Return to RMRF Home page
A Review of the ROCKY MOUNTAIN RAGTIME FESTIVAL 2004
By Fred Hoeptner
Headlined this year by Max Morath, renowned musician entertainer who has been “living a ragtime life” for more than 40 years, the twelfth annual Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival opened Thursday, July 14 in Boulder, CO and closed the following Monday evening having presented four major evening concerts, eleven hours of specialty concerts, a symposium session, a cabaret session, a Sunday brunch and dance, and indeterminate hours of late evening “afterburner” sessions. The Board of Directors chaired by Jack Rummel had obtained funding from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District of Denver, the Gordon Gamm Gift Fund, radio station KGNU, and the donations of many individuals. Musical Director Scott Kirby had accomplished his usual superb job of selecting performers and organizing the programs. In addition, a cadre of 26 indispensable volunteers helped to make the festival a roaring success.
The venue for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday concerts and the symposium was again the comfortable air-conditioned and acoustically superb Unity Church, with the Saturday evening cabaret, after hour sessions, and Sunday brunch and dance at a new location, the elegant Millennium Harvest House Hotel. The Monday concert was held as usual at the Chris Finger Piano Company showroom in nearby Niwot. The Finger Company also furnished the superb Schimmel concert pianos used for the concerts. While the emphasis at the concerts remained on ragtime, this most eclectic of the festivals digressed as usual into other syncopated musical genres.
The festival regulars, pianists and composers Frank French, Brian Keenan, Scott Kirby, David Thomas Roberts (affectionately known as DTR), and Jack Rummel, were joined this year by inimitable musicians specializing in disparate styles. Festival headliner Max Morath, widely respected singer, pianist, and author, who since the late 1950s has devoted his life to performing and promoting American popular music of the nineties, aughts and teens, presented the Friday evening show. Also appearing was Norwegian Morton Gunnar Larsen, whom many ragtimers esteem as the most proficient pianist specializing in ragtime and early jazz performing today. Others were Trebor Tichenor, respected ragtime pianist since the 1950s from St. Louis who specializes in the folksier aspects of the genre; Bob Ault, from Blackwater, MO, multi-instrumentalist (piano, banjo, harp guitar) and collector of vintage recordings; and Nell French, niece of Frank, currently of Kansas City, violist and chamber musician. Again the festival embraced string band ragtime performed this year by Clarke Buehling (five-string banjo and vocals) and the Skirtlifters (Thom Howard, guitar, and Tom Verdot, fiddle and banjo) from Fayetteville, Arkansas. Morris Palter, professor at the University of California San Diego, presented ragtime on the xylophone, a festival first, accompanied by his UCSD compatriot guitarist Colin McAllister.
Brian Keenan, a ten-year ago graduate in music at the University of Colorado, opened the Thursday evening Kick-Off Concert with his composition “Whitewater” and Gil Lieby’s “Carter Laker,” both in the folk rag tradition. Trebor Tichenor and Bob Ault, piano and five-string banjo, continued the folkish theme with Hunter’s “Tickled to Death” and Brun Campbell’s “Lulu White.” Ault then took over the piano for Scott’s “Ragtime Oriole.” Morten Gunnar Larsen followed with a Eubie Blake rag from the 1970s, “Dicty’s on Seventh Avenue,” which Eubie had composed after studying modern harmony, and DTR’s “For Molly Kaufman.” Explaining that he had recently discovered ragtime and was anxious to play it, surprise performer Paul Stewart, Associate Professor of Music at University of North Carolina, offered “Pineapple Rag.” Frank French played two Ernesto Nazereth pieces and DTR two sections from his monumental New Orleans Streets suite. During intermission a xylophone appeared onstage. Morris Palter, xylophonist extraordinaire, expressed his passion for the music of George Hamilton Green, the first virtuoso on the instrument (in the teens and early twenties), and played a group of Green’s compositions. His accompanist, guitarist Colin McAllister, played the instrument in two-beat folk style providing the perfect enhancement for Palter’s pyrotechnics. Rummel performed “Blind Boone’s Southern Rag Medley #2,” and Scott Kirby and DTR duetted on Joplin and Marshall’s “Swipesy Cakewalk,” to enthusiastic applause. Frank French introduced his niece, Nell French, violist, and they duetted on Frank’s stirring 1999 composition “Centennial Cakewalk” reminiscent of William Christopher O’Hare. Brian Keenan offered Max Morath’s classic “One For Amelia,” French and DTR duetted on Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” and Larsen joined DTR for the concert capper, DTR’s spirited “Kreole.”
Friday morning began the first of the specialty concerts hosted by Jack Rummel, New Rags and Their Riches. Rummel began with his classic, “Lone Jack to Knob Noster.” French announced that he would take his usual liberty and stretch the definition of ragtime. He praised the viola as more suitable than the violin to accompany the piano because its lower range doesn’t duplicate the piano lead. He and Nell then duetted on his “Romanza,” a repeat of “Centennial Cakewalk,” and Hal Isbitz’s entrancing tango “La Mariposa” (“The Butterfly”). Commenting that he had sought something off the beaten path, Brian Keenan played Rummel’s western themed “Back to Grass Valley” and his own “Street Rods,” a rag depicting a parade of 1950s cars in his hometown, St. Paul. DTR finished with one of the two ragtime themes from New Orleans Streets, “Napoleon Avenue.”
