Orange County Festival Finds its Legs in Third Year

By Eric Marchese

This was the third consecutive year for Orange County's annual ragtime festival popularly known as "RagFest." And although RagFest 2002 had been preceded by two moderately successful festival's, this year's was the first to have attracted enough attention to warrant future events on the same—or even larger—scale.

Rather than have one very well-known headliner (it was Tex Wyndham in 2001), the headlining duties were shared among six performers. Three are locals: Patrick Aranda from Upland, Brad Kay from Santa Monica and Carl Sonny Leyland from Orange. During the week of October 13, Nan Bostick and Tom Brier arrived from Northern California and Neil Blaze flew in from his home in Wisconsin.

All six are seasoned festival performers—even Blaze who, at 22, is already somewhat of a veteran on the ragtime festival circuit. Local performer Sonny Leyland isn't exactly known for ragtime, but his combination of barrelhouse-boogie piano, blues and the occasional rag have made him a huge favorite at the annual West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento and at another newer, smaller regional festival, the Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival. RagFest 2002 was his first appearance at the Orange County event.

Backing up the headliners was a collection of locals, starting with Bill Mitchell and Bob Pinsker. Both of these gents have appeared at previous RagFests, and the events wouldn't be the same without them. Bill's combo, The Albany Nightboat Ragtimers, have been immensely popular at all three RagFests, performing a combination of rags and standards from the traditional jazz catalog. Orange Countian Randy Woltz made his second RagFest appearance. From Riverside, Jeanne Ingram made her first RagFest appearance.

Guest performers included Doug Haise, who has continued to make surprise appearances on the West Coast long since moving to Indiana; Mitch Meador, a pianist and ragtime composer (he's even written a full-length ragtime opera!) who hails from Oklahoma; and the local (O.C.) Dunaj International Dance Troupe, headed by the esteemed dancemeister, Richard Duree. I organized and coordinated the festival's entertainment roster and acted as Master of Ceremonies for the weekend, adding an occasional piano solo or teaming up with fellow musicians for duets and jam sessions.

As with RagFest 2001, this year's festival opened at Steamers, in downtown Fullerton, at noon on a Saturday (October 19 this year) with a seminar. Last year, it was Tex Wyndham's History of Ragtime; this year, we were treated to an entertaining and most informative talk by Nan Bostick on the History of the "Indian Intermezzo," a genre that became the rage during the ragtime era, primarily due to the music of Nan's great-uncle, Charles N. Daniels. Daniels was a seminal figure in pop music publishing's early days, and so prolific a composer that he had to use numerous pseudonyms (at least six). His 1901 piece "Hiawatha" sparked the craze for so-called "Indian" intermezzos—ironic in in that the tune was named not for Indians, but for a town in Kansas.

Assisted by Tom Brier (at the piano) and Neil Blaze (handling the overhead projector), Nan mapped out the start of the intermezzo craze and its explosion throughout the first decade of the 20th century.

After a brief break, I took over the microphone and launched a segment called "Meet the Performers." Each pianist took the stage, said a few words about themselves, and performed a solo for the appreciative audience. Highlights included Pat Aranda's sizzling "Grandpa's Spells," Bob Pinsker's rendition of the rarely heard "The Dream" (a Jess Pickett standard rescued from obscurity by Eubie Blake), and Tom Brier's playing of a ragtime rarity, "The Cakewalk at Boomblestein's Ball."

Another break, and the official formal afternoon program began—first with Tom Brier, the Mitch Meador, Brad Kay, Bill Mitchell, Neil Blaze, Nan Bostick, Bob Pinsker, Sonny Leyland, Doug Haise and Pat Aranda. The afternoon wound up with a brief session featuring "Tom Brier & friends" (all duets between the prodigious Tom and various other performers); "Brad Kay & friends," featuring Brad accompanying a bevy of singing beauties; and a fabulous session by the Albany troupe, comprised of bandleader Bill Mitchell on piano, Hal Groody on banjo, Dave Wright on tuba, and Frank Sano on drums/percussion.

Highlights of the afternoon revolved around Brad Kay. First was his performance of "Jingles," one of James P. Johnson's "rent party killer piano solos, intended to take the starch out of all the other pianists who might show up at these things." Brad chose the solo especially to honor the surprise presence of Johnson's two grandsons, Steve and Barry Glover. The presence of the Glovers, along with that of Nan Bostick, gave the room an aura of authenticity – the grandsons of Johnson and the grand-niece of Daniels under the same roof for the same festival.

Later in the afternoon, Brad presented what was essentially a program within the program (he even provided a separate printed handbill!). Providing the piano accompaniment, Brad offered a parade of "Syncopating Songbirds"—Marea Boylen, Janet Klein, Suzy Williams, Mews Small and Donna Bacalla—each of whom provided knockout vocal renditions of tunes great and obscure from the teens and '20s.

