The 50th Old Time Piano-Playing Contest

The 50th Old Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival took place on Memorial Day weekend at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Ole Miss has been its home since 2016; prior to that it was in Peoria and before that at other locations in Illinois. Also marking a 50th anniversary was its founder and emcee Ted Lemen. He perhaps is unique among festival hosts for his tenure. A number of video tributes to him were show

n during the competitions, among them from Jeff Barnhart, Sue Keller, and Ethan Uslan as well as previous contestants.

Red Wood Coast

All events are held in the Music Building, which houses the David Nutt Auditorium. That eliminates the need to go outside and endure the Mississippi heat and humidity, except to eat or attend the evening events that are downtown, about half a mile away.

The David M. Nutt Auditorium in Oxford, MS (photo by Bill Hoffman)

The word “Festival” in the name should not be overlooked. It’s not just a competition; there are other features that add to its appeal. This was my second visit to this event, the first being in 2019. A total of 25 contestants competed in the junior, regular, and senior divisions, respectively. These competitions occurred on Saturday and Sunday.

The first step was a lottery to determine playing order. Some of the same contestants from that year and others returned, including Paul Orsi, last year’s winner, Warren Ertle, and Faye Ballard. Most of these people are not household names outside their own household, though some may have aspirations in that direction. Other contestants included people who’ve already gained notoriety in jazz and ragtime circles, such as Andrew Barrett (son of trombonist Dan Barrett), “Perfesser” Bill Edwards, and Jean-Baptiste Franc. There were two Hutchinson siblings from North Carolina—Alexander (age 14) and John Patrick (12). There was one other international entrant in addition to Franc, Tom Lakeland from England. There should’ve been a third, Masayochi Goto from Japan, but when his plane landed in Houston he was denied entry into the US due to some visa issue.

Hot Jazz Jubile

The main activities begin Friday, but on Thursday evening there was a concert with the eminent stride pianist and radio host Judy Carmichael and guitarist Larry Koonse from California. I was quite familiar with Judy, having seen her perform several times as far back as the late ’80s, but Larry was new to me. A Google search revealed that he’s been a guitarist since age five and is currently on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts. Although Judy is a very good singer and engaging storyteller, it is her command of the keyboard that stands out the most. She was also one of the judges of the competitions, along with Todd Robbins and Bill Perry, Jr., a local musician. Todd is a performer and artist of some renown (although heretofore not to me) though not directly in the music world as a player.

An added attraction was a Friday morning “chat” between Judy and Larry. I call it a chat because it was mostly that—an informal conversation, with audience participation—about how musicians learn to relate on stage and how they adapt their playing to accommodate each other. I was expecting more music but this turned out better than just another concert like we’d seen the previous night.

In the afternoon Todd gave a one-hour talk (and it could easily have been longer) on quirky and coincidental occurrences in the history of popular music that led to hits that are still played today. That was followed by festival artistic director Ian Hominick’s first-person account of the jazz side of pianist Earl Wild (1915-2010). Ian was his student and assistant for a number of years.

Friday evening was one of the aforementioned features, the new rag contest. Ten people submitted original compositions that met several criteria: never having been recorded or played in public, and having a specified structure with A, B, C and D sections. Some of the entrants were not among the 25 in the piano contest. A three-person panel of judges (all of those mentioned above) evaluated each piece on the criteria to reach a winner. The winner was the “Woodpecker Rag” by Tom Lakeland. That happened also to be my favorite. The contest was interrupted for about 15 minutes near its end when a tornado alarm sounded. We were moved from the auditorium to a nearby hallway, although the auditorium was farther toward the inside of the building than the hallway, which had windows. No tornado materialized and the thunderstorm was brief. Returning to my hotel half an hour later I did not see any downed trees or branches or flooded roads.

On Saturday there was a midday interlude in the preliminaries for a silent movie box lunch with music by Adam Swanson. The movies were “The Garage” (1920) with Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton (their last joint venture) and “Why the Girls Love Sailors,” the first silent collaboration of Laurel and Hardy (1927).


There were evening activities scheduled each night at a warehouse-type venue downtown called The Powerhouse, some of which carried an extra charge. I only attended on Saturday, which included a piano set by Ted Lemen, a brief sing-along, and for me the main attraction, the six-piece hot jazz band “Corpse Revivers” led by one of the piano contestants, Warren Ertle. The members come from various cities in Mississippi and Alabama, some of them over 200 miles away. I believe several are affiliated musically with universities in their cities. This band is great, augmented by its vocalist Jamie Sheehan (Warren’s wife). Warren deserves much credit for finding such talented sidemen in the Southeast. Not that such people do not exist in that region, they’re just very hard to locate. Warren is doing his best to preserve and promote traditional jazz in the South.

There are numerous rules for the contest that I will not repeat here; if interested, you can find them on the OTPPC’s website. All music played must have been written between 1880 and 1939. Each contestant must submit their playlist in advance. It happened that some tunes were played by more than one person. I should emphasize that this is not a ragtime festival. Although numerous rags were played, they did not dominate. And nobody played the Maple Leaf!

Sunday afternoon brought the semifinals and finals. The 25 were narrowed down to 14, including three in the senior division. The winner of that division was Faye Ballard, who has been competing for years and has been the overall champion several times. The remaining 11 faced off, each playing two tunes. That group was narrowed to five finalists who each played one number—Warren Ertle, David Cavalari, Paul Orsi, Zach Mandernach, and Jean-Baptiste Franc. Paul was the overall winner for the third time.


It was mentioned by many people, including the judges, that the quality of the contestants was exceptionally high this year, and I concur. It’s a shame there were so few people in the audience. As I wrote at the outset, this festival is more than just a competition.

Bill Hoffman is a travel writer, an avid jazz fan and a supporter of musicians keeping traditional jazz alive in performance. He is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and The New York Bicycle Touring Guide. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.

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