By Peter H. Green, illustrated by the author
Napoleon said, “Always have a plan–leave nothing to chance; always have two plans–leave something to chance.” The St. Louis Ragtimers, in their 48th anniversary celebration and the centenary of the Goldenrod Showboat on Sunday afternoon, demonstrated such superior strategy when Al Stricker popped a string during the third set on his vintage plectrum banjo. Instead of a second instrument, which he said he normally would bring, Stricker had re-strung his just before the concert and brought along two other musicians to keep their marathon jam session moving. So he called on Stephanie Trick—she had already wowed the more than 250 fans that packed St. Louis’s Sheldon ballroom during the second break—to keep the festivities lively while he made the needed repair.
A recent University of Chicago music grad with international touring to her credit, and three-time winner of the St. Louis Ragtime Piano Competition, the lissome and vigorous young musician stepped back up to the concert grand as Trebor Jay “The Professor” Tichenor graciously yielded his seat and stood listening and watching her prodigious talent with an eagle eye and a fine-tuned ear from the sidelines. Her second selection, a rousing stride piano version of the George Gershwin-Earl Wild classic “Liza,” improvising with elaborate riffs on the melody line and concluding with harmonious arpeggios, brought the audience to their feet, cheering to the hall’s intricately illuminated rafters.
As Stricker tuned the new string and gingerly strummed a few chords he said, “Keep your fingers crossed.”
“Maybe that was your problem in the first place,” cracked Don Franz from the tuba section.
With such easy familiarity and a gut sense of what’s right for the moment, the product of almost a half-century of playing together, Tichenor, Stricker, Franz, and Bill Mason–playing lead on cornet (and occasional harmonica) – revived the songs and legends of the ragtime era. Ever since their first 1961 Pierce City concert, they have regaled audiences on riverboats and in concert halls worldwide with their renditions of Scott Joplin tunes and compositions of a host of other greats. Such favorites as Mississippi Rag (“M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I”), “Peoria,” “Mississippi Mud” and “New Orleans” took them to the first break, when Dave Majchrzak, president of the Friends of Scott Joplin organization, entertained with his own ragtime piano stylings.
In the second set Stricker delighted the crowd with his patter as he introduced the songs with a bad-boy twinkle in his eye and talk of sporting houses. “Contrary to popular belief,” he said, “they didn’t have jazz bands: that hot wind is the last thing you’d need in a sporting house.” He noted that “Everybody’s Doin’ It,” Irving Berlin’s 1911 classic, which brought in the dance craze of that era, has been popular ever since with husbands. Bill Mason displayed his peerless horn virtuosity in this set with solos in “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” (Hughie Cannon, 1902), and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Dead Man Blues,” to which Bud Raeder, a former big band era drummer sitting at my left, certainly equal in age to the banjo player, quipped back at Stricker, “You’re getting close!” Mason capped off his afternoon with a “Dippermouth Blues,” a song King Oliver wrote for Louis Armstrong when a young Satchmo joined the band as second cornet in Chicago, in a rendition worthy of the jazz great himself.
Al Stricker got in a few licks in the third set with a favorite, adopted as a campaign song for a forgotten candidate named “Champ” Clark, an underdog who won 45 convention ballots but lost overnight to Woodrow Wilson: “They’ve Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dawg Around.” Al then topped it with “When ‘Rastus Plays his Old Kazoo,” somehow juggling the banjo, the vocal and the kazoo. Perhaps inspired by Stephanie Trick’s tour de force, Tichenor rallied with several robust and richly textured solos, including “’Cabarlick Acid Rag,” written in 1901 by Clarence Wiley, a pharmacist, the banjo master explained. Wrapping up with “Ophelia,” a request – the spiritual, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” – and “King Chanticleer,” Stricker thanked the rapt audience and signed off with, “Let’s hope we make it to our fiftieth.”
We, too, sure hope they do.