Thanks much to Daniel Levi and his friends for posting this video from the ragtime event in Eau Claire, WI. It’s my new stride piano medley of tunes from Mary Poppins, and it’s a good sample of the kind of thing I was playing for the kiddos in Missouri 😀
Select the link below to view. I’ve installed a snappy new widget for the site called Shadowbox_JS which reduces load times for the page and loads up videos and images in a lovely black box. Check it out!
I’m in St. Louis. I can tell because the buildings are red brick, and the place feels blue-collar and rough around the edges just like Pittsburgh where I grew up. The train lumbers into the yard and drops us on a platform, off of which I make my way to the waiting car of Dave, my host for the night.
Dave is a ragtimer like me, one of the crazies who heard this music when he was young and, also like me, was so compelled by it that he taught himself how to play the piano specifically so he could play ragtime. Dave is jovial, with a wide smile and a satisfied belly. You know the smile is real because his eyebrows raise along with the corners of his mouth, and you find yourself smiling more around him. I think it’s because his eyes, green with flecks of grey, possess this constant boyish excitement when talking about music, and we talk the whole way back to his house about ragtime, music, the state of the world, everything.
My stomach gurgles with hunger. I had a blueberry scone and a smoothie at my haunt Wine and More in Sedalia before leaving, but that was hours ago. Dave suggests we stop by Gus’ Pretzel Shop for a St. Louis treat, fresh-baked soft pretzel sticks, and I cradle the warm pretzels all the way back to his house. I set my bags in the basement, meet the five cats, and then I douse the pretzels like an oil fire in mustard and chew and talk about ragtime for two hours before its time to eat again, this time on The Hill, St. Louis’ famous Italian neighborhood where some of the best Italian food in the country is located.
The Hill is almost exactly what I expect, save for the fact that it’s not actually on any discernible hill I can see. Dave explains that it’s higher than St. Louis proper. I tell him to come to Pittsburgh where I will show him what should count as a “hill.”
We eat at a local place, Rigazzi’s. Dave tells me the Hill used to have the largest population of Italian immigrants outside of New York City. The tablecloths are red-and-white, checkered like the kind you see at a picnic to the point of being stereotypical. I have a glass of the house cabernet, sweeter than I’m used to, and Dave and I compare notes on life. He met his wife in 4th grade. I met mine in 5th. They were the first to have kids in their group of friends, but they still are close with their friends from high school. I take heart in the fact.
I scarf down garlic chicken parmesan, and we return to the house so I can get presentable for the night’s concert. It’s a 30-minute drive to the Scott Joplin House, the home where Joplin lived with Belle Hayden during his time in St. Louis. Back then it was on Morgan Street, a busy, densely populated, blue-collar district of African-Americans and German immigrants. Now it sits almost entirely alone in, literally, a field north of the city. As we walk up to the house, Dave recounts how recent archeological digs on the grounds turned up knives and bullets, which seems at odds with the strange, lonely placement of the building now.
Back in Joplin’s day, the house was near the honky-tonks and dives of the notorious Chestnut Valley; it’s not unlikely Joplin heard some crazy shit out the window while he was writing stunning tunes like “The Entertainer” and “Easy Winners.”
The upstairs rooms is small but cozy. Folks start to trickle in at 6:30, and by 7:00 the room is nearly at capacity. It’s an intimate group, 40 folks in all, but the small space makes the audience seem that much bigger.
I’m not at all nervous until I see, sitting in the front row, a member of ragtime royalty: Trebor Tichenor. I’ll let you Google him, if you’re interested, but let me put it this way: When I was a kid, I had two books I read every night, and one of them (Rags and Ragtime) was written by Trebor Tichenor. The man is ragtime. And ragtime is sitting in the front row, right where I can see him.
I have one thing in my favor, though: This is my 17th performance in 9 days. After a week of playing for snot-nosed, Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks-obsessed second-graders, an audience of adults and an in-tune grand piano is a waking dream. My fingers find the keys for the opening notes of Brian Holland’s “The Chips are Down,” and I’m home. I play ten pieces, we take a short intermission, and then I finish up with eight more. Standing ovation. I let it wash over me like summer rain, bowing, shouting my thanks over the din. In my head the clapping isn’t just for tonight’s concert, it’s for the odyssey, for the nine days I’ve spent – hell, the sixteen years I’ve spent – getting to this point.
After the concert, Trebor comes up to me. Most of the audience has left. It’s clear he’s been waiting to talk to me. I take his hand in mine in the most grateful handshake I can muster. “Thank you so much for coming,” I say. “What an honor to have you here.” His grip is soft. Piano hands. He looks me in the eyes through thick-rimmed glasses, his grey, thin hair spread unevenly across his weathered head, and he says simply: “You are magnificent.”
