Features and Reviews
West Coast Ragtime Festival 2004
By Fred Hoeptner
The eighteenth annual West Coast Ragtime Festival opened November 19 at the Red Lion Hotel, Sacramento, for three days of syncopated melodic enchantment. The festival, which just seems to keep growing and improving, expanded to six simultaneously operating venues this year (versus five last year), four for listening and two for dancing and listening. Added was the atmospheric Savannah's Lounge, previously devoted to hard rock, which was also the site for after-hours festivities. Five seminars titillated the intellect of the curious. Sixteen hours of open piano sessions accommodated amateurs who signed up to play for ten-minute segments. The elaborate and informative festival brochure with text by Dave Bilgray and design and layout by Lewis Motisher deserves special mention. The covers displayed an arresting piece of computerized graphic design, a photographic montage of all festival performers.
Headliners appearing were trad jazz, stride, and ragtime pianist Butch Thompson, erstwhile house pianist for NPR's Prairie Home Companion; David Thomas Roberts, premier contemporary composer of classical syncopated music; Quebecois Mimi Blais, specialist in elaborate musical collages combining ragtime with the classics; southern California's boogie and blues man Carl Sonny Leyland; Idahoan Scott Kirby, musical director of several festivals and unsurpassed Joplin interpreter; Marylander John Petley, formerly of the U.K., specialist in rollicking folk ragtime; Dick Zimmerman, ragtime authority and former publisher of the Rag Times; Jack Rummel, ragtime authority and composer from Boulder CO and specialist in contemporary ragtime; Tex Wyndham, trad jazz and ragtime authority, pianist, and cornetist from Wilmington, Delaware; and Molly Kaufmann, singer, pianist, and entertainer par excellence.
Other performers included Patrick Aranda, stride and ragtime pianist from Southern California; Nan Bostick from Menlo Park, regular festival performer and Charles N. Daniels biographer; Tom Brier, performer of obscure rags par excellence from Sacramento; Frederick Hodges, classically trained pianist and specialist in the musical styles of the 1920s and early 1930s; Swiss ragtimer Martin Jager, professor of music and specialist in the 1950's honky-tonk style; Terry Parrish, knowledgeable ragtimer and strider from Indianapolis; the classically trained duo of Alan Rea and Sylvia O'Neill, Gershwin and Gottschalk specialists; Robbie Rhodes, expert trad jazz, stride, and ragtime pianist from southern California; Christoph Schmetterer, multi-talented ragtimer from Austria; noted trad jazz stylist Ray Skjelbred from Oakland, replacing Mark Allen Jones (who was forced to cancel); Squeek Steele, popular honky-tonk ragtime stylist; and Virginia Tichenor, daughter of Trebor and expert classic ragtimer.
Youth performers included teen musical prodigies Susann Almasi from Walnut Creek, classically trained pianist who related that her ragtime epiphany had occurred in August 2003 at a meeting of the Sacramento Ragtime Society; Andrew Barrett from Southern California, Rose Leaf regular who performed in exemplary fashion; and Adam Yarian from Bowie, Maryland, 2000 junior winner of the annual old-time piano playing contest in Peoria and now student at USC.
Groups featured were the nine-piece Pacific Coast Ragtime Orchestra featuring vocalist Helen Burns; the Smalltimers, a wind instrument group from the Pacific Coast Orchestra; the six-piece Porcupine Ragtime Ensemble; the Albany Nightboat Ragtimers featuring our own Bill Mitchell on piano; the Butch Thompson Trio; and the Carl Leyland Trio. The supporting members of both trios were bassist Marty Eggers and drummer Hal Smith. The Fresno High School Warrior Band 36 strong led the grand march through the hotel on Saturday evening.
Hosted by Jack Rummel, Friday evening's 1½ hour "festival sampler" showcased the roster of talent. Dick Zimmerman opened with the syncopated "Long Lost Blues" from the teens, one of his rediscovered obscurities. Tex Wyndham belted out a comedic tune that he noted had been favored by jug bands in the 1920s but perhaps was most effectively popularized by early hillbilly singer Jimmie Rodgers, "He's in the Jailhouse Now." The husband and wife two-piano team of Jack and Chris Bradshaw, accompanied by our local washboardist Kitty Wilson, followed with a sprightly rendition of Joe Lamb's "Bohemia." The Sonny Leyland Trio stomped out Cow-Cow Davenport's "Cow-Cow Blues" with Sonny vocalizing. Frederick Hodges contributed Theodore Morse's cakewalk "The Coontown Capers." Terry Parrish performed his composition "Billy Meets Zez on 12th Street," the title referring, of course, to Zez Confrey, Billy Mayerl, and Euday Bowman, a study in the novelty ragtime style of the 1920s. David Thomas Roberts followed with his most recently completed work commissioned to commemorate the Lewis and Clark expedition, the complex, engaging "Discovery." Molly Kaufmann put her own unique spin on the song "Living a Ragtime Life" from 1900, more recently popularized by Max Morath. Pat Aranda whizzed through his latest stride composition "The Russian Dragon, a Fire-Breathing Rag." Martin Jager offered his new composition "Hospitality Rag," replete with intricate runs. The Albany Nightboat Ragtimers revisited 1908 pop with "Down In Jungle Town" sung by tubaist Art Levin. Robbie Rhodes rendered Percy Wenrich's 1912 "Snow Deer," subtitled "Indian song," instrumentally "in the style of Pete Wendling as recorded by Lou Busch." The Butch Thompson Trio climaxed the concert with Eubie Blake's "Chevy Chase" to enthusiastic audience applause. Interestingly, while the concert was a diverse survey of ragtime and of related styles in sundry variety, it included only one classic rag.
