Thursday, May 29, 2014

Oh, Brother! Oh, Sister! Oh, Baby!

No more than 26 people can annually enter the main competition at the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival...and that means the Old-Time Music Preservation Association (the group that puts on the C&F) cuts the preliminary competition off at sixteen Regular Division contestants and ten Junior Division (seventeen and younger) combatants.

This time around, we had seven JDers and eleven RDers.

And the seven who competed for five Junior Division cash prizes came out of five families.  

Speaking of families...births lightened the 2014 OTPP field. First of all, Martin Spitznagel (the contest's 2011 Reg champ) stayed home with his wife so that they could enjoy their first child.

And the reigning Regular Division titleholder, Russell Wilson (from the same Washington, DC area the Spitznagels now live and work in), couldn't come to the Embassy Suites East Peoria (IL) because his wife was due during OTPP Weekend with their first child. 

So there we were...all eighteen of us gathered in the Green Room of the Conference Center portion of the Embassy Suites East Peoria at 7:30 AM (Central time) on Saturday, 5-24-2014. We'd gathered to draw numbers to determine playing order.

And, as things turned out...Washington's (America's 42nd State, not America's capitol city) Damit Senanayake became the first 2014 OTPP contestant...and the first Regular Division pianist to try and take Russell's 2013 title away. 

Damit's got a pleasant, sedate, stately style...and he brought that style to Irene Giblin's most famous rag, "Chicken Chowder," as well as to Vincent Youmans' "Without a Song."

Then came Isaac Smith, the seventeen-year-old Iowan out to make it two Junior Division championships in a row.

Isaac made a strong bid by playing "Kitten on the Keys" and a very interesting version of "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain." (In Isaac's version, the "she" in the tune had to get six new horses!) 

The audience assembled at the Conference Center's combined River E and F Rooms would soon find out that Isaac was the older half of a brother act (stay tuned).

It was back to the RD battles...and the next performer to get in the ring was Pennsylvanian Michael J. Winstanley, who brought his stompin' style to Scott Joplin's "Stoptime Rag" as well as to "Kansas City Stomp."

Michael J. gave way to the other Smith Brother in the competition, eleven-year-old Eli.

Isaac's 2013 success gave Eli plenty of reasons to see if he could get himself that Junior Division crown. Eli's two selections were "Twelfth Street Rag" and "Champagne Rag."

After meeting the younger half of a brother act, the OTPP enthusiasts then met the younger half of a sister act: North Carolinian Miasol Yara (Mia for short).

By the pronounce Mia's first name "MEE uh," not "MY uh."

Mia turned in a really bluesy set, and it consisted of "Ma (He's Making Eyes at Me)" and an abbreviated "Rhapsody in Blue."

One thing about the JD competition...the younger performers have to prepare just two songs while the older ones have to get six tunes ready. That way, OMPA crowns the Junior champion that Saturday afternoon of OTPP Weekend.

Then it was back to the Regulars...with Virginian-turned-Minnesotan David Cavalari taking to the 1883 Weber upright (the piano better known as "Moby Dink").

David had a couple of interesting selections this round: "Ragtime Chimes" and "Tico Tico." (That's right, that "Tico Tico," the one made famous by organist Ethel Smith.) 

So glad that Samuel Schalla made the trip from his native Tubingen, Germany this year. He's got a stately style of playing, too, and the 20-year-old Regular Division contestant brought that style of his to "Texas Fox Trot" and "Some of These Days," the Shelton Brooks number made famous by Sophie Tucker.

William McNally (he'd just won the New Rag competition the night before- the fourth time he's snagged that contest's "Remarkably Small Trophy") was looking to add this year's RD title to his collection. Bill likes to load his sets with very interesting tunes...stuff off the beaten path; in this year's prelims, the Pennsylvanian-turned-New Yorker brought home "Piano Puzzle" and something called "Chopinata." (I hope I got that name right!) 

The next pianist in competition was a JDer from Illinois, Leo Volker.

Leo was having a great time up there as he delivered two Scott Joplin pieces: "Magnetic Rag" and "Reflection Rag." 

Around 11:30 AM, we all took a lunch break (and took advantage of all the fine restaurant choices in and surrounding the hotel).


21-year-old Michigander William Bennett was the next performer to step up...and he didn't disappoint the crowd, either, with George Gershwin's "Rialto Ripples" and Irving Caesar's "Just a Gigolo."   

