Sunday, June 30, 2013

Yeah, I Know...Reince Priebus Is Gleeful Right Now

On 6-25-2013, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that the Republican National Committee chief had been praying for over the last four years.

The higher court, for all intents and purposes, destroyed the Voting Rights Act of 1965...the very law that promised that every American old enough to cast a ballot could finally do so without having to fight poll taxes, trick questions from election commissioners and their lieutenants, and so on.  

The SCOTUS vote went 5-4...and you can just about guess who the five justices are and who nominated them for the Supreme Court.

Last week's ruling struck down Congress' power to actually enforce the Voting Rights Act, a law whose fifth section requires Federal permission for certain states to make changes in how those states regulate elections...because those states, coming into 1965, had such a terrible history of enforcing the right to vote.

In 2006, both divisions of Congress overwhelmingly approved renewing Section 5 of the VRA...but didn't renew the coverage formula in Section 4 (despite SCOTUS warning the US senators and US representatives to update said formula).

On the other hand, those same elected officials didn't REALLY think that this new US senator from Illinois was going to make a White House bid for 2008. And they were scared that New York's newest US senator- the nation's previous First Lady- was going to try to move back to 1600.  

Instead, the Democrats have won the last two US presidential elections and four out of the last six...and could make it three wins in a row if they take the 2016 White House Derby.

Young voters of all colors helped transform Barack Obama from that new US senator from the Land of Lincoln into the nation's 44th chief executive. Helped get Obama reelected, too.

And so did most African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic-American voters.  

And that's what Chief Justice John Roberts and associates Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito had in mind when they decided to strike down the VRA's Section 4.

They weren't thinking about the US Constitution.

Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Thomas, and Scalia were only thinking about helping the Republican Party.

You notice how all those states that had put in voter-suppression laws since 2009- only to see them struck down by previous Supreme Court decisions- immediately put those laws back in force.

And that means Jim Crow isn't really dead...just asleep.

Hey, dig this: History repeats itself.

You know why history repeats itself?

It's because we human beings, especially when it comes to government decisions, just don't learn from our mistakes...let alone the ones made by our mentors and by their mentors. (We've had TWO World Wars, for crying out loud!)

The justices have now made it clear that it's up to Congress to cook up a new Section 4 formula- one for the early 21st Century- and save the VRA. 

And the five justices I named off know it.

Come on you REALLY think the 113th Congress- the second straight one with a Republican-led House- has the guts to take this kind of action, knowing darn good and well Washington's Republicans are so unwilling to get behind ANY legislation that rank-and-file Americans actually want?  

When the John Boehner-led House passes any legislation, it's just garbage.

Instead of depending on the John Boehners and Mitch McConnells, we need to get smarter than they are.

We need to call their bluff and get them out of the nation's capitol.

After all, since they're only serving themselves and not the vast majority of citizens, why should these self-serving you-know-whats stay in there and waste time and money...OUR money? 

We voters get another chance on 11-4-2014.

Voting Rights Act or no Voting Rights Act, we can't afford to stay home on that Tuesday.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Loadin' for Bear...Oops, I Mean a Championship Trophy

The photos you're looking at took place after the competition officially ended at the 2013 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival (at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in Peoria, IL).

Not only did we have a ball after the competition wound down...we also had a ball during the competition itself (especially the Sunday phase, where the attention shifted to the Regular Division semifinals).

And as things turned out (there's that phrase again)...the three judges (Dean Gronemeier, Ian Hominick, and Terry Parrish) found ten Reg Division performers whose Saturday sets were good enough for advancement.

Not eleven. Ten.

The first 2013 RD semifinalist to go up to bat was Jack Graham, who made it to the hotel's Main Hall wearing another one of those unusual suits of his...and was still having a ball in his first OTPP competition.

Jack continued to restyle those familiar rags and make 'em his own...and on 5-26-2013, "Bohemia" and "Black and White Rag" got the Jack Graham treatment.

Next were...the Bills.

William McNally followed Jack by turning in winning versions of "Ramblin' in Rhythm" and "Bluin' the Black Keys." Then "Perfessor" Bill Edwards (he won the contest's Regular Division action in 1991) stepped up to the stage and rocked that 1883 Weber upright with "You Made Me Love You" and "Royal Garden Blues."

Speaking of was Tag Team Time again, with contest cohosts Ted Lemen and Adam Swanson showing just how old-time piano's supposed to sound.

