Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Last One? (Part 2)

So far, the 41st Annual World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival had been some kind of fun (personal and otherwise)...from the Thursday tuneups at West Peoria's Sky Harbor Steakhouse to the ride on the Spirit of Peoria (an excursion I wouldn't have been allowed to take if the ticket seller at the dock hadn't recognized me from last year; I hadn't signed up in advance in 2015) to watching the New Rag Contest and the Duet Contest to playing in the party room (the very room where Duet and New Rag were staged). 

Still had an axe to grind.

Last year, at the very last moment at the very last OTPP afterglow party, I was jamming with two of the 2014 Regular Division finalists (including the man who'd just gotten through winning it all)...and the one who didn't win it all in 2014 liked what he was hearing from me.

He couldn't leave it at that.

This same contestant asked me: "Why don't you play like that onstage?" 

Then he instructed me to play alongside recordings.

I started doing that, first with a Sony Walkman, then- starting this past February- with an MP3 player I'd won at our company's picnic in September of last year.

When I can't take my MP3 player to a piano practice session, I'll work those rags out on an organ (in an effort to slow down). Or else I'll watch ragtime videos on YouTube and study them. 

Nevertheless, I was so darned put off by his (let's face it, Bill Edwards') question that I was all set to boycott the 2015 C&F party-room sessions. 

Boycott a party room? 

Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

Anyway, the Friday afterglow worked out fine, and I definitely was fired up about the next day...where nineteen contestants (eleven Regular Division ones and eight in the Junior Division) would duke it out. 

For 2015, the folks at the Old-Time Music Preservation Association changed some rules around to get more older contestants in there. (For a while, more JDs than RDs had gone out for OTPP 41.0.)
First of all, they decided to change the cutoff year for contest songs to 1939 (it previously was 1929). 

Second, contest coordinator Faye Ballard was given the green light to put her contestant's hat back on.

Then they did the unthinkable:

Ted Lemen and Co. opened this year's competition to Regular Division pianists who'd previously retired undefeated. 

Well, the philosophy was: "If we're going to go out...we're going out WITH A BANG!!"

And all nineteen of us were going to show our stuff on...a 2010s era Charles Walter studio piano. (The plan was originally to replace the famous 1883 Weber upright with a 2015, fresh-out-of-the-box Knabe studio model...but the Knabe proved too stiff for many of this year's hopefuls. So, the fresh-out-of-the-crate piano was put in the other party room and the Walter shifted over to the contest stage at the hotel's conference center.) 

And Michigander Will Bennett became the first OTPP competitor to show the contest audience what the Walter can do...and he took advantage of the new song rules by playing "Jeepers Creepers" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."

The crowd got a second helping of the Wolverine State Sound when John Remmers stepped up to the stage. John (a retired college professor) decided not to dip his toes into the waters of the 1930s, feeling comfortable with "My Sunny Tennessee" and "Scott Joplin's New Rag."

The next two performers were new to the contest...and neither one was from Michigan.

Junior Division contestant (and Illinoisan) Amberlyn Aimone turned in a pair of rags also written by ol' Scott himself: "Swipesy" and "The Ragtime Dance."

Nina Freeman (a JD'er) made the trip that fellow Texan Melissa Roen Williams had signed up for a year ago (and didn't take). And Nina made the trip really count by polishing off "Fig Leaf Rag" (Scott wrote it) and "Russian Rag," one of George Cobb's most famous compositions.

David Cavalari (fresh off his New Rag Contest triumph) put the ball back in the RD court in his bid to get back to that division's finals...and he started his 2015 quest out with a bang, playing "Fingerbuster" and "The Finger Breaker." 

Then came the first performer to jump in on the most drastic rule change of all.

Instead of cohosting the ceremonies alongside Ted, Adam Swanson jumped back into the ring to add to his already matchless list of OTPP championships...and he launched his 2015 effort by saluting Eubie Blake (the most famous composer to come out of Adam's new stomping grounds, Baltimore, MD) with "Memories of You" and "Troublesome Ivories." 

Pennsylvanian Michael J. Winstanley was the fifth of the eleven Regular Division performers to go up to bat, and he played "Deed I Do" (one of my favorite 1920s tunes) and "That Eccentric Rag."

Then came the youngest of the three Duet Contest partnerships.

Nathan Beasley went up first; he knocked it out with Luckey Roberts' "Pork and Beans" and Mark Janza's "Aviation Rag."

Fellow JD'er Danny Souvigny was trying to hook a third championship in that division (to go with his 2012 and 2014 triumphs). This year, Danny took to the stage with "After You've Gone" and "Go Wash an Elephant."

Adam Yarian (a Marylander-turned-Californian; he now lives and works in Los Angeles) was the last to go to the Charles Walter studio piano prior to the Saturday session's lunch break. The first C&F contestant to win three JD titles and three RD championships, Adam Y. showed the Embassy Suites crowd just how he helped raise the bar at a time when Adam S. was starting out (and learning fast!) as a contestant. 

