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RagFest 2013 reviews

By Fred Hoeptner

A surfeit of syncopation descended on Fullerton the weekend of October 19 and 20 as the 13th annual RagFest attracted a goodly crowd of enthusiasts to revel in the musical pleasures of the ragtime era. Organized and hosted by Eric Marchese, RagFest is Southern California’s only full-fledged ragtime festival. This year’s edition featured 11 individual performers, five musical groups and four guest artists at two venues. Saturday’s festivities occupied the Steamers Jazz Club in the downtown district; then on Sunday syncopation central moved to the Muckenthaler Cultural Center. The “Muck,” as it is known familiarly, was built in 1924 atop a hill as a family home featuring Italian villa architecture.

Admission to both venues was free. Four sources funded the festival: Muck budgetary funds, a successful “Ragtime Speakeasy” held at the Muck last April charging $20 per person, and contributions from the Orange County Ragtime Society and the Friends of Jazz.

Precisely at noon Eric took the stage at Steamers to welcome attendees with a summary of the acts that awaited. These included this year’s headliner, Virginian “Perfessor” Bill Edwards, pianist, researcher, and host of the premier ragtime website www.perfessorbill.com; pianist and cornetist Brad Kay and “Those Syncopating Songbirds,” a mini-vaudeville show; the nine-piece Heliotrope Ragtime Orchestra from San Diego, led by Bruce Vermazen and Bob Pinsker, purveyors of authentic period arrangements of tunes from the ragtime era; Tom Marion and his Ragtime String Trio, an all-new act organized especially to bring string band ragtime to the festival; contemporary vaudevillians Evans and Rogers accompanied by pianist Andrew Barrett; and surprise guest artist vocalist and guitarist Meredith Axelrod from San Francisco. Another pleasant surprise was Will Bennett, a 21-year-old pianist from Ann Arbor, MI, whom Eric invited to perform before the official festival start. Among other selections he played Paul Pratt’s rarely heard “Hot House Rag” and Joplin’s “Sunflower Slow Drag.”

Opening the festival was pianist Gary Rametta, whose program exhibited a wide variety of styles including “In the Dark,” one of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke’s pianistic excursions into “modern” music; Lamb’s classic “Bird Brain Rag”; and several of Trebor Tichenor’s folk rags. Pianist Bill Mitchell and banjoist Jimmy Green teamed for rags (“Blame It On the Blues,” “Bohemia,” “Pride of the Smoky Row”) and pop tunes from the ragtime era. Host Eric Marchese’s set included Joplin’s classic rag “Euphonic Sounds” and Matthews’ “Pastime Rag No. 2” together with his own rags “Jumpin’ Jupiter!” and “Out of Time.” Youthful Vincent Johnson, specialist in the novelty piano genre, demonstrated his mastery of ragtime with his own “Tiffany Lamp Rag.” Novelty selections included “Marigold” (Billy Mayerl), “Grasshopper Dance” (Lothar Perl), and the entrancing “Soliloquy” (Rube Bloom). Another youthful performer, Andrew Barrett opened with two obscurities by George Cobb, “Baboon Bounce” and “Get-Away March and Two-Step,” and followed with some tunes learned from a 1912-’13 orchestrion roll. He then accompanied vocalist Meredith Axelrod as she sang “Oh, That Skeleton Rag.” Meredith picked up her guitar and Tom Marion joined in with his mandolin-banjo while she sang and whistled “My Blue Heaven,” leading to the intermission.

Opening the second half, the archaic sound of rural string band ragtime prevailed with the surprise of the festival, Tom Marion’s Ragtime String Trio. It featured Tom on guitar and mandolin-banjo, Frank Fairfield, fiddle and mandolin, and Walter Spencer, bass, joined by Meredith on guitar. Emulating the practice often seen among folk fiddlers, Frank held the fiddle against his chest rather than under his chin as he opened with “Duck Shoes Rag” after the 1930 recording by the legendary Grinnell Giggers. “Beaumont Rag” and several other selections followed, including “Everybody Two-Step” and “That Mysterious Rag” with vocals by Meredith in her candid, unpretentious manner. Next, in contrast, displaying her expressive operatically trained voice, Erika Miller, in stylish vintage attire and accompanied by Eric on piano, transfixed the audience with a set of seven songs from the teens. Starting with the 1913 vaudeville tune, “Everything Is Ragtime Now,” she offered Irving Berlin’s “That International Rag”; two of the songs for which classic rag composers Scott Joplin and James Scott supplied the melodies, “Lovin’ Babe” and “Take Me Out to Lakeside,” respectively; and “The Grizzly Bear,” lyrics by Berlin. Bob Pinsker surveyed ragtime’s diversity with a set of seven: “St. Louis Rag” (Turpin), “Search-Light Rag” (Joplin), “Jimmie Blues” (Jimmy Blythe), Eubie Blake’s iconic “Charleston Rag,” and a recently rediscovered Joseph Lamb rag long thought to have been lost, “Crimson Rambler.” Youthful Ryan Wishner, despite having survived the PSAT just that morning and playing his first festival, displayed total composure in performing his specialty, the emulation of piano roll arrangements: “Wait Till the Cows Come Home,” “Smiles,” “The Desert Song.” In addition he played Lamb’s “Top Liner Rag,” Joplin’s “Magnetic Rag,” and what he called a “simplified version” of Schutt’s “Piano Puzzle” (you couldn’t prove it by me).

“Perfessor” Bill Edwards capped the concert with a set of eight pianistic gems interspersed with a few anecdotes. He introduced “Memphis Blues” and told the story of W.C. Handy’s being defrauded of his royalties as the motivation for the consequent formation of his own publishing company. Bill’s mandatory bow to Joplin and classic ragtime was “Weeping Willow.” Stylistically antithetical was “Rattlesnake Rag,” composed in 1917 but played per the 1972 jukebox hit by Lou Busch. He finished his exciting set with a flourish “ragging the classics,” namely “Hungarian Dance #5” by Brahms.