One of the examples centered on tunes named after eggs (or, in the case of "Sunny Side Up," ways of cooking eggs). Here, Ted stretched the truth a little bit by adding "Exactly Like You." (Okay..."Eggsactly Like You!")

Well, one of the great things about Adam and Ted teaming up is that in case Ted's (and/or Adam's) jokes don't work, the youngest undefeated Regular Division champ ever can go back to the piano and get the audience back in there.

Hey...that's a strategy that worked for Steve Allen.  

John Remmers' strategy works great, too, because it keeps him putting on a costume every OTPP Sunday. The ex-math professor's semifinal numbers this time were "Old Home Rag" and "Peacherine Rag."  

David Maga made it to the RD Top Ten. This Virginian-turned-Minnesotan (he likes to tell people he switched from living in a commonwealth state to residing in the Gopher State because "I didn't think it over") had a very well thought-out set: "Carolina Shout" and "Sweet Sue- Just You."

And then came Michael J. Winstanley, the third 2013 OTPP newcomer to extend his stay in the weekend's Regular Division competition. Michael did it, in his all-out, take-no-prisoners style, with "My Gal Sal" (one of Paul Dresser's two most famous songs) and "Mr. Jelly Lord."

Jacob Adams became the fourth of five 2012 RD semifinalists to punch a ticket to this year's RD second round as well (after John and the Bills)...and his takes on Fats Waller's and Andy Razaf's "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Bluin' the Black Keys" showed why he escaped elimination.

After missing out on the 2012 C&F, Russell Wilson came back, as Joe Garagiola used to say, "raring back and firing." And that strategy served Russell in good stead as he fired up "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Entry of the Gladiators," the latter that familiar circus march.

During "Gladiators," the man who plays those keys in the Marine Band (that's right, THAT Marine Band) pulled out a red rubber ball...and attached it to his nose!

That did it.

And that meant Domingo Mancuello (one of Michael's fellow University of the Arts students and the fifth OTPP first-timer to bust into this year's RD semis) had a tough act to follow.

Domingo did it.

I've done "The Prisoner's Song" in competition before...and I'll take Domingo's poignant version (he did it as a waltz) over my own. Hands down.

After Domingo finished his set with "Ain't She Sweet," Ethan Uslan (the fifth of five 2012 RD semifinalists to hang on to a semifinal spot) wowed 'em with "Star Dust" and "Smiles."

Ethan didn't just hang on...he made a great claim, using that improvisational style of his.

Well, it was time to find out which five performers were going to walk away from the Four Points with medallions (as well as prize money).

And all of this was going on in a year where three 2012 Reg Division finalists- Will Perkins, 2011 RD kingpin Martin Spitznagel, and Four Arrows (they told his story in "The Entertainers")- faced circumstances that prevented that threesome from coming out to Central Illinois for the 2013 festivities.

On top of that, you've really got to be on top of your game to come out ahead of "Perfessor" Bill and keep him out of the Regs' Top Five (he's been a RD finalist more often than anybody else who's ever gone after the Ted Lemen Traveling Trophy).

What's more, when Ethan improvises (okay, he says "wings it"), his winging it sure beats what a lot of us other OTPP contestants- especially myself- do when we're trying to go close to the vest on those tunes.

So now, the judges had totaled up the semifinal scores...and Terry, Ian, and Dean sent Jacob up to the Main Hall stage as the first of this year's Regular Division finalists. (Oh, by the way...Dean's brother Paul reached the top of the division in 1992, snatching the trophy away from "Perfessor" Bill.)

With the Top Five spot that was denied him last year, Jacob (he calls the Twin Cities home) knocked home "Doc Brown's Cakewalk" and Ford Dabney's "Oh, You Angel."

This time around, if you made it into the finals of the Regular Division during OTPP Weekend, you had to include a song with a man's name in the title. (In 2012, the wild-card selection had to include one of America's fifty states in the title.)

Ethan- one of the few OTPP performers making a living off music and only music- made it into the finals again. This time, he brought his cell phone to the help him make sure he finished each selection in four minutes or fewer.

You know what I say about that?

I say: "RIGHT ON!" (I mean, why not take advantage of today's technology?)  

Ethan's versions of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Honeysuckle Rose" were right on, too. It looked as if the man from Charlotte, NC was going to clutch that Lemen Trophy a little tighter and keep it for another year. 

Then came a Washington, DC man who'd just gotten through attaching a funny ball to his nose.

Russell was clearly having fun, and it continued right into his playing "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey" and "Mack the Knife." 

