Sunday, July 28, 2013

Everybody Still Had a Great Time

Two weeks ago, the ninth annual Ragtime to Riches Festival took place at Omaha's First Central Congregational United Church of Christ.

It would've been three weeks ago today...except for a scheduling conflict that allowed an organization called Omaha Chamber Music to wrap up a four-consecutive-Sunday stint on 7-7-2013 (the date this year's R to R was originally scheduled). things turned out...yours truly didn't check with First Central's staff earlier than 6-5-2013, the day yours truly came to the church at 36th and Harney to pay for rental of the church's Memorial Hall.

So...the church staff gave us 7-14-2013 (and at the same time, the Great Plains Ragtime Society snapped up 7-6-2014).

It worked out fine...even with the festival jumping right into the teeth of the Omaha Country Club hosting the 2013 men's US Senior Open, which said "hello" to the two biggest crowds to ever attend a sports event in person here in the city that gave us sports greats Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, and Bob Boozer.

We sold eight tickets this time. Yeah, I know...that's a far cry from the 38 ducats GPRS sold last year and, as a result, got Ragtime to Riches out of the local shadows.

Nevertheless, everybody who came to R to R 9.0 had a great time.

And the crowd included four people who'd never attended the local ragtime fest before.

Plus: One of them's a student at Benson High School. (So there!)  

It started out, once the doors opened at 1:00 PM (Central time), with a workshop an hour later; it focused on the 1885-1899 period...the first fourteen years the United States had a real music-publishing industry (okay...the first fourteen years said industry was based in New York City, NY).  

One thing I found out in doing research for the R to R workshop was that many of the first big-name Tin Pan Alley songwriters were traveling salespersons before jumping into the music industry full blast. They sold sheet music when not selling clothes and other items...and eventually, they got the notion that they could write better than the composers whose work these dealers agreed to peddle.

One of them was Edward B. Marks, who got off the road in 1894 to hook up with another salesperson with a desire to write ditties, Joseph Stern.  

And with Charles K. Harris' 1892 monster "After the Ball" (only the first million-selling song ever written; it went on to sell six million pieces of sheet music) providing the yardstick, Marks and Stern got together to write Tin Pan Alley's next monster...1894's "The Little Lost Child."

TPA (so named because, according to legend, all those multiple old upright pianos getting played at the same time all over the Big Apple's music-publishing district- West 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues- sounded like tin pans being banged) originally specialized in sentimental, treacly ballads like "After the Ball" and "The Little Lost Child."

But as the 1890s started to draw to a close, Americans wanted to shake their hind ends...and Tin Pan Alley started to get the ragtime bug, thanks to two 1899 smashes: Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and Abe Holzmann's "Smokey Mokes."

I shifted gears at a little after 3:05 PM, getting myself into concert mode. And, for the second straight year, I took a page from the book of the late Burns Davis and gave my own concert a theme.

After building my own 2012 show around some of 1912's top hits, I chose as my 2013 theme..."They All Died in 2012."

During the early 1990s, I got interested in the work someone from Phoenix, AZ (I think his name is Sherman Cohen) was doing linking the birthdates of big-name celebrities with the cuts that topped Billboard's US Pop charts the day each celebrity was born...and using the songs to predict what kind of lives the big names would end up leading. (For instance, the day Michael Jackson was born, the top pop hit in the US was "Little Star," by the Elegants. 'Nuff said.) 

Well, the audience at this year's R to R found out that "Peg o' My Heart," by a singer named Charles Harrison, was the Number One recording on 12-25-1913...Tony Martin's birthday. In addition, they learned that fellow singalong favorite "For Me and My Gal" was a chart-topper for one of the top duos of the World War 1 years, Van & Schenck. (The V&S version was #1 on 7-17-1917...Phyllis Diller's birthday.)

Today, we know Alma Gluck as the mother of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (you might remember his two big TV series, 77 Sunset Strip and fellow ABC hit The FBI) and as the grandmother of Stephanie Zimbalist (who got to costar alongside Pierce Brosnan on the 1980s NBC hit Remington Steele).

But in her time, Gluck was one of the world's best-known opera singers. In 1915, she reached back to 1878 to turn James Bland's "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" into just the fourth million-selling recording in history.

