The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra is the world’s only year-round, professional ensemble re-creating “America’s Original Music” – the syncopated sounds of early musical theater, silent cinema, and vintage dance. The PRO came into being as the result of Rick Benjamin’s 1985 discovery of thousands of turn-of-the-century orchestra scores once belonging to Victrola recording star Arthur Pryor.
In 1988 the Orchestra made its formal debut at Alice Tully Hall – the first concert ever presented at Lincoln Center by such an ensemble. In 1999 PRO’s music inspired master choreographer Paul Taylor’s new dance Oh You Kid! which was premiered at The Kennedy Center jointly by the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the Orchestra.
In June, 2003 the PRO presented the premier of PRO Director Rick Benjamin’s new reconstruction of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha at San Francisco’s Stern Grove Festival. In 2005 and again in 2006, Paragon had the honor of being presented in Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall as guests of the Minnesota Orchestra. (Paragon Ragtime Orchestra website, “About”, Accessed April 5, 2020.)
Benjamin’s interest in ragtime music began in the 1970s when he was eight years old and found a 1917 Victorola in his grandparents’ garage. He later recalled that the music he played on the Victorola connected with him in a way that the pop music of his era did not.
In 1986 Benjamin decided to form a 14-piece orchestra of fellow Juilliard students to perform the music as it had been originally arranged during the period. Benjamin made a request to Juilliard to perform a concert of turn-of-the-20th-century American composers but his request was rejected by Juilliard’s dean, who felt Juilliard should focus on traditional composers.
Benjamin scheduled a Mozart program on solo tuba at a concert hall, but instead led a group in performing ragtime music, leaving open the doors to draw in a wider crowd. Before a full house, Benjamin’s group played selections by Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert, the W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” and Joplin’s “Peacherine Two-Step.” One witness to the event, Juilliard professor Vincent Persichetti, approached Benjamin after the concert was over to encourage him to make it his “life’s work” to preserve “America’s original music. (Wikipedia article on Rick Benjamin)
One highlight among the recordings of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra is a three volume collection lost African-American music: Black Manhattan. It contains sixty pieces by thirty-two outstanding black composers, spanning the 1870s to the early 1920s, all performed from the original, historic scores.
“Black Manhattan…offers the most representative sampling of composers and songwriters active in the New York African American entertainment scene during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Moreover, the recording remains particularly useful to jazz educators because it presents in clear audio fidelity the artists and music that helped establish the foundation for big bands in the 1920s and 1930s.” (AMERICAN MUSIC)
Other releases include:
Irving Berlin: This Is The Life! While Berlin’s classic middle- and late-period works are still known and loved around the world, the music that launched him as “America’s greatest songwriter” in the 1900s and 1910s is now forgotten and largely unavailable. Yet from an historical perspective, these early years are Berlin’s most fascinating and perhaps, most important: through them, Israel Isidore Beilin – an impoverished immigrant who spoke no English and never studied music – transformed himself and the face of American popular song. As “Irving Berlin,” he became an extraordinary commentator on our national life and in a breathtakingly short time was making his own considerable influences upon it.
“Our explorations here strip away a century of ‘updates’ to experience Berlin’s music as it was heard when new. With the use of rediscovered historic period scores, I have put together a program from what I consider to be Berlin’s ‘breakthrough’ period – from 1909, the year of his first words and music hit, to 1921, when he became the first songwriter ever to build a Broadway theater to showcase his own creativity.” – Rick Benjamin
Scott Joplin’s three act opera, Treemonisha. Joplin’s original 1911 performance materials for the opera were almost entirely destroyed in the early 1960s. But here now after 18 years of research is an authentic, historically correct reconstruction of this “Sleeping Beauty of American Music,” performed on this world premiere recording.
Barrelhouse to Broadway: The Musical Odyssey of Joe Jordan. Joe Jordan (1882-1971) was the most famous and economically successful black composer/songwriter of the early 1900s. From a public acclaim standpoint, Jordan was “the man who Scott Joplin wanted to be.” Yet ironically, over time Jordan and his music faded completely from public memory, while his obscure friend Joplin rose to surprising posthumous super-stardom during the 1970s. This fine new digital recording, produced by Grammy winner Judith Sherman, sets the historical record straight by reintroducing Joe Jordan’s marvelous music to 21st century listeners. It is the first-ever recorded survey of his vast output of songs, rags, marches, and waltzes.