The ivory tickler at 1600 (that's right, THAT 1600) had the audience at 500 Hamilton Boulevard eating out of his hands.

Ted and Adam like to get right down to business during Top Five Time...but they still leave room for being able to show the OTPP crowd what makes old-time piano so special. And in this case, Adam dusted off some songs Vera-Ellen (remember her from the 1940s?) made famous.

As things- you guessed it- turned out, Jacob wasn't the only 2012 RD pianist smarting after being locked out of that year's finals.

William McNally had wounds to lick, too...and his versions of "Texas Fox Trot" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" provided the ointment for a man who's now teaching in New York City's Queens borough.

The Old-Time Music Preservation Association found out it now could get one Bill paid. 

Would the other Bill get paid, too?

Remember: You've got to turn in one heck of a performance to keep the researcher-computer programer from Ashburn, VA from collecting an Old-Time Piano Contest check.

Domingo did just that.

The young man who attends college at William M's previous stomping grounds (Philadelphia, PA) brought his passionate style to "Willie the Weeper" and what Domingo himself called "the most overplayed song in the world."

Domingo turned in the fifth version of "Maple Leaf Rag" on this year's OTPP books...and the only other "Maple Leaf" done by a 2013 Regular Division hopeful. (In fact, all five of this year's "Maple Leaf Rag" renditions were played by contest first-timers.)

Speaking of first looked good for a first-time RD champ to emerge. (Or did it?)

Jacob, Ethan, Russell, William McNally, and Domingo lined up to get medallions draped over their shoulders.

Well, as- yep- things turned out, Jacob ended up winning fifth place in the RDs (good for $250). Domingo earned fourth prize ($400) and William got third (meaning he'll get a check for $550)...but not before someone switched William's and Domingo's prizes by mistake (triggering a comic chase).

After the mistake involving Domingo and William was corrected and the situation settled, the second-place medallion went to...Ethan. (And that includes a check for $800.)  

And then it happened...a man who'd been knocking on the door to the contest's Regular Division throne room for years finally made it to the top.

Russell's now the latest to earn the Ted Lemen Traveling Trophy and he's now $1,350 richer as a result.

And his ascension to the top begs one question: "Who said there are no winners in the nation's capital anymore...let alone winners with honor?"

Can't wait to get back to Peoria...and I hope to see you there, too.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Well, as Things Turned Out... things turned out, I actually did officially enter the 2013 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival.

The afternoon of Friday, 5-24-2013, I met contest coordinator Faye Ballard (of "The Entertainers" fame) in the lobby of the contest's actual venue, Peoria's Sheraton Four Points Hotel (pictured below).

Found out from Faye that an opening had arisen after all.  

Man, being able to tune up the night before at the Sky Harbor Steakhouse sure helped.  

Without the tune-ups, I wouldn't have dared say "Yes" about entering.

It'd been four years since I'd been a contestant during an OTPP weekend.

Back in the saddle again...and this time, the ride was much more comfortable than up the street at the Hotel Pere Marquette in 2009.

We had 25 hopefuls this time (it would've been 26 if circumstances had enabled Steve Muncey to show off his old-time piano skills)...and the field included two former (one reigning) Regular Division champs (their stories were told in "The Entertainers," too) and the last two Junior Division titleholders. 

Nope...this time, I didn't draw the piece of paper labeled "1."

More fittingly, Daniel Souvigny (the 2012 JD winner) did.

The 12-year-old phenom was also one of seven Junior Division contestants in 2013...and one of two Daniels to play at the hotel's Main Hall. 

I didn't get to come to the Main Hall to hear Daniel S. tear through "Smashing Thirds" and "Nagasaki." And I got to hear the next two performers- newcomers David Maga and Slade Patrick Darrin- only because I was in the same rehearsal room as they when David and Slade tuned up. 

David (one of 18 Reg Division performers and one of ten first-timers across both divisions) knocked out rag favorites "Grandpa's Spell" and "Possum and Taters," while Slade's two numbers included "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now."

I pulled out the piece of paper with "4" on it...and this year, I felt really comfortable playing the contest piano, the 1883 Weber upright nicknamed "Moby Dink." (And they really liked what I set out to do with "Red River Valley" and...Giuseppe Verdi's "Grand March," from the opera it took him two years to write: "Aida," cooked up to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal.)

I patterned my version of "Grand March (from 'Aida')" after what I thought would've been Del Wood's take on the opera's most famous piece.

Well, now it was time to join the contest audience...and join them in hearing the other OTPP contestants.

