A surfeit of syncopation descended on Southern California’s Orange County on September 7 as RagFest 2019 attracted a goodly complement of enthusiasts to revel in the musical pleasures of the era. Originated, produced and hosted by Eric Marchese and sponsored by Friends of Jazz, a non-profit whose goal is to foster music in the schools, RagFest has been an annual event featuring live music from the ragtime era since the fall of 2000.
Keeping RagFest alive over the years has been an extended labor of love for Eric and certainly no cakewalk. Originally a weekend event, past venues have included a jazz club, a music store, a museum auditorium, a library, and a park and cultural center, all of them in Fullerton. Although the event has been cut back to one day since 2016, for the last three years Eric has secured as a venue the elegant Curtis Theater and adjoining plaza in Brea’s Civic Center. This has allowed concurrent performances in the theater and at two sites outdoors on the plaza.
During the day individual and group performers presented half-hour sessions climaxed in the evening by a revue show in the theater. Although attendance had fallen to a low ebb in 2015, I was surprised and elated this year as a resurgence elicited an almost full house for the evening revue show.
This year’s edition featured 15 individual performers and three musical groups entertaining with a balanced program of classic ragtime and related vintage musical styles. Headliner Adam Swanson, youthful pianist currently from Durango, Colorado, where he performs at the historic Strater Hotel, demonstrated his virtuosity with classic rag (“St. Louis Rag”), semi-classical (“Teddy Bear’s Picnic”), and stride (bravura arrangements of “King Chanticleer” and “Troublesome Ivories”).
Local pianist and composer Vincent Johnson, specialist in the novelty piano genre, demonstrated his mastery of ragtime with his own “Milk and Honey,” already being recognized as a classic; his melodic “Storybook Rag”; and several Lamb rags. The duo of vocalist Sharon Evans and song-and-dance man Rick Rogers, accompanied by Rick’s uke and pianist Andrew Barrett, joined in a vaudeville revival (“I’ll See You in C-U-B-A,” “Where the Black-Eyed Susans Grow,” “Cheyenne”).
Organized by Michael Chisholm, the RagFest Ensemble comprised musicians from northern and southern California – Michael, piano; Julia Riley, flute; Bob Pinsker, violin; and Andrew Barrett, percussion – to play Joplin’s “Original Rags” and Tom Brier’s “Garden Walk.” Johnny Hodges, former Disneyland pianist whose fans are legion, contributed his arrangement of “Twelfth Street Rag.”
The offerings of string wizard Tom Marion and friends ranged from archaic fiddle and guitar (”Peacock Rag”) to appropriately raunchy songs sung by Tabatha Skanes (“Won’t You Fondle Me,” originally recorded in 1904). Northern California pianist Elliot Adams used his fabulous collection of rare original sheet music to illustrate his performances (“That Demon Rag,” “Canadian Capers”).
For this reviewer, RagFest 2019 successfully presented a program well balanced among classic ragtime and related music in an attractive setting. Kudos to Eric Marchese.