The festival boasted five seminars this year. Dick Zimmerman recited "The St. Louis Story," a survey of ragtime in the city. He reported that ragtime was heard in St. Louis during the 1904 World's Fair, albeit perhaps more often elsewhere than on the fairgrounds. A young couple attending the fair who stayed at a nearby hotel recorded in their journal that the hotel orchestra played ragtime nightly. He reviewed many of the rags that John Stark had published while based in St. Louis and concluded that Stark published far more of rags by others than by Joplin, Scott, and Lamb. Bruce Vermazen, founder and leader of the late lamented Chrysanthemum Ragtime Orchestra and author of That Moaning Saxophone: The Six Brown Brothers and the Dawning of a Musical Craze, reported on his subjects. They entered show business during the minstrel era and continued in vaudeville through its decline during the depression meanwhile initiating the saxophone craze and recording a number of rags. Patricia Lamb Conn, daughter of famed ragtime composer Joseph Lamb, presented "The Joe Lamb Story" to a "standing room only" audience. Assisted by Tom Brier on piano, Conn opened the session with "So Here We Are," Lamb's composition from his days as musical director for his church's annual charity minstrel show. Conn related how the practices in the living room below her bedroom made sleep difficult at times. Brier played several early Lamb pieces including "Walper House Rag," "Liliputan's Bazaar," and "Celestine Waltzes." The session closed with a sing-along to "I Want to Be a Bird Man."
Terry Parrish profiled composers from Indianapolis. Opening with J. Russell Robinson and his "Sapho Rag," he turned to Paul Pratt, whose wife he had interviewed. Pratt composed "Hot House Rag," which John Stark had described as "a great piece but way too difficult for the public"; still, he published it. He played "Foxy Feet," a newly discovered Pratt piano roll. Other composers were Abe Oleman ("Honeymoon Rag," "Candlestick Rag"); Julia Lee Niebergall ("Red Rambler Rag," "Horseshoe Rag"); Cecil Duane Crabb, whom he described as musically illiterate but an excellent melodist ("Klassical Rag," "Fluffy Ruffles"); and Russell Smith ("That Demon Rag," "Microbe Rag"). He commented that although "Microbe Rag" had been advertised on other published music, no copies have been found. In the final seminar, Squeek Steele discussed her techniques for accompanying silent movies.
The Sunday morning youth concert hosted by Scott Kirby drew a large and enthusiastic audience. Andrew Barrett opened with Charles Johnson's "Dill Pickles" arranged with a few prudent embellishments (runs and tenths), and followed with Lamb's "Sensation Rag" and George Cobb's "Chromatic Capers," a novelty rag with a stride feel. Susan Almasi opened with Joplin's "Cascades" and followed with two contemporary rags: "The Monkey" by Elliott Adams, a novelty rag with unusual chord sequences, and "Deep In the Ozarks," a folk-influenced rag by Trebor Tichenor. Adam Yarian opened with Jelly Roll Morton's somewhat obscure "Pep." He followed with an elaborate arrangement of the trad jazz tune "Royal Garden Blues" and finished in true flag-waving style with "Stars and Stripes Forever," to a standing ovation.
Some performances that I thought worth mentioning: Nan Bostick played an incomplete, unpublished Charles N. Daniels composition found in the Remick Music Publishing Co. files that she had completed for him titled "A Truly Southern Rag." Nan also informed us that she was invited to play as the first outsider at the Randall, Iowa, ragtime festival where she became known as "the clown princess of ragtime." Frederick Hodges impressed in a variety of styles ranging from early cakewalks ("Coons In the Canebrake" by M.S. Claessen) to the advanced ragtime and novelty piano of Eubie Blake ("Troublesome Ivories"), Roy Bargy ("Jim-Jams"), and Frank Banta (Sailing Along"). He resurrected "Castles' Half and Half," a 1913 composition by Europe and Dabney written in 5/4 meter to accompany Vernon and Irene's new dance "the half-and-half." Neither the dance nor the music ever caught on, and only four such compositions were written. He also performed two compositions by his favorite composer, George L. Cobb—the cleverly harmonized "Irish Confetti" from 1918 and "Hop Scotch" from 1921, an advanced rag demonstrating Cobb's genius.
Christoph Schmetterer gave my composition "Dalliance" a new visage with his slow, lyrical interpretation during his session on contemporary rags influenced by the style of Joe Lamb. Tom Brier also featured interesting contemporary ragtime including a composition by Eric Marchese, "Prometheus"; his own most recent piece, "Rhythmodic," which had been described as bombastic; and the unique, sinister "Mad Scientist" by Ron O'Dell. David Thomas Roberts performed a gamut of his compositions ranging from earlier favorites: the sprightly "Muscatine," the impassioned "Roberto Clemente," and the fervent "Memories of a Missouri Confederate", through his newest commissioned pieces, "Fantasy in 'D,'" definitely in the "terra verde" category; a repeat of "Discovery," which he called "as close to meeting my composing ideals as anything I've ever written;" and "Maryanna's Waltz," a tranquil mood piece. Audience favorite Carl Sonny Leyland dazzled the crowd during his blues and boogie sessions, although one attendee was heard to ask if ragtime wasn't getting short shrift.
-As usual, kudos are due the staff and volunteers of the West Coast Ragtime Society for another memorable festival. I hope to see you all there next year.
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