I couldn't join that crowd at the moment, because I had to practice up for my own first-round set. And as a result, I didn't get to hear what "Perfessor" Bill Edwards (that Californian-turned-Coloradan-turned-Washington, DCer-turned-Virginian) brought to the first round. (Can somebody tell me what "Perfessor" Bill played?) 

I had a good feeling about going up there for 2014; I wanted to show that I'd been taking the messages brought forth in "The Entertainers" to heart (messages like: "When you're playing a song, you're telling a story!")...and I wanted to have fun.

So...this time, I did "Hello Ma Baby" and followed that up with a 1925 number written by Billy Rose, Al Dubin, and Joseph Meyer: "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You." (Really had a lot of fun with the latter tune!)

When I was done, I hurried back and found a seat in the audience...and caught Ethan Uslan's two first-round tunes: "Dardanelle" and the durable "Limehouse Blues."  

When he's not tickling those keys all around the world, New Jerseyite-turned-North Carolinian Ethan also teaches others to tickle those 88s. Some of his students include his eight-year-old son Ben and...the Yara Sisters (one of whom we've already met).  

Glad to see Pennsylvanian (and RD contestant) Domingo Mancuello come back to get another crack at the Ted Lemen Traveling Trophy. Domingo's one of the most passionate performers in all of old-time piano, and in the prelims, he showed just why...doing "When You're Smiling" and a rag called "Chickenfoot Bob."

Then one of the steadiest performers in old-time piano, Michigan's John Remmers, stepped up to the plate. I really enjoyed his version of "Where the River Shannon Flows," which the one-time college math professor followed with "Under the Southern Moon."  

The Junior Division provided the 2014 OTPP competition with the last three performers...starting with Miasol's thirteen-year-old sister, Madeline. 

Maddy brought a bluesy style of her own to "Dolly Dimples" and to Mabel Wayne's "In a Little Spanish Town." 

By the way...Maddy and Mia really do have a sister act going: When they're not playing old-time piano, the Two Yaras make up half a local (Charlotte area) rock band, the Control Freax. In the Control Freax, Mia and Savanah play guitars (Savanah also plays keyboards), Maddy plays the bass, and Maureen rounds out the act on drums.

The Freax really have it going on, and if you'd like to find out for yourself, just log on to and type in "Maureen's band" or "The Control Freax." (I like what the band did with "Roll Over Beethoven.") 

An Illinoisan named Reed Phillips rounded out the newcomers in the 2014 OTPP field. And he let 'em know that he was after Isaac's JD title, too. Reed (as did Leo) turned to the King of Ragtime to make his bid, selecting "Peacherine Rag" and the second "Stoptime Rag" heard in the prelims.  

All through the competition, Ted and fellow emcee Adam Swanson (that's right, that Adam Swanson) showed the audience just what makes old-time piano so infectuous. (One of their most memorable interludes featured Ted- the man behind OTPP- playing a tune like "Happy Birthday to You" in the conventional way...only to see Adam- the most decorated pianist in contest history- turn the number into a rag.)  

Yep...2014 not only was a year without Martin or Russell competing, it also was a year without Morgan Siever, the sole 2005 JD newcomer to not only come back for 2006...but also keep competing at the C&F into the 2010s. 

Morgan's two-year reign atop the Junior Division (2010 and 2011) was ended by the last contestant to tackle Moby Dink for 2014: Fellow Illinoisan Daniel Souvigny. 

And thirteen-year-old Daniel let EVERYBODY know he wanted that JD championship back. Big time.  

Daniel came out roaring, putting over killer versions of "King Chanticleer" and "Tiger Rag." (To prepare for "Tiger Rag," Daniel even turned his vest inside reveal tiger stripes!)

Well, with the competing over for the day, contest judges Brian Holland (the 1997-99 RD champ), Terry Parrish, and Patrick Holland got together to tally up scores...and, along the way, they found out the Smith Brothers outdid the Yara Sisters.  

And as things turned out, Reed won fifth place (and $40), Eli got fourth place (and was able to pocket $60), and Madeline earned $100 for finishing third.

Isaac settled for second place and its $125 prize. (And 2014 started to look like 2008 in the JD competition; that year, the previous year's Junior Division kingpin, Missourian Wesley Reznicek, surrendered his title to the last pianist to compete: Cassidy Gephart from neighboring Kentucky.)

