In July of 1994, my first concert in the Chicago region was greeted on the same morning by my waking up and smelling gas in my suburban Chicago apartment (located charmingly right next to the railroad tracks). I called 911, and the fire department summarily broke down the door of the person in the basement apartment and switched off their oven. In addition to nearly blowing up the entire building, other inhabitants were merrily keying cars and slashing tires. A few months later, I stood by a window leaking cold air and watched the snow envelop everything in sight, making it impossible to go out. I kept trying to console myself that at least I no longer lived in a dilapidated building on a sixteen-degree slant, requiring all my worldly possessions be put at one end for fear of them sliding down the other, and where rats ran all over my feet when I tried make breakfast for myself. Suddenly, the land-line phone rang (this was in the pre-smart-phone era, don’t forget). I picked it up, not expecting much. But there was Donald Ashwander on the phone!
“Hello, Matthew, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m alright – what’s up with you?”
“Why, I’m just calling to say how much I enjoyed your paper!”
Donald was referring to a school paper I had written comparing ragtime culture between the initial period of popularity, and the previous thirty years. It was something to which I attached almost no importance. I felt it was not terribly interesting, nor creative. But Donald was tickled pink.
“I just wanted to say that you write so well!” Donald gushed with his deep, mellifluous, southern drawl. He had already written me a postcard and then a letter saying pretty much the same thing, but that wasn’t enough. He had to call me up and tell me the same thing over the phone as well. The door had opened, and a small crack of light flooded in.
That was the kind of person Donald was. He had an infinite soul. I don’t know whether I was as deserving of Donald’s praises as he apparently thought I was, but if I have any ability at writing whatsoever, then there could be no greater nor higher use of it than to honour the man’s memory. 1
Nowadays, not many people know who Donald Ashwander was, at least not in comparison to 1994. And there weren’t nearly enough who knew who he was even then. But a person’s fame is never a measure of their worth, and Donald’s worth was infinite.
Donald was many things. To me, before I left New Zealand and returned to North America, he was a tiny, square, black and white photograph and a couple of ragtime scores in the album of contemporary ragtime edited by Rudi Blesh, The Ragtime Current. To thousands of children (now all grown up) he was the musical director, actor, and writer of lyrics for the Paper Bag Players, an innovative children’s theatre group, located in New York City. To those in the “ragtime community,” Donald was a maverick, an eccentric, a complete and total original, writing innovative, exciting, and astonishing contemporary ragtime pieces which were utterly different from anything which had ever been written before. And the last is how I got to know him, until he became one of the best friends I ever had. His sudden and shocking death late in 1994 so devastated me, that I hid all of his letters away, any and all remnants which might remind me of him. But such was his heart, that I couldn’t help but think about him at least once or twice a week since 1994. But each time, I would masterfully and metaphorically place the memory away in an imaginary drawer and lock it tight, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the pain of his tragically early death. But recently, when Larry Melton interviewed me in The Syncopated Times, I started to talk about Donald again. It’s now almost thirty years since he died. And it is time, at last, to give the world the most accurate account I can of this extraordinary and beautiful human being. It is time.
This article is divided into roughly three sections: 1) The Early History and Pre-History of Donald; 2) More Recent Accounts of Donald by Those Who Knew Him; and 3) Donald’s Legacy. In the first section, if it appears to the reader that, at times, I am droning on in a monotone so low that you have to be a bison to catch the details, that’s probably because I am. I, nonetheless, encourage the reader to stick with this article until they reach the second section, as the knowledge that they will have acquired will put the personal accounts into extraordinary perspective.
My search for Donald starts almost 50 years before he was born.
The area now known as Cullman County, Alabama, with its wide-open grass-green areas, light blue skies, and fluffy cumulus clouds, was, for thousands of years, inhabited by the indigenous Cherokee and Choctaw peoples. In 1877, it became organized, primarily by German Immigrants who, for the most part, came down from Ohio. The best-renowned colonizer, John G. Cullman, along with others, attempted to experiment with the cultivation of wine and strawberries. However, they became overwhelmed by the more traditional families in the area, who replicated the growing of cotton – which was more prevalent throughout the American South. 2
Donald’s ancestors, like so many others in the area, originally hailed from Central Europe. Maritz (or Morris) Schwander was Donald’s paternal great-grandfather, and was most likely born in modern-day Switzerland around 1830. The 1870 U.S. federal census information states that his occupation was “Farmer,” he was aged around 40, and that he lived in Riga, Lenawee, Michigan. 3 His surname derives from High German, “swand” meaning “to thin out” and was possibly given to people who lived in a clearing or glade. 4 In the U.S., surnames have often been fluid, and the Schwander family was no exception. Maritz’ wife (aged 35) appears to be Mary Adwanden. There are four children listed, all with the last name of Adwanden. John, a fifth, has not yet been born.
The U.S. census for 1880 now reports Martiz’s son, John Ashwinder (Donald’s grandfather) and states that John’s father’s (Maritz’) place of birth as Germany. Or it could be that Martiz’s wife (who is recorded as “Mary Ashwander,” aged 63, and widowed according to the 1900 census) misremembered her late spouse’s place of birth. Either way, borders in European countries were also relatively fluid in the 19th Century.
John’s place of birth is identified as Michigan. The home, in 1880, is listed as being in Blount County, Alabama. He is eight years old (born 1872), and currently in school. His mother (Donald’s great-grandmother) Mary’s birthplace is reported as Germany. Mary is described as head of the household, with the father being absent from the house (don’t forget, Mary was widowed according to the 1900 census). There are six other siblings listed.
The next census of interest is that of 1910. John’s last name is now printed as Ashwander, and his place of residence is Hanceville & Haley Pond Road, in Hanceville, Cullman County, Alabama. He is aged 38, and is married to Eva, aged 32. They are also farmers, and their farm is not mortgaged. The late Maritz’ place of birth is now reported as Switzerland again (unlike the 1900 census where it is reported as Germany). There are six children. The youngest, Earl, is three years old. Earl is Donald’s father.
The census of 1920 now lists John’s surname as either Ashwander, Schwander, or Ashevander, with wife Eva and, at this point, eight children. John is 48 years old. Eva is 42 years old. Earl, Donald’s father, is now twelve years old. 5
I was not able to find any ancestral information on Donald’s mother’s family.
Alabama and The Great Depression
In the years following the Civil War, many inhabitants of Alabama lived in dire poverty. The spread of the Boll Weevil, which destroyed the cotton crops, made a bad situation even worse. When cotton prices plummeted, so did property values, and many farmers moved to the cities to find work. Between 1920 and 1930, the number of land owners in Alabama fell from 96,000 to 75,000. The 1929 stock market crash certainly precipitated the Great Depression, but for most Americans, and indeed, most people in Alabama, a bad situation turned to worse, and as a result, personal annual income fell from $311 in 1929 to $194 in 1935. Birmingham experienced almost 40% unemployment in 1934, and President Roosevelt described it as “the worst hit town in the country.” 6
Donald’s Earliest Years
The 1930 census states that Donald was 8/12 (meaning eight months old), and living with his mother and father in Homewood, which is a suburb of Birmingham. Donald’s father, apparently, is the either the owner of a truck, or in addition, the proprietor of an automobile rental company. Donald’s maternal grandmother, Carrie (short for Caroline), is listed as the “head of the house” although no occupation is described. Five daughters, one son, and a son-in-law and grandson make up this household. Donald’s father and mother (Lois) are staying with Lois’ family, the Blackerbys in what is probably a rural setting. However, what is most interesting to this author, is that there is a special column for those families who own a radio, and this household is one of them.
So there obviously would have been music in the household. Ipso facto, the presence of a radio, with broadcasts from all over the country being heard locally, most certainly, would have been a major influence on Donald eventually becoming a musician. By 1920, a piano was present in a large percentage of American homes (by the 1920s there were 300,000 pianos a year manufactured, two thirds of which were player pianos). 9 Both the factors of Earl’s position as the proprietor of his own company and living with his in-laws, would most likely have made it a financial certainty that a piano would have been present in the household early in Donald’s life.
I was not able to confirm where Donald went to school early in his life. 10 However, with me personally, both in letters and by telephone conversations, Donald was somewhat reticent and humble about his early education during the Great Depression (by his own admission, his spelling was dreadful). To me, it seems most likely that he would have had some education at a local primary school around the Hanceville area, although Donald wrote in his liner notes (which appeared in the New World Records CD release, Sunshine and Shadow), that for a while during his early years he and his brother Dan spent time on a farm with his mother’s family, the Blackerbys, somewhere near Bessemer, Alabama (which is approximately 55 miles south of Hanceville). Later in life, Donald wrote that he found farm life rather uninteresting, and described it as a “pallid affair.” 9
What can best be gleaned from the above information from the census from various years, is that the Blackerby and Ashwander families were resilient and industrious. The Great Depression was a difficult time for everyone to survive.
Early Musical Education
What is certain about Donald is that during the 1940s, Donald did some “serious” musical study at both Sacred Heart College in Cullman County, and at Birmingham Southern College. 12
What is helpful to us now is that from around 1945 on, there are a number of newspaper articles which can give us information about Donald and his family and their activities. Reading these newspaper clippings from almost eighty years ago is fascinating. The articles are a little like a pleasanter, politer, more civilized version of Facebook.
In 1945, Donald performed piano at a banquet celebrating the opening of a new church. 13
1946 was an especially busy year. Donald’s cousin on his mother’s side, Evelyn Blackerby, was married in the Hanceville home of Donald’s parents on February 10, 1946. Donald is mentioned as providing the wedding music. 14 Significantly, Earl sold his business (E. J. Ashwander Transfer and Produce Company) around February of 1946, and this definitely would have provided Donald and his siblings with the financial means to attend university at a time when few people went to university. 15 In addition to playing boogie-woogie piano, Donald’s brother, Dan, also went to University (University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa) and graduated with a B.S. degree in Chemistry. 16
But most significantly to Donald’s musical development, Donald presented a concert of classical music along with other students from the Sacred Heart Junior College and Academy on Tuesday May 28, 1946 at 7.00 p.m. Donald is listed as playing the second piano part of the Edvard Grieg A minor piano concerto for the second movement, and the first piano part of the third (last) movement. What this means is that he accompanied the soloist by playing the piano reduction of the orchestral part of the second movement, and he played the solo part for the third movement. Donald is also listed as playing the “Revolutionary” Étude by Frederic Chopin, (Opus 10, No. 12). For those who don’t know this piece of music, it is a staple of extremely serious piano students, and is still regarded as profoundly difficult to play. What this shows us is that, from the very beginning of Donald’s musical education, he was extremely ambitious, had an excellent understanding of what was required of being a piano virtuoso, and was learning much of the “conventional” “classical” repertoire. Regardless of any technical deficiencies he might have had as a pianist in 1946, he doubtless had a good inkling of the necessary requirements to become a classical pianist. One might even say that this concert was his classical music “debut.” 17
In late October, 1946, Donald and one “Miss Helen Warren” both attended the Opera, Il Travatore, in Birmingham, Alabama 18 Donald was clearly receiving a reasonable amount of exposure to the “classical” music canon.
The reason why all these musical minutiae are so important is that Donald once told me that he “took” for a number of years. 19 This was characteristically modest of Donald. The expression “took,” usually means going to the local teacher on the street corner where you grew up and paying an unspeakably low fee to learn how to pick out a few things on the piano without a great deal of skill. What the above proves is that Donald was ambitious, creative, and knew the basics of advanced piano repertoire before he ever left Alabama. It is always impressive to find out that a humble friend has always had much greater qualifications than he ever let on.
The next significant event was noted in a local newspaper, wherein Donald enrolled at the Music Conservatory at the Birmingham Southern University for the summer session in 1947. 20 In the absence of any further information from Birmingham Southern, I am going to guess that this probably represents the sum total of his studies there. I do not know what he studied there, but I suspect, because it was summer school, that he was fulfilling whatever requirements were necessary to commence studies in New York City in the autumn.
