5 June 2013


Scott Joplin wrote The Chrysanthemum in 1904.

It is a great number. But who plays it these days?

It was one of those subtle, tricky piano rags in 2/4, with plenty of tied notes and many bars comprising eight semi-quavers.

It had a typical four-theme rag structure of the time. After a 4-bar introduction, there was [A] a 16-bar theme (repeated) in Bb, followed by [B] another 16-bar theme (repeated) in F. Then Theme [A] was played again, but this time not repeated. This modulated into [C] a 16-bar theme (repeated) in Eb, and then [D] another 16-bar theme (repeated) in Eb. Finally, what I have called Theme [C] was played again to finish.

And here’s something I find very interesting: with such a structure (A-B-A-C-D-C), and modulations using a total of three keys, this piece was in a direct line of descent from the music of Haydn and Mozart.

During the second half of the Twentieth Century, somebody (probably Ray Foxley) devised a version of Chrysanthemum Rag simplified for the traditional jazz band. Obviously it had to make do with fewer notes, compared with the piano score. But it kept the spirit of what I have described above and it also managed to extract the essence of the melodies of the four themes. It even went through the same key changes.

The 'trad' version was popular in the U.K. at jazz festivals, especially when played by such bands as those of Ken Colyer or Sonny Morris. To hear Ken playing it: CLICK HERE.

I am sorry to say bands in the Twenty-First Century seem to have all but stopped playing Chrysanthemum Rag. This is sad because it is a terrific number, perhaps even more effective in its full-band version than as a piano solo. Probably bands think it too much trouble to learn, with the four strains and key changes to master. It requires playing in a disciplined manner.

Though it is possible to play it fairly ‘straight’ - without much improvisation - it gives plenty of opportunity to the trumpet, clarinet and trombone for neat teamwork. It makes a great speciality number.

So come on bands! Let’s revive Chrysanthemum Rag!

But wait. Where is the band sheet music for us to work from? The answer seems to be that it is nowhere to be found. It has been lost. I guess the musicians who devised the trad band version never bothered to get it printed.

I decided to make my own lead sheet, based on a recording of Chrysanthemum Rag played by an English traditional jazz band about 40 years ago. I put it in keys that are easy for me as a cornet player. I enter my tunes in mini filofaxes. The themes are played in the order A – B – A – C – D – C.