The 36th Annual West Coast Ragtime Festival

To those who would deem ragtime deceased, Bob Darch, pianist and entertainer from the revival era, had a ready rejoinder: “Ragtime Dead? Hell, it ain’t even sick.” The truth of that axiom was reaffirmed November 18-20 in Rancho Cordova’s Marriott Hotel near Sacramento as the pandemic relented and the thirty-sixth edition of the West Coast Ragtime Festival enthralled a substantial contingent of enthusiasts. My strictly unofficial assessment was that attendance approximated that of the final pre-pandemic celebration in 2019.

According to my unofficial count, 42 different acts—individual performers, seminar speakers, and musical aggregations—graced the stages of the hotel with a wide variety of styles and presentations. Included were 127 hours of scintillating syncopated music, 14 hours of open piano, 4 hours of seminars, 3 hours of dance instruction, 1 hour of silent movies, and a 1 hour youth master class. The Rancho Cordova room accommodated dancers and listeners too, with the Pacific Coast Ragtime Orchestra, the Easy Winners string band, the Porcupine Ragtime Ensemble, Muller’s Ragtime Jazz Band, the Crown Syncopators, and several pianists supplying the music. The commodious California Ballroom was the site for the two major concerts, the Sunday evening “festival finale,” and some of the individual musical sessions. Three smaller, more intimate venues served as the sites for the seminar series and most of the individual musical sessions. The plenitude of pleasures made choosing among competing events a frustrating chore.

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Major concerts

Accordionist Matt Tolentino hosted the one hour and fifteen minute Festival Sampler, designed to display the modes of music encompassed by the festival. Although formal ragtime was central, the fairly broad scope included related varieties. For example, the concert opened with the Easy Winners string band playing a waltz medley by Venezuelan Lionel Belasco. Also on the program were Southern Californian pianist Eve Elliot with Joplin and Marshall’s “Sunflower Slow Drag”; pianist Will Perkins with James P. Johnson’s stride classic “Carolina Shout”; T.J. Muller, banjo and vocal and Marty Eggers, piano, “Oh! By Jingo”; pianist Squeek Steele with Imogene Giles’ rag “Red Peppers”; and Tolentino with accordion and vocal, “Get Out and Get Under the Moon.” Pianists Martin Spitznagel and Brian Holland, with Danny Coots, percussion, took the stage and raced through the Adaline Shepherd rag “Pickles and Peppers,” in my opinion at far too fast a pace for its syncopated subtleties. With the addition of the Au Brothers, trumpet and trombone, they closed the concert with the 1930 pop tune “Three Little Words.”

Pianist and composer John Reed-Torres and music scholar Fred Hoeptner at the 2022 WCRF.
(photo by John Reed-Torres via Facebook)

Past policy for the other major concert had been to feature ragtime composed 100 years prior; however, in 1922 ragtime was no longer fashionable and jazz had become king. So, the festival regressed the theme year twenty years to “Ragtime 1902.” The Easy Winners string band opened the concert with “The Entertainer,” a Joplin piece that became a hit again in the mid-1970s. Some obscurities also populated the program such as the duo Elliot Adams and Michael Chisholm with “Galloping Jasper,” Frederick Hodges with Charles L. Johnson’s “The Blue Jay and the Squirrel,” and Will Perkins, who had filled in to tune the pianos when the hired tuner contracted COVID, Kirwin’s “African Pas’.” Carl Sonny Leyland contributed the boogie standard “The Fives.” The duet of Richard Dowling and Hodges offered Joplin’s “March Majestic,” Crown Syncopators, “Cleopha,” and Vincent Johnson, “Strenuous Life.” The concert closed with a standard from traditional jazz, “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” performed by a six-piece band of Clint Baker, Jeff Barnhart, Marty Eggers, T.J. Muller, Matt Tolentino, and Virginia Tichenor. This led directly into the Grand March, as musicians and guests, many sporting elegant vintage attire, paraded through the hotel.

Seminars

Four seminars attracted the curious. Ramona Baker profiled the life of Arthur Pryor, trombonist with Sousa’s Band, whom she asserted was responsible for the band’s embrace of ragtime. Frederick Hodges surveyed the history of music accompaniment for silent films from 1895 to 1929 and explained the techniques used in conveying the emotions on the film. Bob Pinsker explained how he solved the mystery of composer Lemuel Fowler, prominent black songwriter and pianist of the 1920s, who had disappeared from public view after 1932. Richard Dowling discussed and performed George Gershwin’s rag “Rialto Ripples” from 1917 and his six original preludes from 1926.

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Random features of note

Virginia Tichenor and Squeak Steele at the 2022 WCRF

Pianist Richard Dowling leading off the festival Friday noon with selections from his celebrated Scott Joplin complete works; pianist Jeff Barnhart mentoring the youth master class about effective embellishments and hosting the youth concert; the big sound of Pianofiends, Michael Chisholm, Frederick Hodges, and Kevin Gunia, six hands on two pianos, performing Victor Herbert’s syncopated “Panamericana,” W.C. O’Hare’s “Levee Revels,” and George Cobb’s “Patrol of the Pelicans”; composer Vincent Johnson from the Rose Leaf Ragtime Club with his romantic classic rags “Milk and Honey” and “Storybook Rag”; the return of string band ragtime in the persons of Easy Winners Robert Armstrong, Irene Herrmann, Zack Salem, and Nick Robinson, enhanced by the mystical sound of Armstrong’s musical saw; Anne and Jeff Barnhart “Ivory and Gold” with a Fats Waller segment including his “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’, Jeff vocalizing; class pianist Frederick Hodges starting his set with Dana Seusse’s classical “Afternoon of a Black Faun” and including two Charles L. Johnson obscurities (“Doodle-De-Dum” and “Fawn Eyes”), Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” and James Scott’s “Rag Sentimental”; John Reed-Torres performing his compositions, “On the Rocks” and “Blue State Rag,” that truly capture the spirit of the ragtime era; a “banjos” set featuring four of them (one with 6 strings), a tuba, and a washboard; the initial appearance at West Coast of Eve Elliot, who was the first place winner at the 2022 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Competition; pianist Adam Swanson saluting the sadly incapacitated Tom Brier with Tom’s strider “Spasmodic”; and pianist Martin Spitznagel essaying Eubie Blake’s showpiece “Charleston Rag.”

Festival Finale

At 4:00 p.m. Sunday evening all other venues closed and one and all gathered in the California Ballroom for the hour-and-a-half long festival finale. The fast-moving variety show allowed each performer one selection. Robyn Drivon, President of the West Coast Ragtime Society, presented awards to volunteers Judy Hendricks for her service as sound technician and Jack Bradshaw for maintaining the festival data base for 19 years. The festival closers by the cast were “Maple Leaf Rag” followed by “Bill Bailey.”

See you all in 2023!

Fred Hoeptner is a Ragtime historian and composer of new ragtime pieces frequently performed today. He was a founder of the John Edwards Memorial Foundation which was a non-profit of the University of California at Los Angeles to promote the study and dissemination of knowledge about American folk music of the 1920s-1940s. It is part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Southern Folklife Collection today and contains several important taped interviews Fred conducted in the 1950s.

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