I am often asked about my background in music, what instruments I play, and when I first became interested. My flippant response is that I can play my record and CD players fairly well but that is the extent of my musical ability.
The truth is, I have never really been able to read music and can barely find middle C on a piano. Thus, the next question is always, “Well how did you get so involved in ragtime and classical music?” That is a long story of small incidents that culminated in my life-long musical interests.
I have previously written of my Dad’s fascination with the Big Bands and about my past times listening to his records and to his favorite radio programs (TST, May 2017). I sure wish I had his stacks of 45s and the old 78s in those sturdy album covers today. As a result of listening to all those wonderful old compositions, I decided I wanted to be in a band and since Benny Goodman was one of Dad’s favorites, my folks rented a used B-flat clarinet from Jenkins Music Company to see what would happen.
I began taking lessons from a peripatetic music teacher who came to our grade school twice a week. After a year of squeaks and squawks it was apparent that I had neither the talent or motivation to proceed with a classical music career. However, my Dad wasn’t ready to give up on me so fast. That he had endured my ear wrenching practices at home and still held out hope, is a testimony to his intense desire that I would someday be a big band leader. And so, I was thrust into phase two of my musical training. Dad discovered that a widow lady in our neighborhood gave piano lessons, so an ancient upright instrument appeared in our dining room, semi-tuned, and ready for my use.
Now at the age of twelve I began a series of weekly tortures as I was introduced to the 88 keys. I did at least realize that it was easier to play an instrument where I could see what I was doing as I played versus the blind fingering of the clarinet.
A few weeks of frustration and we all realized even more obviously that my musical career was not to be. That is, until I was given a tour of the new high school I was to attend that autumn. Southeast High School in Kansas City is a grand pile on a spacious campus at the entrance to the city’s Swope Park. The school’s mascot, a Noble Knight, instantly grabbed my imagination and the building, on that first visit, seemed like a great castle. The four-story building was centered on a grand tower and on the fourth floor under the great tower was the music room. That spacious room with its slightly tiered risers to arc the band and orchestra members around the director’s stand looked so professional that I thought surely I could learn to play the clarinet in that place and under the direction of the venerable, Mr. Ben Markley. Thus, the old clarinet was re-rented from Jenkins where I took a one transfer bus ride twice a week for lessons after school.
Now Mr. Markley was as irritated by strange sounds emanating from the reed section as my grade school teacher had been. Therefore, it wasn’t long before I was challenged down to the very last chair on the third tier where I looked directly down on Mr. Markley’s angry glares. After the first concert in the auditorium, Willy Hemsley and I were instructed to simple arrive in suits or uniforms for programs, properly hold our instruments, and move our fingers without blowing. To further insure our silence, our reeds were confiscated. (Ah, the indignity! Where was Adrian Cunningham when I needed him?)
Parades were obligatory for the band and I quickly discovered that marching in step in full uniform with music paper-clipped to a flimsy attachment to my instrument, was impossible. That was exacerbated by the fact that we always marched behind an equestrian contingent and to avoid slipping on the manure strewn pavement I pretty much had to concentrate solely on missing the numerous festering piles. Even without actually blowing I found it quite difficult to move in sync with the rest of the band while negotiating the noxious obstacles.
I did however have one brief moment of fame in my high school music career at the beginning of my second year. We all had to audition for seats at the start and, somehow, I managed to memorize the short audition piece quite well.
Rico Lockwood was the first chair clarinet. He was the chosen one, the gem of the music program and quite an accomplished musician. He was also headstrong with a justifiably large ego and he was prone to vocal disagreements with the director. It seems that the first chair clarinetist had been particularly offensive on the day of auditions and to humiliate the young virtuoso Mr. Markley replaced him as first chair with, of all people, the fellow in the last (24th) chair.
However, as the pawn in this game of personalities something interesting happened…I actually began to practice and enjoy playing. My reign, unfortunately, was short lived and after a week of this charade, I was moved to 16th chair and was soon back in the last seat by the end of the semester. At that I transferred to ROTC. In the process of my musical failures however, I gained a great appreciation for music and for those who had a mastery of their instruments and voices.
Throughout my high school years, The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday nights sponsored by “Dodga Cars” was a staple in our household. And, you guessed it, Big Tiny Little and then Jo Ann Castle playing ragtime were weekly favorites.
In college, I ran a piano and organ store with used books on the side and the owner taught me to repair player pianos for extra income. He also held a Hammond Organ franchise and decided that I should take the factory course and become a registered salesman. The experience in Chicago was intense primarily because to achieve the treasured sales certificate, I had to learn a medley piece that demonstrated all the features of the Hammond organ.
Each piece in the medley ran about four to eight bars (including the first five bars of Joplin’s “The Entertainer”) and, I actually became quite proficient at performing the demo. However, I knew not one note more than the memorized piece. When folks raved and asked for more, I simply tried to act humble and insisted that they replace me at the keyboard as I knew “they could do so much better.” (A greater truth was never spoken.)
When I married and moved to Sedalia, Missouri after college, I was exposed to my wife’s love of music. She had a beautiful voice and had taught herself to play the guitar. Her musical talent rubbed off on our son, John whose interest was accelerated later by his own wife’s musical talent. So, my life was filled with music and while I had little to no proficiency at performing, I nevertheless acquired a great musical appreciation, especially for classical, hymns, big bands, and ragtime. I was never into popular music.
I’ve described my involvement in the first Sedalia ragtime festivals several times before. When I discovered Scott Joplin’s connection to Sedalia and realized I could stand at the very places where he wrote, performed, and published, I was determined to get involved with the music some way and the 1974 Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival emerged.
In the intervening years I have stayed in touch with the those in the field of ragtime and I am blessed by a veritable orchestra in my own family. My six grandchildren are gifted with the musical talent I was denied. They can all play multiple instruments by sight and by ear. I am also blessed to have a professional musician who is my cul-de-sac neighbor. John Phillips is kind enough to tote me around when I am able, and it has been a joy to share music related discussions with him.
After a gap of nearly 40 years, it has been a blessing to again return to my personal acquaintance with many in the field of ragtime music. The ragtime community is an amazing family and I realize I am well acquainted with many I have only met on the Internet or through their recordings. They generously share, encourage and commiserate with each other and spread the joy of ragtime far and wide.
People no longer ask about my musical proficiency when they glance at my arthritically sculpted hands and bent and twisted fingers. No, I’m not musical, but I like to think I’m an aficionado of great music and I hold performers, musicologists, and music historians in the highest esteem (and publishers of music related newspapers.)
Ragtime has bookended my life, from listening to it as a kid on Dad’s old records to the first Sedalia festival and now to my current focus on it as America’s music. I’ve been syncopated.