I struggle to remain standing.
I buy Dave a beer at a local pub, and we retire to his place and do a face-plant in our respective beds. Tomorrow will come early. I have to be up at 5 AM to get to St. Louis airport in time to catch the flights that will take me back to DC, hopefully in time to go bowling with my team Livin’ on a Spare. I know it will be surreal to go back, to have the piano squeezed into the part of the day in which I also shower, watch TV, and otherwise conduct my life outside of work. But at this point I am thinking only of seeing my wife, and sitting at my computer, and sitting in my pajamas, reading a book.
Life will go on, much as it had. But I hope, as my eyes drift closed, that my brain stored enough of the odyssey’s luminance to light my world when it once again goes back to seeming dark and wandering.
Hide the children. And the pies.
(I love baking, apparently)
I hear the Missouri River Runner before I see her. Her whistle elicits a primordial, boyish excitement within me, and I’m not the only one. Others on the makeshift platform, nondescript save for a canvas sign that reads “Missouri Riv Runner. 90% on time!” seem to feel it, too, shuffling around in a chorus of unnecessary motion as the silver dot on the horizon swiftly chugs into view.
This has been a marathon. If that ancient Greek runner had instead been a piano player, there would be people chugging Gatorade and sleeping in hyperbaric chambers in preparation for their week as an Artist in Residence.
Four solo concerts and thirteen 45-minute school presentations later, I find myself in a kind of stupor, able to see only what’s in front of me with any clarity. Add to that the fact that I managed to get the stomach flu and a sinus infection within two days of each other (and continued to perform despite the very real possibility of puking on Sedalia schoolchildren) and you have the makings of a week to remember.
First, the biggest surprise: The moments spent playing the piano are actually the easiest, the least cluttered, and also the least profound. When it’s just the piano and I, the sense of relief and simplicity is striking, like a phone call home on a trip abroad. I cannot get over how secondary piano playing seems to the activities of the week, despite having to perform more in 10 days than I usually perform in two years. Much more striking are the ancillary dramas, the human stories that fill up the moments surrounding the performances. This 10-day trek is, truly, my first taste of life on the “road,” and I learn quickly that, for a lover of human stories, Sedalia, MO might as well be marked with a large “X” on a treasure map.
My hosts are Larry and Sara. They live in a new development not far from the grounds of the Missouri State Fair, and their house is nap inducing. Wall-to-wall carpets, comfy couches, big TVs, and a thermostat set in the high-70s mean I spend literally half the week unconscious in a recliner. I can’t even sit down in their house without falling asleep. I want to blame it on the hours I’m keeping – late to bed, early to rise – but there is something supernaturally sleepy about their house against which my body is defenseless.
Nothing sums up better the kind of hosts they are to me than the fact that, after they find out I grew up in Pittsburgh, they apologize for owning Hunt’s ketchup and make a special trip to buy a bottle of Heinz.
The second biggest surprise of the week is how profoundly I look like actor/comedian David Cross to elementary schoolchildren. I’ve never seen “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel,” but I got asked at, literally, half the schools I attended if I played Uncle Ethan in that movie. Other questions included:
- Are you married?
- How many kids do you have?
- Are you famous?
- What did Scott Joplin die of?
That last one is fun because Scott Joplin died of syphilis, a common cause of death among musicians in the red light districts in those days. My answer? “Hospitals weren’t very good back then.”
My personal favorite, however, was the girl who saw fit to tell me that my incisors looked like bloody vampire fangs. My desired response – “All ragtime pianists are actually vampires” – gave way to a more age-appropriate answer: “I know, right? Scary.”
The third biggest surprise is also the most terrifying, because by the sixth day I begin to understand why life on the road and marriage don’t mix. I find myself, on this dark, sixth night, profoundly hungry for the warmth of human touch. I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m a thirsty man; I’m far away from the easy slaking of the well back home. It starts to play on me. Someone gives me a hug – just a short one, the hug of acquaintance – and you would have thought from the way the hair stands up on my arms that we’d just written a chapter in a harlequin romance novel.
All I can say is that, as blessed and fortunate as I am to be doing what I love to do for 10 days, I will be that pleased and more to look my wife in the eyes and tackle her into the bean bag when I get home.
The River Runner is a little train, with only three passenger cars. I am in the second car, two behind the engine, and at first the snow-kissed fields of Missouri are my only vision out the window. Soon after leaving Sedalia, though, I see where the route gets its name. The river is wide, the color of a Frappuccino in the sun, dotted with fast-flowing ice flows that glide like marshmallows in a cup of swirled hot chocolate. The train hugs to its banks for miles at a time, with the water passing out of view only briefly to accommodate a large farm or bluff.
