The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Rick Benjamin, director
Anita Johnson, soprano; Robert Mack, tenor; Edward Pleasant, baritone;
Linda Williams, contralto
This is the second volume of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra’s series of recordings paying tribute to the pioneering African-American composers of late nineteenth and early twentieth century New York City. The initial inspiration behind this effort was James Weldon Johnson’s fascinating 1930 history book Black Manhattan, which described the evolution of New York’s black music and theater communities from the 1890s through the 1920s. Through its pages, Johnson (1871–1938) brought to life an amazing group of achievers—musicians, writers, stage performers, and businessmen—whose work profoundly transformed the cultural life of this nation.
Black Manhattan Vol. 1 centered on music composed by members of the legendary Clef Club. The present volume ranges a bit more widely, offering music from the theater, ballroom, and recital stage. All of the selections heard here are performed from original orchestrations using antique instruments; most have never before been recorded. To twenty-first century eyes the list of composers may seem curious, with a few recognizable names mingled with the seemingly unknown. But early twentieth- century readers would have had an almost completely opposite reaction: for example, many would have never heard of Joplin, but were avid consumers of Dixon or Johns songs. Now, with the perspective of a century of hindsight, we have the opportunity to be aware of all of them, perhaps gaining a better understanding of their influence, both on each other and on the development of American music.