Dusky smells rise from damp bottomlands on hot southern Louisiana nights.
Lightning bugs flash randomly, while crickets saw out tunes like maniacal fiddlers competing with buzzing cicadas. Tree frogs chirp in concert, singing to the clouds for a little more rain.
Soft Southern drawls lilt on the breeze. Mothers shoo children off the porch for a night of play. Men gather, jug in hand, telling lies as women giggle and gossip. From St. Louis to New Orleans, along the swirling coffee-colored water of the Mississippi River, this music flows.
Old Man River knows a thing or two about this music. He’s heard it all. It comes his way from the plantations, the shantytowns and the elegant paddle wheelers that steam up and down his long, snaking way. In 1897, this is how the music began to develop and spread. From this gumbo of multicultural ingredients, America’s first original music was invented. It was called ragtime.
Ragtime is elegant music. It is also happy music. It derived its name in 1896 from the African-American practice of “ragging,” a musical technique using a unique, syncopated rhythm – an erratic pattern instead of a regular one.
Music at one time had only upbeats and downbeats. Ragtime added a note in between. Two-step melodies are called heavy rags due to their more complicated styling and because they are a challenge to play. One-step melodies, or cakewalks, are called light rags because of their simplicity. The origins come from a plantation dance called Pride Walk, performed by slaves who parodied their masters’ European style of ballroom dance.
Ragtime, like jazz, is a product of slave music; however, it is heavily influenced by Appalachian Mountain musicians of Irish and Scottish decent. These people played a huge role in ragtime’s development, as did their instruments, the banjo, the guitar, the mandolin and the violin.
The story of ragtime began in the 1880s saloon and brothel district of St. Louis, Missouri. Before long, the tunes made their way into the red-light districts of New Orleans. Ragtime’s big leap forward happened at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where more than 27 million visitors enjoyed the sounds of ragtime jazz for the first time.
A distinctive American era was born from the curiosity of ragtime and its syncopated melody that had never been heard before. This new musical invention was so shocking that doctors of the day were concerned that ragtime was a public health hazard. Many thought the uneven rhythms would cause heart palpitations, resulting in brain dysfunction and making listeners go insane. But by the 1900s, ragtime was everywhere – in sheet music, phonograph records, piano rolls, theaters and music boxes.
Its wild popularity lasted until World War I when interest gave way to the more performance-oriented style of jazz. It lay dormant until 1973, when the release of the movie, “The Sting,” featuring Scott Joplin’s “The Entertianer,” rekindled interest.
Although many artists are credited with contributions to the proliferation and advancement of ragtime, it was Joplin’s 1899 release of “Maple Leaf Rag” that became one of the most influential pieces of its time. His composition brought sophistication to the ragged rhythm and it became a lasting hit. Joplin is considered the King of Ragtime, composing in his lifetime 44 ragtime jazz pieces, two operas and one ballet. Ragtime has influenced a multitude of artists over the past century and continues to be appreciated by composers and performers, as well as millions of fans.
The New Orleans Ragtime Festival
Last summer, founders and producers Patrick Mackey and Tonya Excho decided to create a festival honoring ragtime. “This year’s event is free. It’s a chance for all of us to pull together to see what is possible,” says Excho, who says the first festival will build momentum for a planned three-to-five day music festival in April, 2017.
“People are excited. We just posted a video of Tom McDermott playing ragtime on Facebook. We’ve received 6,000 hits in just seven days, with 2,000 full views, and our analytics show that 60,000 people are talking about it,” she says.
Mackey is concentrating on the roster of musicians, whom he says want to play and explore ragtime. “They believe not only in the importance of ragtime, but more importantly, the entertainment value. They believe in it enough for me to be able to put this idea together.”
The New Orleans’ version of ragtime is closely associated with jazz, and varies from the ragtime that came out of Missouri, says Bruce Raeburn, curator of Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archives and assistant dean of libraries for special collections. Excited about the potential of the festival, Raeburn isn’t afraid to pick favorites. “I’m looking forward to hearing from these players, people like Tom McDermott and Tom Hook. It took us a while to get a ragtime festival organized and once people are exposed to it, they’ll want more.”
Givonna Joseph, director of Opera Creole, says opera gets separated from other musical forms, “and it shouldn’t. There are more relations between opera, ragtime and jazz than people generally think. In a different venue like this, people get to experience it in a different way.” Opera Creole is slated to perform parts of Joplin’s second opera, Treemonisha. The music may come as a surprise to some for a ragtime fest, but Joseph says the performance will help audience members intimately gain access to a sound they might not have otherwise.
Ingrid Lucia, lead female singer for the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Charlie Miller, will explore ragtime and three-quarter waltzes. “Music brought people together at the turn of the century though musical forms that were played in family parlors. When I was a little girl, my great grandma, with her perfect red Irish hair and her piano, would play waltzes for me. It was a very nurturing feeling. It kind of makes you feel like you belong somewhere. With where we are now as a society, we really need to reconnect to our roots, or else we are just lost.”
Wendell Brunious, a New Orleans jazz trumpeter, has taught at the Trombone Shorty Foundation and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. The resurgence of ragtime in New Orleans and the creation of the Ragtime Festival means the music will continue to be passed down. “This festival is going to be something we’ve never seen. It’s a great idea to have this kind of concentration of ragtime music in one place.
It’s way overdue.”
Ragtime jazz pianist Tom McDermott considers ragtime as America’s first pop music. “Unfortunately, the general listener thinks ragtime is played by that guy in the straw hat and the red striped shirt, cigar in mouth, with a beer on the top of the tin pan piano,” he said. “This festival can help change that perception.”
“This festival will showcase different types of orchestrations and different types of presentations of the music, which will be much more interesting both for the schooled listener and to someone new to the music,” said Tom Hook, orchestra leader and founder of The New John Robichaux Society Orchestra. The upcoming performance features original John Robichaux arrangements resurrected for the festival performance. The sheet music has been in a vault at Tulane. “I’m excited about being able to take it out, blow off the dust and say, ‘Hey, look at this.’ No one has heard this music on this sheet or heard this song played in over 100 years.”
Lars Edegran, the Swedish-born founder and leader of the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, played in Dixieland jazz groups throughout his native country before moving to New Orleans in 1966. Edegran is scheduled for a rare appearance to perform at the Palm Court Jazz Café portion of the Festival.
Mackey will also perform as bandleader of his own project, The Silver Swan Ragtime Quartet. “It’s an expression of my feeling for these compositions. I’m looking at primarily piano music and arranging out parts for my quartet, which is myself on banjo, a cellist Monica McIntyre, clarinetist Ray Morgan and Steve Glen on the tuba. We improvise a bit, but everything is on chart like a concert musical.”
Want to go?
The Festival begins on April 2nd. The first of two events, both held in the French Quarter, are scheduled from 11a.m. until 4 p.m. at the Old U.S. Mint on Esplanade Avenue. The second event is scheduled for 8 p.m. until 11 p.m. at Palm Court Jazz Cafe on Decatur Street.
For more information visit theneworleansragtimefestival.com.