Local Music During the Ragtime Era: 1895–1917
Reader advisory: This article contains language that some readers may find offensive. Topics and illustrations reflect the attitudes and beliefs of earlier times, and are included here for historical accuracy and context. They do not reflect the values and beliefs of the author, Kalamazoo Public Library, or library staff.
Origins of Ragtime Music
More than 27 million people — nearly half of the US population at the time — visited the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Yet most of those who attended were probably not aware that they had witnessed the birth of a new art form, which would profoundly alter the face of American popular entertainment. Itinerant musicians playing for money outside the fair and those representing “primitive” cultures along the popular Midway Plaisance had enticed the massive crowds with their snappy syncopated musical style. This irregular or “ragged” rhythm soon became known as ragtime, a musical form that evolved over time into jazz and other styles — and indeed formed the basis for much of today’s popular music. Scholars agree that although syncopated music did not necessarily originate at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, it was the fair that gave the form its first large scale public exposure.
“Now we will have an instrumental number by the band,
in the fascinating rhythm of the cakewalk.”
—Minstrel show dialogue, c.1890s
Cakewalks and Ragtime Songs
A holdover from the racist minstrel shows of the early nineteenth century, ragtime songs gained immense popularity among white audiences beginning about 1880. Where polite parlor ballads might have featured imagery of sweet love and “proper” relationships (“Come with Thy Sweet Voice Again,” “I Love You Truly”), this new breed of song caricatured African American culture and dialect, and often — though not always — included lyrics about drunkenness, gambling, promiscuous behavior and violence (“Gimme Ma Money,” “The Bully Song,” “Carve Dat Possum”).
Despite the outwardly offensive racist nature of the lyrics, the songs were often accompanied by the syncopated rhythms of early ragtime, and the result became a nationwide craze during the 1890s.
“A Swell Cake Walk”
As both a dance and its accompanying pre-ragtime musical style, the cakewalk was another carryover of the minstrel era that gained tremendous popularity in the 1890s. Initially developed by slaves to mock the formal dances of their owners (who, in turn awarded cakes to the best performers; hence the name), the dance was popularized by minstrel actors as the “walk around” and later became a featured attraction in many vaudeville shows.
Traditionally performed as the grand finalé of the show, cakewalking couples would dress in high-fashion attire and dance two-by-two around the stage in a jubilant, high-stepping manner. The syncopated rhythm of the cakewalk’s lively banjo accompaniment (as later interpreted with other instruments) made the cakewalk an irresistible highlight of many a musical performance.
“All coon songs must go, the call says, and with them the cake-walk and even the gay and giddy two-step, which is branded as an offspring of rag-time. Ministers too, are lending aid and succor to the new movement and from pulpits all over the land opithets of denunciation are being hurled at the fad. ‘It is a mongrel cross between the vulgar midway and the illiterate ‘coon’ music,’ says one divine, ‘and everywhere it goes it carries the spirit of the midway with it’.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette-News, November 17, 1901
The Birth of Ragtime
Usually performed by a banjo soloist or small banjo-led combos à la the minstrel bands, the simple “ragged” rhythm that accompanied the cakewalk was originally intended for dancing, but soon became more sophisticated, and developed a life of its own, apart from the dance. The unsophisticated yet catchy 2/4 time signature and syncopated short-long-short (oom-pa) rhythm made the new musical form distinctly appealing to diverse audiences. As the piano began to replace the banjo and more sophisticated rhythms developed, ragtime emerged.
Mississippi Rag (1897)
In January 1897, William Henry Krell published his “Mississippi Rag” (The S. Brainard’s Sons Co., New York), which is often credited for being the first rag or ragtime composition. The cover of the music sheet states that his piece was “The First Rag-Time Two-Step Ever Written, and First Played by Krell’s Orchestra, Chicago.” More accurately, “Mississippi Rag” is believed to be the first ragtime instrumental ever published, and most probably the first to include the word “rag” in its title.
“Rag Time or Rot Time?”