Move to Manhattan
Until I researched this article, sources regarding the next part of Donald’s education have been inconsistent regarding the details. In my liner notes to my compact disc, On The Highwire (Capstone Records, 2000), I state that Donald studied at the Manhattan School of Music from 1947 to 1952. 21 I honestly do not remember from where I got that specific information. Possibly Donald himself? In the liner notes to Sunshine and Shadow, Max Morath states that Donald attended the school from 1948 to 1952, starting at the age of nineteen. 22
According to the Manhattan School of Music, Donald attended from the age of eighteen, from September 1947 to December 1951. According to his transcript, he took no composition courses. In the undergraduate program curriculum, his major field of study was piano. Other courses included psychology, English, history, theory, ensemble, chorus, sight singing, keyboard harmony, and dictation. He studied piano with Darrell Peter, dictation with Ruth Van Doren, and theory with Ludmila Ulehla. He might have done recitals, but there was no requirement at that time, and would not have been recorded in any case. 23 Donald did not complete the degree requirements in order to graduate. 24 I found this surprising. In Morath’s liner notes mentioned above, it is implied that he graduated, and in an academic study of The Paper Bag Players, it is stated unequivocally that he graduated. 25
Donald stated in an interview in 1991 that he stayed on in New York until 1955 when he returned to Alabama for five years. 26 I find it reasonable to accept that as correct, based on that information agreeing with most other sources. As to why he never completed his degree, the explanation might best be found in his own words for the Mobile Press Register. That is, he stated that he believed in “studying what I need to know” more than getting degrees. 27 In that same article, it is stated that Donald also studied with a number of musicians privately. We’ll find out more about that shortly.
In another interview published in July of 1962, Donald discusses how after he studied “piano and composition” at the Manhattan School of Music, (even though we have established that he did not study composition there – I suspect that this mistake was made by the interviewer), he worked for the American Broadcasting Company for three years (that probably would have been from 1952 to 1955, seeing as he stopped studying in December, 1951). At ABC, he worked in “guest relations, prop and film departments.” Then he states, “In 1955 I decided to go home for Christmas. I stayed for five years, mostly in Mobile.” He describes writing a ballet, music for a film about Mobile, wrote commercial jingles, played pianos in concerts and bars, working a year as an electrician’s assistant in the Dry Docks of Mobile, and shipping as a seaman on a Standard Oil tanker out of Baton Rouge. 28
Return to Alabama
So, we can ascertain that Donald returned to Alabama in 1955, and of what his activities for the next five years most likely consisted. Donald stated, “I played in piano bars along the Gulf Coast, and played private parties, had a little trio and we used to do classical music and weddings and all that. [I] went to sea, got a chance to work on a ship, and worked as a messman on an Esso freighter out of Baton Rouge, LA.” 29
These details seem to be corroborated by further newspaper articles from Alabama. He is mentioned in a clipping dated 1957 as working that summer on the Esso August and “is presently on a cruise.” 30
Donald is not mentioned in the phone books of Mobile, Alabama from 1958 to 1964. He is, however, mentioned in a Mobile City directory from 1957 (and this was probably canvassed the previous year), as resident in the city and an employee of ADDSCO (Alabama Dry Docks and Shipbuilding Company) and resident on Roper Street. 31
A 2004 Mobile Register article about a Tribute Concert for Donald made reference to a 1956 article by John Fay that states that Donald’s day job was electrician’s assistant. During this time, his grandparents and other family members lived in Gulf Shores, a beach community in Baldwin County, Alabama. It is possible that when he was not in Mobile, he resided with his parents who owned a vacation spot in Gulf Shores, Alabama and Donald commuted to Mobile. 32
In 1959, there is a report of Donald performing in Alabama one of his own compositions for violin and piano, entitled, Solar System of a Ceiling Fan, and the newspaper article states that Donald wrote it while at school in New York. 33 Donald wrote to me that he liked the music of Erik Satie, so it is not surprising that he should use eccentric and amusing titles for his music, similar to Satie. 34
Return to Manhattan
Later that same year, an announcement appeared in the Cullman Tribune telling of Donald’s music being performed at Carnegie Hall. It states that four songs were sung by Margot Rebeil, a soprano: The Locust, Lullaby, Four O’Clocks, and The Tree. The accompanist is not mentioned. This is a great deal more auspicious and impressive. The article continues in detail (for the first time in Donald’s career), about how some of his instrumental works had been given their premiers at Spring Hill College the previous season. 35 Also – that he was a former student of Ben Weber and Vittorio Giannina, and that Donald was a member of the American Composer’s Alliance. Donald doesn’t appear to have been an active member of that organization. 36 But the discussion of Weber in connection with Donald shows that Donald was still searching, still learning, still studying “serious” music, and doing it privately. Although dates and length of time are not given for his private study, it is not unreasonable to assume that he did so between the end of his studies at the Manhattan School of Music in 1951, and his return to Alabama in 1955, seeing as this information is dated from 1959, while he was clearly planning a return to Manhattan.
Another musical accomplishment of Donald’s can be read about in 1960: Donald wrote the song for the United Fund Drive, and it was performed by a small band. 37
A newspaper clipping from January 5, 1961, states that Donald is leaving Mobile that week for New York City, and that he will share an apartment with his friend, Tony Blum, of Mobile. It also states that Donald has composed some music for the [Mobile] Civic Ballet and that he will return in March for the performance. 38
For me, this is absolutely remarkable. I had only known Donald as a composer of piano music, and music for the Paper Bag Players. And he never once mentioned a ballet to me – I would have remembered something that grand. Once again, his inherent humility about his musical abilities rages to the fore – even after he has passed on.
A World Premier of a Ballet in Mobile
To write music for an original ballet using the forces of a twenty-six-piece orchestra is unusual at the best of times. Composers like Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky spring to mind. But for a composer who grew up in Hanceville, Alabama to write one, for a struggling Civic Ballet Group in Mobile is nothing short of extraordinary. Opportunities like that just simply didn’t exist in 1950s America, unless you were Aaron Copland (or Ravel or Stravinsky). I found this astonishing, but perhaps I shouldn’t have. Donald was an extraordinary person. And yet, he never mentioned this to me, not once, not ever.
Hexapoda Holiday, commissioned by the Mobile Civic Ballet, with orchestral music by Donald Ashwander, choreography by Lee Weatherby-Partridge, with full scenery, costume design, make-up, and an orchestra conducted by George Jansen (who was music director at Loyola University in New Orleans) premiered in Mobile on April 10, 1961, at the Murphy Auditorium, and concerned a story about a group of gnats, mosquitos, and cockroaches. It sounds absolutely witty and delightful, and exactly the sort of thing which I would have expected Donald to have come up with. 39 This work strikes me as possibly one of the great lost treasures of American music.
The program for the event shows how the orchestral piece is divided into seven movements: Prelude; Gavotte for Gnats; Maiden Lady’s Romantic Dream; Cockroach Rhumba; Cockroach Rag; Mosquito Mazurka; and Finale. It seems that his using smaller movements to create a larger piece (much as Sergey Prokofiev did in his ballets), will be reflected later on in his music for the Paper Bag Players, and in the LP and CD recordings of his music later on in his life.
A review by John Fay in the Mobile Register the day after the premier says the following: “Hexapoda is music most obviously and strongly written for the dance. A good many of its harmonies set it down as music of today, but happily, there is a tonality and a strong one. It is as American as apple pie. It contains some good melodic writing and its use of orchestra sometimes makes me wonder over the composer’s claim of inexperience in that field. Not to say that Ashwander is not capable of the most serious stuff, but it occurs to us that some writer of books for the musical stage is missing a bet in this young man.” 40 High praise, indeed. The same article also states that the auditorium was almost a full house, and described Donald as, “…often a Mobilian but now in New York…”.
A news report dated November 23, 1961, tells of how Hexapoda Holiday was afterwards taken on tour in Tuscumbia, Sheffield, and Florence, Alabama, under the auspices of the National Association of University Women. 41
Frankly, this discovery left me speechless, because it casts Donald’s skills and abilities in a completely different light than from when I knew him. Donald was more than he has been described and has described himself in the past, (i.e. a “Ragtime Composer”). Clearly, Donald was a fully fledged “serious composer” who relentlessly honed his craft, and he did so with a sometimes folksy and wicked sense of humor. A serious composer who wrote serious ragtime. Which doesn’t take itself too seriously.
A Displaced Alabamian or a Reluctant Manhattanite?
In keeping with Donald’s restless spirit, it now appears that he was going back and forth between Mobile, Alabama, and New York City for a while in 1959 and the early 1960s.
In the 1962 interview previously mentioned, Donald discusses how in 1961 he became employed in New York writing singing commercials for worldwide radio, and that the partners in the firm that employed him literally came to blows over a disagreement, that the police were called in, and that the company then went into bankruptcy. At the time of the interview, he is still playing piano in bars, though is not keen on it, and playing for ballet rehearsals and classes, and private cocktail parties. He states that he has not joined the New York ‘rat race’: “…The New York Music circle is alien to me, too academic, and the commercial end is too tawdry. I’d rather stay by myself and write my tunes in my own way.” The interview also mentions that he lives on East 56th Street, and does not own a piano, but uses one belonging to his friends when he needs to. 42
A news clipping from 1963 once again mentions the name Tony Blum in connection with Donald Ashwander. It states that Donald is accompanying his family members and visiting friends in Mobile, Alabama, and that Donald makes his home in New York City. Blum is mentioned as a weekend guest and that he is a soloist with the New York City Ballet. 43 I suspect that there might also be a possible connection between Blum and the Mobile Civic Ballet. Blum is not mentioned in Donald’s 1961 Mobile Ballet program, but a February 6, 2000, New York Times Obituary mentions that Blum moved from Mobile to New York City in 1958, and became principal dancer in 1966. 44
It is most probable that from 1962 to 1964 Donald supported himself by being a “freelance music editor,” although I am not sure what this means. Perhaps using his musical calligraphy skills? From 1964 to 1966 he composed material for Dody Goodman’s appearances on the Merv Griffin Show and toured nationally with her. It is also most probable that he joined the Paper Bag Players in 1967, when he became their musical director for 27 years. 45
A newspaper article in 1966 acknowledges that Donald is the accompanist and composer for Dody Goodman, and is touring with her in summer stock. One of Donald’s songs, with words by Goodman, entitled, Trouble is a Dirty Old Man, was slated to be sung on Merv Griffin’s television show the following week. It also discusses how Donald is editing and composing rags to appear in the 1966 edition of They All Played Ragtime, and how an accompanying LP record will be released soon as well. What is humorous is that the reporter states that ragtime had its origins in Sedalia, Ohio. It was in fact, Sedalia, Missouri. I’m fairly certain that Donald would not have made that mistake! 46
Donald and The Paper Bag Players
Although the composition of innovative ragtime pieces was how I became acquainted with Donald, throughout the time I knew him personally, I didn’t know much about his bread and butter – as Musical Director of the innovative children’s theatre group, The Paper Bag Players. I always knew Donald to be an astute, intentional, but very intuitive artist, and that wonderful intuition he had, along with his own “child-like” qualities (i.e. taking delight in little things, (almost) always giving people the benefit of the doubt, and his boundless – boundless – enthusiasm) could only make him the ideal person for such a position.
The Paper Bag Players deserves an entire book to be written about them, not just an article. However, they are not the focus here; instead, in this section, I will focus for a short time on Donald’s relationship to the “Bags,” as he called them.
