RagFest 2001: A Ragtime Odyssey

By Bill Mitchell

The second annual Orange County RagFest, sponsored by Friends of Jazz, Inc (a non-profit educational corporation based in Fullerton, California), was a far more ambitious venture than last year's. It consisted of four different programs over the weekend of October 6 and 7. The roster of players was much more extensive and two venues were employed: Steamers Café and the Fullerton College Recital Hall. Masterminded by pianist/composer Eric Marchese (a Rose Leaf Club member), RagFest 2001 covered a wide spectrum of syncopation.

At noon Saturday, master of ceremonies Eric Marchese opened the proceedings by welcoming the audience and, with Tom Brier at the second piano, ushered in RagFest 2001 by playing "Thus Spake Zarathustra," then intoning into the microphone, "2001 -- A Rag Odyssey." Program A got off to an appropriate start with the star performer, Tex Wyndham, presenting "A History of Ragtime," a 90-minute one-man show that included narration, pianistics, and singing, everything from "Mr. Johnson, Turn Me Loose" to "Yellow Dog Blues (rag)." The two-piano duo of Brier and Marchese played their own "history of ragtime" with seven well-chosen examples of the idiom, opening with the early "A Warm Reception" (1899) and "Harlem Rag" (1897) and concluding with a recent (1998) Brier-Marchese Novelty-style rag, "Crunchin' the Keys." Next on stage were the Albany Nightboat Ragtimers (Bill Mitchell, piano; Hal Groody, banjo; Dave Wright, tuba; Frank Sano, percussion), who offered further examples of ragtime's diversity, with half a dozen numbers, from "Grace and Beauty" to "Red Wing."

Program B began in mid-afternoon and ran till the dinner hour with short sets by Tom Brier, Bill Mitchell, Patrick Aranda, Bob Pinsker, and Tex Wyndham, and included guest pianists Doug Haise and Paul Kosmala. Longer specialty sets were provided by Mitch Meador, who impersonated Brun Campbell for an exploration of Oklahoma ragtime, and Brad Kay, whose set concentrated on Bert Williams, the black comedian/singer. The program was brought to a rousing conclusion by a ragtime jam session with Brier, Mitchell, Marchese, and Meador on the two pianos, Groody on banjo, Sano on drums, Wyndam on cornet, and Pinsker on violin. This improbable aggregation charged ahead, without rehearsal, into "Tickled to Death," "Swipesy," "Dill Pickles," and "The Darktown Strutters' Ball."

At 8:00 p.m., Program C, "The Ragtime Special" Cabaret Show, got underway with the most ambitious and inclusive lineup of the weekend. Tex Wyndham kicked it off with a Harlem stride number, "My Blackbirds are Bluebirds Now." Yvonne Cloutier played the Confrey Novelty "Dizzy Fingers," then accompanied vocalist Lori Ascani on Berlin's "I Love a Piano." A student of Yvonne's, 13-year-old Brett Torres, played an original composition, "Ocean Rag." Eric Marchese accompanied Bob Pinsker's violin interpretation of Joplin's "Bethena." Phil De Barros followed with a patriotic medley of George M. Cohan favorites, including "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "You're a Grand Old Flag." Mitch Meador played two blues rarities by Jack Randolph and John Carroll, "The Oklahoma Oilfield Blues" and "Jamaica Ginger Blues." Bill Mitchell played two Eastern Seaboard rags, "Music Box Rag" and "Baltimore Todalo," by Luckey Roberts and Eubie Blake, respectively. Erika Ceporius, accompanied by Marchese on piano, sang "A Real Slow Drag," the finale to Joplin's opera "Treemonisha." Brad Kay did two numbers from Fats Waller's "Hamburger Suite," "Variety Stomp" and "St. Louis Shuffle." Tom Brier contributed an original Novelty, "Frisky Fingers." An eight-handed, two-piano version of "Black and White Rag" with Brier, Wyndham, Mitchell and Marchese, brought down the curtain on the first half.

After intermission, headliner Tex Wyndham opened the second act with the Van and Schenk Prohibition tune "All the Boys Love Mary." Terence Alaric played "Wall Street Rag" and Gershwin's "Rialto Ripples." Bill Protzmann played two rousers: Northup's "Cannon Ball Rag" and Morton's "Tiger Rag." Erika Ceporius sang the vocal version of the "Pine Apple Rag," accompanied by Eric Marchese. Bob Pinsker played two Eubie Blake piano solos: a rare, untitled foxtrot from 1913, which Pinsker discovered in manuscript; and "Blue Thoughts," c. 1936. "Goodbye to Paradise," a ragtime song/lament by Marchese, was sung by Joyce Hackett, accompanied by the composer. Tom Brier on piano and Bob Pinsker on violin played the latter's arrangement of Lamb's 1959 masterpiece "Alaskan Rag." Tex Wyndham encored with the comical song "He's in the Jailhouse Now" and Brad Kay encored with Duke Ellington's "Jubilee Stomp." Brier and Marchese duetted on "Humpty Dumpty," by proto-Novelty composer Charley Straight. Brier played the finale, Bowman's "Twelfth Street Rag," which served as the background for the performers' curtain calls.

