Thirty Six Blacks and Fifty Two Whites
It was a very cold day in January, 1958, when the large moving van pulled up to our front door. The two burly men opened the rear doors and placed a long ramp from the truck to our doorstep. I was told to keep well out of the way and could only catch glimpses of something huge, all wrapped in blankets and tied with rope. The men struggled with the thing down the narrow ramp, through the doorway, landing in our living room with a thump while mother rescued lamps and moved other things out of the way. After some adult negotiations a suitable location was agreed upon and the men removed the blankets, put away the ramp and drove off into the winter dusk.
I stood fascinated in front of this wonderful and intriguing addition to our home. I was told not to touch it because it had to warm up and settle into its new location. Of course I had seen it many times before but it was all I could do to keep from gently caressing its smooth polished walnut and its beckoning ivories now that it was right here in my own living room. My grandparents had purchased this wonderful Mason and Risch upright grand player piano brand new in 1928 from the T. Eaton Company in Toronto and my mother and her sister and brother had practiced their lessons on it when they were children. Since then it had resided in the grandparent’s parlour on Eaton Hall Farm, near King, Ontario. Grandfather had worked for the Eaton Corporation for most of his life, breeding and training their thoroughbred jumping horses. Since neither of my grandparents played the piano, it had been moved to our home so that my brother and I could try our hand at it. Thus began a lifelong relationship between me, thirty six blacks and fifty two whites.
Our piano was a player piano.
For those who are unfamiliar with that term, player pianos have all the workings of a normal piano plus a built in mechanism that makes it possible for the piano to play music by itself. All you have to do is insert a piano roll; a roll of perforated paper about 12 inches (about 30cm) wide and up to 100 feet (30m) long.
Then, using a system of vacuum generated by foot bellows which you must pump, the roll winds from top to bottom and the perforations pass over a brass bar with 88 holes in it, each hole connected to a mechanism that uses various motors, gears, bellows, springs felts and about a hundred pounds of miniature lead tubing. All this makes the hammers hit the strings in a regulated way and a pretty accurate reproduction of the music is played.
We also inherited about 100 piano rolls, almost all from the Roaring Twenties and the Dirty Thirties. Whenever we were bored we would pump up the old thing and run through as many rolls as mom and dad could stand. Mom liked most of the songs and would let us go at it much longer when dad was away. Dad’s interests leaned more towards early classical ragtime and he soon began arriving home from his sales trips with many more piano rolls, most of which were ragtime pieces.
One summer our family went on vacation to New York City to visit my aunt and uncle. Dad made a point of taking us down to an old factory in either Brooklyn or the Bronx where we climbed up a couple of floors of rickety old wooden stairs to a small room. There was a very old negro gentleman sitting at a machine that, although resembled a piano, looked to an eight year old much more like some sort of huge monster with pipes and tubes running through it. I remember thinking that it might grab me and digest me in an instant, then spew my remains into the bowls of the large factory behind the wall. The kindly old gentleman had been working for QRS for over 50 years. He and dad had an interesting and lengthy discussion about how this machine was able to transpose the action of his playing a song on it into a master piano roll which would then be taken to a different machine in the factory and used to reproduce piano rolls, which were then marketed. This was an entirely mechanical process and due to the limitations of the mechanics the music had to be played on the piano at about half tempo. Because of this, if the piano player was not experienced in playing music at half speed, the resulting master would be missing some of the nuances evident in the written music, and many of the rolls in our collection reflected the quality of the master cutters abilities, both positive and negative. The old gentleman (I don’t remember his name) turned on the machine and gave us a demonstration of how it all worked and we came away with a short master piano roll as a souvenir.
QRS has been manufacturing piano rolls since 1900 and is the only manufacturer of piano rolls still in business today, with over 5,000 master recordings and 45,000 music rolls. Of course, with the advance of digital technology the piano roll manufacturing process is far different than it was. It is now possible to convert a digital mp3 file into a paper piano roll using zeros and ones to run the cutting machines.
During the 1960s the technology of acoustic fidelity was making rapid advances. Vinyl records and high fidelity stereos were replacing parlour pianos. Second hand stores were filling up with used pianos of all kinds and boxes of old piano rolls could be had for a handful of peanuts. My dad, always the opportunist, realized that there was still a market, albeit a very selective one, for certain brands of player pianos. While on his road trips he would hunt through the classifieds and when he would find a decent player piano he would rent a U-haul trailer and bring it home. Some he would tear apart and rebuild, replacing some of the tubing, mending bellows and gaskets. Others required only a good cleaning. He would then resell them. At one point we had five pianos situated around the house and often my dad, brother and I would each be pounding away to our own drummer in various parts of the house.
It was about this time that dad, along with two other interested partners formed the Ragtime Society, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation of classical ragtime.