“Jesse James once robbed a train along these tracks,” Larry tells me before I board. He grew up here with the trains, having come to watch them load and unload with his grandfather as a boy. “He cut all the telegraph wires and his men passed through the train, taking his fill of watches and jewelry.”
A few miles out from Sedalia, we pass a bluff and I imagine James atop it, astride his horse, looking down, conscious of the perils of a life in motion.
Smiley takes my hand firmly in his own, looks me straight in the eye and says, “Martin, it’s good to have you here.”
His palm, the texture of a woolen blanket, is coarse on my skin, and his voice is strained from a quiet stroke that took his confidence a little over a year ago, but every ounce of his 80-year-old body means what he says. He really is glad to have me here, and his gladness, potent in its purity, is infectious.
Soon after, I stop being nervous. It’s a snowy night in Kansas City. I’m about to perform a solo concert for a small group of people in an old converted trolley barn, the first concert of my 10-day trek across Missouri as part of being the Artist in Residence for the Scott Joplin Foundation, and Smiley’s handshake reminds me: This is a ragtime concert. Ragtime is, for better or worse, who you are. Get outside of your head and play the damn piano. Everything will be fine.
Performing is immediate. Present. In our day jobs most of us plod along for weeks and months without recognition, and yet in my musical life I do something for three minutes and I immediately get positive feedback.
Imagine, doing what you do for three minutes and then having a roomful of strangers applaud; fill in one cell with the right formula, punch a few numbers into the calculator, and at the end of it a group of people slaps their limbs together in appreciation of your wonderfulness. If this isn’t Heaven, I don’t know what is.
Thursday night, I play 18 pieces from all over my repertoire, and considering it wasn’t all that long ago that I only knew 18 pieces total, I am very proud of the fact that I am able to deliver a second solo concert the following night, this time at a swanky house, and choosing to repeat one song. This is huge. I feel legitimate and real in a way that I don’t before. I start to think, maybe I am the real deal. Maybe I really am what I always wanted to be: an Artist with a capital ‘A’.
My hosts for the weekend are Jerry and Mary Grace. I attempt to be formal with them at first, but it’s clear the they are professional grandparents and I immediately adopt them as my own. I’m the latest in a long line of young people who’ve wandered into their sphere, and they take to me with a calm confidence that is disarming.
I have a room upstairs in their fabulous house, fresh sheets and my own bathroom, and I awake each morning to sliced fruit and coffee and retire to bed each night after a bowl of sherbet and a conversation about the world. Jerry bears more than a passing resemblance to Ian Holm in the Lord of the Rings movies, and Mary Grace insists I eat as though to not do so would result in my immediate wasting away. I come to love them quickly, and we talk of things big and small as they shuttle me around.
They ask if there is anything in Kansas City that I want to do, and my answer is three syllables long: barbecue. And so we go to Oklahoma Joe’s which, I kid you not, is inside of a fully operation gas station and has the best barbecue of my life. Five thick, meaty ribs. Tender brisket. Texas toast, all doused in their championship sauce. This is Vegan Hell, and it couldn’t be any more delicious.
We spend the nights at local jazz clubs, where I mingle with real musicians, and in the down moments I practice the piano. The hours pass quickly, and the concerts are a blur.
On Sunday, Smiley invites me over to his house to look through his sheet music, and I beg my hosts to make it so. I oversleep, and so we travel there an hour later than we we’re supposed to. Smiley is waiting for us. His home, picturesque against a snow-covered lake, is thoughtfully constructed of dark wooden beams and almost supernaturally surrounded by visiting scarlet cardinals who enjoy his energy as much as I. He’s picked out the piano rolls he wants to play for me, but before we can even get to his piano room I am transfixed by all the posters and pictures in his garage. An entire wall is covered in treasures from the ragtime past: signed posters from ancient festivals, pictures with long-dead greats, artifacts from an era before I was even born, and I spend twenty minutes gazing at them with a kind of holy reverence as he narrates before we retire to his piano room in the basement.
