Home March 2012 Ragtime, Jazz and Jews

Ragtime, Jazz and Jews

Ragtime and jazz lovers are in for a treat.  On April 1 they will get to hear “Ethan Uslan in Concert: Ragtime and Jazz Piano with a Jewish Twist” at Temple Beth Sholom.
Uslan is one of the hottest names on the ragtime/traditional jazz scene.  He will be joined by Temple Beth Sholom’s Cantor David Reinwald and Director of Congregational Learning April Akiva, as well as Leeav Sofer, a singer, clarinetist and pianist.
Uslan (pronounced “Yoo-slin”) was trained as a classical pianist as a child in South Orange, N.J., and at college at Indiana University, but he always loved ragtime and jazz music from the 1920s and 1930s.  In high school he developed a love for George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Cole Porter’s music and other classics of that era.
He also loved to accompany silent films with the music of that era, something he found fresh and exciting, rather than old-fashioned.  He learned how to watch a film and develop a series of cues for different types of music appropriate to each scene.
Continuing to harbor a ragtime addiction, he complemented his classical piano studies by learning to play like Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and George Gershwin.  He also developed improvising skills while accompanying “Full Frontal Comedy” – an improv comedy troupe that staged live improvised musicals based on audience suggestions.
“Here I was, in a big classical music school, where everybody was learning the same pieces,” he said.  “I decided that I wanted to do something different.  It became a win/win situation when I played what I liked and discovered that other people liked to hear it too.”
During college when people were just beginning to use the Internet, Uslan connected with ragtime and jazz fans around the world.  He decided he would try to make a living doing what he loved.
After graduation, Uslan found his way to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he became a librarian for a small college while performing music on the side.  Then in 2007, Uslan got his big break and became a full-time musician.  The first place winner of the 2007 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest (Peoria, IL), Uslan has performed on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” as well as various concerts and festivals nationwide and in England, France and Belgium.
Uslan doesn’t live on the road, “but I do go out of town when there’s a good opportunity.”  He still enjoys living in Charlotte, which he described as “not too big, not too small.”  He has played all over town, including with the Charlotte Symphony, Petra’s Biano Bar and Cabaret and Cafe Monte.  In addition to giving concerts and accompanying silent movie screenings, Uslan has served as adjunct visiting lecturer of music at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
Uslan has recorded three CDs as well several silent film scores on DVD, including a collection of Charlie Chaplin’s early “Keystone” films.  He is also being featured in the upcoming ragtime documentary. “The Entertainers.”  When not playing piano, Uslan and his wife, Kate, chase after their two young sons.
One other thing Uslan did at Indiana University was to be the accompanist for Cantor David Reinwald, now of Temple Beth Sholom.  Thus, Uslan was a natural choice to perform at the congregation’s annual Maxine Horwitz Cultural Event, named for a woman who loved her congregation and her Sisterhood.  Bernie Horwitz created this cultural event program as a way to honor the memory of his beloved wife and all of the contributions she made to the congregation.
Uslan is planning to do a new program that he has not done before for the event.  In addition to “getting Cantor David to sing Gershwin with me,” and utilizing the talents of the other musicians, Uslan will perform several popular songs that have Jewish connections “that people will find surprising and amusing.”
“When you take the rhythm of a Shabbat song and crank it up a little, it becomes ‘Only a Paper Moon,’” he said.  “Jewish composers turned Jewish melodies into big hits.”
Because the concert is on April Fool’s Day, Uslan wants to keep it lighthearted.  One highlight will be to show a short Buster Keaton movie and play old-time jazz to go with it.
The program is at 3 p.m. on April 1, and refreshments will follow.  Tickets are $9 for adults and $5 for kids 12 and under.  For more information, call Temple Beth Sholom at (714) 628-4600.

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