The Albany troupe wound up the afternoon in high style, rolling out one great danceable tune after another: "Queen of Love," "Red Wing," "Creole Bells," "Porcupine Rag," "Ballin' the Jack" and "Grandpa's Spells." A small group of costumed dancers crowded the mini-dance floor area cleared out near the stage; they appeared not only during this final set but sporadically throughout the afternoon.

After a brief dinner break, the entertainers reconvened a few blocks away at the Recital Hall at Fullerton College for the evening show. With this Variety Show format, each of the headliners and featured performers took the stage and manned either (and in some case both) of the concert grand pianos—one Petrof, one Steinway. Highlights included Meador's solo of the Confrey novelty "Home Run on the Keys," supposedly co-composed by Babe Ruth (!); the Bostick-Brier two-piano duet of Harry Guy's early ragtime waltz "Echoes from the Snowball Club"; the Mitchell-Groody duet of Frank French's modern classic "Belle of Louisville"; and Pinsker's stellar medley of Luckey Roberts show tunes. I chimed in with a recent original solo ("The Silver Lining"), another recent original, "Josie's Waltz," joined by Pinsker on violin and guest musician Pamla Eisenberg on cello; and in a duet with Brier on our most recent collaboration, a "baroque Novelty" known as "Melted Pumpkins."

Sonny Leyland's incredible keyboard work brought down the house, and he and Aranda encored with an impromtu duet. So did Brad Kay's exceptional selections, joined by vocalists Janet Klein and Suzy Williams. Randy Woltz also brought spontaneous applause with his off-the-cuff drumming across the tops of the two pianos in the midst of a piano solo which he broke off to drum, then picked up where he had left off at the second keyboard. And, fresh from a duet stint at Old Town Music Hall, Bob Pinsker and Jeanne Ingram did a socko duet on Gershwin's "Drifting Along with the Tide."

As usual, some of the best evening show performances came from our guest performers. Shirley Case dazzled us with her version of "Eubie's Classical Rag;" singer Molly Mahoney knocked us out with a vocal medley of ragtime-era songs from the stage show "Tintypes," ably accompanied by local musical theater pianist Terence Alaric; and 15-year-old Brett Torres wowed the crowd with Joplin's "Great Crush Collision March." The Dunaj troupe offered an engaging look at authentic dance steps from the ragtime era. Alexander Rodriguez not only slayed the crowd with his solo "Mr. Cellophane," a raggy song from the musical "Chicago"; he also led the evening's grand finale, a multi-musician (eight in all) version of Berlin's 1911 hit song "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

Back at Steamers on Sunday, we presented another four hours of live music in more of a "Ragtime Casual" format. Musicians took turns at the pianos; guest artists popped in and out; there were loads of improvised duets; and the proceedings were lively, loose and enjoyable. Neil Blaze and I unveiled a new, Classic-style rag which we had co-written, named "Top-Notch" and dedicated to Tom Brier. Neil played it for the audience and for Tom, who had not heard it (or heard of it) prior to this.

Neil and Tom were also involved in one of the afternoon's funniest, and silliest, bits of ragtime fun: The pair and Nan Bostick joined forces to create a set called "The Three Bs" (Bostick, Blaze and Brier—Get it?). Wearing yellow-and-black honeybee costumes, they cracked up the audience and simultaneously entertained them with their six-handed versions of –what else?– Van Alstyne's "Honey Rag"; Tom's own original "Busy Bee Rag" (written when the composer was 14!); Jack Wells' "Buzzin' the Bee" (with Nan providing the jazzy vocals); and, of course, the famed "Flight of the Bumble-Bee."

Another treat was an off-the-cuff performance by a young local ragtime devotee, 14-year-old Andrew Barrett. Andy confidently took the stage and dazzled the audience with nearly flawless renderings of "Lion Tamer Rag." Later in the afternoon, Andy was presented a cash endowment by Bill Klinghoffer (board president of RagFest's sponsoring organization, the Friends of Jazz), for which to continue his piano studies. (Teen Brett Torres received a similar award the previous evening). The afternoon—and the festival—came to a close with a massive jam session, as at least nine musicians crammed the Steamers stage and delivered one ragtime standard after another, including "St. Louis Rag," "Black & White Rag" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

After the official festival came to an end, many of the performers and their guests reconvened at the Rockin' Taco Cantina. Post dinner (and an update of the Angels' progress in World Series Game 2), performers gathered at the restaurant's two grand pianos and relaxed by playing numerous solos and duets for some two hours.

Tex Wyndham, Sonny Leyland and Mimi Blais have already signed on to co-headline RagFest 2003.

More Orange County RagFest Reviews:

2004 Festival
2003 Festival
2001 Festival
2000 Festival

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