And that cut was the top hit in the land on 4-10-1915...the day Harry Morgan was born. (That's right...the same Harry Morgan who got to work alongside Jack Webb on the 1967-1970 version of NBC's Dragnet, in addition to doing all kinds of other CBS classics December Bride and M*A*S*H.

Toward the end of my time up there, I took a chance.

I ragged up a couple of post-TPA songs: 1963's "So Much in Love," which was the first big hit for the Tymes...and the top pop hit on 8-9-1963, the day Whitney Houston was born; and the next year's "A Hard Day's Night," one of the many, many Number Ones the Beatles racked up.

"A Hard Day's Night" made the list as a tribute to Beatles fan Jesse Lewis and the nineteen other Sandy Hook School children who, along with six teachers at the Newtown, CT facility, were gunned down 12-14-2012.

What's more, I got squeamish about performing the song that actually topped Billboard's US Pop chart on 6-30-2006, Jesse's birthday: "Hips Don't Lie," where Shakira teamed up with Wyclef Jean.

And I couldn't get off the stage without paying tribute to the late Nan Bostick, so I closed out with her first and best-known tune, 1974's "Bean Whistle Rag."

Nope...the sky didn't fall.

In lieu of a movie, we had a preview of the upcoming local showing of Luke Jerram's famous "Play Me, I'm Yours" art project. (Here in the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area, ten painted old pianos will be placed at public spots all over the area for passersby to play...regardless of skill level. In fact, the exhibit will run locally from 8-24-2013 to 9-8-2013.) 

Ended up giving the oral presentation myself, then Nick Holle (that's right, THAT Nick Holle) and I got together to show a 60-minute compilation of "PMIY" videos culled from YouTube.

By the learn more about Luke's claim to fame, just visit And for more local information about the exhibit, you can also log on to (The Omaha Creative Institute did the lion's share of the heavy hitting that brought "PMIY" here.)

Speaking of 7:00 PM, Marty Mincer went up to bat.

And Marty was smacking homers all over the place. 

The apple farmer from Hamburg, IA showed why he took the Regular Division crown in 1990 and 1993 at Illinois' World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival...and the first proof was his rip-roaring version of an E.T. Paull march, "The Burning of Rome."

Later on in Marty's concert, he talked about how his grandmother got him started tickling those keys. It was the late 1960s, and she taught him how to play a piece called "Old Fiddle Tune."

He did it the conventional way, then ragged it up...only to get an admonishment from Grandma: "Don't you ever play that piece like that again!"

Then Marty went back to playing "Old Fiddle Tune" the way it was written.

And, 44 years later, he does "OFT" the same three ways. (And it brings the house down every time!)

Marty writes 'em, too. His biggest one came together in 1989 because, at that time, he owned a 1964 Studebaker (remember Studebaker automobiles?) that kept breaking down.

And he captured that in his "The Mechanic's Rag." (Its subtitle: "A Well-Tooled Piece." On top of that, the instruction on the first page tells you to play this one "with great repair.")

Marty kept it going all through his concert, burning through "A Bag of Rags," Mark Janza's "Aviation Rag," George Botsford's "Black and White Rag," and Scott Joplin's other Monster, "The Entertainer." (When you take out "The Entertainer" and "Maple Leaf Rag," you find his other rags were monsters.)  

Toward the end of the show, Marty led a singalong; after he sang and played "Sioux City Sue," he (and I) led the audience into "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "When You're Smiling," and "Side by Side."  

Then his rollicking versions of "Tiger Rag" (with multiple false endings) and "Show Me the Way to Go Home" (he handled the vocals, too) brought the 2013 version of Ragtime to Riches to a close.

And, when all was said and done, the festival took in $100, which went to the Great Plains Ragtime Society...not bad for the situation at hand.'s off to work on the 2014 version of R to R. find out how to get another movie into the festival...or something...

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Yep...I STILL Think about It

The recent George Zimmerman trial, along with a subsequent episode of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, got me to thinking about what I'd have to tell my biological children...that is, if I'd ever helped bring any biological children into this world. 

One of the reasons I've never been a biological father is this: I would've had to tell my sons and/or daughters that "Way too many of the people you meet just don't want to make you feel welcome here in this country you've been born in." 

In a way, those children would've been welcome here...but not REALLY welcome. 