But not everyone was pleased with the invasive new rhythm of ragtime. Much to the dismay of those who believed that American music should follow the traditions of “refined” European culture, ragtime instead focused on the primal rhythms of syncopation that were clearly inherited from African roots. Many were greatly outspoken about this “dangerous” new trend.
“Syncopation caused an individual to feel a propulsion, swing, and if played correctly, a musical looseness generally unknown to the public at large.”
—Library of Congress
“Orchestra Leaders and Unions Unite. A call was sent out tonight from the Chicago federation of musicians asking the united efforts of all musicians of the United States to make a fight on rag-time music. The local musicians declare rag-time composition to be ‘immoral, obscene, degrading and unworthy of production.’ ”
—Kalamazoo Gazette-News, November 13, 1901
Today’s reader might find it odd that something so seemingly minor as a misplaced beat in a piece of popular music could create such a stir, but indeed it did. Opponents of ragtime blasted the form from all sides for its “primitive” musical structure, racist content and “lowlife appeal.” The clergy preached of its “evil influence on morals and tastes,” while dance teachers feared that it was certain to “destroy all the grace and beauty that should represent the terpsichorean art.” Some warned that it might lead to mass suicide if played publicly during parades of aging war veterans, while still others blamed sudden bouts of domestic violence on “the nasty stuff.”
“Ragtime music is demoralizing,” proclaimed Professor W. Waugh Lauder, a Chicago musician who brought his renowned lecture recital to Kalamazoo in 1902 under the auspices of Kalamazoo College. “It originated in depravity and appeals only to depraved tastes,” claimed Lauder. “It is not heard to any extent in high grade amusement places but mostly in resorts of questionable character.”
“Ban Ragtime! Rag-time as is generally understood, and of the form condemned by the musical unions of America, is positively barred in each and all of the classes.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette-News, February 23, 1902
In Chicago, the musicians’ union spearheaded a movement to ban ragtime completely, calling it “immoral, obscene, degrading and unworthy of production.” Chicago’s orchestra leaders demanded that “musicians all over the country unite in refusing to play it.”
In 1902, the Kalamazoo Gazette-News sponsored an “Original Compositions Contest,” where aspiring local songwriters could win prizes and “become famous” for submitting their original musical compositions. Prizes were awarded for “Best Waltz,” “Best Sentimental Song,” “Best Two-Step,” and even “Best Coon Song.” Ragtime, however, was expressly forbidden.
Though scorned by some as crude and unsophisticated, the music known as ragtime was viewed by audiences everywhere as new, exciting, and above all, fun. Syncopated music was attractive and refreshing to audience members who had perhaps become tired of polite parlor songs and did not like—or simply did not understand—classical music. By the late 1890s ragtime music had developed into a nationwide phenomenon.
T. P. Brooke Speaks Out in Favor of Ragtime
Interestingly, several of the most popular national bandleaders of the time soon became outright supporters of ragtime. In Chicago, the very place where much of the “ban ragtime” fuss had started, Thomas Preston Brooke, conductor of the famous Marine Band of Chicago, filled the daily papers with his explanations of how ragtime came about and why his listeners should simply relax and enjoy it.
“This ragtime existed centuries before our time,” Brooke contended in a 1902 article, “and it will go on for centuries to come after we have been forgotten. I have always delighted in strong contrasts—from the sublime to the ridiculous of you like—and I invariably follow Tannhäuser or Leonore overtures with some little street song melody or ragtime march. By bringing the extremes in close contrast the grand old overtures seem grander and the street song sweeter and more entrancing. Why should any conductor refuse to play music which causes so much harmless pleasure” (Gazette-News).
A year later, after the public furor over ragtime had subsided a bit, Brooke was quick to point out the hypocrisy of the times. “Society has now put its stamp of approval on rag time. The fastidious clique did enjoy it unofficially, but the nearest recognition it would give was by attending ‘popular’ concerts. A rag time night was frowned upon, but a popular concert at which the offending creations were played was approved of” (Gazette-News).