Eli's older brother surrendered his JD crown to...the last 2014 pianist to compete.

And that's how Daniel was able to go home $250 richer (and with his second JD trophy).

After the Saturday smoke cleared, it was time to find out which ten Regular Division contestants would do their thing at the hotel's River E and F rooms the next day.

Yep...according to the rules, one RDer would have to be sidelined.

And when I come back, I'll tell you who got sidelined.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Hello There from East Peoria!

I had to fight to get this opportunity.

And I'm glad for this chance.

Things have worked out so that I could attend the 40th annual World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival...which is now on its sixth venue: The Embassy Suites Hotel in East Peoria, IL.

If my boss at the plastics factory I work at hadn't encouraged me to fill out a vacation request form earlier this month (and if the plant manager hadn't okayed the form), and if my car had broken down someplace along the way, well...I'd be typing this out in Omaha, NE (and talking about another subject).

This time, I went from the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area directly to the Peoria area...and I commenced the trip yesterday morning. And I fought the rain (okay, much-needed rain) until I reached Exit 110 on Interstate 80 (eleven miles west of West Des Moines, IA).

In addition, I fought through six different lane closings on the Iowa stretch of I-80...and through the demolition of the Bettendorf, IA convenience store where I filled up my car's gas tank before reaching Illinois.

But here I hours away from reaching the Green Room at the hotel's Conference Center to join eighteen other contestants in drawing out numbers to determine playing order as the meat of this year's OTPP Contest approaches.

Before that...

Made it to the hotel at 4:22 PM (Central time) yesterday, then an hour later, I caught a shuttle to the Sky Harbor Steakhouse (located in another Peoria suburb, West Peoria) to be a part of the contest-opening tuneups. 

At the tuneups, anybody who wants to has an opportunity to play the restaurant's rinky-tink piano, a Grinnell Bros. upright from early in the 20th Century. 

Lots of people- not just OTPP contestants- did.

On top of that, those who signed up to pound away at that upright were treated to a free buffet...featuring ribs, chicken, macaroni and cheese, a roll, your choice of vegetables, and your choice of beverage.

Personally, things went better at the Sky Harbor than they did a year ago. What's more, the steakhouse party didn't stop until around 9:15 PM.

Then earlier today, I tackled an experience I wasn't able to engage in since 2007: I boarded, for just the second time in my life, the local riverboat known as Spirit of Peoria. 

I want to go back on that boat next year, too!

Just as is the case at the Sky Harbor Steakhouse, the food on the riverboat is great. On the Spirit, you get a lunch buffet that includes several different salads, your choice of chips, a few dessert items, three beverage choices, and a wonderful line of sandwich fixin's. 

And...the boat has a spinet piano on each of the first two decks plus a calliope on the third (top) deck. (Okay...the actual calliope doesn't work anymore. They hooked up an electronic keyboard to the calliope's framework. And it still sounds great!)

Had a chance to work out on both the electronic keyboard-cum-calliope and the second deck's spinet. (Things turned out better for me here in 2014 than was the case seven years ago.)

At 4:38 PM this afternoon, it was off to the Embassy Suites Conference Center, where Paul Asaro did an impressive workshop on 1920s-1930s stride piano.

One great thing about this Embassy Suites is all the eateries within close the Steak 'n' Shake next door. [About 50 minutes prior to the start of this year's New Rag Contest, I joined contestants Samuel Schallau and William Bennett (nope...not THAT William Bennett) and William's mom Sue for dinner at Steak 'n' Shake.]

And I tasted just why Steak 'n' Shake is legendary.

I want to go back there, too!  

At 7:00 PM, it was time for New Rag...and out of seven contestants (it would've been eight had I entered), William McNally walked away with his fourth rag-writing title. 

He gets to split it with a Californian named Vincent Johnson, who wrote the entry William M. played: "And So Fourth."

Then came the first of several get-togethers called "afterglows." In these afterglows, they've got open piano (two studio models) in one room- the one where the New Rag competition took place- while the other afterglow room is meant for people who play other instruments (you'll find a studio piano there, too).

I stayed in the New Rag room and was the last of seven to sign up to play.

And it felt more comfortable this time around than in 2013.

When I come back, I'll let you know how the first round of non-New Rag OTPP competition went. 

I'm Jim Boston...thanks for reading this blog!