By Lee Shepherd
Did you know that Binghamton had its own Scott Joplin?
His name was Charles (aka “Chas”) Cohen, a ragtime composer whose piano and vocal pieces were published in the 1910s and revived in the 1960s.
The African-American composer, born in Rome, Ga., in 1878, arrived in Montrose, Pa., with a “medicine show.” About 1910, he moved to Binghamton’s West Side and lived on Haendel Street with his wife, Lillian Rosenzweig, until his death at age 53.
In celebration of Black History Month, the Broome County Arts Council will present vocalist Theresa Lee-Whiting and pianist Margaret (“Pej”) Reitz on First Friday in a lecture/concert, “The Talented Professor Cohen: Ragtime and Vaudeville in Early 20th Century Binghamton.” The free event will begin at 7 p.m. this Friday (Feb.7) at the arts council office and gallery space, Suite 501, 81 State St. Stephens Square Bldg., Binghamton. Photos, newspaper clippings and other historical material will be on display before and after the talk/performance. Light refreshments will be offered. The event is sponsored by the Binghamton-based law firm of Hinman, Howard & Kattell.
Cohen’s musical history was an exciting discovery for Lee-Whiting, who unknowingly bought his home on Haendel Street. A property abstract listing the composer as a one-time owner of the house “piqued my interest,” said Lee-Whiting, who holds a master’s degree from Binghamton University in choral conducting, music history and literature and who serves as music director of Tabernacle United Methodist Church.“I looked him up in the census records and online and discovered that he was pretty well known in this area. A theater organist for most of the theaters around that time in Binghamton, Endicott and Elmira, he developed into a serious organist and teacher,” she said.
Her next discovery was five of Cohen’s published pieces at the Broome County Library all of which will be performed as part of the program. Reitz, a faculty accompanist/teacher at Binghamton University, will play three of Cohen’s solo piano rags. She will accompany Lee-Whiting on two additional “parlor pieces” described by Lee-Whiting as “sentimental, romantic songs typical of his era.”
Cohen was the youngest son of what appeared to be a mixed family of blacks, whites and mulattos. His mother, Susan Cohen, most likely was a former slave. At some point, he received some formal training in music, including an organ course at the New York Conservatory in Manhattan that led to his playing for silent films. He also studied piano tuning and repair, and he would engage in both as a career later in life, according to Binghamton, a local history book written by Ed Aswad and Suzanne Meredith.
Cohen married Rosenzweig, a white, Jewish woman of German descent, in 1911. They lived as an interracial couple on the West Side at the time when the state headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan was in Binghamton. After his death in 1931, Rosenzweig married Cohen’s nephew, Richard Ross. All three are buried in Floral Park Cemetery in Johnson City.
Respected as a performer, Cohen frequently was referred to in newspaper articles of that era as “Binghamton’s Artist Organist.” He was a resident artist at the Star, Suburban and Binghamton theaters. In the early 1960s, his “Riverside Rag” and “Fashion Rag” were reprinted by Mills Music, and Cohen’s name became known to a new generation of ragtime fans and performers.
If you go: “The Talented Professor Cohen: Ragtime and Vaudeville in Early 20th Century Binghamton”, 7:00 pm, February 7th, Broome County Arts Council, Suite 501 Stephens Square Building, Binghamton during the First Friday Art Walk.
(Photograph of Professor Cohen courtesy of Montrose United Fire Dept., Montrose, PA)