David Reffkin’s email on Tuesday, October 11th brought sad news: “Larry Karp died this morning at a hospital in Seattle…”
Though I have read Larry’s novels for many years, I’ve only had two or three hours of personal acquaintance with him at this summer’s Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia and several dozen emails. I was aware that he was quite ill (Grave’s Disease had evolved into Solstice Fever) and that he had suffered an episode at the West Coast Festival last November. Still, though frail, he seemed vital and certainly alert at the Festival so David’s news was a shock.
There is so much I could write about this amazing man but as this publication is for traditional jazz and ragtime readers, I’ll try to stay with Larry’s contribution to this music. Still, a brief mention of his amazing “double-life” is in order.
Before Larry Karp began writing his ragtime related mysteries he was a renowned physician. Byron Elliott reminded us on Facebook that Larry’s first career was in Maternal and Fetal Medicine beginning at the University of Texas and then in Seattle, Washington where he pioneered work in that field of reproductive medicine.
But as he shared with me last summer, his real passion was writing—mystery writing actually. Twenty-one years ago he left medicine to write full time. I am now looking at his personally inscribed volumes in our Sedalia Ragtime Archive. His first mysteries were based on his medical background but he soon used another of his interests, mechanical musical devices, for his 1999 The Music Box Murders.
I had known of Larry’s extensive collection and was thrilled when Byron Matson, retired former head curator of the J. B. Nethercutt collection at the San Sylmar Museum in Southern California, came over while we were visiting. The intensity and detail of their conversation marked them as authorities though I barely understood what they were discussing. From this, however, I did realize how musically knowledgeable Larry was and that propitious meeting certainly explained how mechanical music devices tend to appear in his writing.
It was Karp’s fascination with ragtime and in particular “The Ragtime Kid” Brunson Campbell and Sedalia, Missouri that led him to write a ragtime trilogy of mystery novels. (And, Larry had just emailed me in August that a fourth volume, The Ragtime Traveler, is scheduled for publication next April by his publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.)
Larry’s significant legacy to the field of ragtime history and research is now his book Brun Campbell: The Original Ragtime Kid published by McFarland last Spring. Campbell was the young white Kansan who had gone to Sedalia to learn ragtime from Joplin back in the late 1890’s. For the next 50 years, Campbell told his version of that era and shamelessly promoted the role Joplin and Sedalia played in the initial phase of the music’s popularity. However, Campbell was prone to hyperbole and, when facts didn’t quite express what he wanted, “The Ragtime Kid” wasn’t above fictionalizing a story to make a point. But before commenting on the book itself I must briefly relate how it came to be written as Larry told me while we were visiting. (It is also recounted in the book.)
Unexpectedly, four years ago, Larry received an email from an attorney asking if he would be interested in boxes of Campbell’s papers he had cleaned out of an old house as an estate executor. It turns out they were Campbell’s papers his daughter had stashed away. The attorney, knowing nothing of Brun Campbell, Googled his name and of course Larry Karp’s mysteries came up. Larry was contacted and after a quick negotiation (and a very respectable payment, Larry added), three cartons of documents arrived at his door. For over three years he organized the papers, meticulously researched every aspect of, and produced a coherent account of Brun Campbell’s life and work. Karp filled in gaps and more importantly confirmed or exposed Campbell’s uniquely illustrated details.
It is an important work of historical research on the beginnings of the ragtime saga. Larry was eager to proudly point out that his son Casey has been his editor-collaborator in this and recent works.
Larry Karp’s book was published simultaneously with a CD of Campbell’s compositions Essays in Ragtime featuring ensemble pieces arranged and directed by ragtime legend, violinist David Reffkin, director of the American Ragtime Orchestra and issued by Rivermont Records. Richard Egan, eminent folk ragtime performer and musicologist who in 1993 published a book of Campbell transcriptions, The Ragtime Kid, performed piano selections.
Larry, 76, was raised in Patterson, New Jersey and New York City. He has lived in the Seattle for several decades and leaves his wife of fifty-four years, Myra, two children, Casey and Erin, and grandchildren.
In a blog he wrote a few years ago he ended a charming anniversary story with this reminder. “Life goes on. Celebrate it any way you like.” So right now, we celebrate Larry Karp’s life.