The Ragtime Society (excerpts from Ted Tjaden web page) (my notes in italics)
Ragtime music in Canada never really died out among its main enthusiasts and it could be argued that Canada played an integral role in reviving ragtime music in the late 1950s. At that time (in 1959), Ragtime Bob Darch arrived in Toronto with his Cornish Upright Grand Five Pedal Saloon Piano and was a regular performer at Club 76 on St. Clair St. West in Toronto, Ontario.
(Bob Darch was a professional player who traveled extensively around the USA and Canada with his very heavy and rare upright 5 pedal Cornish piano, singing and playing barroom songs from the early part of the twentieth century.)
Bob Darch on the upright Heintzman
Red Carpet Saloon, Temperanceville, Ontario 1964
(My dad took me to Club 76 a few times during this period to see Bob Darch and Eubie Blake. Because Club 76 was a private club, I was allowed to attend for “educational” purposes.)
Eubie Blake (below) was one of Darch’s guests one night at Club 76
It is in this context that the Ragtime Society had its first formal meeting on January 19, 1962, in Toronto, Ontario among a number of steadfast ragtime enthusiasts (note: the information in this section on the history of The Ragtime Society comes mainly from the March-April-May-June 1982 edition of The Ragtimer). The first directors were Bob Ashforth, John Fischer, Jim Kinnear and Idamay MacInnes. The Ragtime Society took as its motto the phrase “Dedicated to the Preservation of Classical Ragtime.” The Ragtime Society was only later incorporated June 30, 1970, as a non profit corporation in Ontario.
The Society’s first newsletter was published in February 1962 and its first sentence announced: “It is very gratifying to find so many Canadians and Americans interested in Classic Ragtime.”
(Since my dad was elected Secretary, the duty fell upon him to organize and write much of the newsletter. My brother and I spent many of our weekends collating and addressing hundreds of these monthly newsletters which would then be distributed to members all over the world.)
Some of the early activities of the Society included sourcing hard to find rags, producing a number of ragtime records under the Scroll label and organizing annual “bashes” at which members and invited guests entertained with ragtime music. In 1964, the Society arranged for a limited edition reprinting of Scott Joplin’s ragtime opera Treemonisha. Also in 1964 was the Society’s first of many annual bashes. The bashes were energetic affairs with numerous performers.
(The first few of these ragtime bashes were held in our home in King Township at what dad fondly named “The Red Carpet Saloon.” Performers ranged from John Arpin from Toronto to Tom Shea and Mike Montgomery from Detroit and many others who were Society members and followers. Since we had at least 3 pianos in the house, people could walk from room to room to hear a variety of players and styles simultaneously.)
Throughout my tumultuous teens my love affair with the black and whites continued although I do admit that I was, on occasion romanced by different species of keyboards including electric organs and electronic pianos, some with as few as 61 keys. I explored various styles of music from sloppy blues to raunchy hard rock to sappy love songs.
Sometimes my tinkering on the keys would attract other musicians. I joined a few bands.
During my final years in high school I became involved in a band called Southdown.
Excerpts from “A Band Called Southdown’
At fourteen we became bored with most things, especially any of those activities our parents would suggest weekend after weekend. By fifteen we were pulling the sleepover trick and could stay out all night if we wanted to. There was the occasional party at somebody’s house whose parents would be out of town for the weekend and if you played your cards right you could end up on a nice soft couch with a nice soft girl to cuddle with. There might even be some snuggling and a bit of face sucking. If you were lucky someone might offer you a beer or a blanket.
Music was our constant. Whether on the road, at a party or just hanging in a basement the omnipresence of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, acid rock and those mystical arrangements from the west coast and the deep south became our drug of choice.
Somehow during the social event known to many as high school, our group of wannabe rock stars had come together and formed a loose knit band called Southdown. Rather than worry about us roaming the streets looking for trouble, our parents had thought it better to allow us our Saturday evenings collected in one place where, unknown to them, trouble often found us. Trouble would appear as 24 beers, or maybe a 26er of whiskey, or if there were girls hanging around there might be a Mickey of lemon gin. And as I recall, there were always girls hanging around and they always caused trouble of one kind or another.
So the boys would get together to play in the old church hall. We usually had to beg and cajole our dads to help us rent and move the equipment and then one of them would reluctantly offer up his afternoon to drive us around, gathering up all the bits and pieces, wires and amps, microphones, guitars, drums and keyboards. Finally by 4 or 5 in the afternoon we would make some sense of it all, plugging all the wires into the right places, and adjusting the volume so it was just into the distortion range. Then we would set off on a magical adventure into the realm of volumes and rhythms.
Usually after some initial unorganized jamming, we would get down to the more serious business of copying whichever songs were on the charts and were easy enough for us to copy. I don’t recall there having been any formal musical training evident in any of us but we found that if we cranked our amps we could sound almost good enough to play in public.