Contestant #5 was Bill McNally, the college instructor who now hails from New York (he previously lived in and worked in Pennsylvania). His sets are always entertaining (well, I like to think so!), and his first-round takes on "Magnetic Rag" and "Fascinatin' Rhythm" fit the bill.

Alex Poyner was next; one of his first-round selections was the durable "12th Street Rag."

After Alex came the second of four JD first-timers, Tanner Wilson. Tanner- the second of two Nebraskans duking it out at Four Points- weighed in with two more ragtime favorites, "Maple Leaf Rag" and "Kitten on the Keys."

Tanner (he's from Fremont) made some more history in that he was the first JD'er to come out of the Cornhusker State since Julie Ann Smith, the Hastings native who competed in 1992 and 1993...and went on to grow up to become one of the world's best harpists. (Julie Ann's version of "Tickled to Death" got me to learn that 1899 Charles Hunter rag.)

RD favorite- and retired math instructor- John Remmers came up next...and the man from Ann Arbor, MI showed 'em how "All the Money" and "Magnetic Rag" are really done.

I'm glad Samuel Schalla came back for his second taste of OTPP fun. He's a college student from Tubingen, Germany...and he had a lot of fun when he came to Peoria in 2012.

For Samuel, the fun multiplied this time around...and you could tell that with his versions of Joseph Lamb's "Bohemia" and Joe Jordan's "That Teasin' Rag."

Speaking of fun...the fun continued to grow exponentially thanks to Ted Lemen and Adam Swanson (he'd just gotten through winning the previous night's New Rag Contest...making him a seven-time winner across three divisions) teaming up to handle the emceeing.  

At certain points in the competition, Adam (you'll find him featured in "The Entertainers") and Ted gave demonstrations of just how old-time piano's supposed to sound. One of those demos involved Ted (the man who cooked up OTPP) playing a singalong favorite...followed by Adam restyling it as a rag.

The next contestant put Iowa (the state Adam left to attend college in Colorado) back on the Old-Time Piano Contest's map: Junior Division contestant Isaac Smith (out of the home of the U of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls). 

And high-school student Isaac nuked Moby Dink.   

Isaac's selections were James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout" and George Botsford's "Black and White Rag." When he got done with those numbers, Isaac had the crowd eating out of his hands...right down to the crumbs!

It was now time for another RD pianist to come up to bat...Maine's Doug Protsik, who was feeding a thirty-year drought between OTPP berths. 

Matter of fact, the last time Doug was in the contest, the event was held front of the Monticello (IL) Railway Museum (and subject to one atmospheric display after another).

Once Doug made his way to the Weber, he felt right at home as he put over "Buyback" and "Alabamy Bound."

Two more juniors rounded out the first half of the preliminary competition at the Sheraton: 2010 and 2011 JD champ Morgan Siever and fellow Illinoisan Megan Jobe, the youngest to go at it in 2013.

Morgan had her Sweet Sixteen celebration in April, and the pianist-softball player-basketball player from the St. Louis suburb of Carlyle, IL sought to extend the party (and get that JD crown back from Daniel S.) with "Grandpa's Spell" and "That's a-Plenty."

Ten-year-old Megan (a contest newcomer, too) did the last two selections of the morning: "Maple Leaf Rag" and "12th Street Rag."   

Megan's first try as a contestant reminded me of Morgan's OTPP debut (that happened in 2005)...and I hope Megan sticks with old-time piano. Just as Morgan showed in 2005 that she really had something at age eight, Megan showed me here in 2013 that she's got something, too.

After Samuel, RD contestant Russell Wilson, his mom Lynn, and I had something at a Culver's Butter Burgers not far from the hotel, we got back to the hotel to check out the second half of the Saturday competition.

And the first of the afternoon performers was...2007 and 2012 Regular Division kingpin Ethan Uslan (from- you guessed it- "The Entertainers").

This New Jerseyite-turned-North Carolinian opened his bid to make it two RD crowns in a row by delivering "Sing a Song" and movie theme "Ramona."

Minnesota's Jacob Adams missed out on joining Ethan in the RD's Top Five last year...and he came out on fire this year, heating up "Wall Street Rag" and "Cannonball Rag."

And the Regular Division contestants kept coming up, one after another. (Well, that's what happens when you go into a rehearsal room and draw a number out of a hat. You never know what you're going to get.)

What the audience- a more sizable one thanks to "The Entertainers-" got was some more fine, fine performances.

