Black Manhattan: A Conversation with Rick Benjamin

Feb 20, 2018

Ragtime Orchestra, 1921.
Credit Public domain

Ragtime was an American musical style which enjoyed popularity between 1895 and 1918. It had its origins in African-American circles, bringing fame and publishing contracts to many Black American composers of the era.

In November, 1970, pianist Joshua Rifkin released the first of three recordings of rags for the Nonesuch label. "Scott Joplin: Piano Rags" went on to become Nonesuch's first million-selling release, marking the beginning of a ragtime revival.


Jump forward to 1973 when the release of the motion picture "The Sting" brought interest in ragtime to a fever pitch. Ever since, the music of Joplin and other ragtime composers, including Joseph Lamb and James Scott, has had a sustaining presence in the music world ever since.


Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
Credit Paragon Ragtime Orchestra

Entering the picture in 1985 was Rick Benjamin and his ensemble, The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra (PRO). For the past three decades, they have been riding not only a secondary ragtime revival, but also an interest in other iterations of early American music. The orchestra describes itself as “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.”


Black Manhattan, volume 3
Credit New World Records



I recently had the opportunity to speak with Rick Benjamin about his 32 year ride with the PRO. The conversation focused on the orchestra's latest recording, Volume 3 of a series called Black Manhattan, but cut a wide swath with talk about several pivotal figures in the post-Civil War rise of a professional class of African-American musicians. One finds in Rick Benjamin a passion for what he is doing, an encyclopedic knowledge of “America's Original Music,” and an avid appreciation for the work of several generations of black composers.


This extended conversation with the PRO's Rick Benjamin is punctuated with several musical selections which confirm the polish of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra while making this a meaningful contribution to Texas Public Radio's celebration of Black History Month. Included are brief vignettes of Will Marion Cook, James Reese Europe, and references to the brave struggle for equality in the music world by numerous black composers and performing artists intent on winning the struggle against segregation which confronted the black artist in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century.