Georga Parchem’s thesis on the “Bags” describes their (initial) aims and purposes. Among them are to “experiment, develop and create children’s theatre…by using simple ideas, materials and commonplace objects that are available to everyone;” “to coordinate the expression of the child’s needs in a totally theatrical medium…;” “to maintain a professional adult company whose main interest and joy is to perform for children;” as well as several other aims which space prevents me from mentioning. But their aims also emphasized performing for underprivileged children as well with special free performances. 47
The music of Donald’s predecessor, Daniel Jahn, was described by Donald as “…wobbly, vague, impressionistic, and without too much of a beat.” 48 When Judith Martin, the Artistic Director at that time, and, later, Donald joined this group, it transitioned into something quite different. Cast member Betty Osgoode noted that with Donald’s arrival the music gave the whole production more weight, interest, and complexity. She stated, “…the work was lacking something until he [Donald] came along. It became first rate art when Donald arrived.” 49 In addition, there was a great deal more music after Donald’s arrival, the music determined the pace of the shows, and scenes actually depended upon musical cues. 50
The subject matter of the different shows was part of what made it so unusual. In 1968, they produced Dandelion which was the group’s first full-length narrative, the first full-fledged Martin-Ashwander production, and its subject matter was quite unusual for children’s theatre at the time (a musical fantasy based on Darwin’s theory of evolution). 51 Other productions, such as I Won’t Take a Bath, are rather more whimsical.
Here Endeth the Lesson
I suspect readers at this point are probably getting tired of the history lesson. I know it is far more interesting to hear about Donald from those who knew and directly worked with him. So, moving forward, we are going to hear some really amazing first-hand stories from people who actually knew him. I wish there had been space to include all of them. 52
Ted Bracket joined the “Bags” for the 1988-89 season, stayed for more than thirty years, and wound up being Artistic Director for his last eight years with the group. Ted has wonderful memories of Donald and the “Bags”: “Donald played the electric harpsichord, which was a pain because it was heavy and had to be tuned for every show. But boy, did it sound great. Charming and fantastical and fit for his rags perfectly. He said many times that the children were like popcorn. He would start to play, and the kids would pop up and down bursting with energy. It was fantastic to behold. We often played for a thousand or so, it was pure joy. By the end of the tune the kids were on their feet singing and dancing. Donald said it’s all about the syncopation in the left hand…Donald’s music turned the Bags into a musical theater. Before him, the music was just background for the dancers. He made the music part of the show. When Donald played a show, every kid left with a tune in their head.” 53
Brenda Cummings joined the “Bags” in 1981. By her own admission, she was not happy with her first audition, and did not mention her friend, Jan Maxwell, who had recommended her. About a month afterwards, Jan called Brenda back and told her that Judith Martin wanted her to audition again, as she was not satisfied with the person they had hired. Brenda continues the story: “I went to a second audition for the Paper Bag Players, and Donald was possibly what decided my hiring. It was either Donald, or Irving [Burton, who was already a cast member]…Donald was wearing a black turtleneck sweater, a kangol hat, and dark gray slacks. His neatly trimmed mustache was striking, because I hadn’t seen many men his age wear a mustache at all. It was the kind of mustache I had only seen pictures from times long ago! I was fascinated. Donald was gentlemanly, gracious, friendly, and encouraging.
“In my opinion, Donald’s music defined the Paper Bag Players, but the Bags have become something completely new. I love John Stone’s [the current Musical Director’s] music for the Paper Bag Players, and I admire the respect he shows for Donald’s music.
“I found all the [Paper Bag Players] members fascinating. None of the adults I had ever previously had contact with were as willing to allow me an opinion or point of view as my [Paper Bag Players] mentors. Donald and I became close friends, and I spent lots of time outside the Bags with him…it was great fun to visit Donald’s antique-filled salon to share an evening of drink, piano, and song. Donald mentored us, insulted us freely, and encouraged us endlessly. It felt like a special kind of family connection.
“I remember that everything he furnished his [Donald’s] apartment with was antique or from the art deco period. He had a lot of lusterware cups and saucers I loved, and both his apartments were lighted by many perfectly placed, small, beautiful lamps. He had a set of rectangular, art deco lamps that he said had once been in a movie theater to light the aisles. At night, the light in Donald’s apartment was warm, dim and comforting. Every once in a while, Donald would bring out his prized possession – a handmade, nesting set of intricately sculpted and painted, paper mâché vegetables. The outer vegetable was a cabbage, with the other vegetables nested within. Donald loved it, and I felt like I was getting the chance to see what he had been like as a child. He would carefully untie each layer and show us each new vegetable, marveling over the craftsmanship, and treating each one with great care. It felt like Christmas.”
Brenda tells us of more of Donald’s sensitivity and trusting nature: “Donald told me that he was a 10-year-old when The Wizard of Oz was released. He told me about how he’d had to beg, over and over again, to go to see the movie. He said that he called it The Wizard of Ooze because he’d only seen posters of the movie. He nagged his parents to take him to please see The Wizard of Ooze! His parents apparently couldn’t take him to the movie, but their black maid, whose name I can’t remember, took Donald on the bus to Mobile to see the movie. He remembered being separated from her on the bus, and it being the first time he’d begun to understand racism. He was shocked and saddened, and the trip to see The Wizard of Oz obviously had a lasting impression on him. Donald was non-racist to his core, and that’s why I connect the previous story with his story about going to a Chinese takeout place in Brooklyn, after he’d moved to South Oxford Street. He’d moved from First Avenue into a beautiful basement apartment in Brooklyn. The neighborhood was changing and gentrifying, before we used that term, and it was not necessarily safe. Donald had been a pioneer in the East Village after the fire in his West Village apartment, so he was used to trying something new. One night, Donald walked away from the window of his neighborhood Chinese takeout place with his dinner, and was, unfortunately, assaulted about a block away by a couple of young, black kids. I remember Donald being hurt, saddened, and very upset by the incident.” 54
The previously mentioned Mobile Register article from 1968 details Donald’s first year with the Paper Bag Players, where the “Bags” are performing for free in New York City, and travelling to London, England to record thirteen television shows. 55 Two more articles from 1971 56 and 1973 57 discuss performances at the Ursuline Academy Auditorium in New Orleans (Dandelion, 1971) and New York and London at the Young Vic Theatre (I Don’t Want To Take A Bath, 1973). Donald is spoken of in glowing terms in both articles.
From all the sources which I have been able to locate, Donald went from strength to strength throughout his tenure with The Paper Bag Players.
They All Played Ragtime, and the fruition of Donald’s talents
In 1950, Donald read what has now been described as “The Ragtime Bible,” namely, They All Played Ragtime by Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh. 58i After his return to New York, in 1965, two years before Donald started with the “Bags,” Donald composed his first piano rag. It was composed on a Friday Night, hence it’s eponymous title. The next morning Donald located Rudi Blesh’s telephone number and played it for him over the phone. Of this incident, Donald notes, “We agreed that this was not the best way to hear music.” He agreed to meet with Blesh to play his rag on a decent piano shortly thereafter. Blesh was very impressed with Donald’s composing abilities. A few years later, Blesh arranged for Donald to make a vinyl LP recording of his rags. His friendship with Blesh lasted until Blesh’s death in 1985. 59
Donald went on to compose at least twenty-four rags, tangos, or ragtime-influenced waltzes over the years, of which I am aware. It is my personal opinion that these works represent his highest accomplishments. As to the reasons, these I will delineate towards the end of this article.
Donald never travelled the ragtime or jazz festival circuits, mostly because he was usually working with the “Bags.” But he was in contact with a number of “ragtime community” members over the years. Donald wrote to me of his high regard for Max Morath, how he was a wonderful person, and how much he loved his music. Donald also wrote of disappointment that he didn’t see Max more often since Rudi Blesh’s death, but that he did talk on the phone with him fairly often. 60
Another of that community, Galen Wilkes, speaks with great admiration for Donald. They first met in 1977, probably through Max Morath or Rudi Blesh, and Galen recounts seeing him in Los Angeles (to where Galen had moved): “I really enjoyed them! I found it [The Paper Bag Players] innovative – as the name suggests, their props and sets were made from paper bags, cardboard boxes, and the like. It was simple and nicely done and it must have made it far easier to travel with those properties. Donald was on stage with them with his electric harpsichord and he would interact with the characters on stage as well. It was geared for kids and was mainly upbeat material they created. I thought it was so original.”
Galen later was a guest at Donald’s apartment in New York: “He did play for me at his home, though. I remember he played a new rag of his for me which I tape recorded. A lot of his works weren’t published, which was the standard then. Now we can all do our own publishing.” 61
I asked Galen if he remembered which rag Donald played for him: “Yes…the piece was Saratoga Rag…[and]…it was [on] August 12, 1978 when I recorded him. He described to me how he wanted it recorded with his voice (or a voice) intoning over the music, ‘Sa-ra-to-ga, Sa-ra-to-ga,’ through a megaphone. This is the rhythm of the first two bars of the main strain…I don’t remember what I played for him. It had to be a number of early things I wrote. He was complimentary about them. [It was in]…Manhattan, on First Avenue, not far from the East Village.” 62
Galen also has a memory of the only time that Donald visited the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, in Sedalia, Missouri in 1989: “There was a huge party that year before the festival. They had invited all the name Ragtimers they could get…that was quite a scene. Everywhere you looked there was ragtime royalty. I was so glad that they invited Donald because I don’t think he ever appeared at a ragtime festival.” 63
Donald was also supportive to Galen’s composition of ragtime: “Donald was on target. I especially appreciated his comments on my music. He was very kind in that regard, didn’t attack anything I did, and was supportive. He was a gem and a real talent and good friend.” 64
Galen, like myself, was the fortunate recipient of wonderful letters from Donald. In one of them, he gives Galen his take on the publishing industry. Donald discusses how he didn’t know anyone who published piano rags, and the general disinterest in the music by modern publishing companies, which he describes as depressing. Regardless, Donald’s biggest passion is still composing ragtime. Further, that although he composes rags for the Paper Bag Players, and the audiences love them, and that he was a featured artist on WQXR which broadcast an hour of his music, publishers could not be less interested. Donald concludes: “Maybe we should all dress in leather and chains and dye our hair green. Oh well…” 65 That last comment was vintage Donald.
Up until the mid to late 1980s, Donald was recording his own ragtime and ragtime-related works for small labels with extremely limited distribution. I certainly never saw nor heard of any of them in New Zealand when I was growing up, nor in Canada, later. They included Donald Ashwander – Ragtime: A New View released through Jazzology around 1969 or 1970. 66, and Sunshine and Shadow, Donald Ashwander, piano, released through Upstairs Records in 1979.67
But through his letters and telephone calls to me, I know that Donald was dissatisfied with the distribution of his previous albums, and yearned to record a compact disc of his best work which would have decent distribution. It was for this reason that he worked with a producer in New York in 1988 and 1989 to produce what he thought would be his first compact disc release. It was to be entitled, On The Highwire, which, in my opinion, would be his finest work and would, for the first time, provide detailed explanations behind all these fascinating ragtime pieces. Sadly, the producing company went out of business, and Donald was unable to retrieve the DAT tape originals (yes, this was before we recorded direct to hard drive). 68 All Donald had left after his extraordinary hard work were some cassette tape copies, the typeset liner notes, and having his hopes dashed.
As Galen pointed out earlier, Donald was present at only one Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, in 1989. While there, Donald was interviewed by David Reffkin for his Radio Show, The Ragtime Machine, on KUSF Radio in San Francisco. Reffkin later transcribed that interview and published it in The Mississippi Rag, a jazz and ragtime journal no longer in publication. 69 In this interview, Donald discusses the necessity for him to practice a great deal to be able to play his piano rags after playing the electric harpsichord all year for the “Bags.” He also appears to be anticipating On The Highwire being released, and discusses the reasons why his style of ragtime composition is unusual. He rightly points out that a good many present-day ragtime composers use stories from the distant past, whereas Donald uses stories from his own life to influence his own ragtime compositions, and not from a book. Further, that he didn’t start to write ragtime until he felt that he had found his own musical voice, in 1965 with Friday Night.