I take a look at how so many Americans automatically assume that those of Trayvon Martin's color are the nation's archcriminals. Let's face it...let's not kid ourselves. If you're the color Trayvon was (my color), you're going to be more heavily scrutinized and held up to a harsher standard than if you're George Zimmerman's color.

You're going to be forced to constantly prove you're just as human as anybody else on the face of this planet called Earth. 

You learn that you're going to have to be twice as good at something as the average Caucasian person in your field...just to get half the acclaim.

It hurts. 

And you don't want to bring into the world in general, and right here in the world's most talked-about nation in particular, one more child who's going to end up on the wrong end of somebody else's racism...somebody else's sexism...somebody else's ageism...somebody else's homophobia/heterophobia...somebody else's paranoia about that child's religion...somebody else's axe to grind about that child not growing up wealthy.  

Some personal memories came welling up as a result of what happened in Sanford, FL.

One that came to mind happened on 9-1-2002, the day I went to Avoca, IA, to participate in that year's Old-Time Country and Bluegrass Festival and Contest. (That day- the seventh and final day of festivities at the Pottawattamie County Fairgrounds- they had the festival's ragtime piano competition. I didn't win...but I had a good, good time.)

That night, I went to the concession stand (underneath the grandstand) to buy something to this case, a hot dog and a can of pop (Mountain Dew).

The young woman running the concession stand looked at me as if I was one of the participants in the previous year's terrorist attacks.

She all but threw the hot dog (bun and all) and the pop can at me as I paid for the items. I felt so deflated that I had to tell her it was the fourth year I'd been to the festival...but all it got me was a snide version of "I hope you keep coming back."

I've NEVER set foot in Avoca since then.  

And I'm lucky the festival moved to Missouri Valley, IA the next year. (Now it's in another Iowa burg, LeMars.)  

I've also stopped shopping at the Hy-Vee food store at 51st and Center here in Omaha...because a late-night employee named Shirley spoiled it all for me. I'd been there many times before...but when Shirley asked me if she could help me (and she said this in a condescending way, as usual), that did it.  

Also on my mind was 11-1-2003...the day an Omaha Police officer named Richard Lucero (his first name does begin with "R;" I hope I've got his first name right) stopped me as I was on my way to my church's 5:00 PM service. 

While still in my car, I went to my wallet to pull out my driver's license...but he, assuming I had a gun (I've never owned a gun and don't own one now), told me to freeze or he'd shoot me. 

After he asked for my driver's license and received it to run a make on me, the officer told me my car (at the time, I owned a 1975 Lincoln Mark 4 that I bought at auction in 1999) had a broken taillight. 

He ordered me to fix the taillight (I did, with reflector tape)...and also wrote me a ticket (I paid it a week later). Then he snarled: "Have a nice day."

That day was totally ruined.  

From 1980 to 1987 (covering most of my first residency here in the Big O), I worked for Washington Inventory Service, the San Diego-based firm (since bought out by a rival company, RGIS) that had offices nationwide.

One of my fellow WIS employees was a man who liked to advertise his religion...heavily. And he liked to let everyone know he was a political conservative. I was one of his few friends.

Even so, I didn't feel good about his asking me: "Jim...what do you want to be called?"

I knew darn good and well he was wondering what I call my ethnic background. (And I didn't want to answer that way.)

So I just told him: "I just want to be called Jim. That's my name."

That's how I see myself: I'm a human being first, an American second, and an African American third.  

Another thing: The trial down in Florida got me to thinking about how President Barack Obama's been treated by this country's Republican lawmakers and by their cheerleaders...the people with the shows on this country's so-called news and information stations. 

I'm still burned up by Arizona Gov. Janet Brewer wagging her finger at Obama at Phoenix' Sky Harbor Airport. Utter disrespect from Brewer and so many of her fellow Republicans.

Sure, US Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who lost in 2008 to Obama (at that time a US senator from Illinois), praised him for his speech about the Zimmerman trial. According to McCain, maybe we can finally have That Talk (about ethnicity in America).

It's really not going to happen as long as US Reps. Michael Burgess and Louie Gohmert (both R-TX) keep getting in the way. Burgess has echoed Donald Trump by constantly questioning Obama's educational standing: "He didn't go to Harvard Law School!"

And all Gohmert has done these last four years is question the president's religion, claiming Obama to be a Muslim, not the Christian he really is.