Sousa Becomes a Ragtime Advocate
John Philip Sousa as well became an outspoken advocate of ragtime from very early on. He introduced syncopated music to his fans the world over, and often featured it in his performances. “It was Sousa,” states biographer Paul Bierley, “who was initially responsible for the popularity of ragtime in Europe. It was he who set Europeans afire with tunes such as ‘Smoky Mokes,’ ‘Whistling Rufus,’ and others.” On Sousa’s performance in Paris, one writer expounded, “Sousa is great enough—or shrewd enough, if you prefer—to reward the plaudits of his countrymen with the popular airs of America, and he made a master stroke of it. To see and hear Sousa’s band play rag-time tunes in the court of the Esplanade des Invalides was an experience to be remembered” (Gazette-News).
Scott Joplin and Ragtime Opera
Theater audiences, as well, become familiar with “rags” through the minstrel bands and their elaborate promotional parades, and later through vaudeville and “ragtime operettas.” Composers such as Scott Joplin helped establish ragtime as a serious musical form with complex arrangements and elaborate stage productions. Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” became the first piece of instrumental music to sell over a million copies and his opera “Treemonisha” was praised by the American Musician and Art Journal as “an entirely new form of operatic art.”
There were those who resisted, of course, but ragtime tempted even the most austere of listeners to let go a smile and a tap of the foot. The influence of ragtime on popular music — and popular culture in general — was profound.
Kalamazoo: “Nothing but ‘Rag-Time’”
Reams Brothers’ Music Store
In September 1899, a clerk at Reams Brothers’ Music Store on Burdick Street revealed some interesting facts about the origins of ragtime in Kalamazoo. While strolling about the store one afternoon, a Kalamazoo Gazette reporter couldn’t help but notice a customer eagerly waiting to purchase a copy of “Liza Skinner, the Cake Walk Winner,” while expressing no apparent interest in the classical music sheets. When asked about the phenomenon, the unidentified clerk responded by saying, “No, there is no longer any demand for classical music. It’s rag-time and coon songs and nothing else. We average a sale of one piece of classical music to fifty of the so-called rag-time popular songs,” the clerk added, “but then, that’s a cinch for us, as the classical music is always the same and one piece sold lasts for years, while these ‘coon’ songs are coming in new all the time, and up-to-date people want every one.”
“Do you wonder that the songs are popular?” continued the clerk. “A fellow can’t hear them without wanting to jump up and do the cake walk himself. Why, there is life and ginger in every chord, and no one but a deaf person could help being taken with them. It’s a fad, of course, the combining of coon dialect with rag time, but just see how it has spread over the country” (Gazette).
1895: “The Start Was Made”
According to the Reams Brothers’ clerk, Kalamazoo audiences first discovered ragtime in 1895 when Harry Zickel, a Detroit composer (who, according to the clerk, once lived in Kalamazoo), published his “Black America March & Two Step,” and another up-and-coming Detroit composer, Frederick Allen “Kerry” Mills, penned “Rastus on Parade.” “The start was made,” explained the clerk, “and ever since it has been nothing but ‘rag-time’ on the stage, on the streets and in the parlor.”
The store clerk then turned to another waiting customer… “Yes, ma’am, here is the very latest. ‘I Want You, Ma Baby, ‘Deed I Do’[sic]. Anything else?”
Ragtime in the Midwest: Detroit
While most music historians today recognize Sedalia, Missouri, as the “cradle” of ragtime, Harry P. Guy, a ragtime era composer and musician from Detroit, had a different opinion. To Guy, the epicenter of the ragtime movement was located right in his own hometown, just 150 miles to the east of Kalamazoo. Harry Guy attracted many of the best ragtime performers to Detroit, and along with contemporaries like Fred S. Stone, he played a vital role in establishing Detroit as a musical leader.
Large Detroit-based sheet music publishers like Whitney-Warner, the Grinnell Brothers, the Zickel Brothers, and (Harry Guy’s employer) Jerome H. Remick & Company were enormously helpful in the proliferation of ragtime music. Remick alone published more than one hundred rags and remained the largest firm of its kind until after the First World War. The influence of these publishing giants was soon felt in surrounding communities and along the connecting rail lines across the Midwest, where local audiences looked to the larger cities for the latest trends in popular entertainment.