Finally, Donald discusses how the Royal Ballet in London ostensibly stole his and Max Morath’s music and refused to pay up until Donald contacted the publisher, who (presumably) threatened action. Not too long after, Donald received the biggest royalties check he ever got, which bought his Kawai piano.
Friday Night on a Saturday Night
In January 1991, Donald stated the following to a reporter: “…looking back over 25 years, I can really say that I’ve been lucky in the sense that I’ve spent my life doing something I wanted to do. If I kick the bucket tomorrow, I feel that I’ve done something a little important, you know…”
Prophetic words. Then, in typical Donald fashion, he moderates what he says by diminishing his accomplishments: “…Not hugely important, but something benign, in other words.” Oh Donald! Your work is very important! 70
In March of 1991, I performed Friday Night in the first ever concert of post-1960 contemporary ragtime at the Smith Recital Hall, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where I was getting my degree to (hopefully) be a college professor. It was on a Saturday night. I’ve always had really bad nerves doing performances, and I remember my colleagues coming backstage to see me afterwards. I had sweated so much that I was able to take my hair between my hands (I had hair in those days) and squeeze it until water fell all over the floor. It was nice to hear their positive comments about the music. Fortuitously, the concert was recorded (on DAT tape, I believe), and I forwarded a cassette copy to Max Morath, who wrote back promptly to express appreciation. I believe I performed The Golden Hours and One For Amelia (both by Max) on that concert.
During June, 1991, I went to the Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, Missouri. I tried to meet as many composers as possible, but one of the nicest people I met was Galen Wilkes. We talked a lot about our common interests (he also likes silent films and the culture of the early 1900s), and when I mentioned that I was interested in performing contemporary ragtime, he provided me with copies of his own pieces, and the address of Donald.
When I got back to Champaign-Urbana, I took a cassette copy of that concert and sent it to Donald (I had already sent it to a number of recording companies in the hopes of releasing an album, all to no avail). After sending it off, I promptly forgot about it and expected nothing to happen. About two or three weeks later, I found a big package waiting for me at the music school which I gave as my return address. Inside was my first letter from Donald, dated July 9, 1991. He told me that he liked what I did with his piece, and especially with the second section which has “…a delicate concept which I’ve never been able to achive. [sic] There are many little moments that would never occur to me, but you make them work.” He then waxed rhapsodic about the rest of the concert: “The rest of the tape is equally beautiful with great variety.” He seemed to really like my Elegiac Rag, especially, I suspect because it uses a lot of polytonal chorale harmonizations which probably reminded him of the religious music he heard growing up in Alabama. He concluded with the words, “All us ragtime crazies need to stick together.”
And inside this big square package was a vinyl LP by Donald! It was the first release of Sunshine and Shadow, which had a number of his rags on it, and he included a couple of scores that were on the album. I didn’t know what to expect from it, but I took it home, and put it on the record player. From the first moments, I was captured. I think the first piece was called Request, which I thought was lovely, but then there was Saratoga Rag (remember? Sa-ra-to-ga! Sa-ra-to-ga!) followed by Sunday Night, Manhattan. I was absolutely entranced by the last piece, I thought it was just so original. So after sending a cassette copy to my father in New Zealand (who thought it was amazing, too), I immediately wrote back to Donald, and told him I thought it was stunning and requested more scores. Once again, I didn’t expect to hear back.
I then received a letter from him dated August 14, 1991, telling me that he didn’t play Sunday Night, Manhattan anymore, but that the piece would enter his head at unusual times like when he’s on a subway late at night in the city or walking around. He wrote, “I think it works as a security blanket when I have apprehens[ions] of danger!” I wrote back and told him I would like to learn more of his work to play them in concert, and that my father was equally enthusiastic. He wrote back on August 31: “Your fine letter…arrived during a hot, humid, bleak, stuck, ozon’d dismal period and cheered me up. All thanks! Now, the clouds have rolled away and I am once again amongst the living!”
I quickly started to learn Sunday, Night Manhattan. It’s not an easy piece with its constant walking bass tenths in the left hand. The only time he ever disagreed with any of my performances of his work was the first time I performed it, when he said it was a bit too fast. But Donald told me that I was the only other person ever to have played it.
It was shortly thereafter, that he sent me a cassette copy of On The Highwire, which I discussed a few paragraphs previously. Along with it was his typed liner notes to the album and the pieces, cut to roughly the size of a CD, and held together by some string with a bow on it. I leafed through the notes while listening to pieces, and thought it was all absolutely masterful, both in concept and compositionally. By this stage, Donald and I had been talking on the phone and he had told me of the unfortunate state of affairs where he was not able to retrieve the DAT originals to the album. I asked for scores of several of the pieces, which he thereafter provided me.
One of the pieces was called Perdido Bay Moon Rag, along with a delightful drawing which Donald created for the cover. According to Donald’s story of the piece, a childhood friend of his, Edith Zelnicker, asked Donald to write a piece by that name, which he did. Thereafter, it stayed in plain sight on her piano for years. Apparently, Edith complained it was too hard to play. Edith then eventually died, and Donald stayed in her home to visit her husband, and saw the piece still on the piano, after which he decided to write a completely new piece by that name. This is the rag which appears on Donald’s recording. In the second section, you can hear Donald singing, “I – See – E – dith – Dan – cing – to – Per-did-o Bay Moon Rag.” I just thought this was so original and imaginative, having this short refrain sung in an otherwise instrumental rag.
I have not been able to find out very much about Edith, but an obituary in 1985 discusses how she had a huge influence on Mobile, and worked for the Friends of the Library, and several arts organizations. 71 Not many are lucky enough to be immortalized in a piece of music by Donald Ashwander.
It was also around about the end of 1991 that I remember having a conversation with some of my composition student colleagues at the U of I about trying to come up with titles for pieces which were as outrageous as possible. Most of the titles my colleagues came up with are, unfortunately, unprintable. Mine, however, was Voodoo Queen. I had recently visited New Orleans, and had happened upon the history of Marie Levaux, the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. It was probably a bit arrogant of me, but I contacted Donald and asked him whether he would like to write a collaborative rag with me (both of us admired the rag, Brass Knuckles, by Williams Bolcom and Albright). To my surprise and delight, Donald said, “Yes!” and we agreed that he would compose the first two sections. In a letter dated December 13, 1991, Donald enthused that would come “…up with something rather dark and Congo-Square-like [to] suggest the drama.” In that letter, Donald had included his cassette for On The Highwire. In his letter of January 25, 1992, he concludes with: “I’m into the second theme of Voodoo Queen. I hope to finish my part in the next few days. I’ll get it off to you with several comments soon.”
I remember getting his portion shortly thereafter. I remember looking at it, and not knowing what to think, as it wasn’t what I expected. So I played through it. And I still wasn’t sure. I kept learning it until I could play I properly. Then I realized it was perfect. I usually take a long time to write music, but this time, it seemed to write itself. It didn’t hurt of course, that I had two great first sections, and that I could base my last two sections on the previous melodic material, and do things like inversions, augmentations, diminutions, changing intervals, and other melodic modifications.
I think Donald was equally confused when he received my part of the rag! But eventually I sent him a cassette of a performance I had done, including the theatre aspect, wherein the pianist slaps themselves in the neck and screams at one point as if they had been stabbed by a large, imaginary pin! We even had it performed by Lia Jensen (now Dr. Lia Jensen-Abbott, a professor at Albion College), who was just starting her piano career, when she was a junior student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I think she did a great job.
I asked Lia to remind me as to how she came to be playing the piece: “I think…my teacher had decided she wanted her studio to perform contemporary music, so I believe she put out a call for scores. I know she received a large number of them (this was before the electronic age, mind you), and we found ourselves sitting on her studio floor with a bunch of scores. She said to all of us, “pick a piece.” I looked through and played through many and [Voodoo Queen]…was just something that spoke to me. So, that’s really how I came upon your[s and Donald’s] music. It might not be the juiciest of stories, but there was something that stood out to me about the piece. I love ragtime, I loved the concept of a voodoo queen, and I loved the little avant-garde insertions as well.” Eventually, I, with Donald’s permission, included it as part of a set of five ragtime pieces.
Over the next couple of years, we kept exchanging letters and phone calls often. Every time I had a concert (and I even sent him some recordings of some pretty heady contemporary music, including Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues – which Donald loved!) he gushed and expressed great interest. There wasn’t a recording or piece of music I sent him in which he wasn’t interested. He would often describe his reactions in great detail. He was an incredibly engaged person and musician. I even sent him copies of some of my short stories (which didn’t get published for another 30 years), one of which, a parody of Voltaire, he expressed great delight over. No one else seemed to get it, but Donald “got” it. He also expressed great interest in the rags of Robin Frost long before I sent him a copy of my first album which featured those works. And on October 17, 1992, he sent me a great letter about whether or not he felt influenced by William Faulkner. (The answer was no). And he sent it from The Ritz Hotel in Taipei, Taiwan. How many people get a letter from Taiwan? (Unless you live nearby, of course…)
In August, 1993, I was slated to attend the wedding of distant relatives in New York. I wrote to Donald, in the hopes that we might be able to physically meet for the first time. He expressed hopefulness, and said he really wanted to show me around New York, which he described as “this crazy place.” I had hopes of meeting him at Gramercy’s – a Manhattan restaurant where they had amazing rice pudding; or being able to find out what a Stinger tasted like – as I knew that was one of his favourite drinks. Unfortunately, on exactly the same weekend of the wedding, he had a performance of his music in Upstate New York (I believe it was at the West Kortright Centre in the Catskills, about four hours from Manhattan), and was dependent upon others for transportation, so we couldn’t meet. No problem, I thought to myself. There’s plenty of time.
In a letter which I wrote to Donald which I recently found, dated June 23 1994, I discovered that I actually told him in writing that I thought he was the one of the most consistently interesting contemporary ragtime composers, along with Bolcom, Albright, and Morath, and that I wanted to perform more of his work. Going through all these materials for the first time in decades, I was glad that I actually told him that.
On August 4, 1994, Donald is again encouraging, and writes to me that he knew Rudi Blesh and Eubie Blake would have appreciated my work, and asks me to say hello to Galen for him. He expresses interest in The New England Ragtime Festival in which I was to perform, and he wishes it will be a huge success: “A Woodstock of Ragtime.” He also discusses buying a new Yamaha YPP35 Keyboard, although I’m not certain why he decided to change keyboards for the “Bags” at that time.
During this time, he told me of his plans to re-release a couple of vinyl LPs under the Premier label. 72 He was unhappy about having to spend so much of his own money to re-release them, but he was very eager to have a compact disc release with some kind of decent distribution. 73
But a little before that, I had used my first album as a very swept-up audition tape to try and do what I had originally wanted to do: release an album of contemporary piano ragtime. If I recall correctly, the producer who agreed to release my idea, Julian Rice, came up with the title, The Graceful Ghost: Contemporary Piano Rags. The distributor had liked the concept so much that they agreed to pay half the production costs, which never happened to me again. And on that first, 1994 edition on the Mastersound label, I included two rags by Donald: Sunday Night, Manhattan, and Empty Porches. 74
As soon as it was released, I sent a copy to Donald. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had hoped that he would like it. In that same letter dated June 17, 1994, I opened the envelope – and it was like rainbows and sunflowers filled the room. First words: “CONGRATULATIONS!! What a beautiful record.” He continued, “It is, for me, the most varied ragtime record that has come out in more than a quarter of a century – since THEY ALL PLAYED RAGTIME on Jazzology in the 1960s.” He went on to say it proved Rudi Blesh’s thesis that ragtime is a type of classical music, that ragtime was an Art, and that it was in direct opposition to most of the festivals “as they now stand.” He stated that he felt that many of them operate on the level of a “baseball [card] trading convention,” because they focused too much on the past, and that many exemplified the collector mentality. He also states that while he is a collector himself, he couldn’t allow his interest in collecting to overshadow the music. He then went on to discuss every piece in great detail and what he liked about them. I couldn’t believe the positivity of the response.
