(This is in a series of posts about my trip to Sedalia, Missouri May 31-June 2, 2018)
A digression. I cannot remember a time when I did not play the piano. My mother, Lorene—her nickname was “Red”—God rest her soul, came from extreme poverty. She was very bright, an autodidact, and she married Fernand—his nickname was “Squee”—who, having inherited a grocery store upon the death of his mother, was relatively well off. Mom wanted to learn about everthing, but one of the first purchases she made back in 1937 was a piano and a set of American School of Music lessons that proposed to teach her how to play the piano. And, by darn, she taught herself to play: popular songs, hymns, and an occasional pops classical work like Melody in F. So little Jimmie heard Red playing popular music, and he heard Squee singing along on all the popular songs, not so much the hymns.
Mom has told this apocryphal story about me many times. She was in the kitchen when I was about three years old, and she heard a familiar tune. At first she thought it might be the radio, so she came into the living room where the piano was situated, and there I was, playing a tune. On some occasions she was sure it was “The Three Little Kittens.” She was so excited that she ran out and called in the neighbors to hear me pick out this tune. I don’t remember this, but I believe something like this happened.
When I was seven, mom decided I should have music lessons, and she marched me up Fourth Street a couple of blocks to the fancy two-story white brick house with the green door and the gold door knocker. My piano teacher was to be Mrs. J. Carter Foulke. We started in, and after a while I thought things were going great. Mrs. Foulke would give me a new piano piece every week, she would play it for me, and then, after discussing it with me, she would send me home to learn it. One time when I arrived for a lesson, she introduced me to a friend of hers who had come over especially to hear me play. I was a bit nervous about this all, but I launched into the new piece with the gusto of a ten year old, and then turned around to see what they were thinking. I was not looking at friendly faces. Mrs. Foulke informed me that I “played that entire piece in the key of G,” when it was clearly written in C.
I have a history of backing out of situations where things are not going well. So at age eleven, mom and I had that inevitable conversation between a son who has been coerced into music lessons and a mom whose visions of grandeur are about to be dispersed. The usual reasons: the other boys don’t have to, I just like to play my own stuff, there’s too much else to do. But then, mom laid one on me that has haunted me for the rest of my life: “Ok, Jimmie, you don’t have to take piano lessons. But when you grow up and wish you had continued to take them, don’t you ever blame me.” Gulp.
Fact was, I just had this fabulous ear. I found out that I had perfect pitch by noticing that when I was listening to my favorite Doris Day LP, I could always hum the beginning note of the next track before it was played. I was never without music in my head. I would listen to a piece two or three times, and then, night and day, there it would be playing away behind my mental scenes.
When I was still in sixth grade in elementary school, mom had a good friend, Ruth Spriggs, who played knock-your-socks-off bar room piano. This was just about the start of the honky tonk piano craze of the 1950’s. I would watch Ruth play, fascinated, and it wasn’t long before I was raggin’ the pop songs of the day. Ruth’s boyfriend was Leo Inbody, and she played in his dance band, The Paden City Orchestra. I don’t remember the exact details, but when I was almost 13 years old, Leo had landed this gig at the Silver Grill in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and for some reason or other, Ruth couldn’t make that date. Leo approached me to fill in for her, and it didn’t take long for me to decide I would try that. Well, I was the hit of the evening, because I had learned a Pete Johnson boogie woogie, and I got a lot of compliments from the regulars there.
So when I describe myself as a lifetime piano player, that really is not far off the mark, considering that I have been doing it for 77 of my 80 years. And I do owe my love of ragtime to Ruth Spriggs honky tonk piano playing, and I have been doing that for 67 of my 80 years. Here is a picture of me playing the piano taken around 1952. The unusual white flowers are my grandmother’s night-blooming cereuses, of which she was very proud. Clara was taking this picture of the flowers and me, of whom she was also very proud.
It’s a well known fact that Scott Joplin is the most well-known codifier of a certain form of piano music that emerged in the barrooms and speakeasys of the Missouri Valley. “Ragtime” is not an ambiguous term. It is a syncopated march that often has the form aabbaccdd, where if sections a and b are in some key, then the key of sections c and d is determined by adding a flat to the key signature. Now that definition won’t get you an actual rag, and there might be rags that don’t exactly fit. Plus, for ragtime piano to be honky tonk piano, a lot more must be added. For ragtime to be honky tonk, the syncopation and beat have to be strong and steady enough to make you want to dance, the volume has to be loud enough to be heard over the noisy barroom din, and the piano has to be beat up and noticeably out of tune. And for it to be worth listening to, the piano player must be performing incredible feats of pianistic dexterity at nearly impossible speeds, too. Honky tonk piano just syncopates any music, ragtime or otherwise, in the specified ways.