The Republicans continue to "mourn" the alleged "death" of so-called traditional America. They refuse to accept how the country's face is changing, becoming more inclusive of people of ALL backgrounds.

One of those Republicans, US Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, has urged Martin's supporters to get over the recent verdict finding Zimmerman not guilty.

Tell you what, Mr. Harris: Why don't you and other Republicans get over the fact that America's face is changing?

Why don't you all get over the fact that we've now got a president named Barack Obama...and start learning to work together with him and other non-Republicans? 

Why don't you stop having all these phony investigations in the hope that you'll impeach Obama and start passing laws the people can actually a jobs bill, for crying out loud?

Why don't you people start putting us rank-and-file citizens first...and not your party?

If you want the votes of this country's Black, Brown, Red, and Yellow people of both well as women of all colors...why don't you STOP dehumanizing and demonizing them?  

You folks ever do that, those of us who don't feel welcome here will start to feel better. 

And we'll finally get closer to the postracial environment so many pundits predicted would come out of Obama beating McCain in 2008.

Thanks for reading "Boston's Blog!"  

I Still Can't Get over It

After the 7-13-2013 verdict in the George Zimmerman trial in Sanford, FL was handed down (allowing the neighborhood watchman to go free after murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last year), US Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) told those who were looking for a different verdict from the six-member jury: "Justice was done. Get over it."  

I've got news for the sole Maryland Republican currently in the US House:

It's NOT that simple to get over the verdict.   

Yes, some people argue that the six women who sat on the jury were only working with the evidence presented them during the trial...and when you're a jury member, you're supposed to work with the facts presented in the trial you're involved in.

I just feel as if not enough of the facts were brought out during one of the most heavily-watched trials in years.

And Zimmerman's act wouldn't have even come to trial to begin with if all kinds of people- especially Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton (Martin's parents) and civil rights activist Al Sharpton (he hosts MSNBC's Politics Nation series)- hadn't demanded a trial.

What's more, Zimmerman wouldn't have gotten arrested if all kinds of people- especially Sybrina Fulton, Tracy Martin, and Al Sharpton- hadn't called for the Sanford Police Department to act.

From what I watched of the coverage of the trial, I don't remember either the prosecutors or the defense attorneys calling any SPD officials (especially Bill Lee, the police chief who was in charge 2-26-2012, the day of the shooting) to the witness stand.

What if Lee had to testify during the Zimmerman trial?  

If some of Sanford's Finest had been subpoenaed and been called on to testify this month, I would've felt better about the verdict. If some of Florida's government leaders had been told to testify in Sanford, I'd have felt better about the verdict the six women arrived at.

That's right...Florida's government leaders. 

After all, in 2005, the Sunshine State's then governor, John E. Bush (that's his real name, folks; I still can't bring myself to use that phony-baloney nickname of his), signed the so-called "Stand Your Ground" Act into law. (The state that gave us Pro Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith is one of twenty now boasting the law where you can kill anybody if you "believe" you're in danger of "great bodily harm.")

And so, those six jurors used Florida's "SYG" law...freeing our fortysomething from having to use said law in his defense. 

Never mind that a police dispatcher told Zimmerman that night NOT to get out of his (George's) vehicle and follow Trayvon Martin...the same Trayvon Martin who had as much right to walk through that same gated Sanford neighborhood as George Zimmerman did.

After the trial, Rick Scott (Florida's current governor) met with people who protested the verdict...and then he declared this past Sunday a statewide day of prayer.

How phony and useless.  

Scott's declaration struck me as useless and phony on account of his continued defense of his state's "Stand Your Ground" law.

The law didn't help Marissa Alexander, who got a 20-year sentence for shooting into a wall to scare off her abusive husband. And "SYG" didn't help Orville Lee Wollard, also serving a 20-year imprisonment because he fired a gun inside his own frighten off his daughter's boyfriend.

The law (and its misuse) has caused many big-name celebrities (such as Stevie Wonder) to boycott Florida as long as "SYG" is in place there.

And if you're a parent of a teenager (or of a child of any age) and you've wanted to visit or revisit Florida, and you don't agree with the decision to let that neighborhood watchman go free, I'm with you.

Just don't let your babies grow up wanting to go to Disney World.

It's forty miles southwest of Sanford.