With the exception of Max Morath, no one else had ever had so many good things to say about my work. Or any good things at all, most of the time. But that was Donald. He was never afraid to give credit where he felt credit was due.
Donald had generously given me copies of his records, and more scores than I could remember. I felt that the least I could do in return was to offer him a copy of my album with his two works. But I was literally drowning in student loan repayments and the payment to the distributor. So I politely asked some of the other composers on the album whether they might be able to please buy a copy. Galen wrote back immediately and requested several copies and was polite and good-natured about it. But I wrote to Donald telling him what I had done and requested that he please not to tell anyone else that I had given him a copy. Unfortunately, this was way back in the prehistoric, pre-email cave days, so my request to Donald did not get to him before Donald was his usual wonderful self and telephoned one of the composers out of the blue to tell them how amazing he thought their rag was. When the person concerned (who was quite a wealthy individual) accidentally found out that Donald had been given a copy and they had not, the person Donald called exploded in a violent rage at Donald. I couldn’t have felt worse about the situation.
Donald’s response, I guess, should not have surprised me. He did not take it personally. He responded with calm, and he actually stood up for me and said that the probable reason was that I had massive student loans and production costs, and couldn’t afford to send copies to everyone. No one had ever really stood up for me before. Actually, a professor had, once before, about three years previously. But that was it.
In his letter of July 24, 1994, Donald mentions the program of Lia Michelle Jensen (who performed Voodoo Queen in Nebraska), and how much he enjoyed it. Also, how he had thought of the piece and how it represents the New Orleans of his imagination, and not the touristy quality of the place, and how much he really didn’t like the “Quarter” at all because of that. Slightly later on, Donald would send me a photo of himself by the water in New Orleans. On the back of the photo, he had scrawled the words, On the Levee. What a lovely way to remember Donald.
On August 30, 1994, Donald waxes philosophical and quotes Stephen Crane’s work to me. He also praises a recording of Gary Smart’s ragtime performances which I sent to Donald. He writes about while he is sometimes disappointed in the unfortunate behavior of others, he tries not to dwell on it; further, that although he, also, can be moody as well, that he tries very hard not to take it out on others.
In his letter of September 16, 1994, he discusses how much he also enjoyed the book, Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, and how some of his friends in Alabama knew many of the people in the book. He also starts to become more encouraging to me. For instance, he says, “Fame and Glory are hardly a definition of life despite all the crap pumped out by the media to the contrary.” He keeps emphasizing that despite his own struggles making a living, he tries to keep his focus on the music. The rewards, he says, are that when, the previous winter, he had heard his songs sung and performed at the Manhattan School of Music, both teachers and students came up to congratulate him. Further, that they were beautifully played, and that his decision to “follow the tune” was the correct direction he took in life. We had also talked on the phone, and Donald told me that he had really wanted to go to the New England Ragtime festival, but that he was in rehearsals with the “Bags,” and he just simply couldn’t get away.
On October 15, 1994, he talks about how he enjoyed a cassette I sent him by jazz pianist Jeff Barnhart (his first, I believe), whom I had met at the New England Ragtime Festival which was fantastically organized by Galen Wilkes. I had told Donald that I thought it was much better than other festivals I had seen, in that (a) I had actually participated, and (b) the audience seemed interested in the music rather than predetermined notions. Donald expresses gratitude that the response I received to my playing was better than usual. Also, that he had a Southern friend arriving from Bangkok who had requested a “Southern Dinner” and so he had to go and clean his apartment and get things ready and that he would play my Graceful Ghost CD during dinner.
A few days after the date of that letter, Donald spoke to me by phone. He said had enjoyed the materials I had sent him from Galen’s festival. He told me that he had read about pianist Sue Keller, and continued by saying, “Says here that she lives in Brooklyn and plays modern ragtime pieces. I thought she might be interested in looking at mine.” I replied that I couldn’t speak for Sue, but that I would contact Galen and get her address for him. I remember him asking me for my advice on electronic keyboards as he was not particularly happy with the one he was using. While it was inordinately flattering that he would ask my advice for anything, I had to admit that at that time, I knew almost nothing about them.
I do remember being a bit curt with him that day. I think it was because I felt embarrassed and guilty about the situation into which I had inadvertently put him, and the vitriol which had been directed towards him as a result. I felt that I had let him down, and worried that I had strained our friendship.
For almost a couple of weeks, I kept thinking that I really should phone him back right away and apologize profusely for being so curt. I really should phone up Galen and find out Sue Keller’s address for Donald. I kept putting it off and putting it off. Then, on Saturday, October 29, 1994, I received the following letter from Max Morath, dated October 26th:
“Dear Matthew –
“Been meaning to write for days – sorry the following prompts me to do it.
“Donald Ashwander died this morning. He was in final rehearsals for the Paper Bag Players, the children’s show he’s been working with for years. I don’t know the details, but what’s to know. He fell over dead. Funeral will be in his hometown of Mobile [Alabama], and there will be a memorial service in NYC to be announced.
“You were thoughtful to send me Jeff B’s [Barnhart’s] tape. It’s dynamite, and I wrote him and told him so –
“All Best, Max 75
I don’t remember much after opening the letter. I did call up Max right away, and asked him for any details. He told me that apparently Donald was in rehearsals for the show which would open on November 1st. He simply got up from the piano stool during a break, fell over, collapsed and died on the spot. I asked Max if he knew what the cause of death was.
“Well, I suppose it could have been an aneurism or a heart attack or something, but what difference does it make, Matthew? He’s dead.”
Max continued, “I hope you don’t think me cruel for saying this, but it’s kind of a blessing it happened the way it did.”
“You mean because it was so quick?”
“Sure. I remember when Bing Crosby died. He had played a game of golf, went to the bar and had a drink, then just keeled over. I don’t think he was a practicing Catholic, but apparently, in the Catholic church they call that kind of death, The Kiss of G-d.”
I don’t remember much else from that day. I do remember sending a letter to Max for him to read at the memorial service which was to be the following week.
I invite the reader to try being an immigrant. It doesn’t really matter from which country you come, or to which country you move, it is never easy. You are falsely accused of everything: from stealing people’s jobs to far, far worse. As a result, being a recent immigrant, I didn’t exactly have a mile-long line of people knocking on my front door eager to be my friend. Anytime life threw its frequent surreal preposterousness at me, I would write or phone Donald. But how could I call up Donald and tell him that I had just lost Donald? It was like all the lights had just suddenly gone out.
Accounts by Those Who Were There
Those who were physically present on October 26th can best tell the reader what happened. Ted Brackett: “I was there when Donald died. It was right before a preview performance. The children were arriving by the bus load but never got off the bus. Technically, it was a rehearsal [where] we would give away free tickets and see how the show was received by a live audience. So, it was late in the rehearsal process. The house hadn’t opened yet and he went back out to the keyboard to practice. Judy Martin was there, and Donald had a heart attack. He was using a new keyboard and he didn’t like it. The keys were lightweight, and it didn’t feel right in his fingers.” 76
Brenda Cummings: “I had left the…[Paper Bag Players]…to try new things, but I was there when Donald died because Judy Martin had [had] an injury, and she had asked me to come back to the company to fill in for her. We had rehearsed for the new show for about a week or so at the studio, and we were at the new Riverbank State Park Community Center (or whatever the building was called) to try it out. The…facility had recently been built over the sewage treatment plant on the Hudson River, between 137th and 145th Streets.
“We did our sound check with Judy directing, and Donald at the harpsichord, on the basketball court where we were going to do the show. I thought he looked very unwell, and his playing had been shaky. We had a few minutes to talk before the show was supposed to begin, so I went over to the harpsichord, and Donald told me about the night before.
“A dear, old friend of his had come to visit [perhaps this was the friend flying in from Bangkok about whom Donald wrote in his final letter to me?], and the two of them had been at Donald’s apartment for dinner and drinks. Donald said that they’d had a wonderful time, playing and listening to music, and that they had eaten a huge, wonderful meal and had consumed many drinks.
“We actors had been sent to the community center’s bathrooms to get into costume after the sound check, and while we were there, Donald had a heart attack. We were alerted, and I ran to the basketball court where we’d set up our show.
“Donald was on the floor, in Judy’s lap. EMS was just coming into the space, and we were told to go back to the bathrooms, but I watched from a doorway as Donald was placed on a gurney and taken to the hospital where we were later told he passed away. It was devastating.” 77
If Donald were still alive, he would be in his 90s. Most people don’t live to be that old. The average life expectancy of American men in 2019 was 78. But am I really being so terribly greedy for wishing he could have spent a little while longer with us? Or at least long enough that I could have met him in person?
The current Music Director for the Paper Bag Players, John Stone, still performs some of Donald’s music for the “Bags,” in addition to his own music. John takes this legacy extremely seriously: “Having grown up watching The Paper Bag Players as a New York City child of the 70s, I was re-introduced to the company as an adult in the mid-1990s when I met Remy Charlip…Remy said he loved my ragtime music and that it would be perfect for The Paper Bag Players who were looking for new composer/musicians after Donald Ashwander’s death in 1994.
“As Music Director and Composer for the Paper Bag Players for over 15 years, I have grown intimately familiar with the musical world Ashwander created, learning firsthand from playing his music on the stage that children (and adults as well) respond viscerally, and with irrepressible glee, to his eminently catchy tunes: there is much dancing and singing from the audience in a typical Bags production.”78
Apparently, Donald was aware of the re-release of some of his material a few days before he died as there was an opened box of compact discs from Premier recordings found in his apartment.
A few months after Donald died, I realized that he had never had the chance to release his Magnum Opus; namely, his compact disc of On The Highwire. It was with a renewed sense of urgency that I decided to re-record most of his album for him.
Back at that time, I usually found it best to perform pieces for an audience before recording them. I don’t know why, but it usually helped me to determine what might work best and to what effects people might best respond. I was fortunate in that Rosalinde Davis, a presenter and librarian at the Rolling Meadows Public Library in the Chicago suburbs, booked me to play a concert of Donald’s music on Sunday, January 11, 1998 at 2.00 p.m. They usually booked classical concerts, often musicians from the Lyric Opera, so this was a big deal for both me and Donald. I played eleven of his pieces, and ended the program with Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. I don’t remember why, exactly, it may have been suggested that I play at least one thing the audience would immediately recognize. I guess it was a big risk on their part booking a complete program of a composer relatively unknown in the Midwest. I do remember that the concert venue was mostly full, and the response was appreciative.
At any rate, I was sick with the influenza so bad that I literally couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks during the last two weeks of December, 1997. Yet, I somehow managed to practice Donald’s pieces up again in two weeks, and play them in concert. I remember hacking my lungs out in between the pieces while talking about them.
Then, about two weeks before recording Donald’s music in March, 1998, I accidentally ripped up part of my right index finger, while running to work. Fortunately, it healed a few days later, and I could practice the pieces again.
I drove from Elgin, Illinois (where I used to live) all the way out to DeKalb, Illinois (about an hour behind the wheel) to the music department of Northern Illinois University because that was the only place I could find a decent piano and venue for the recording. The engineer with whom I collaborated, Rex Anderson (who, at that time, worked in Champaign-Urbana, and would apparently go to the ends of the Earth for me to record any number of albums I created), met me there. We set up the recording equipment, and things were going well for the first couple of Donald’s pieces. Then the piano went out of tune. We had to wait for the piano tuner, who fortunately, showed up quickly and fixed the problem. We recorded another couple of pieces. Then Rex’s microphones, through no fault on his part, stopped working.
