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In loving memory: Bill Mitchell, 1924-2017

Bill Mitchell with banjoist Jimmy Green

Bill Mitchell, one of ragtime music’s elder statesmen and the anchor of not only the first RagFest but all subsequent RagFests, is gone, having passed away on June 29, 2017. Bill was a fantastic pianist and musician and a fixture of the Southern California jazz and ragtime scenes for the past 60 years. He was a co-founder, in 1967, of the Los Angeles-based Maple Leaf Club, one of the first ragtime societies ever created, and was known far and wide for his piano-playing and bandleading skills. When the MLC morphed into the Rose Leaf Ragtime Club, Bill helped keep it going by often MCing at meetings, and when the RLRC monthly newsletter’s editor, Gus Willmorth, passed away, Bill took over as its editor.

When Friends of Jazz and Eric Marchese created RagFest in the spring of 2000, Bill Mitchell was the first performer Eric phoned to tell him about the new festival and to invite him to be the first pianist in the lineup. Bill not only appeared as a soloist; he also brought along the then-new Albany Nightboat Ragtimers, a four-man combo featuring a repertoire of both ragtime and Dixieland. Bill became the anchor of every subsequent RagFest and, in late 2001, was also among the first handful of performers to appear at the Orange County Ragtime Society, another local ragtime club Bill continued to perform at and support even despite an ever-increasing demand for his pianistic talents.

Bill was a true gentleman, and was “old-fashioned” in the best sense of the term: Soft-spoken, considerate, kind and generous. He loved many forms of music and enjoyed listening as much as playing, and he was averse to saying anything negative about fellow musicians, preferring to stay positive. He also had a wonderful sense of humor, evident by the twinkle in his eye and warm smile whenever something tickled his funny bone.

Bill will be sorely missed, and we want to take this moment to pay tribute to him; we dedicated the 2017 RagFest to his memory. RIP, dear friend, and please keep looking down on us mere ragtime mortals and keeping watch over us.