Vocalists were always difficult to find. There were just so many words to remember and the front man of the band needed to project an element of professionalism, not to mention some degree of talent and coolness. We were lucky enough to have two fine singers who vied with each other for the top spot. We flip-flopped back and forth for over a year, each practice coming closer to the point where we would actually be ready to meet the masses. We couldn’t decide. They were both good friends and for a while we just accepted that we would have two great singers.
We played at a few high school functions and some private parties, none of which paid all that much. Throughout the summer of 1970, our grad year, we played a few gigs around southern Ontario. Along with the little bit of fame from our hometown fans and a smaller bit of fortune from our paying gigs came a sizable boost to our young egos. And that was our ruin. By the end of that summer we had pretty much had it with the perilous life of musicians on the road.
On The Road
When I finally flew the coup and headed out on my own with fewer than two nickels to rub together I would often entertain myself and whomever else was about by settling down in front of any old barroom piano for an evening of free beer, honky tonk and whatever else might come my way.
Traveling around North America, from coast to coast from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bering Sea provided many opportunities interact with a multitude of other musicians and to experiment with a few other musical styles and genres. In 1975 I joined a road band called Odessa which was a cabaret band with a repertoire containing blues, country, rockabilly and contemporary dance music. The band was led by an experienced and jovial sax player who had a well oiled, gravelly voice. We toured throughout BC, Alberta and the Yukon, where I quit the band after a two month long gig in a Whitehorse Hotel.
Those were the days when it was still mostly acceptable to drive home at the end of an entertaining evening filled with wine, women and song although some nights were off balanced by an excess of one or the other. Those were the days of youth and vigor.
An Ear for Music
It was never difficult for me to become part of a group or form a band although some didn’t last long due to personality conflicts. I never formally studied or learned how to read music, aside from a few childhood lessons which I soon shunned but I was gifted with ‘An Ear.” This allowed me to hear a phrase, lick, riff, or entire song and then work it out from memory. Trained musicians might consider this to be more of a curse than a gift. I have always thought of it as my passport to fun. From my early days playing chunka-chunka rock and roll in the late sixties and early seventies, sidestepping the disco era of the late seventies and on through the eighties, nineties and into this millenium I have consistently been able to apply my limited abilities towards a team effort to produce a listenable and/or danceable sound. Aside from the shear artistic value, my love affair with the blacks and whites has opened the door to many social opportunities and experiences ranging from small weddings to graduation dances to medium sized outdoor concert venues. During the time period when my kids were young and money was tight we all looked forward to the social experience of traveling around with a ten piece rhythm and blues weekend band, the associated interaction with the other families who were involved and the opportunity to see other bands at concert and festival venues.
Dr Fun and the Nightcrawlers 1987 – 2006
(from left to right) Doug Willie, Dr. Fun – Gary Gilbert,
Bob Kinnear, Curt Garrison, Jan deHann, Mike Northcot,
Dennis Turner, Bill Duff, John Cullen
No Excuse 2005 – 2010
Bill Wilson, Ken Turner, Bob Kinnear, Dennis Turner, John Cullen
For me, music has always been an art form and a way for me to express myself without words. As with the ancient art of storytelling, where information absorbed through the ears can have a very different effect than the same information absorbed by sight reading, I believe that music heard or imagined, then replayed is very different from music played while being sight read. Although with that said, there are those very few trained musicians who have the rare ability to sight read a new piece of music and instantly improvise enhancements while playing. I have met only a few who can do this. There have been many times, while absorbed in the rhythms and complexities of the moment, where I have felt like the notes that are coming out of my fingertips have simply flowed through me subconsciously and have come from some other place, a place often referred to as the muse (The Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and through history thought to be the goddesses of spontaneity and inspiration for literature, science and the arts.) Whether or not one has faith in such things, I have noticed that my abilities for spontaneity and inspiration increase when I make a conscious effort to free my mind from the confines of other, more mundane and routine thoughts and allow pure creativity in the absence of formal structure. My musician friends refer to this as “dangling on the edge” and often, they tell me, wonder if I will be able to make it back to the root. At times I wonder, myself.
All of this art, fun and sound originates from the notes created within the range of human hearing and the manner in which they are introduced to the human ear. Minute variations of touch sensitivity, harmony, tempo, rhythm, melody and infinite combinations thereof create an art form which may stimulate the senses, invigorate the soul and/or cause distress, melancholy or happiness along with a range of other emotions.
I now play only for the pure joy, either on my own or with a group of other like minded friends in a local studio. We play as often as we can and during those sessions, try to reach as far into the muse as our limited skills will allow. We are blessed for having been given this gift of ability and insight. I will continue until the day comes that I can no longer lift my hand to caress my thirty six blacks and fifty two whites.
This was lovely to reaad