At that point, I tried very, very hard not to have a nervous breakdown. I called a friend, who was a professor at NIU, and explained the situation. He very kindly called another professor who owned some transistor mics. They arrived in about a half hour. Another miracle. So we recorded a number of other pieces.
The distributor for the Mastersound label, who had released my previous compact discs, had deleted and destroyed all of my recordings for no good reason which I could see, but at least the producer at Mastersound, Julian Rice, sold all the rights back to me for $1 per compact disc before he quit the business. I had already released several of Donald’s pieces through Mastersound, so I decided to recycle those recordings to complete my Donald Ashwander compact disc. I was so rattled, and so exhausted that I could only record eleven of the numbers on the disc on that day. But at least everything I needed was “in the can.”
Rex was one of the most level-headed individuals, if not the most level-headed person I’ve ever met. The only time I ever saw him get even slightly annoyed was when we did this recording. But he wasn’t annoyed because of all the disasters which had befallen us; he was upset because the relatively inexpensive transistor mics we used to finish the project sounded almost as good as the astronomically expensive valve microphones of his own which had broken down that day!
Judy Ashwander Moore, the Executrix of Donald’s estate was extremely helpful to me in allowing me to use Donald’s original liner notes for that CD release.
I then tried to interest a number of different companies, but no one would release it. Some of the responses I received I felt were quite unprofessional.
Finally, I released a couple of albums through Capstone Records in Brooklyn (the same borough in which Donald used to live!) and Capstone’s producer agreed to release my version of On The Highwire, even though it cost me thousands of dollars of my own money. That is, sadly, the norm. But it was extremely important to me to preserve my good friend’s extraordinary ragtime and ragtime-related music for posterity.
There were a couple of reviews. One raved about Donald’s work: “…And does Ashwander have an inventive voice of his own!” 79 Another said, “…some good melodies are hinged together and the pianist makes especially effective sense of the sometimes roughly crafted score.” 80 I am going to have to gently disagree with the last one, as in my opinion, there were few musicians of whom I know that had greater intentionality than Donald. His ragtime scores, in most respects, are the most precise which I have ever played. But I will address this in more detail later on.
And after those reviews, there was not a lot of interest in the recording. Capstone Records was eventually sold to another company, and what was left of the inventory was shipped back to me. Some of the boxes were lost when my wife and I moved from Montreal to Nova Scotia.
Although I knew nothing about it until about a year ago, I discovered that New World Records, in 2012, has since re-released most of Donald’s recordings, including his own rendition of On The Highwire, twelve years after the release of my version. I am grateful that Donald’s family located the original recordings and arranged a release on a two-compact disc format.
The Influence of Southern Culture on Donald’s Work
Writer William Ferris has stated the following: “The South is a land of talkers whose stories are as old as the region itself. We tell stories at home, on the street, in settings familiar to every southerner. Our stories transport the listener, like a leaf turning on water, into another world. The story is the inescapable net that binds southerners together.” lxxxi
One of many reasons why On The Highwire needed to be released is because not only is Donald’s music extraordinary, but in order to appreciate it to the fullest, the listener needs to be aware of the stories behind the pieces. And this is part and parcel of Southern culture. Just as an example, the story behind one of Donald’s pieces which I recorded, Empty Porches, concerns Donald’s return to his old Southern neighborhood as an adult. Instead of kids playing in the dirt roads, and hearing the tinkling of ice in glasses, and the squeaking of swings, Donald notes: “The summer night was now defined by the steady hum of air conditioners and the flickering lights of television through sealed windows.” The music, appropriately, is both joyful and tragic. And Business in Town is a musical depiction of the time he spent on a farm with his mother’s family. 82
That being said, in his correspondence with me, Donald was honest about his dislike of some individuals in the South who refused to let go of the past and held racist and extremist views. 83
Brenda Cummings: “In my opinion, everything about Donald was about his Southern identity. Donald certainly kept himself informed and open to all kinds of music, but Donald was deeply influenced by the music of his Southern childhood, Ragtime music, and the music of the South.” 84
I suspect that is why Donald responded so positively to the early jazz and jug band recordings I sent him – because it was part of his youth in the South. It was part of mine, as well, even though I grew up thirty years after he did, and twelve thousand miles away.
Why are Donald’s piano rags so important to the history of music?
I am not qualified to speak of Donald’s music for the Paper Bag Players, but what I have heard seems eminently suitable and theatrical. I am equally not qualified to discuss his songs. By his own admission, many of them were written when he had not found his true “voice.” Regardless, a few I think a mind-blowing – for example, Daybreak in Alabama, his setting of a poem by Langston Hughes, is absolutely heart-breakingly beautiful. 85
Galen Wilkes: “Donald had his own voice and way of writing. I always think of Friday Night and Business in Town. They’re wonderful pieces and have unique, complex bass lines. Challenging for sure but still melodic and appealing.” 86
Donald’s piano rags were different from all others in many respects. For a start, Donald’s intense training in the repertoire of the classical piano virtuosi is reflected in his scores. In Sunday Night, Manhattan, for instance, in the second to last section, as an ornament to some notes he uses a baroque (read: Johann Sebastian Bach, etc.) ornament over the melody a few times – it is written as something called a trillo. No other ragtime work reflects the baroque era in the same fashion. And with this, he combines an almost constant “walking bass” in tenths in the left hand, emulating patterns used by James P. Johnson or Eubie Blake. How many other composers combine techniques by Bach and Eubie Blake in the same piece? I know of none.
In at least two of Donald’s rags (Perdido Bay Moon Rag, and The Brooklyn Stop and Start), one finds a vocal reprise – short but clear. I know of no other ragtime composer who ever did this. I just thought these touches were so clever and so imaginative.
In most, but not all, of Donald’s rags, there was a story behind the composition of it. One doesn’t need to know the story behind them, but to do so improves one’s understanding and appreciation of the rags immeasurably. This was related to both Donald’s Southern heritage and his literary interests. The stories themselves are, frankly, quite literary the way Donald tells them. And they have nothing to do with ancient history; they are all, in some way, related to Donald’s own personal experiences. This was, for the most part, unprecedented, because other “modern” ragtime composers used stories from ancient ragtime history as a basis for their composition, rather than their own lives.
Another way in which I found Donald’s rags very “edgy” was the way in which they never conventionally cadenced. Not to get too technical, but a cadence is the end of a musical sentence. It is usually very clear, and it is very obvious when a section of a piece of conventional music, or the entire conventional piece of music ends. It is like – This – Is – The – End.
However, Donald’s rags were rarely conventional and most of them do not sound like there is a clear ending but it sort of sometimes you know goes on when you think that maybe it should be ending but it doesn’t and then you know you know something might it might possibly give the signal that it’s going to end clearly but then it doesn’t you know you know and it goes it goes on a bit longer than you think but maybe sometimes it might end but
The above paragraph is an example of “stream of consciousness” writing for which author William Faulkner was famous. But it’s difficult to see exactly when the phrase ends in the above paragraph, and it is done intentionally. That is probably the best analogy I can make. So, perhaps Donald was either not correct or unaware that Faulkner’s work had influenced him, because I posit that it did.
And finally, while most academic musicians, to my knowledge, are relatively certain that it is not possible to be innovative when using tonality, I would disagree. To take an analogy from painting, many art critics would posit that beyond abstract art, it is not possible to be innovative. I believe that some of Salvador Dali’s paintings are innovative, because they take the context of realism, then bend it out of shape and destroy our expectations. For example, Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (probably his most famous painting), sets up a context of realism by having clearly painted rock cliffs, with water, and a fairly realistic rock with a tree on top of it with only branches and no leaves. Within that context, Dali places melting clock faces, his own face heavily disguised, with another melting clock on top of it. Our expectations are thwarted by what is strange in context to the realistic parts of the painting. For those who wish to see the original, it is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and is really quite a tiny painting. Another thwarted expectation.
“Modern” composers who write interesting ragtime, are, in my opinion, somewhat analogous to Dali in one respect: they create a context, then they thwart our expectations. Donald did this in the following ways:
Firstly, the melodies that he used are so-called “simple” melodies. But simple, with Donald, is never simplistic or simple-minded. The simplicity is the originating context. Underneath the simple melodies are often countermelodies, counterpoint, virtuoso bass lines in the left hand and a general abandonment of the octave-chord march pattern, and large chords in the right hand, amongst other things.
Secondly, within a “simple” context, you will find harmonies which do not exist in early ragtime works, such as false relation (such as a major third in one hand and a minor in the other). In the third section of Old Streets, you will find major and minor sevenths in the same bar. If I, or some other constipated academic composer was writing the piece, we would say, “That’s against the rules!” and not do it. But frankly my dear, Donald didn’t give a damn, and his music is all the better for it.
In some of his rags, like Friday Night, there are a lot of dynamic (i.e. loud and soft) markings. It makes me feel frustrated when I hear performances where the piece is played fortissimo all the way through, because that was very clearly not Donald’s intention.
Other pieces, like Sunday Night, Manhattan, have absolutely no dynamic markings at all, and I love it, because it gives the performer greater freedom (this is something we encounter in much baroque music, as well, like that of J. S. Bach). In Donald’s interpretation he does a bit of a “swell” or “hairpin” dynamic in the introduction. I try to exaggerate it a little in my recording of it. My playing is very different from Donald’s: his left hand was much lighter than mine, but you can hear the booming Lisztian bass in mine. Regardless, he told me that if and when he re-learnt Sunday Night, Manhattan, my performance would be a great influence on his own. 87
Donald would sometimes change things completely from the score when he played them. In the last section of Saratoga Rag, Donald changes the broken chord pattern to accented full chords in the right hand, à la Eubie Blake. lxxxviii And in the second section of Sunday Night, Manhattan, Donald changes where the grace notes appear and in the first section he changes the rhythms of the right hand, as well. Donald told me over the phone that he had no problem with my changing his scores, too.
The opening of Saratoga is open octaves. Most composers would think to write melodies one octave apart (much as Scott Joplin does in the introduction to The Easy Winners), but Donald breaks convention by making the notes two octaves apart. And if you listen to his performance of the first four bars, you will hear Donald playing the left hand legato (smooth) while the right hand plays exactly the same thing two octaves above but staccato (i.e. the notes are clearly separate). It is a level of subtlety that only someone who had studied intensely to be a piano virtuoso would think of.
After the first four bars on the recording of Saratoga Rag, as discussed, you can hear Donald saying “Sa-ra-to-ga!” His voice has been electronically filtered so it sounds like a crooner from the 1920s speaking through a small acoustic megaphone. This is the sort of thing which producer George Martin did with the Beatles, and this also had never been done on a ragtime album before.
With Max Morath’s first four Vanguard albums, ragtime albums had never before been given appropriate seriousness. Max was trying to escape the proliferation of albums with out of tune pianos, and he did so completely with those four albums. He even had a banjo player with classical lute training, Jim Tyler. It was completely necessary at that time to give ragtime the same level of conscientiousness and musical seriousness and depth as any classical music album.
But Donald’s irrepressible, wacky sense of humor could not help but come through his music and his albums. In addition, whether he was able to articulate it or not, both the original LP issue of Sunshine and Shadow and On The Highwire were concept albums, which had never been done before in the history of ragtime recording. For instance, On the Highwire is an album of rags and rag-related pieces which derive from his life stories, many of which came from the American South. It’s kind of a modern ragtime history which is both self-referential and referential to others in his life.
On my version of On The Highwire, I tried to put as much of myself as possible into it (“Make the piece your own,” as Eubie Blake would have it). I add a lot of ornaments, move up and down the octave during repeats, I change the shape of my hands and fingers to radically change the type of sound the piano produces, and in one of the last sections of Waterloo Rag, during the repeat, I change the left hand part to have the same octave-octave-chord, octave-octave-chord pattern which is not in Donald’s piece, but what Eubie Blake wrote in his rag, Troublesome Ivories. In Business in Town, I make absolutely certain that the second last note in the left hand is played loud enough that you can hear it above the other chords, and the sound extends until the final chord, which I don’t think had ever been done before.