The room is cluttered with the remnants of former houses: old stained glass, papers, broken-down machinery, half-finished projects. He’s got an old wheezing player piano in the center of the room, recently electrified since his stroke robbed him of the strength to pump it himself, and behind it is a shelf with boxes and boxes of alphabetized sheet music. He insists I grab a box and look through it while he puts on a piano roll and announces each like an old-school radio host. “And next we have Puerto Rico by the delightful and precise Ford Dabney,” he bellows, before engaging the player and filling the room with that characteristic mechanical verve. I page through his marvelous sheet music collection, and through my fingers pass original sheets of Joseph Lamb and James Scott, some worth hundreds of dollars. He insists I keep any that I want. I don’t have the heart to take the valuable ones, but I set my eyes on a Eubie Blake cover and he swiftly makes it a gift. “Some of these are worth money, Smiley,” I say, “real money.”
“What do I need with money?” he says, and puts another roll on the piano.
Jerry has to drag me out of there. I could have set for hours, listening and learning. Did you know Eubie Blake ate a piece of chocolate cake every night before he went to bed? It had to be thick with inch-high frosting, and he’d wash it down with a glass of milk. Smiley tells me this story, and I hang onto every word like he were reciting it from a holy book, forcing myself to memorize each syllable. I learn it was Eubie’s father, not his mother, that came to tacitly approve of Eubie sneaking out at night to play at Aggie Smith’s, where he’d make more money in a night than his father would in a week. These things and more I store away, like a squirrel in autumn, precious and wonderful that they are.
Being an Artist in Residence gets you thinking a lot about what it means to be an “artist.” We deem someone an artist for the way their personal expressions affect us. But is their value intrinsic or extrinsic? Are they an artist because of who they are, or just because we decide they are an artist? More to the point, am I an “artist”? Or just a hack who plays the piano pretty good? Does one have to be an artist to be an Artist in Residence?
Deep Thoughts Tuesday, apparently. Sometimes I get so preoccupied with wanting to be considered an “artist” that I take some of the fun out of performing for myself. But I also know that I do this because I love it, and we shouldn’t criticize the things that we love. And so I learn the songs and make the music and hope that folks enjoy it. So far, it’s worked out pretty well.
Before they take me to Lee’s Summit, twenty miles from their home in Kansas City, Jerry and Mary Grace take a picture of the three of us in front of their doorway, and I leave feeling truly welcomed into their home.
I’m picked up at a deli in Lee’s Summit by Larry and Sara, ready to begin the real work of this ragtime odyssey: the Artist in Residence.
When my brother and I were kids, we thought a rabbit would fix our life.
See, boy minds work kind of funny. In the span of two years, we had moved from our childhood home, our parents divorced, school was a galaxy of terrors, and everything we ever knew either changed, broke, or went away.
We didn’t have any control over our parents. School was far too big and unmanageable to do much more than survive. But a pet we could do, a pet we could make happen. We could draft the contract, turn on the waterworks, and play a pet into our life. Mom said no dog. We were allergic to cats. But a rabbit… what about a rabbit?
Enter Kitt. Yes. That’s right. I had a rabbit named after the car on “Knight Rider.”
Kitt was a Dutch rabbit – he looked not unlike the terrifying specimen shown here – and Kitt was a Good Rabbit. He liked carrots and lettuce. He was playful. He loved the heat of the sun on his fur on the back porch in summertime. He was especially fond of shoes and shoelaces, in particular when they were attached to moving feet. I only realize now, years and years later, that they were the closest thing he had to other rabbits in his life. Talking about Kitt makes me incredibly sad.
I wish dearly I could say we were good stewards of Kitt, good caretakers, but we weren’t. We were pubescent boys, unconcerned with the actual work of things, and Kitt lived a long and terribly lonely life because of our selfishness. He was with us through some of the most tumultuous possible times, always low on the list of priorities. I was the one who found him, seven years after we had got him in a rush of excitement, stiff and dry like a starched sock in his hutch out back, his water bowl frozen over. He was a good pet, of which too much had been expected, and after he died I swore I would never get another pet that I could put in a cage out of sight.
Flash-forward thirteen years, and I am now the new owner of two Lionhead boy bunnies named Lochlain and Martin (he came to us named that I swear). They are living in a swanky cage by the bathroom (their “rabitat”).
In bunny years they are roughly the age my brother and I were when we got Kitt. In fact, they are brothers, models of love and devotion to one another, easing the transition between their life’s shadows and sunrises with a playful nudge or a loving lick.
Me being me, I immediately saw Kitt’s hand in all of this: in Jess’ profound and sudden pet desire three months ago, in the bounces and binkies of the rabbits of our friends with whom we just started hanging, in the smile on Jess’ face each and every time she picked them up at the shelter, right down to the fact that my brother and I got a bunny and now I was getting brother bunnies. I knew immediately that Kitt had reached from beyond the grave to do two things: to remind me of my selfishness, and to give me a second chance.
