Ragfest 2004: An Entertaining Success

By Fred Hoeptner

The fifth annual Orange County RagFest, sponsored by the Friends of Jazz and organized by host Eric Marchese, again attracted a sizable audience of enthusiasts. The Friends is a Fullerton based nonprofit whose goal with this event is to encourage local audiences to support ragtime music and to foster an interest in ragtime among music students and young musicians. Spanning two days, October 23 and 24; and four venues: Steamers Jazz Club, the Fullerton Museum Center auditorium, the Fullerton College Recital Hall, and the Fullerton Library; the event featured 26 musicians, including two organized groups, performing a variety of ragtime and associated music styles from the early part of the twentieth century. While most of the participating musicians hailed from Southern California, the festival imported headliner Tex Wyndham, jazz and ragtime authority, pianist, and cornetist from Mendenhall, Pennsylvania; Tom Brier, dazzling ragtime pianist and composer from Sacramento; and young pianist Neil Blaze from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Sharing the feature spotlight with Wyndham was local favorite blues and boogie specialist Carl Sonny Leyland.

Tex Wyndham opened the festival Saturday morning at Steamers Jazz Club with his hour-long show "Tin Pan Alley's Golden Age." This was followed by a series of 20- and 40-minute sets by a variety of performers. The second venue, at the Fullerton Museum Center Auditorium, opened at noon with a series of sets by many of the same performers and several others. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the Saturday daytime performances, but I am told that all went well except for sparse attendance at the museum.

Saturday evening begat the festival "main event," the Ragtime Variety Show. Eric Marchese welcomed a goodly crowd nearly filling the Fullerton College Recital Hall. This year being the centennial of the founding of the City of Fullerton, the emphasis was on tunes from 1904. Tex Wyndham opened with two songs from the vaudeville stage—Albert von Tilzer's "Dapper Dan from Dixieland," and "Somebody Else, Not Me," by Bert Williams, the first black entertainer to break the color barrier, a humorous monologue with piano accompaniment. Patrick Aranda premiered his latest composition, just finished the previous week, "The Russian Dragon, A Fire-Breathing Rag." "It tells you whether you're rushin' or draggin'," explained Aranda. A real rouser, the piece was full of novelty tricks and perhaps more in the stride category than ragtime. Teenager Andrew Barrett, up next, restored calm with his interpretation of "One O' Them Things" from 1904, the first published 12-bar blues. Bill Mitchell, who can always be relied upon to find something new and different, followed with the march-like "Yankee Land," from 1904. San Diegan Bob Pinsker, violinist and pianist, rosined his bow and alternated the lead with pianist Eric Marchese on Joplin's classic "The Chrysanthemum"; Shirley Case, classically trained pianist from Laguna Beach, performed Tom Turpin's "Buffalo Rag;" surprise performer pianist Terence Alaric offered the spirited "Le Picadilly March," by eccentric classical composer Erik Satie; and Tom Brier and Neil Blaze joined forces for a duet on Joplin's "The Favorite," with Brier fingering the embellishments. A xylophone appeared onstage and Morris Palter, professor of music from U.C. San Diego and xylophonist extraordinaire, accompanied by Tom Brier on piano, treated us to the slow drag "Jovial Jasper" by George Hamilton Greene. Greene, Palter's icon, elevated the status of the xylophone to that of a serious musical instrument in the early 1920s. Decrying the lack of a song about Fullerton, Eric Marchese decided to rectify the situation and compose "The Fullerton Glide," ably introduced by thrush Sharon Evans, guest vocalist, accompanied by Eric on piano. Brad Kay followed with a superb rendition of Jelly Roll Morton's "Shreveport Stomps." Boogie and blues virtuoso Carl Sonny Leyland finished the first half with two rousers, James "Stump" Johnson's "Don't Give My Lard Away," with vocal, and his unique arrangement of Zez Confrey's "Kitten on the Keys," leading into the intermission.