In New Zealand, my teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher was Franz Liszt, who invented modern piano technique and the modern piano solo concert in the mid-nineteenth century. The level of subtlety with which I was taught is the sort of thing which I believe ragtime has needed for a long time, and Donald’s level of subtlety, I believe, was and is a perfect match for my own. I am confident that Donald would have approved of how I recorded his rags.
And why hasn’t Donald’s music been performed more often? The best reasons are the most obvious: it is not commercial, does not fit into any regular musical category, it is innovative, it is not simplistic, and it is almost always horrendously difficult to play.
Before I started this article, I thought that Donald had established no “school” of composers, however, inadvertently, I think he may have. My first three piano rags were all influenced by techniques used by “classical” composers from the 1910s to the 1930s – whereas the harmony of most rags from the 1900s use harmonies from the early to mid 1800s. But from Voodoo Queen on, most if not all of the rags I wrote do seem to be inspired by events in my own life from New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, even though my musical style is much different from Donald’s. Galen is less convinced of Donald’s influence on him: “I would say for the most part, no. I did specifically write a rag once after Donald’s style. The left hand was as busy as the right. Very difficult. As for other rags which reflect part of my own life and past, I would say that came in shortly after I began composing, within a few years. I knew that other rags were written about streets, places, towns, etc. and I began to explore that. I can’t attribute that to Donald. It is partly a tradition of ragtime’s history…” 89 So…maybe a “school” of 1½ (or 1¼) rather than two? Perhaps my joke is belabored at this point.
Why was Donald such an extraordinary individual?
Biographer Gerald Clarke, in talking about author Truman Capote (who, like Donald, also grew up in Alabama), said that towards the end of Capote’s life in 1984, Capote once said to him, “There’s the one and only T.C. There’s never been anybody like me and there ain’t gonna be anybody like me again.” Much the same could be said of Donald, who was also a complete American original.
Clarke also said of Capote, “He was fascinated by people…it was as if you were the most important person in the world.” However, from what I have read, it is my belief that Capote did this as a manipulation. That is, he told sad stories about his life to get other people to open up and tell him their stories so that he could use the stories of others in his own writing. 90
Donald was the polar opposite of this. He had absolutely no ulterior motives whatsoever. To the greatest possible extent, what you saw with Donald is what you got. He was the real deal.
By the same token, it would completely dishonor the man to claim that he had no faults. Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Perfection is inhuman. Human beings are not perfect. What evokes our love––and I mean love, not lust––is the imperfection of the human being.” 91
Campbell also said: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that we are seeking an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” 92
Donald was gloriously and adorably imperfect. He had his cantankerous moments. He could imbibe too much on occasion. He was a chain smoker. 93 He would sometimes like to shock others with his dark sense of humor which occasionally bordered on being ribald. And shortly before his death, he confided in some friends that his doctor had told him that he had probably had a series of small strokes over the years. 14
Quite often, when the world is hard on us, we wind up taking it out on ourselves. My experience is that Donald treated others better than he treated himself. Donald had had a really, really hard life, in many respects.
Brenda Cummings, once more: “I loved Donald’s accent, and I often wondered how someone with an ear for music, (often associated with an ear for language) could possibly have continued to have a thick southern accent after all the years he’d lived in New York. Many of us discussed the possibility that Donald was always acting and that he used his accent for the role. Who knows? It would have been quite a feat. I ultimately didn’t really care. I loved Donald even when he was grumpy, judgmental, and given to mispronunciations and malapropisms. I loved how he’d refer to things as thangs, pronounce Hawaii, HAIwaii, and how he’d often look you piercingly in the eye and say, I know you.” 95
For certain, Donald’s personality was very different from that of most people, and differences are rarely tolerated well in most cultures. In fact, I don’t know of any culture in the world which doesn’t place some social pressure on its members to conform. And the music in which he was most interested (ragtime) was not exactly looked upon as being cool by most people. And sadly, when someone is quite literally overflowing with talent, as Donald was, this often inspires great jealousy in others.
Another of his friends told me, “Donald always knew he was different. And he was proud of it. He [once] said ‘…ever since I was riding my tricycle in a dress around the school I knew I was different…’ He thought a lot of people were boring.”96 Donald was extremely human. In fact, he was the most human human being I never met.
So to relate this to Joseph Campbell’s statement earlier, Donald’s imperfections are part of what made him loveable. Add to those imperfections, his sense of right from wrong (less common than you’d hope); his love of the strange and unusual (he liked to send me unusual postcards – he once sent me one with a picture on the front of the Wizard of Ooze!); his deliciously wicked sense of humor; his acceptance of difference and differences in others; and his willingness to be open-minded about almost everything, especially different types of music and literature…and you have a human being who was not afraid to be alive. Way too many people merely exist their lives and have nothing to show for it at the end. In addition to not being afraid to admitting to life’s inherent painfulness, he also reveled in its joys with great intensity:
“Someone gave me a beautiful home-grown tomatoes today, and I am going to gorge myself on bacon, tomato, and lettus [sic] sandwiches tonight. There are good things about the summer.” 97
“It’s 90 degrees here today and humid! My sunflowers in the garden seem to like it though. One must be 13 feet tall with mammoth blooms. Like something out of a fairy tale!” 98
In this respect, Donald was on a different spiritual plane from most of us. Those who were so outrageously blessed to know him could experience firsthand a sense of someone truly being alive – something about which most human beings dare not aspire or dream, for fear of being different. In addition, he was blessed with an unusual self-knowledge, which could also inspire jealousy from those who have no such desire.
In the Bhagavat Gita, there is, I believe, an aphorism that ostensibly says it is not the results of one’s actions that should be measured, but one’s efforts instead. In other words – do the right thing. Donald was never afraid to do the right thing, either creatively, nor in his relationships with his friends. He gave of himself one thousand percent to those about whom he cared – and it is clear that he treated all of his friends equally well. And that is as rare as hen’s teeth.
Donald was so singularly focused on the music, that he attained a level of creative expertise unknown to most. But it didn’t come easily. He struggled for years and years and focused on the process rather than the result, so that when that end result actually arrived, it initially almost took him by surprise. But instead of using that extraordinary ability to sow spite and injury, he arranged for that knowledge to bestow upon him a kind of inner peace that allowed him to appreciate the good work of others without it somehow being a denigration of his own abilities. Way too many people operate on a zero-sum mentality: if someone gets recognition, well it must be taking some away from me! But Donald never thought that way. He was the most inwardly secure individual I ever knew. And with that security came undying loyalty. If you were Donald’s friend, you were his friend come hell or high water. This article is an expression of loyalty to my friend.
Part of me was concerned about what I might find out about Donald in doing this research. So…he never finished his degree. So flipping what? Some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met (like my father) never even got through high school, and some of the biggest fools I’ve ever encountered have doctoral degrees. If anything, I am prouder of Donald than ever, learning about all these prodigious things he accomplished about which I never even knew; all that he suffered; and how in spite of all, he somehow mastered himself to remain such an incredibly good person. No, he never had great wealth, great fame, power, glory, etc., but like he said to me these are, frankly, stupid measures of the person. The human race needs to seriously re-evaluate what constitutes someone important. In my view, there were or are few people in this world more important than Donald.
The External vs. The Internal
The Theravada school of Buddhism holds that many external things which are ephemeral, such as material possessions, should be of the least importance to us, because eventually we will lose everything. And many of Donald’s piano rags were inspired by loss – e.g. the loss of a friend or of a situation. For Donald, that loss was mitigated by the creation of something beautiful. Our loss of Donald, too, can also be mitigated, but by the realization of something beautiful.
In some sense, looking at his life externally, we might see material things, but it is not going to satisfy a genuine, earnest search. Perhaps, by looking inwardly, our search for Donald Ashwander might be made complete. In fact, by doing so, it is possible to recognize that Donald is, in fact, still with us.
For every time that you open up your arms and welcome someone who is unfairly ostracized, Donald is still with us. Whenever you stand up for someone else who is being treated abusively, then Donald is still with us. If someone screams at you in anger and vitriol, and you don’t take it personally and respond with calm and compassion, then Donald is still with us. If you show a sense of child-like wonder at small or beautiful things, then Donald is still with us. When you take a genuine interest in others, with no strings attached, and are secure enough in your own self and abilities to give sincere and enthusiastic praise to others, then Donald is still with us. Whenever anyone emulates the finer characteristics of Donald’s warm, loving personality, then Donald’s soaring spirit lives and breathes again, and the whole world is made a better place.
I – see – Do – nald – playing Sunday Night, Manhattan.
Campbell, Joseph, with Moyers, Bill, The Power of the Myth, Doubleday, 1988
Ferris, William, The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists, The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Parchem, Georga Larsen, The Paper Bag Players, A Theatre For Children, 1958 – 1982: Development, Creative Process, and Principles (Dissertation presented for partial fulfillment of the Doctor of Philosophy Degree in the Graduate School of The Ohio State University), 1983.
One can never thank Librarians or Archivists enough. Unfortunately, space prohibits me from thanking the following individuals more than once.
Firstly, were it not for the extraordinary efforts of Valerie Ellis, Library Associate, Mobile Public Library Local History and Genealogy Division in Alabama, much of this article would not exist, period. She managed to locate a huge trove of information relating to Donald, including almost all the information on his 1961 ballet. In addition, Ms. Ellis assisted me interpreting some of the original census pages. Manager Elizabeth Theris Boone, of The Mobile Public Library Local History and Genealogy Division, Mobile Civic Ballet Collection, gave permission to reprint the images from Donald’s ballet. The photographs were taken by Thigpen Photography in Mobile, which is still in business to this day. My heartfelt thanks.
Secondly, thanks to John K. Stone, Musical Director of the Paper Bag Players, who provided excellent information on the Paper Bag Players, his own work with them, and for giving permission to use all the other photos of Donald associated with this article.
Thirdly, thanks to John K. Blanchard, Institutional Historian and Director of Archives, Manhattan School of Music, provided excellent information and helped resolve a few inconsistencies.
Thanks as well to all the others who helped me: Galen Wilkes, Brenda Cummings, Ted Brackett, Lia Jensen-Abbott, Andy Senior, David Reffkin, Drew Green (Cullman Co. Historical Society), Benjamin Bates (Archive of Recorded Sound, Braun Music Center, Stanford University), and the libraries and librarians of the New York Public Library, The Brooklyn Public Library, Kansas City (MO) Public Library, Alabama State Archives, New Orleans Public Library, and to Mark Hector (Alexander Turnbull / New Zealand National Library).
And last but not least, my patient wife, Shayna, who supported me through this endeavour, and whose suggestions made this article better. Her loyalty is as strong, if not more so, than Donald’s.
1 Four paragraphs of this article are partially based on my previous article, Three Short Years: Life Without Donald Ashwander, The Pianola Quarterly, v.i., n.i., Apr. 1995, but are extensively re-written herein. The rest of this article is comprised of completely new and original material.
3 Ancestry.com, accessed September 2021
5 Ancestry.com, accessed 2021
7 Verified in an email sent to the author on September 16, 2021, by John K. Blanchard, Institutional Historian and Director of Archives at the Manhattan School of Music. Also confirming this date is a screenshot of a Social Security application provided to me by Wallace Community College in Hanceville, AL, dated June, 1949. Two other sources give Donald’s year of birth as 1930, including the Ancestry.com entry of the 1940 census (although the original copy of the census merely gives his age as “10” which might lead to confusion). The other source was Parchem, p. 57. I do not know why Parchem did not do her due diligence. Donald was always truthful and honest with me, so I suspect that what possibly might have happened is that Donald may have stated his age and Parchem might have done the math incorrectly. But I do not know for certain.