So my introduction to ragtime music is quite indirect, and a lifetime venture. The honky tonk I emulated in my early teens was a distant derivative of ragtime. But soon, thanks to my drummer friend and classmate, Dee McFarland, I was listening to and emulating Dave Brubeck and Marian McPartland. I was a jazz snob by my late teens. And then there was Beethoven. I discovered Beethoven’s piano sonatas and symphonies at age 19 and passed that love on to my younger brother, Tom. Dee and I went to Marietta College, and we were sought after by both local rock and pop groups and by bands that played the local lodges: The Elks, VFW, the Moose Lodge. Honky tonk was lost in the dust. Then in my grad school days, I hooked up with two cool bands in Columbus, Ohio, and that dough helped me to eat on $1.10 a day at the Pomerene Refectory and pay my $40 a month room rent. This time, though, my drummer buddy was Ted Hamilton, although the drummer in the picture, I think, is Johnny Rogers.
But in 1967 I went off to Indiana University to begin serious graduate study, and I ended up with a Ph. D. in the field of education and a lifetime job as a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. The only instrument I had with me in Bloomington, Indiana was my guitar, but that is another story. I was four years into my new job at SIUE when The Sting started the second ragtime revival. And though I took an occasional look at a Joplin rag or two, I was deflected from serious study because a couple of dixieland bands in the area had discovered my piano playing, though I was second string. Things went along well for my professorial career for another twenty years, while I played a broad variety of music gigs on the side, including serious participation in a popular area top 40s band for about a year and a piano/vocal single at The Rose Room at 18th and Olive in St. Louis.
I had another crush collision with ragtime in 1994. Along the way I had become a computer expert and bought Finale primarily to set down the many songs I had written. I had suffered from chronic gout since my early twenties, and in the summer of 1994, I got laid up with a serious gout attact that lasted six weeks. Never being one to let the grass grow too long under my feet, I decided to see if I could compose a rag. I kept my computer at the side of the couch, where I sat with my foot up, and occasionally I dragged myself across the room to check out some harmonic passage for accuracy. The result was my first rag, The Euclid Avenue Rag, which has been performed by myself, Tom Finger, Colleen Hawkins Brady and others a number of times, including at the International Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia by Patsy Madinger, and also at the Blind Boone Festival at Columbia, Missouri by me. Over the years I have composed nine original rags and three related songs.
Some time after that, I joined the Friends of Scott Joplin and began receiving their newsletter. Local folk ragtime pianist and composer, Rich Egan, had become president of the organization in 1996, and oversaw the establishment of a monthly gathering at Dressel’s in St. Louis called the Ragtime Rendezvous on Nov. 2, 1997. I read about the gathering and showed up the next month with two of my friends who later formed a support group for me called the Ragtime Rascals. One of the three rags I played was the St. Louis Zoo Rag, and it was received with enthusiam. In fact, my friend Rosanda, the original rascal, often posed in mock offense by saying, “Yes, there was a stampede, and my shins were bruised in the resulting confusion.” I attended nearly every Rendezvous for the next 15 years, usually accompanied by my entourage. We also heard many fine performances of ragtime from fine artists such as Jan Hamilton Douglas, Trebor Tichenor and the St. Louis Ragtimers, Dave Majrchak, Rich Egan, Barry Morgan, Patsy Madinger, and many others too numerous to mention.
Maybe I’ve said enough to answer the question I asked at the start of this essay. But I will say a paragraph or two more. Eventually over the 15 years of faithful performance at the Ragtime Rendezvous, I worked up a 150 item “can play with a little notice” list of ragtime pieces. I made little tent cards with the composer, name and date of each piece and displayed it as I performed, making my little protest against all the players that rip this or that one off and then make us ask what they are playing. And I didn’t just play the classics, the Bach, Beethoven and Brahms of ragtime: Joplin, Scott and Lamb. I made a point of playing contemporary rags by Frank French, Hal Isbitz, David Thomas Roberts, Scott Kirby. I played Swedish rags by Oleg Mezuev and Peter Anderson. I performed truly demanding rags, like William Bolcom’s Dream Shadows, about which Barry Morgan said, the trouble with that rag is, the guy could be doing a good job, but you’re just not sure.
I played my own compositions. I took my stint at all the offices in the Friends of Scott Joplin.
And here is my conclusion. I love classical. I play Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Shostakovich. I love progressive jazz. I play Brubeck and Previn. I love pop and rock classics. Hell, our 70s top 40 had a playlist of hundreds of rock classics. But most of all. Wait for it. I. LOVE. RAGTIME.
I once had a good friend who had a three fruit theory of human nature. She maintained that human beings can be classified into three categories. They are either prunes, grapes, or plums. Plums are too excessive, too this, too that. Prunes are, well, too dehydrated and wrinkled. But grapes! Grapes are the perfect, well-modulated fruit. I submit that this theory works for music art forms, too. I’ll leave it to you to classify your favorites. But I say, without reservation, ragtime is the perfect, well-modulated music art form. It’s just right.