The second specialty session, Those Southern Blues, featured host Trebor Tichenor performing some selections from his CD of the same name, Bob Ault accompanying on five-string banjo. Tichenor pointed out the close relationship between ragtime and blues describing some pieces as “ragtime blues” and noting that composer W.C. Handy had marketed them as ragtime—“Yellow Dog Blues,” “Joe Turner Blues,” “Aunt Hagar’s Children.” Scott Kirby did Frank Capie’s “Tin Whistle Blues,” in which the first strain is a standard blues but the unique second strain is in a minor key and syncopated.
A session featuring the ragtime of Joe Lamb, one of the “big three” composers of classic ragtime, followed, emceed by Kirby, who opened with a beautiful rendition of “Cottontail Rag.” Other highlights were Brian Keenan with the rarely heard “Old Home Rag,” which incorporates folk strains including “Home Sweet Home,” and Morten Larsen with “Toadstool Rag”—which he deduced that Lamb had started in the early 1900s but completed during his later period—and “Alaskan Rag.”
The Skirtlifters, having just returned from a European tour and garbed in formal black tuxedos from the 1850s, opened the afternoon sessions playing 11 pieces, most of them obscure galops, cakewalks, polkas, and other minstrel pieces from 1830 (“Clear the Kitchen”) through 1915 (Dabney’s “Georgia Grind”). Clarke Buehling soloed on the Souza march “Washington Post.” The group concluded the session with “Maple Leaf Rag” to a rousing ovation.
Meanwhile Hal Isbitz, inimitable composer of romantic rags and tangos suffused with memorable melodies and sophisticated harmonies, presented the symposium session. Hal recited an abbreviated bio noting that Joshua Rifkin’s recordings had first interested him in seriously ragtime, that Chopin was his greatest influence, that he had learned to craft melody by studying the works of Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, and Vincent Youmans, and that Frank French’s performance of “Odeon” by Nazareth at a Maple Leaf Club meeting had first interested him in tangos. After answering many questions that he has been asked over the years and taking audience questions, Hal finished by performing a piece favored by many of his fans, “Opalescence.”
Kirby’s session, Joplin: American Genius, featured Joplin compositions played by Kirby—“Pineapple,” “Heliotrope Bouquet,” “Bethena,” and “Magnetic,” Frank and Nell French—“Paragon,” and Larsen—two selections from Joplin’s opera Tremonisha: “Prelude” and “A Real Slow Drag,” to a standing ovation. A segment featuring rags played at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair followed. Some highlights were French with “On the Pike” (Scott), Kirby with “The Entertainer” (Joplin), and French and Kirby (pianos) and Ault (banjo) with St. Louis Rag” (Turpin). The final specialty concert of the day, DTR Plays DTR, was exactly that as Roberts played a variety of his popular compositions including the rhythmic, catchy “Muscatine,” the lullaby-like “Babe of the Mountains,” the fervent “Memories of a Missouri Confederate,” and the impassioned “Roberto Clemente.”
The Friday evening program featuring Max Morath attracted a large crowd nearly filling the sanctuary. Monologuist extraordinaire Morath held the audience spellbound as he presented his show Ragtime and Again, which had recently premiered with a critically acclaimed six-week run off-Broadway. Philosophizing on American culture as it existed at the turn of the century compared to today, Morath humorously expounded on a variety of subjects—Mr. Berlin and Mr. Joplin, booze and bars, rag songs, women, semantics, philosophy, and more—and interspersed each episode with anecdotes, rags, and songs.
Saturday morning the specialty concerts resumed with Folk Ragtime as performed by Trebor Tichenor and Bob Ault, piano and banjo, followed by The Skirtlifters. Highlights were “Car-Barlick Acid,” which Tichenor said that one of the bands at the St. Louis World’s Fair had programmed; Clarke Buehling’s demonstration of the fretless banjo soloing on “The Far South” from 1887; and his band the Skirtlifters’ performance of minstrel tunes that exhibited a melding of traditions from Africa, Scotland, and Ireland.
A Tribute to Hal Isbitz featured performances of six of Hal’s Latin pieces by Morten Larsen—three short danzas, and Frank and Nell French—“The Flirt,” “La Mariposa,” and “Miranda.” Up next was Morris Palter (Ragtime on the Xylophone) who educated the audience about his instrument. Before George Hamilton Green the xylophone had been considered merely a vaudeville novelty, but he elevated its status to that of a serious musical instrument. Green composed all the music that Palter played today from 1920 to 1922, the “novelty” era for ragtime when swing rhythms predominated. Palter performed nine of Green’s virtuoso pieces exhibiting a range of tempos and dynamics to an enthusiastic audience reaction.