Honestly? I owe it to that little bunny buried in a box in the backyard, who did all he could bunny-do to make it all right, to put on my damn shoes, loosen my shoelaces, and make a little joy for two of God’s furriest brothers.
Because seriously, the things we think we need? Turns out they need us just as much.
Just got back from the Chippewa Valley Ragtime Festival in Eau Claire, WI. The flannel sheets on my bed have never nestled me quite as sweetly as they do now, typing this, but I had a great time.
Ragtime festivals are more like family reunions than anything else. You’ve got your crazy uncles, your awkward cousins, your sweet grandparents, and your playful nephews. There’s food. A festive atmosphere. A preponderance of alcohol (especially when I’m in attendance). This corner of the musical world is so small and intimate, it’s hard to get lost in the woodwork, especially when we all gather in one place.
They are inclusive, wonderful, and affirming events. That said, I always feel like I’ve wandered onto the set of the sequel to Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind – the cast of characters that attend these events, myself included, is literally worthy of a screenplay – but I mean, think about it: What kind of people travel a thousand miles to celebrate and enjoy a music that is so dead you can’t even find a book about it in Barnes and Noble? My people, that’s who.
My friend Danny described ragtime festivals thus: “It’s like an extended family you don’t have to love.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
I arrived in Eau Claire late Thursday morning and was immediately shuttled, along with fellow performer Bill Edwards, to the first of what would end up being three performances at area elementary schools. The performance, at Meadowview Elementary, was for over 400 kids, grades K-5. I’ve never performed for that many kids at one time. It was insane. They were great sports, though, and erupted into spontaneous (with excellent rhythm) clapping along with the songs I played. It was good practice for the upcoming Artist-in-Residency.
The festival part started on Friday night with a concert, and kept up through Sunday morning. I was one of three featured performers, and together we put on three concerts.
I had a terrific time, and aside from a few weird song choices (selections from “The Muppet Movie” for senior citizens, for example… my bad) I think I did a pretty good job. It was a privilege to share the stage with the other performers, and people seemed pretty pleased with how the whole thing went.
What a privilege it is to get paid to do the thing that I love more than anything else. Man. Life is good.
If ever there was evidence that the 21st century is the best one EVER, it would be this post on my Facebook wall:
Tom Ruegger is the creator and producer of “Tiny Toon Adventures,” one of my favorite shows growing up. He’s won 14 Emmys. And thanks to my friend Ron O’Dell, he saw this video:
And now we are Facebook friends.
BEST. CENTURY. EVER.
I got an HD camcorder for Christmas! Squee!
This is my first foray into the world of HD videography. I asked for it – yes, I still make a Christmas list, and will until I am a father and am shamed into ceasing – with the specific intent of making more YouTube videos.
I ended up with a Flip UltraHD – the kind that looks vaguely like a Soviet spy camera – which is kind of a funny choice for me considering I own a Panasonic DVX-100A that I bought back when I was doing professional videography.
See, Flip is kind of the polar opposite of the DVX-100A. The Panasonic has 30 buttons. Flip has… 3.
Alas, the world has gone HD, and I wanted something Flash-based that I could load up and work with without using MiniDV tapes. I also didn’t want to blow out Santa’s wallet, especially since I have my eye on this bad boy to replace the DVX.
Enter Flip. He takes great 720p video. He likes USB ports. He has a giant, comically oversized red button to start/stop recording, which as a Mac user I am inclined to respect. He has a good built-in mic, and I can either record right into Garageband or Logic Pro from my keyboard or I have a Zoom H2 Handy Recorder that records terrific stereo audio. Sounds good, right?
The only challenge is that Flip records *.mp4 files, which my editing software (Final Cut Pro) likes to edit just about as much as a fly likes to wade through molasses. And when you’re on an older Power Mac G5 like myself, it’s kind of a non-starter. So that means that for every clip I import from Flip (ha! that rhymed), I have to “transcode” the video (look out) from the *.mp4 format (still with me?) to Apple ProRes 422 (okay now I’m just showing off) so I can edit natively in FCP (and he seals it with an acronym! BAM!)
A 3-minute clip took two hours to transcode. In other words, it takes me literally five times as long to work with footage from my shiny new, flash-based, look-how-consumer-friendly-I-am-even-a-grandma-could-win-Oscars-with-me HD camcorder than it does to work with my five-year-old, professional-grade tape-based SD camcorder.
Thanks a lot, 2011.
Progress? Not really, no. But I have to say, it is nice to see my paws in HD!
I’ve been meaning forever to post more videos to YouTube. I enjoy it. I get to connect with people all over the world.
To wit, here’s a tune from The Muppet Movie that I absolutely love and noodled with last night!