Orange County RagFest 2003 Biggest and Best Yet

By Eric Marchese

RagFest, the annual Orange County festival celebrating ragtime music, has come and gone once again and, according to its sponsoring group, Friends of Jazz Inc., was the biggest and most successful yet.

Held in downtown Fullerton over the first weekend of October, RagFest 2003, the fourth such annual event produced by FOJ used three separate venues for the first time. This year's all-star lineup, populated primarily by local talent, included two major headliners – Tex Wyndham and Carl "Sonny" Leyland. All of the musicians on the roster were specialists either in ragtime or in musical forms closely related to it. The event, FOJ reports, drew roughly 210 patrons.

Friends of Jazz is a Fullerton-based non-profit group whose mission is to provide monetary endowments for young people who wish to study jazz music. Like the group's other specialty annual events, RagFest was a fundraiser. Two endowments were given out at this year's festival to two young men who have made ragtime a specialty in the course of their music studies: Andrew Barrett of Costa Mesa and Brett Torres of Winchester. Both young men appeared at the festival and performed to highly appreciative crowds.

Co-headliners Wyndham and Leyland carried the bulk of the performance time all weekend, to tremendous approval from both patrons and fellow musicians. A musician and author, Wyndham is a storied authority on both jazz and ragtime music and a multi-talented performer who plays piano and cornet, sings, composes and is a bandleader. He opened RagFest 2003 with an informative and entertaining session called "A Certain Party: The Music of Walter Donaldson" which chronicled the life and greatest hits of the famous Tin Pan Alley songwriter.

During the course of the weekend, Wyndham also performed numerous solo sets, led a session called "Tex Wyndham and Friends" and wound up the weekend with a boisterous jam session in which he led all of the weekend's performers in rendering numerous standards from the ragtime repertory. Additionally, audiences this year had the opportunity to purchase any one of a number of Tex's wide selection of recordings and books.

For the second consecutive year, Sonny Leyland dazzled audiences with his captivating brand of boogie, blues and barrelhouse-style piano, adding in the occasional rag and grabbing the mike from time to time to re-create the authentic sound of down-home Southern blues vocals. His seemingly inexhaustible repertoire not only included rare boogie compositions by such past masters as Albert Ammons, Cow Cow Davenport and Hersal Thomas, but also many of his own fine compositions, patterned after vintage boogie and blues tunes but strikingly original.

Spread out over three venues in downtown Fullerton – Steamers Jazz Club, Rockin' Taco Café and the Fullerton College Recital Hall – RagFest 2003 boasted one of the best performance lineups in its brief history. At the top of the bill were Patrick Aranda of Upland, whose driving style excites audiences everywhere; composer-pianist Tom Brier of Sacramento, who performs rare vintage and unusual contemporary rags in a wide variety of styles; pianist-violinist Bob Pinsker of San Diego, who transcribes and performs numerous piano roll pieces and unearths rare manuscripts for performance; and Brad Kay of Venice, a versatile, multi-talented entertainer who plays piano, composes and sings pieces from 1900 right up through the 1930s. This year, Mr. Kay created two specialty cabaret shows, which he performed at Steamers and Rockin' Taco, featuring "Those Syncopating Songbirds" – a collection of talented female singers that includes Suzy Williams, Marea Boylen, Janet Klein, Pamla Eisenberg and Mews Small.

Joining Aranda and Brier as the only ragtimers to perform at all four RagFest events so far was RLRC stalwart Bill Mitchell of Placentia. As in previous years, Bill was featured as both a solo pianist and as the leader of the Albany Nightboat Ragtimers, which has also performed at every RagFest since the first one in October 2000. This year, ANR featured Hal Groody on banjo, Art Levin on tuba and Frank Sano on percussion. This small combo gave some of the many dancers present good band music to which to dance. Period-costumed dancers from the Costa Mesa-based Dunaj International Folk Ensemble gave audiences a chance to see how dancers of the ragtime era were attired and how they danced such steps as the one-step, tango and maxixe.

Festival coordinator Eric Marchese reported that all of the performers proved their consummate professionalism, as well as a high degree of versatility – many participated in impromptu duets and six- and eight-handed versions of various rags and by demonstrating that ragtime isn't just piano music, but music which can be performed on a variety of instruments and as vocal works. The weekend's highlight was a nighttime variety show held Saturday, Oct. 4 at the Recital Hall venue featuring all of the headliners as well as numerous guest artists. The festival featured many guest artists, including a gifted Orange County vocalist, Erika Ceporius Miller, as well as three pianists who frequent RLRC: Shirley Case, Les Soper and Jeanne Ingram.

Marchese emceed all of the main events during the weekend and played piano as a soloist, in two-piano duets, as accompanist and in jam sessions. He has announced that most of the same performers are already on board for next year's RagFest, slated for Oct. 23-24, 2004. For more information on next year's festival, contact Friends of Jazz at (800) 690-6684 or (714) 680-6684 – or, you can contact Eric Marchese directly at (714) 836- 1104 or

More Orange County RagFest Reviews:

2004 Festival
2002 Festival
2001 Festival
2000 Festival

John T. Carney's Original Rags for Download

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