The afternoon program began with Max Morath: Up Close, an interactive program with the audience. He presented views on topics ranging from ragtime’s significant contribution to popular music—syncopation, which came from the African-American community, negated the imperative of singing on the beat, and gave us freedom, to rock and roll music—there wouldn’t be any without solid state technology and multiple tracking. The Spanish Tinge presented Keenan, Kirby, Roberts, and French performing compositions by Jelly Roll Morton, Gottschalk, Nazereth, Keenan, and French. James Scott’s Ragtime ended the specialty concert series with Keenan, Kirby, and French performing six of Scott’s popular rags capped by a sparkling duet imparting the feel of a calliope, Keenan and French with “On the Pike.”
The Saturday evening feature concert attracted a large audience who were treated to an array of ragtime and related musical styles. Trebor Tichenor, piano, and Bob Ault, banjo and piano, began with folk ragtime. Ault soloed on Charles L. Johnson’s earliest published composition, “Hester on Parade” and they duetted on Tichenor’s “Bucksnort Stomp,” and two others. The Skirtlifters followed with nine tunes including “The Fireball Galop” (1899), two banjos and guitar; Charles Johnson’s ragtime waltz “Tabasco,“ fiddle, banjo and guitar; “The Entertainer,” a finger-picked guitar solo; and a joyous finale “Hot Corn” featuring fiddle, banjo, and guitar. A standing ovation evoked an encore, “Creole Belles,” leading to the intermission. DTR started the second half with his “Madison Heights Girl” and Scott Kirby’s beautiful “Charbonneau,” which DTR described as the most elegant new age piano solo ever conceived. He concluded with premieres of two commissioned compositions, “Maryanna’s Waltz,” a compelling mood piece, and “Discovery,” commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition, which DTR described as “non-Latin terra verde.” Frank and Nell French performed a work by renowned Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, “Le Grand Tango,” originally written for cello and piano and textured with sinister harmonies and frenetic jabs of expression. Assuming the stage, Morten Gunnar Larsen announced that he would slowly lead the audience back to ragtime. This he did, building his program incrementally with total respect for each composer’s creation. He started with three pieces from the Caribbean Islands (Gottschalk’s “Sui Moi,” two Cuban dances by Sirantis, Lecuona’s “A La Antigua”), and followed with an Ernesto Nazereth Brazillian tango, William Christopher O’Hare’s “Levee Revels” (1899), DTR’s impassioned “Camille,” and Eubie Blake’s showpiece “Troublesome Ivories” accelerating to a rousing climax that brought the audience to its feet cheering. Back for an encore and announcing that he’d like to play some Norwegian music, Larsen began his unique arrangement of Christian Sinding’s “Rustles of Spring,” a piece from the standard piano repertoire, in a placid style emulative of Edvard Grieg, but soon transformed it into a stomp. Thus concluded a memorable concert.
Sunday the festival presented a brunch followed by a dance with the incomparable six-piece Mont Alto Ragtime and Tango Orchestra led by Rodney Sauer and featuring soprano Susan Rogers. Although there was grumbling over a gap in the portable dance floor, all 20 or so dancing couples, many elegantly attired, obviously enjoyed the event. Favorites of mine were Sauer’s arrangements of Tyers’ “Panama,” in its original tango format (trad jazz bands convert it to a 2/4) and Hal Isbitz’s entrancing “Palmetto Rag.”
The illusion of immersion in music makes the Monday night concert in the showroom of the Chris Finger Piano Company in nearby Niwot the favorite of many festivalgoers. Host Jack Rummel announced that the format would differ this year in featuring only four pianists with the emphasis in the first half on new compositions. Kirby and French led off with the popular “Belle of Louisville,” which French followed with a newly completed commission “Ricardo’s Rumba” and Rummel with his ragtime waltz “When The Work’s All Done I’ll Dance.” DTR played three selections—Introduction” from New Orleans Streets, Kirby’s “Charbonneau,” and his commissioned piece “Discovery”—and Kirby his bittersweet “Foreign Shore” from The Journey Home. Offerings by Rummel (“12th Street Rag”), DTR (Morton’s “Fickle Fay Creep”) and the entire cast on four pianos (“Maple Leaf Rag”) led into the intermission. French and Rummel began the second half with Scott’s “On the Pike” and French followed with “Lone Jack to Knob Noster,” which he called Rummel’s most successful composition. French offered two tangos, Isbitz’s “At Midnight” and Gottschalk’s “Tremolo”; DTR and French, Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Crave;” and DTR, theme and variations on “Bright Morning Star,” a folksong from eastern Kentucky. Bassist Harry Olson joined Kirby and DTR for Tony Jackson’s frenetic bawdyhouse piece “Naked Dance.” All four pianists closed the concert with DTR’s “Roberto Clemente,” one at a time abandoning their pianos to leave DTR to finish his impassioned elegy alone. Following the concert Chris Finger Pianos hosted a reception with snacks and refreshments in the pavilion adjoining the showroom, the perfect conclusion to another exciting festival.
Return to RMRF Home Page