8 Non-family members are not allowed by state law to access birth certificate information with the state government of Alabama until 125 years after the birth of the person, so I would not be able obtain a copy of Donald’s birth certificate until the year 2054. Most biographical sources, however, give Birmingham, AL, as his place of birth, and it is also confirmed by the same screenshot mentioned above.
10 Several attempts to locate and communicate with Judy Ashwander Moore, the Executrix of Donald’s estate and his sister, did not result in finding her. I sent an email on September 11, 2021, to Donald’s niece, Sharon K. Moore, asking her to assist me in this article but I never received a response. I also sent an email on October 3, 2021, to Eva Lynn Odom Ashwander, Donald’s other sister, which also went unanswered.
11 https://nwr-site-liner-notes.s3.amazonaws.com/80724.pdf (Online liner notes for Sunshine and Shadow, released through New World Records.
12 I contacted both Sacred Heart College (now Saint Bernard Preparatory school) and Birmingham Southern College, in regard to this article on September 16, 2021. I never received a response.
13 https://www.newspapers.com/image/553759620, The Cullman Tribune, page 8, Hanceville Happenings, October 11, 1945
14 https://www.newspapers.com/image/574044740, The Birmingham News, Miss Evelyn Blackerby Weds Maj. Spraitzar, page 11, February 26, 1946
15 https://www.newspapers.com/image/553789752, The Cullman Tribune, C.M. Keller Buys Ashwander Produce, page 1, February 7, 1946
17 The Cullman Democrat, Music Week Festival At Sacred Heart College, page 5, May 23, 1946, From Newspapers.com
18 https://www.newspapers.com/image/553791305, The Cullman Tribune, Untitled excerpt, page 6, October 31, 1946. The event happened the Saturday before.
19 Letter from Donald Ashwander to the author, dated August 31, 1991, where he states he “‘took’ from an assortment of piano teachers from 4th grade on through five years at Manhattan School of Music.”
20 https://www.newspapers.com/image/553792778, The Cullman Tribune, Hanceville Happenings, page 5, Thursday, July 3, 1947.
21 Letter from Donald Ashwander to the author, dated August 31, 1991. Donald writes that he studied for five years at the Manhattan School of Music, but not the dates
23 Email from John K. Blanchard, Institutional Historian and Director of Archives, Manhattan School of Music, to the author, dated September 24, 2021
24 Email from John Blanchard to Author, dated September 16, 2021
25 Parchem, p. 57. This might be another instance of Parchem not doing her due diligence. She also states that Donald returned to Alabama immediately, which is also not correct.
26 Kansas City Star, Composer’s Ragtime Bent Puts Players’ Rhythm in the Bag: Donald Ashwander has been key to troupe of actors for 25 years, by Robert Trussell, p. 73 (G-17), January 18, 1991
27 Mobile Press Register, Sidewalks of New York: Backstage and Studio, by John Fay, August 25, 1968, p. 7E
28 The Birmingham News, Butterbeans are Delicious, Even in New York, p.81, Section E, Rebecca Franklin, Sunday, July 8, 1962
29 Kansas City Star, Composer’s Ragtime Bent Puts Players’ Rhythm in the Bag: Donald Ashwander has been key to troupe of actors for 25 years, by Robert Trussell, p. 73 (G-17), January 18, 1991
30 https://www.newspapers.com/image/554482201, The Onlooker (Foley, AL), Thursday August 22, 1957
31 Email sent September 20, 2021, to author from Valerie Ellis, Library Associate at the Mobile Public Library
32 Email dated September 20, 2021, from Valerie Ellis, Library Associate, Local History and Genealogy, Mobile Public Library, and Mobile Register, p. 1E, Lawerence Specker, Jazz Musician Ashwander focus of ‘Jazz Jambalaya,’ Friday July 23, 2004
33 https://www.newspapers.com/image/539116316 The Baldwin Times (Bay Minette, AL), Azalea Trail Event Features Baldwin Resident, p. 9, Thursday February 26, 1959
34 Letter from Donald to author, dated June 17, 1994
35 https://www.newspapers.com/image/555288593, The Cullman Tribune, AL, p. 1, Thursday, October 29, 1959
36 Email from Gina Genova, ACA Executive Director, to author, dated September 21, 2021. Gina stated that while she was unfamiliar with Vittorio Giannina, Ben Weber was a former President of ACA, and a wonderful composer, https://composers.com/content/strange-life-ben-weber-roger-trefousse
37 The Mobile Journal, United Fund in Drive in High Gear, p. 1 with photograph of band, Mobile, AL, Friday, October 7, 1960. Ms. Ellis, the Library Associate who sent me this information, informs me that the man conducting the orchestra in the accompanying photograph (Ira Swingle) is none other than her own father!
38 https://www.newspapers.com/image/555142004, The Onlooker (Foley, AL), Thursday Jan. 5, 1961
39 I contacted the Mobile Civic Orchestra on or around September 17, 2021, using their website, to ask if they had any information about Donald’s ballet, or whether they had any scores or recordings. I never received a response
40 Mobile Register, April 11, 1961, John Fay, Ballets Said Best Yet By Company, p. 2D, PDF copy of original courtesy of the Mobile Public Library
41 https://www.newspapers.com/image/555146392 , The Onlooker (Foley, AL), Miss Ann McCue Tours with Mobile Ballet, p. 2, Thursday, November 23, 1961
42 The Birmingham News, Butterbeans are Delicious, Even in New York, p.82, Section E, Rebecca Franklin, Sunday, July 8, 1962
43 https://www.newspapers.com/image/538925056, The Baldwin Times, (Bay Minette, Alabama), p. 8, Thursday October 24, 1963
44 https://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/06/nyregion/anthony-blum-61-dancer-of-unmistakable-style-for-city-ballet.html, Accessed October, 2021
45 Parchem, p. 58. This is the “best” information I have been able to locate. However, seeing as Parchem has not been accurate with a great deal of information so far, it’s not unreasonable to assume that perhaps some of this paragraph is not correct. She states that Donald worked as a “freelance musical editor” from 1960 to 1964, but this conflicts with the information given in his 1962 interview with the Birmingham News, so I corrected it to 1962 to 1964. Parchem also misspells Goodman’s name as “Dodie.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dody_Goodman
46 Rebecca Franklin, Don, Dody are going steady, professionally, The Birmingham News, Sunday, September 4, 1966, clipping provided by The New York Public Library
47 Parchem, Appendix E, p. 470
48 Parchem, p. 76
49 Parchem, p. 99
50 Parchem, p. 105
51 Parchem, p. 102, and https://www.nytimes.com/1979/01/30/archives/museum-plans-dandelion-with-paper-bag-players.html, New York Times, Museum Plans ‘Dandelion’ With Paper Bag Players, January 30, 1979, Section C, p. 10
52 The author emailed Donald’s friend Nurit Tilles in connection with this article on September 12, 2021, but received no response. I similarly contacted his friend Meredith Monk by email on September 11, 2021. Ms. Monk’s Administrative Assistant responded on September 14, by stating the following: “Our available information…pertains to Meredith herself and not necessarily her personal friendships or relationships.” Ms. Monk can be heard in interview in the following podcast discussing Donald: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/soundcheck/episodes/37539-ballads-rags-and-writers
53 Email from Ted Bracket to author, dated October 5, 2021
54 Email from Brenda Cummings to author, dated October 6, 2021
55 Mobile Press Register, Sidewalks of New York: Backstage and Studio, by John Fay, August 25, 1968, p. 7E
56 Times-Picayune (published as THE TIMES-PICAYUNE.) – March 9, 1971 – page 48
57 Times-Picayune (published as THE TIMES-PICAYUNE.) – December 2, 1973 – page 56
60 Letter from Donald to author, dated August 31, 1991
61 Email from Galen Wilkes to author, dated September 12, 2021
62 Email from Galen Wilkes to author, dated October 8, 2021
63 Email from Galen Wilkes to author, dated September 12, 2021
65 Letter written to Galen Wilkes, from Donald Ashwander, Feb. 15, 1986, pg. 1
66 https://www.discogs.com/release/8946621-Donald-Ashwander-Ragtime-A-New-View. In late 1994, the author telephoned Jazzology producer Jon Pult, who assured me that this vinyl LP would be re-released as a CD in mid-1995. The author also emailed Jazzology on October 4, 2021, to enquire as to whether the album had been or would be re-released. I did not receive a response, and to the best of my knowledge, it was never re-released in CD format
67 This is not to be confused with the CD re-issue of Donald’s work through New World Records which was released in 2012
68 I am not going to name the producer involved in this situation as I was not able to locate them for this article, to get their side of the story. I will state, however, that Donald was not the only ragtime composer to be in this situation with this producer.
69 The Mississippi Rag, February 1990, pp. 12 – 13. The author hereby expresses his gratitude to Andy Senior, editor of The Syncopated Times for providing a copy of that interview
70 Kansas City Star, Composer’s Ragtime Bent Puts Players’ Rhythm in the Bag: Donald Ashwander has been key to troupe of actors for 25 years, by Robert Trussell, p. 73 (G-17), January 18, 1991
71 Mobile Register (published as MOBILE PRESS REGISTER) – November 3, 1985 – page 103
72 Donald incorrectly identifies the label as Prestige.
73 Letter from Donald to author, June 17, 1994. The disc was to be released as, Traditional Patterns – Music by Donald Ashwander
74 Please note that when The Graceful Ghost: Contemporary Piano Rags was re-released by Capstone Records in 2007, Donald’s music was not on it, as seven years earlier Capstone had already released my album which consisted entirely of Donald’s music
75 Letter from Max Morath to author, October 26, 1994, used in its entirety, and quotations for the subsequent phone call, by permission of Max Morath, in an email dated September 11, 2021
76 Email from Ted Brackett to author, dated October 4, 2021
77 Email to author from Brenda Cummings dated October 6, 2021
78 Email from John K. Stone to author, dated September 21, 2021
79 American Record Guide, May/June 2001
80 David Reffkin, The Mississippi Rag, October, 2001
81 Ferris, Introduction, p.1
83 Letter from Donald to the author, dated August 18, 1994
84 Email from Brenda Cummings to author, dated October 6, 2021
86 Email from Galen Wilkes to author, dated September 12, 2021
87 Letter from Donald to author, June 17, 1994
89 Email from Galen Wilkes to author, October 17, 2021
90 Gerald Clarke, interviewed for Answered Prayers, a micro documentary from 2005 on the DVD release of Capote, Sony Pictures Classics, produced by the Grossmyth company
92 Campbell with Moyers, p. 5
93 Email from a friend of Donald’s to author dated October 6, 2021. I once found a small hole made by a cigarette in one of Donald’s last letters, and it made me wonder if he had smoked.
95 Email from Brenda Cummings to author, October 6, 2021. As a point of reference, while it is uncommon to not lose an accent, it does happen. I grew up in New Zealand, but everyone thought I was “American,” and I didn’t lose my accent. When I moved back to Toronto, everyone thought I was “British.”
96 Email to author from another of Donald’s friends, dated October 6, 2021
97 Letter from Donald to author, August 30, 1994
98 Letter from Donald to author, August 14, 1991
Matthew de Lacey Davidson is a pianist and composer currently resident in Nova Scotia, Canada. His first CD, Space Shuffle and Other Futuristic Rags (Stomp Off Records), contained the first commercial recordings of the rags of Robin Frost. His second CD, The Graceful Ghost: Contemporary Piano Rags (Capstone Records), was the first commercial compact disc consisting solely of post-1960 contemporary piano ragtime, about which Gramophone magazine said, …a remarkably talented pianist…as a performer Davidson has few peers…”