Concluding the festival was Program D, "Ragtime Casual," back at Steamers Café Sunday morning during brunch time (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.). This more informal stint featured short sets by Brier, Marchese, Protzmann, Meador, Aranda, Wyndham, Pinsker, and Mitchell. Brier and Marchese belted out some duets, including the Marchese original "Winnin' Time." The pair were joined by Aranda on several tunes, making for some exciting six-handed piano. Randy Woltz, appearing for the first time, playing "Never Swat a Fly," "Kitten on the Keys," and "Black Bottom." Wyndham (cornet) and Mitchell (piano) did impromtu duets to illustrate the ragtime/Dixieland connection. The festival concluded with another ragtime jam set with Brier, Mitchell, Marchese, Woltz on the two pianos; Groody on banjo; Aranda on tuba; Pinsker on violin; and Wyndham on cornet and vocals. This unlikely aggregate of talent walloped out "Frog Legs," "St. Louis Rag," "Bohemia," "Maple Leaf," and the grand finale, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," with Wyndham on the vocal.

RagFest 2001 was lots of fun for both the participants and the audiences. It was remarkable that there was almost no repetition of material, thanks to the planning and foresight of Eric Marchese, who cannot be praised too highly for his work in promoting this event. RagFest 2002 is already in the planning stages, with many returnees and several first-timers on the bill.

Putting on RagFest 2001 -- No Mean Feat

By Eric Marchese

Putting together this year's RagFest was even more daunting than a year ago -- and the results were well worth the challenges. Like last year, I was festival organizer and coordinator, Master of Ceremonies, performer, chief, cook and bottle-washer.

For RagFest 2000, we had a total of 8 musicians, who played for six hours at one venue. This year, by comparison, I had 22 musicians (including myself) over the entire weekend, which stretched to some 12 hours of performance time, utilizing two venues -- a jazz club and a recital hall.

This year's festival headliner was Tex Wyndham, who proved his musical mettle time and again, whether at the piano, singing, blowing the cornet or delivering a seminar. Tex is a charming, exuberant stage personality, and his love of performing comes through every second he's around. His presence made a difference of several orders of magnitude over last year's festival.

Backing him up were RLRC members Bill Mitchell, Patrick Aranda, Bob Pinsker and Brad Kay, all first-rate performers, each of whom hit a grand slam every time up on stage. Like Tex, who ventured here from the east coast, featured performer Tom Brier came from afar (although Merced County is just a few hours by car). Guest performer Mitch Meador also came from afar (from Oklahoma), and his playing of both vintage and original compositions charmed the crowds. These three guys aside, all of the talent was from Southern California.

Aranda and Brier were their usual, phenomenal selves, and Kay, Mitchell and Pinsker were stellar. You could build an entire weekend just on the marvelous showmanship of these five performers. Aranda is flashy, Mitchell steady and precise, Brier businesslike yet amazing. Kay's entertaining style combines great keyboard work with a self-deprecating sense of humor, and Pinsker's wry-and-dry stage presence belies his terrific musical skill.

In addition to all the headliners, we had Bill Mitchell's wonderful combo, The Albany Nightboat Ragtimers. Various Nightboat members joined in on our two spectacular jam sessions. Guest performers included guys like Terence Alaric, Randy Woltz and Bill Protzmann -- outstanding pianists not known as ragtime performers but who have always included ragtime in their repertoires.

The Steamers sessions were relaxed and fun. Guys like Paul Kosmala (from La Habra) and Doug Haise dropped in and did a few numbers. From Indiana, Doug was visiting his parents in San Diego. He stopped by on Saturday afternoon with his mom and was sensational when he hit the beautiful Kawai grand piano to do a few tunes.

The highlight of the weekend was our Saturday night Ragtime Variety Show, which featured all of the headliners plus ragtime festival veteran Yvonne Cloutier. We had loads of guest performers for this show, too: Yvonne brought a fellow music teacher, vocalist Lori Ascani, with her from Temecula, and Brett Torres, a young student of hers, who played one of his own rags. I also brought in three guest performers from the Orange County theater scene: Veteran stride and show-tune pianist Phil DeBarros; and Erika Ceporius and Joyce Hackett, two ladies of the theater who sang while I backed them on piano. Erika brought the house down with her superb rendition of Joplin's "A Real Slow Drag."

The synergy that occurs when you put this many talents together onto one stage is truly magical, a fact borne out by the Saturday night show, which offered true variety: We had classic-style ragtime, folk tunes, lots of Harlem stride and Novelty piano, Tin Pan Alley rags, slow drags and more.

The entire weekend offered tremendous variety. Bob Pinsker admittedly stretched the boundaries of ragtime by coming up with one obscurity after another -- pieces from the teens through the '30s. We had Dixieland-style stuff, a delightful stoptime session courtesy Bill Protzmann, bizarre obscurities by Tex, and lots of contemporary rags -- mine, Brier's, Meador's, Aranda's, and a surprise rendition, by Brier, of a great Wyndham rag. All weekend long, the musicians had more fun than our audiences, who were demonstrative in showing their appreciation for the talent before them.

More Orange County RagFest Reviews:

2004 Festival
2003 Festival
2002 Festival
2000 Festival

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