutely not, we do Bach, Brahms and Beethoven, not W.C. Handy," said Juilliard's Dean. Benjamin skirted Juilliard's rule against performing ragtime music under the guise of presenting a Mozart program at a concert hall. "I was a rebel, you see," says Benjamin and left the doors to the concert hall open to attract passerbys. Benjamin presented the inaugural performance to a packed house at Juilliard's Recital Hall. The program of their initial performance included the 1912 score of W.C. Handy's "Memphis Blues," selections by Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert, and a manuscript orchestration of Joplin's "Peacherine Two-Step." After the performance Juilliard professor Vincent Persichetti told Benjamin that he should make musical preservation of "America's original music" his life's work.
Benjamin was put on probation for producing a concert of ragtime over the dean's objections. However someone in the audience recorded Benjamin's first concert on a walkman and the recording came to the attention of Columbia Records executive Thomas Frost, who loved the music. Frost produced the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra's first recording. "Suddenly we went from nobodyhood to having this nine-time Grammywinning guy producing us," Benjamin said. Benjamin quit Juilliard and has been leading the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra ever since. "I became so engrossed developing my orchestra full time and curating the thousands of historic orchestrations I had found that one day I cleaned out my locker and left [Juilliard] without a word," says Benjamin.
Lincoln Center Debut
Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra made their New York debut at the Alice Tully Hall in March 1988. In their debut they performed twenty-one pieces composed between 1905 and 1920 and a medley of tunes from the 1890's. In their debut the orchestra performed in a variety of styles including "a concert waltz, a maxixe, one-steps, two-steps, foxtrots and blues, and, of course, numerous rags, some quite picturesque." Allan Kozinn wrote in the New York Times that their performance "came off not as a dry musicological dig, but as an evening of superannuated but abidingly energetic fun." The performance by Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra was the first of its kind at the Lincoln Center by a professional ragtime ensemble.
Oh, You Kid!
In February 1999, Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra premiered Oh, You Kid! at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Oh, You Kid! is a collaboration between the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Rick Benjamin's Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and was commissioned by the Kennedy Center and the American Dance Festival as part of the Doris Duke Millennium Awards for Modern Dance and Jazz Music. The commission pairs modern jazz companies with jazz composers and performers for works that feature live music. Anna Kisselgoff wrote in the New York Times that the show was "exuberant romp to ragtime music."
In June 2003 Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra premiered their version of Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha Stern Grove Festival. Treemonisha had originally premiered with full professional staging by the Houston Grand Opera in 1975. However Benjamin thought that the Houston staging was "too heavy, too Verdiesque" and spent five years reconstructing the opera score for a 12-piece theater pit orchestra of the kind Joplin and his peers wrote for and performed with. "We want to do it exactly as we think he would have done it in 1911 on tour, " said Benjamin. "The train would arrive at some town in Iowa, and the cast and chorus would take a buggy, or maybe walk, down to the theater with their simple properties - - maybe a couple of canvas backgrounds -- set it up and give this show with the local pit orchestra."
Benjamin says that Joplin "understood the power of the operatic medium to deliver a message. As a black man at the time, he probably wasn't allowed to go to the opera." Benjamin hopes his new orchestration will encourage musical groups to perform Treemonisha "with a small orchestra, of modest needs, and still convey this wonderful message. Joplin would be beaming from some place, because his work is being performed." "I see Treemonisha as "opera" in name only," writes Benjamin. "It is much more an amalgamation of the well-established American traditions of vaudeville, tab-show, melodrama, and minstrelsy, all held together by Joplin's marvelous music. For this, the ideal accompaniment should be provided by the regulation twelve-piece theatre orchestra of that era."
Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra are well known for their recreation of playing original scores to silent films while the silent movies are simultaneously projected on screen. Silent movies for which they perform the score include Buster Keaton's Cops, Harold Lloyd's Never Weaken, and Charlie Chaplin's The Immigrant. "It's like going to the movies with the extra benefit of live music," says Carol Woodruff, director of Cultural Outreach at East Carolina University. "This is a really cool show. The musicians get really pumped and put their whole lives into their performance," says Mary Ruth Helms. Benjamin says he is surprised by the response from younger listeners. "Surprisingly, our audience demographics seem to indicate the audience is younger, Generation X, and not the seasoned citizens, as they are known. It surprises us," says Benjamin. "I think a lot of younger people ... move away from some of the commercial stuff that's crammed down their throats."
Benjamin has a collection of nearly a thousand period cinema-orchestra scores.
Other Musical Activities
In addition to touring, Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra performs on radio programs for the New York Times' WQXR, National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the Voice of America networks.
Benjamin has conducted the the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra (Denmark), the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Olympia Symphony in Washington State, the New Jersey Symphony, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Brucknerhaus in Linz, Austria.
Benjamin has written articles on popular music that have appeared in several periodicals.
Benjamin performs lecture tours on late 19th and early 20th Century American music at colleges and universities throughout the United States.
Benjamin is at work on two books: The American Theater Orchestra and Encyclopedia of Arrangers & Orchestrators: 1875-1925.
In addition to curating the collection of Arthur Prior, Benjamin also curates the collection of Simone Mantia, B.F. Alart, and Frank H. Wells theatre orchestra collections. Benjamin's collection totals about 10,000 fully-orchestrated selections from the 1890s – 1920s.
Awards and Honors
Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra were selected to be America's "Ambassador of Goodwill" at the World's Fair in Seville, Spain.
Benjamin was greatly encouraged in his musical career by his grandfather, J. Edward Smith, who played violin, clarinet & piano, among other instruments, throughout his life, and was a musician with the Monmouth Symphony Orchestra, in Monmouth County, NJ, for many years until his death. Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra continue to perform regularly in Monmouth County, NJ venues, where both grandfather and grandson lived.
Benjamin lives in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and lectures at Bucknell University.
Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra have recorded eleven CD's and produced two DVD's of their music accompanying silent movies.
1. New York Times. "MUSIC; Practice Session Offers a Behind-the-Scene Look" by Robert Sherman. January 9, 1994.
2. Wall Street Journal. "Benjamin's Ragtime Band Captures the Real Cohan" by Barrymore Laurence Scherer. July 2, 2008
3. Decator Herald and Review. "Strange circumstances lead to Ragtime Orchestra's genesis" by David Burke. September 19, 1997.
4. New York Times. "Review/Ragtime; From a Trove Of Rediscovered Joplin et al." by Allan Kozinn. March 24, 1988.
5. The East Carolinian. "Paragon Ragtime comes to ECU" by Laura Pekarek. March 11, 2004.
6. New World Classics. "Why a New Version of Treemonish?" by Rick Benjamin.
7. New York Times. "Outdoors, Concert Fare That's Serious And Rare" by Allan Kozinn. July 20, 1990.
8. San Fransisco Chronicle. "How Joplin heard America singing" by Jesse Hamlin. June 21, 2003.
9. Stamford Advocate. "Orchestra performs soundtrack to Buster Keaton films" by Nadia Lerner. January 4, 2007.
10. New York Times. "Footlights" by Lawrence Van Gelder. February 17, 1999.
11. New York Times. " DANCE REVIEW; Fast and Loose in the Age of Ragtime" by Anna Kisselgoff. February 22, 1999.
12. Rick Benjamin's Paragon Orchestra