Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Tenth Time Around!

Well...we did it.

On Sunday, 7-13-2014, at Omaha's First Central Congregational United Church of Christ, the Great Plains Ragtime Society staged the tenth version of an event called the Ragtime to Riches Festival.  

Okay...we didn't completely fill up the church's Memorial Hall. But we did get more of an audience this time around than in 2013.

And right from the time the doors opened (1:00 PM Central time), the place was jumpin'.

The first event right after the doors of First Central's Memorial Hall open is an open-piano session.

So glad someone else got it going.

And, at this year's open-piano hour, Brent Watkins (he competed in the early 2000s at the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival, then went on to coproduce the first documentary about the event) got the ball rolling on one of the two pianos at Memorial Hall. (Brent did "Maple Leaf Rag" on the hall's 1920s Mason & Hamlin grand; eventually, he tried the other piano...a 1900s-or-so Anderson & Newton upright.)

I'm glad Brent went up to bat first, because I was still nervous about the second R to R event...something I was still furiously preparing for. 

People started coming in while the man from Iowa City (by way of Cedar Rapids, IA) continued to knock out rags. And by 2:00 PM, we got our biggest audience of this year's festival.

And those thirteen people watched me switch between contemporaneous speaking, the use of note cards, and a few turns on that A&N upright...as I delivered a workshop about how Tin Pan Alley sounded during the 1900-1909 period.   

The main message I tried to get across was that, when the 20th Century started to kick in, America's music publishing industry started to grow and grow and grow...not just physically, but also in influence, what with more and more people coming over from other lands to get in on the bounty America had to offer. (And in many cases, the newcomers of the early 20th Century met with real resistance, too...just like the newcomers right here in the early 21st Century.)  

Plus: The resistance of 100-110 years ago showed up in lots of Tin Pan Alley songs. 

And...did I mention that Broadway was starting to become an entertainment force at that very moment, thanks to composers like George M. Cohan? 

Originally, this workshop was to stop at 1919...but to cover nineteen years in sixty minutes felt more like a fly-by overview. (Even so, chopping off the 1910s turned the presentation into a drive-by summary. But the crowd- including an official from the Nebraska Department of Education, John Sieler- liked it.)  

They liked it even more when Faye Ballard took to the stage.

The OTPP contest coordinator/collegiate office manager from Champaign, IL delivered a concert that doubled as Ragtime 101. In her first Ragtime to Riches, Faye turned in a set that emphasized the music of ragtime's Big Three (that's right- Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb). 

And for good measure, this star of "The Entertainers" (the movie Brent coproduced) threw in Zez Confrey's "Dizzy Fingers," Jelly Roll Morton's "Grandpa's Spell," and three of her signature numbers: "Sailin' Away on the Henry Clay," "Mack the Knife," and "It Had to Be You."  (Maybe you've seen Faye's version of "Mack the Knife" on YouTube.) 

When Faye's 14-tune concert wrapped up, we showed...that's right, we showed "The Entertainers."

Now if eight of those thirteen people had stuck around to see the film...they would've loved it, too.

At the end of each showing of the now two-year-old documentary, there's a question-and-answer session. Usually, Nick Holle (he was here in Omaha for this year's R to R) conducts it; sometimes, his fellow "Entertainers" codirector, Michael Zimmer, does the honors (which was the case when the movie was shown in San Diego on 3-14-2014). And the rest of the time, Michael and Nick team up to field audience questions.  

This time, the Q-and-A involved an audience of one: A local pianist named Kevin Robinson. (Check out his "Play Me, I'm Yours" videos on www.youtube.com.) 

Still, this Q-and-A session was no less effective than previous ones. (And I remember when Redd Foxx talked about being able to entertain a one-person audience!)  

Well, another open-piano session took place (with Faye and Brent taking to both pianos); after that, Nick, Brent, Faye, and I ate dinner (we got take-out food from a neighborhood restaurant called Crescent Moon Ale House; it's at 3578 Farnam St., 68131).

Then, at 7:30 PM, it was time for the last event of the 2014 Ragtime to Riches get-together.

Last year, I built my own concert around the memory of some of the big-name newsmakers and big-name celebrities who passed away in 2012, focusing on the Number One recording on the day this or that personality came into the world. (For instance, "For Me and My Gal," recorded by the duo of Van & Schenck, hit the top spot on the pop charts on 7-17-1917...the very day Phyllis Diller was born. And I even ragged up "So Much in Love," the leading pop hit on the Billboard charts on 8-9-1963...Whitney Houston's birthdate.)

For 2014, since this year's R to R would be the tenth one, I wanted to call up tunes whose titles had a T, an E, and an N...in that order.

As a result, the fans who hung around got to hear numbers like "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "Listen to the Mockingbird," "After You've Gone," and "Hardhearted Hannah." There was also a 1952 song from composers Johnny Lange and Hy Heath, "There'll Be No New Tunes on This Old Piano." (Tennessee Ernie Ford put it on his 1962 album, "Here Comes the Mississippi Showboat." And I even saw him sing it on his old TV show when I was little.)

Two rags were in there, too: "The Entertainer" and something I wrote in 2001 (on an old piano, of course): "Stompin' at the Children's Museum." 

I'd never performed my own rags at any R to R before...and I was relieved to find out the audience liked my ode to the nine years (1997-2006) I spent not only banging the 88s at the Omaha Children's Museum, but watching the children themselves (and some adults) show off their own skills on the old upright.

Some of Faye's (and some of my) offerings at the festival made it onto YouTube. (Just type in "Ragtime to Riches Festival.")  

Man, we had a ball at R to R 10.0, and we raised $140 for the Great Plains Ragtime Society.

Don't know how the eleventh annual festival will shape up...but I do know this:

I hope you'll be able to check out next year's Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue ragtime outing. We think you'll have a ball, too.  

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