Promptly at noon Muckenthaler manager Zoot Velasco welcomed the goodly crowd with a “Hello, Fullerton!” and a short history of the estate. Attendees had a choice of three sites, each with a particular ambiance. The outdoor amphitheater featured a sound system, an overhead sun screen, plentiful seating, two areas with surfaces designed for dancing, and individual tables for consuming food and drink (either from the several vendors or from one’s picnic basket) while enjoying the show. A skylit atrium known as “the gallery,” furnished with a baby grand piano and temporary seating, afforded an inviting site for listening. The third venue, known as the “palm court,” accommodated a small piano situated outdoors on a circular driveway with temporary seating on an adjoining grassy plot shaded by trees.

Featured at the amphitheater were four hour-long sets. Specializing in the obscure, the fetching and the naughty from the 1920s, queen of cutesy Janet Klein is so good at the style that she comes across as unaffectedly natural. Accompanied by Brad Kay at the piano, she opened with a medley of songs from Vitaphone shorts from the late 1920s. Aileen Stanley’s 1926 “Sweet Man” then received the Klein treatment. Her Parlor Boys appeared onstage, adding string bass and trombone/clarinet as Klein, ukulele in hand, warbled “Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love” and “Doin’ the Uptown Lowdown.”

The seven-piece California Feetwarmers Dixieland band was a pleasant surprise with an authentic trad jazz sound and tight arrangements of the classic repertoire – for example, “Shake It and Break It” and “Aunt Hagar’s Children’s Blues.” Lacking a pianist, they invited Rose Leaf regulars John Reed-Torres to the piano for “Maple Leaf Rag” and Andrew Barrett for “Get With It, Red Hot Rhythm Now” and “Weeping Willow.”

It is usually a struggle to organize a top-notch ragtime orchestra and to keep it together, but Bruce Vermazen and Bob Pinsker, co-leaders of San Diego’s Heliotrope Ragtime Orchestra, have succeeded. RagFest has recognized the group’s ascendancy and featured it each year since 2006. Displaying a broad repertoire, the group’s offerings included pop tune ”My Merry Oldsmobile,” “Climax Rag” by James Scott, the habañera “Admiration” by William Tyers, “Tishomingo Blues” by Spencer Williams, and “Red Wing” by Kerry Mills.

Closing the series at the amphitheater was Brad Kay and his mini-vaudeville show “Those Syncopating Songbirds.” The “Boids,” as he calls them, were Flo Lawrence, Mikal Sandoval, Marea Boylan, Indira, Charles “Chuckles” Gardner, and James Parten. In seemly raspy voice, torch singer Flo sang the “Crazy Blues” and the slavery lament “Song from a Cotton Field.” Charles and James traded lines with each other in the scandalous (at least for 1919) “Take Your Girlie to the Movies (If You Can’t Make Love at Home)” and (at least for 1920) “Tiddle-De-Winks (at All the Men).” Mikal, “The San Francisco Songbird,” elegantly arrayed in period attire, contributed “My Suppressed Desire.” Guest Meredith Axelrod had Halloween in mind, singing “Syncopated Boogie-Boo” from 1912— “He’s after me, He’s after you.” Indira presented songwriter Walter Donaldson’s entreaty to singer and actress Jane Green, “Somebody Like You.” Donning World War I helmets, the Boids’ finale, “On Patrol In No Man’s Land,” lyric composed by James Reese Europe in a field hospital while recovering from a mustard gas attack and performed by the entire cast, introduced a serious note. Quoting Brad, “It is the only song from World War I to tell the unvarnished truth about actual warfare, AND [sic] it’s in ragtime! The vast number of Tin Pan Alley songs dealing with ‘The Great War’ appealed either to one’s patriotism or one’s heart while conveniently sidestepping the lethal reality of combat.”

Meanwhile, individual pianists and singers were entertaining in half-hour sets at the other two venues.
At Eric’s invitation, guest Will Bennett opened the gallery with “Russian Rag,” “Dill Pickles,” and his own ragtime version of the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody. Ryan Wishner displayed more of his remarkable repertoire of piano roll arrangements plus “Wall Street Rag” (Joplin), “Climax Rag” (Scott), and “Agitation Rag” (Hampton). Eric Marchese offered Joplin’s “Sunflower Slow Drag” and “The Strenuous Life” plus some of his originals. Vincent Johnson contributed several that I don’t recall hearing before: “Lazy Rhapsody” (Howard Jackson), “Rambling in Rhythm” (Arthur Schutt), and “Serenata” (Rube Bloom), plus his original “Puppy Love.” A class act that had not appeared on Saturday, contemporary vaudevillians Sharon Evans and Rick Rogers, accompanied by Andrew Barrett on piano, delighted the audience with their impressions and vocals of two of the greatest songs from the era: “Everybody Rag with Me” and “Home in Pasadena.” Shirley Case contributed some rarely heard pieces: “Sweet Pickles” (Theron C. Bennett), “Cabbage Leaf Rag” (Copeland), and three by contemporary composers—“Cape Rose Rag” and “Glen Arbor Rag” by Trebor Tichenor and “Queen of Diamonds, a hot tango” by Galen Wilkes. Gary Rametta, who had opened this edition of the festival, also closed it with contemporary composer Ron Ross’ “Joplinesque” and rags by two of the “big three” composers of classic ragtime, “Alaskan Rag” by Joseph Lamb and “Gladiolus Rag” by Scott Joplin.

Kudos to Eric for producing another wonderful festival. Join the celebration next year when vaudeville and ragtime again invade Fullerton!

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