Bill Klinghoffer of the Friends of Jazz opened the second half by announcing the award of a $200 stipend to Andrew Barrett to assist in furthering his musical education. Tex Wyndham followed with a Billy Murray song from the jazz age, "When I See All the Lovin' They Waste on Babies." Terry Alaric returned to ragtime with Joplin's classic, "The Cascades," followed by Shirley Case with Wooster's "Black Cat Rag," published by Stark. Brad Kay accompanied vocalist Pamla Eisenberg, playing British comedienne Marie Lloyd, singing a 1904 song from the British music hall, "Twiddly-Wink." Neil Blaze performed one of Tom Brier's few romantic compositions, "Liz's Rag." Bob Pinsker evoked the vaudeville stage singing the humorous "Sadie, Stop That Bearcat Dance." Marchese returned with Joplin's "The Sycamore," from 1904, Brier with Carlotta Williamson's "Shiftless Sam," from 1904, and Palter with a rousing "The Whistler," from 1924. Announcing "the treat of the evening," Brad Kay accompanied Marea Boylan of his Syncopating Songbirds, attired as George M. Cohan, in a men's suit and straw hat, singing, talking, and dancing her way through Cohan's "You Won't Do Any Business If You Haven't Got A Band," the lyrics referring to a number of theatrical personalities from 1904. Carl Leyland stomped out "Green Diamond Boogie," his composition in a minor key, unusual for a boogie. Leyland then duetted with Pat Aranda on a piece heretofore associated with neither ragtime nor 1904, "Cherokee," Charlie Barnet's tune from the swing era. To close the concert Tex Wyndham picked up his cornet and led the entire cast in the spirited caper, L. Wolfe Gilbert and Louis Muir's "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," featuring two pianos with five pianists, tuba, banjo-uke, and violin, Wyndham vocalizing.

Sunday's program resumed at Steamers. but with the second venue shifting to the Fullerton library. The program at Steamers began with a series of exuberant sets by Sonny Leyland, Tex Wyndham, Pat Aranda, and Brad Kay. I especially enjoyed Aranda's trombone specialties accompanied by Brier on piano;two of Henry Fillmore's classic trombone rags, "Shout It, Liza Trombone" based on Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," and Fillmore's most famous piece "Lasses Trombone," from 1920. Seeking less clamorous surroundings, I then headed for the library, and was not disappointed. The venue, an intimate setting hosted by Bill Mitchell with about 15 listeners present, was ideal for immersing oneself in the sound of ragtime without distraction. Tom Brier, connoisseur of obscurities, began with the distinctive "Lasses," from 1904, by Lucy Thomas and followed with his own "The Blackberry Blossom." Without announcing the title, Brier then began a spirited rag that sparked immediate interest by Andrew Barrett, who was waiting his turn to perform. It turned out to be Andrew's excellent composition "Frequent Flyer Rag." Shirley Case followed with elegant renditions of Joplin's "Heliotrope Bouquet," Billy Mayerl's "Marigold," and Hal Isbitz's "La Mariposa (The Butterfly)," the last a contemporary tango from 1991. Tex Wyndham performed some vocal selections from vaudeville, marred by the loudness of his piano, which despite the very adequate sound system tended to render the words unintelligible. Bob Pinsker's James P. Johnson set following included Bob's piano roll arrangement of "Eccentricity," and "Carolina Shout" featuring some wild pianistics. Teen musical prodigy Andrew Barrett's set of four pieces included Pratt's "Springtime Rag" and Marzian's "Lion Tamer Rag," with embellishments a la Zez Confrey.

After Pat Aranda's set, which included Bolcom's difficult "Graceful Ghost," I headed back to Steamers for the festival climax. As I arrived I was greeted by a boogie duet on two pianos performed by Sonny Leyland and Bill Mitchell, followed by a rollicking duet by Leland and Briar. Then Bill, Sonny, and Tom Brier on pianos, Tex Wyndham, cornet, and Pat Aranda, trombone, in various combinations, later joined by the Albany Nightboat Ragtimers (Mitchell, piano; Art Levin, tuba; Hal Groody, banjo; and Frank Sano, percussion), stomped out a series of Dixieland jazz favorites that Wyndham justified as "Dixieland written during the ragtime years or by ragtime composers": "China Boy," "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," "Floating Down the Old Green River," "Squeeze Me," and "Shine." Ragtime finally reappeared with Tex Wyndham on cornet directing the entire cast of fifteen musicians in Charles L. Johnson's "Dill Pickles." Testifying to Tex's effectiveness at averting chaos, the soloists performed admirably and they all stopped at once. That one went so well that Eric Marchese decided to repeat the previous evening's show capper, "Waiting for the Robert E.Lee." The audience's enthusiastic applause demanded an encore, which Wyndham quickly arranged on the spot–Scott Joplin's celebrated "Maple Leaf Rag," a suitable finale for another successful Orange County Ragfest. See you next year!

More Orange County RagFest Reviews:

2003 Festival
2002 Festival
2001 Festival
2000 Festival

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