Features and Reviews
(Not Quite) All You Wanted to Know About
Bill Mitchell...But Were Afraid to Ask!
(Continuing our series on Rose Leaf Club members, Bill Mitchell, our "Perfessor" and senior member, contributed the following musical autobiography)
By Bill Mitchell
After writing a few lines of autobiography it occurred to your editor that another approach would be to share a letter he wrote to the great ragtime composer, Joseph F. Lamb, more than forty years ago. It tells Bill's tale pretty well, at least up to that point. Notice the date of the letter. (Lamb died September 3, 1960.)
This is mainly a "fan letter." I have been interested in ragtime for the past ten years or so, and have bought all the recorded ragtime I could get my hands on, including the interpretations of Wally Rose, Burt Bales, Don Ewell, and Johnny Wittwer. Incidentally, it was Wittwer's 1945 recording of "Ragtime Nightingale" that introduced me to your rags. That number is my favorite of your works that I have heard to date. (The only others of yours that I have not heard yet one way or another are "Ethiopia," "Champagne," and "Bohemia.") Then just two weeks ago I bought your Folkways album, and have thoroughly enjoyed hearing you play your own rags. Having read They All Played Ragtime and several articles on the subject that appeared in the old magazines The Jazz Record and The Record Changer, I knew that ragtime as it is usually played today is jazz influenced, and that the composers intended to have their compositions "played as written." I had wondered about such things as the correct tempos and phrasings, and was thus fascinated to hear your interpretations of your own rags. Interestingly, I found that I had been playing them in just about the tempos you favored.
Let me introduce myself. I am a native Californian, born in Whittier, July 24, 1924. I had three years of classical piano as a boy on an orange ranch (long since subdivided to make way for postwar housing tracts). In high school I got interested in jazz piano and boogie-woogie, and played entirely by ear. It was not until after the war and my hitch in the navy that I paid much attention to ragtime. I was a fanatical Lu Watters fan, and Lu included frequent ragtime solos by Wally Rose in his programming. I bought the Melrose Ragtime Folio, which included your "Excelsior Rag." The only trouble was, it was the most difficult piece in the folio! Thus, I learned Scott Joplin and James Scott rags first. My classical training now stood me in good stead. Eventually, with a lot of practice, I reached the point where I could even stagger through "Excelsior!" (A dandy number, may I add.)
I am a junior high school teacher by occupation, but do not teach music. I teach English and social studies to seventh graders in La Habra, California, and keep music as a hobby. I've played occasionally with traditional jazz bands in this area, often working in some ragtime solos as a change of pace between the Dixieland numbers that are more familiar to the public. Recently I've been collecting ragtime sheet music, but it is very hard to find these days. The really good things, the rags by Joplin, Scott, and Lamb, are very scarce indeed, for collectors have grabbed just about all of them up. I have some photostats of these rare rags made from friends' copies.
One of these friends is a young chap named Fred Hoeptner, who recently sent you a rag he had composed. He gave me a copy of "Southwestern Rag," and I think he has some very nice ideas in it, and has managed to get the feel of classic ragtime. Fred was over Sunday and showed me a card you had sent him, saying that you had been ill. I hope you have recovered and are feeling well now.
The rags of yours that I either have or have had access to are: "Sensation," "Excelsior," "Cleopatra," "Ragtime Nightingale," "Contentment," and "Reindeer." If you have any extra copies of others of your rags for sale, just name your price, for I would love to learn to play them. Or, if you would be willing to have photostats made, I'd be glad to reimburse you for your trouble. The notes to your album state that "Alaskan Rag" is soon to be available. I would consider it a great favor, also, if you would let me know how and when I could get this.
Well, I think I've rambled on here long enough for one session, so let me again say how much I enjoyed your LP record, and the interesting commentaries you spoke concerning the rags.
Your sincere admirer,
(The following response was received.)
I hope you don't mind my starting off by calling you Bill, but I know if my husband was writing to you, that's the way he'd do it. That was his way.
The clipping will tell you the story. He had a "coronary thrombosis."
Joe was reading your letter for the 2nd time that day, when he passed away. Your letter and his glasses were on the floor when I came into the room. I see you know Fred Hoeptner so you can get the details about Joe from him. It's hard for me to go through that too many times.
I'm trying to answer all the nice people who wrote to Joe telling him how much they enjoyed his record. It pleased him and made him very happy. His Alaskan Rag will be published by the co. owned by Bob Darch who is also a ragtime player, called The Ragtime Music Publishing Co., P.O Box 323, Virginia City, Nevada.
He also told me to sell some of Joe's rags, which are 1st edition for $5.00 each. If you are interested here are the names of the ones I have. Cleopatra, Reindeer, Nightingale, Top Liner, Bohemia, American Beauty, Contentment, Patricia. He also has seven new ones that Bob Darch bought which he will publish shortly.
Thanks again for your nice letter to Joe. I'm glad he was here & read it.
Mrs. Joseph F. Lamb
During the following forty years your editor became increasingly involved in ragtime and jazz. In 1961 he met Paul Affeldt, editor of Jazz Report, and started writing a ragtime column titled "Elite Syncopations" for that journal. Affeldt began to release piano jazz and ragtime on his own label, Euphonic. In 1965 Bill's first LP was released on Euphonic ESR 1203, "Vintage Piano," featuring Bill on one side and the legendary ragtimer Paul Lingle on the other. Bill's playing had improved by the time he produced his second LP, "Ragtime Recycled," Ethelyn 1750, which was released in 1971. (Ethelyn was the name of his first wife.) "Echoes of Chicago," Euphonic ESR 1225, came out in 1984, and was jazz piano, not ragtime.
In 1967 Bill was one of the founders of the Maple Leaf Club, which had a brilliant leader/performing artist in Dick Zimmerman. Bi-monthly meetings were held on Sunday afternoons at several venues over the years. In 1998 the Maple Leaf Club (at least its Southern California contingent) merged with the Rose Leaf Club.
Bill is an associate editor and reviewer for The Mississippi Rag and occasionally contributes reviews to the San Diego Jazz Rambler. He has concertized at the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo and has appeared in festival "pianoramas" at Sacramento, San Diego, and Santa Rosa.
Your editor retired from teaching in 1981, the year he married his second wife, Yvonne. Since then he has been even more active in music, playing with several traditional jazz bands (Dixie Rhythm Ramblers, the Misbehavin' Jazz Band, Orange Blossom Jazz Band, the Bienville Jazz Band, Roger Jamieson's New Orleanians, the New Orleans Wanderers, and the Classic Jazz Quartet) at Dixieland festivals, dances, and special events.