Damit Senanayake (from Washington's Seattle area) kept the fine, fine performances going. He topped his good 2012 first round by playing "Castle's Half and Half" in addition to May Aufderheide's "The Thriller."

Damit was followed by one of the 2012 first-timers, Floridian Bobby "Mr. Piano" Van Duesen...who kept the good times rolling in 2013 with the rag "Cum-Bac" and the novelty "Our Monday Date."

"Perfessor" Bill Edwards (check him out in "The Entertainers") took to the Main Room stage next...and he went on to show why he's been a Reg Division finalist more often than anybody else in C&F history. He provided the evidence with his versions of "The Poet and Peasant Overture" and "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue."

After the 1991 Regular Division champion came a newcomer named Domingo Mancuello.

Domingo comes from Pennsylvania, where he attends Philadelphia's University of the Arts. And I believe we're going to be hearing from him for a long time to come, what with the way he gets into playing those 88s. (Domingo brought his take-no-prisoners style to "Whispering" and "Krazee Bone Rag.")

Like Samuel, first-timer Jack Graham made the trip across the Atlantic Ocean to check out OTPP.

And I'm glad he did.

Before I go on with the selections, let me tell you that if you're going to be an OTPP contestant, you've got to wear something that people wore during or before 1929. And that usually means dressing up in period suits, flapper outfits, granny gowns, period tuxedos, and/or the famous "bartender's duds-" in other words, the shirt-slacks-vest-bow tie look. (Past variations have included Davy Crockett outfits, marching-band uniforms, and togas.)

Jack (from London, England) hit the stage in a suit that beat the band...right down to the hat.

Most important, I like how Jack takes chances with tunes (especially the ones we're used to hearing at the Old-Time Piano Contest)...and that's what he did with "Maple Leaf Rag" (his version starts in D-flat!) and "Cannonball Rag." 

To top it all off, Jack said that, coming into OTPP Weekend, he'd NEVER played in public before.  

Charles Mink (he's from South Carolina) told me he'd been thinking about packing it in (he became a C&F contestant in 2009)...but the way he played "Dizzy Fingers" and "How Could I Be Blue," I'm going to feel blue if he doesn't give next year's contest a try. 

Charles turned in his best work this year. (Well, I like to think so!)

One of Domingo's fellow U of the Arts students, fellow Keystone Stater Michael J. Winstanley, put the accent back on the 2013 rookies. Michael's got a style that's as joyous as Domingo's...and it showed in "Cheese and Crackers" and "New Orleans Joys."

Last year, Wisconsinite Daniel Levi came to Central Illinois to see "The Entertainers."

Daniel L. liked the OTPP experience so much he decided to come back in a contestant.

I liked his set, too; it had "Swanee" and Luckey Roberts' "Pork and Beans."

One more RD contestant to go...and coming up to do his thing was the older of the two Wilsons competing in Peoria.

Russell (he hails from Washington, DC) really served notice; he was sizzling right from the start, what with "Russian Rag" and "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad." 

Russell Wilson's 2013 playing had this message written all over it: "Don't mess with a pianist who plays in the White House."  

The last contestant for 2013 comes from Peoria, IL itself.

And his name is Matt Lauer. (No...not THAT Matt Lauer!)

THIS Matt Lauer was the seventh and last JD performer in competition at the Four Points this year. And he acquitted himself quite the first and only 2013 contestant to do Scott Joplin's "Elite Syncopations" and the fourth 2013 hopeful to play the number that put rags on the map to begin with. (That's right...good ol' "Maple Leaf Rag.")

Lots and lots of fine performances thus far at this year's Contest and Festival...and now it was time for contest judges Dean Gronemeier, Ian Hominick, and Terry Parrish to not only determine which ten (or more in case of a tie) Regular Division pianists moved on to the division's semifinals...but also find out which five Junior Division musicians earned prize money. (The JDs need to only prepare two numbers, while the RDs have to come up with six selections.)

When Dean, Ian, and Terry got back from deliberating, the three judges (it used to be four, but the Old-Time Music Preservation Association decided to take a page from American Idol) decided to give Matthew $40 for finishing fifth in the Junior Division competition, Slade $60 (fourth place), and Morgan $100 (good for third).

What's more, Daniel S. received a check for $125...while he watched Isaac walk off with the JD title and a check for $250.

And that made Isaac the third different performer to get the Junior Division championship in as many years.

When we come back, we're going to find out if a similar situation took place in the contest's Regular Division...and if they needed to make it an eleven-person RD semifinal.