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CCCC hosts pianist Ethan Uslan

Click to enlarge,  Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series.

click image to enlarge ⊗

Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural ... (more)

Click to enlarge,  Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series.

click image to enlarge ⊗

Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural ... (more)

Click to enlarge,  Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series.

click image to enlarge ⊗

Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural ... (more)

Click to enlarge,  Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series.

click image to enlarge ⊗

Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural ... (more)

Click to enlarge,  Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series.

click image to enlarge ⊗

Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural ... (more)

Click to enlarge,  Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series.

click image to enlarge ⊗

Pianist Ethan Uslan visited Sanford as part of Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural ... (more)

11.04.2022Arts & EntertainmentCollege & CommunityCollege GeneralSpecial Events

SANFORD - "Good afternoon, everybody, my name is Ethan. I'm your piano player today." Before Ethan Uslan even spoke those initial words, he introduced himself and his ragtime style with a dazzling rendition of Fats Waller's "Picadilly," a number that brought a storm of enthusiastic cheers right out of the gate.

Many in his audience probably never heard anything like it before. Uslan, who was praised by the Chicago Tribune a few years ago as "an accomplished pianist with a deep understanding of far-flung performance practices," was appearing on Oct. 25 at Temple Theatre. The free concert was organized by Central Carolina Community College as part of a series bringing in accomplished artists and scholars to share ideas with university transfer students and create an intellectual discussion.

It was an eclectic group. Some of the students were studying the Harlem Renaissance, a topic directly on point given this style of music, but others came from courses in music appreciation, popular culture and American history. There were older community members in the audience as well; many of these Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series events are open to the public. But for younger students right out of high school, the entire idea of ragtime seemed obscure.

Ragtime hit its zenith around the turn of the 20th century thanks to driving syncopated rhythms and popular African-American composers like Scott Joplin, who's widely considered to be the "King of Ragtime." But its last rise in popular culture came when Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in "The Sting," an Oscar-winning period film that drove "The Entertainer," a Joplin classic, into contemporary consciousness and up to No. 3 on the Billboard pop chart. But that was 1973, almost a half-century ago, decades before these recent high school grads were even born.

That didn't seem to matter during this lively one-hour concert. From the two opening Fats Waller numbers, students in the balcony were leaning forward to take in the music and then relaxing a bit when Uslan added in some light comedy or told stories about a few of his more unusual gigs.

Like that time he taped a vampire show.

As he told the story sitting on his piano bench, Uslan answered his phone one day to find on the other end someone from AMC who was about to produce this TV show about a vampire who played piano. That seemed odd enough, but then the caller explained how a screenwriter had seen Uslan perform a song on YouTube that would be perfect for the episode. So, would the pianist be willing to fly down to New Orleans and record "Interview with the Vampire"?

When Uslan reached the French Quarter, the whole experience seemed surreal. Before his big moment on the small screen, he had to get a vampire manicure -- "because, as you know," he said, "vampires have pointy nails." That made it especially hard to navigate the keyboard, but the TV people told him not to worry. The nails, they said, were just for visuals. The music actually would be recorded later in studio.

So now everyone can rush out to see Ethan Uslan guest starring in the episode, "When It Rains, It Pours." Right? Well, sort of. "You'll recognize my hands," Uslan told his laughing audience. "From the waist up, you know, it's an actor. But when they do the hand shots, you'll go, 'Oh, I know this man!'"

Throughout the concert, Uslan took other detours, pretty much all over the topical map. There was this chemical theory he advanced at a scientific conference, something about simple musical elements combining in his genre to form a "covalence ragtime bond" making possible the more-complex compound called "Ragtimian." (Apparently that went over big with the scientific crowd -- as it did with the students in Sanford.) A little later, he went in an entirely different direction, paying loving tribute to his wife by performing her favorite public health song, "Button Up Your Overcoat," and inviting everyone to sing along. As he began playing the introduction, there was just enough time to slip in another quick fact: "This was a big hit for Betty Boop."

There were more stories -- like playing the song "Rockin' Chair" to a captive audience in the Charlotte airport sitting in, you got it, rocking chairs -- and he even circled back a few times with ongoing allusions to vipers and those vampire fingernails. You had to be there.

Behind the piano, Uslan is a package of potential energy waiting to release. He rips through the keys at breakneck speed, his fingers running and leaping from one end of the keyboard to the other, while the rest of his body maintains a steady bounce to the ragtime beat. Even his feet are in constant motion. It's not unusual for pianists to work the right pedal pretty hard, the one that sustains sound after fingers have passed through the keys. But Uslan is all over the left one too, a less-used option that muffles the sound. It's hard to tell if that one's working, because everything blends into one joyful, frenetic burst of sight and sound.

Backstage, though, he couldn't be more different.

Chatting quietly on a couch in the green room just before walking on stage, Uslan said today's performance wouldn't be much different than what he does for any audience. "It's not going to be overly educational," he explained. "Music by nature is educational, so this is not that different than performing for any other crowd. People want to hear something about what they're listening to."

In particular, the pianist said he wouldn't get too "deep into the weeds" about his musical genre; what he plays is widely recognized as ragtime, but actually includes a broader range of jazz from the 1920s and 30s. (He's even interpreted Beethoven's "Fuer Elise" as ragtime, a number once captured in a YouTube video that logged 5 million views before the filmmaker took it down; he got a new camera and thought the older video looked too fuzzy.)

But Uslan did expect the college students to enjoy the same things about ragtime that attracted him: its high energy, full sound, strong beat and clear melody. And perhaps most of all, an unusual balance of sophistication and accessibility.

"They don't have to become a ragtime freak like me, but I'd be happy if they enjoyed themselves for an hour," he said. "And if they go home and Google some of the pieces I play or some of the musicians that I mention -- or even me! -- I'd be extra thrilled."

And that's what happened, even before his audience left the Temple.

Bianka Stumpf, the instructor who organizes CCCC's Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series, planned for Uslan to take four or five questions after the performance. That session ended up stretching to almost 20 minutes and covering all kinds of topics, from technical questions about musical structure to his favorite composers and songs.

Early on, one student asked the pianist if he was on Spotify. "You know, I'm not sure," he replied. "Isn't that terrible? It's like I'm living in the 1910s." It didn't take very long for another student to do the search and find the answer.

"This isn't a question," came a voice from somewhere in the audience a few minutes later. "I just wanted to let you know: You are on Spotify!" Which was followed by yet another loud round of cheers and the musician's surprise: "How 'bout that!"

* * * * *

CCCC's Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series continues this semester with yoga and Tai Chi workshops for some students, with others attending "Murder for Two" or "A Christmas Carol" as part of the college's ongoing relationship with Temple Theatre. Highlights this spring include a Holocaust Remembrance speaker, a West African drummer and events focusing on photography and poetry. More information on spring programs will be announced early next year.