Adam Y. gave 'em "Handful of Keys" and "The Pearls."

Well, lunch time came and went; contest fans had a dizzying array of places to eat within (at the very least) walking distance of the Embassy Suites East the Steak 'n' Shake next door.

The place was packed.

In fact, that restaurant was so packed that Saturday afternoon that I had to leave that S 'n' S without eating a single bite.

This year, I drew eleventh position...and so, I had to kick off the second half of this year's prelims. (Yep...I followed Adam Y.)

I turned in a "Hardhearted Hannah" that had the same beat as Del Wood's version of "Down Yonder;" after that, I did "In My Merry Oldsmobile." 

For "Olds," I took inspiration from 1980s-1990s OTPP contestant Mark Lutton, who used the lower keys to "start" his car. When it came to reworking "Hannah," I started thinking about all the crap some people at the C&F had given me through the years- from Steve Foster scolding me for starting over in a practice session in 1993 to Bill Edwards' 2014 question- and I did something I'd never set out to do in competition before:

I hit the keys with my forearms during the middle of "Hardhearted Hannah."  

Well, the audience really liked it...and I'd never felt more comfortable about playing in C&F competition than on OTPP Saturday 2015.

Dan Mouyard- the first to win a Reg crown after taking a Junior title- came up to bat next, and he wowed 'em with "I Found a New Baby" and "Steeplechase Rag." (Morgan Siever, the top JD contestant in 2010 and 2011, rocked those same two numbers when she was in competition.)

And then came...the contest coordinator, a woman who, when she was twelve, almost won the whole ball of wax (at a time when everybody competed for just one top prize).

Faye's first foray into OTPP competition since 2010 worked out fine (well, I like to think so!)...and she turned in a couple of her old standbys, "Royal Garden Blues" and "Honky Tonk." (Sorry, Bill Doggett fans...not that "Honky Tonk.")

Speaking of JD...three more younger pianists weighed in at that moment. 

First up was the fifth of six Illinoisans to go at it in 2015, Megan Jobe (she came back after sitting out 2014).  

I'm glad Megan came back, for it gave the Embassy Suites crowd a chance to hear her unique style, which she brought to "Cleaning Up in Georgia" and "The Entertainer."

Fourteen down...five to go.

It would've been seven to go if Isaac Smith (who delayed Danny's march to three Junior Division championships by winning the division in 2013) hadn't gone to Des Moines to compete in the Iowa High School Track and Field Championships...and if Madeline Yara (from Mint Hill, NC; one of the Charlotte suburbs) had found two pre-1940 tunes to work on. was left to Isaac's and Madeline's younger siblings to carry on the family names in the OTPP battles.

And carry on they did. 

Mia Yara celebrated her thirteenth birthday by entering the New Rag Contest; the next day, she took to the Charles Walter to bat out "At the Jazz Band Ball" and "Mood Indigo."

Then the guitarist-keyboardist-vocalist in the Charlotte-area rock band Controll Freex (visit gave way to Eli Smith...who brought home "Grizzly Bear" and "Dizzy Fingers."

Two of last year's RD finalists were next...the two I jammed with at the final 2014 afterglow party at the Embassy Suites East Peoria.

Ethan Uslan (he's also Maddy's and Mia's old-time piano mentor) hadn't lost a beat in his effort to hang on to that Ted Lemen Traveling Trophy...and he started his defense of that title by firing up "Syboney" (I hope I spelled it right) and "Georgia on My Mind."

Bill himself (the only Bill in competition this time, since circumstances kept Bill McNally in the New York City area for Memorial Day weekend) was in fine, fine form himself as he brought back a couple of tunes he'd entered before: "Mississippi Rag" and "Toot, Toot Tootsie (Goodbye)." 

Leo Volker rounded out the 2015 prelims, using "Maple Leaf Rag" and "Magnetic Rag" to close out the Saturday leg of a one-Smith, one-Yara weekend in East Peoria. 

Well, that was it...nothing to do but (1) finish the food I'd finally gotten from Steak 'n' Shake and (2) join everybody else in finding out how the JD competition went. (To say nothing of wondering who was going to play the next day!)

When contest judges Paul Asaro, Patrick Holland, and Raymond Schwarzkopf came out of deliberation, they found out that Mia kept the Yara family rolling in the dough by pocketing $40 (good for fifth place in the Junior Division).

Nathan got fourth place among the J's (that's $60) and Eli made sure a Smith would get paid (he picked up $100, the third-place prize in the division). Meanwhile, Nina took her second-place prize of $125 back home to San Antonio, TX. 

And Danny S. still had the magic...and it made him $250 richer.

One question remained: "Who's gonna play in the Regular Division semifinals?"

Wait for my next post and you'll get the answer!