Harry H. Zickel
Harry Zickel made a significant impact on popular music with his 1893 “Columbian” March, in honor of the Chicago World’s Fair, followed by a string of successful parlor songs and marches. Zickel was the director of Zickel’s Orchestra of Detroit, and in 1898, began publishing music with his brother Edward as the Zickel Brothers.
Zickel was well known in Kalamazoo and made a respectable career out of composing promotional songs and marches for well-known businesses, including “American Beauty March & Two Step” (1908), “My American Beauty Rose” (1910), and “My American Beauty Girl” (1912) for the Kalamazoo Corset Company. Zickel penned similar songs for the Goebel Brewing Company, Ford Motor Company, and the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company.
Ragtime in the Midwest: Chicago
One hundred and fifty miles to the west of Kalamazoo, crime, corruption and vice ruled the streets of Chicago decades before the likes of Al Capone and “Bugs” Moran. But from the brothels, saloons, cafes, and dance halls of the South Side Levee to the playhouses and burlesque theaters in the vibrant off-Loop theater district, the sounds of piano men, balladeers, “professors” and “shouters” filled the streets and back alleys with the suggestive sounds of ragtime.
The Mittenthal Brothers
During the 1880s, the Mittenthal Brothers were doing a brisk business in the wholesale fruit trade between West Michigan growers and Chicago’s South Water Street produce market. But right “next door” to the Chicago marketplace was the theater district and the Mittenthals soon became infatuated with the booming entertainment industry.
By the mid-1890s, the brothers had begun a foray into the theatrical booking and entertainment management business — just in time to capitalize on the popularity of ragtime and vaudeville. The Mittenthal team routinely scoured the theater districts of Chicago and New York in search of undiscovered talent for their own theatrical circuits, which often included Kalamazoo. Performances on the Mittenthal circuits were said to have been some of the best in the business, and they played a significant role in connecting Kalamazoo audiences with the latest trends in theater, vaudeville and ragtime entertainment.
“The orchestra, too, gave discourses in ‘rag-time,’ the only accepted opera music of the day and in general it can be said that Manager Bush has certainly begun the season in a laudable, up-to-date fashion.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, September 16, 1899
Ragtime in Kalamazoo: On Stage
Most West Michigan audiences were introduced to ragtime music through the traveling variety shows, light opera and vaudeville seen at the Opera House and the Academy of Music (thanks to manager B. A. Bush), at the summer resorts (thanks to the Mittenthal Brothers), and elsewhere. By popular demand, ragtime quickly became a novel feature of musical and dramatic stage productions.
“The new ‘Ten Nights in the Bar Room’ company that plays at the Academy next Tuesday night, has a brass band of twenty-two pieces that simply captivates the music loving public with the latest band music played in variation with an abundance of ‘rag time.’”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, September 23, 1899
Minstrel shows had enticed large local audiences with the infant rhythms of pre-ragtime syncopation since the mid 1800s. By about 1890, cakewalks and ragtime songs featured similar rhythms and had become essential parts of many stage performances. Soon, elaborate shows like Hal Overton’s “Coontown Jubilee” were being billed as “ragtime operettas,” or in Overton’s case, “a Ragtime Operatic Farse” and brought early ragtime to broad audiences in the local theaters.
In May 1899, “Coontown 400” brought “the greatest colored exponents of opera, burlesque, comedy and vaudeville in the world” to the Grand Theater in Grand Rapids. The Mittenthal Brothers would later bring the same troupe to Kalamazoo’s Lake View Casino for a two week engagement. The fifteen member cast, with its “rag-time operetta,” attracted some of the largest audiences of the season.
“The piece is something different than has ever been seen at the Casino before, and is true to its name, a rag-time operetta, in which many solos, duets, and other specialties are introduced, including all the latest popular songs.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette-News, July 23, 1901
Grace Tyson: “Kalamazoo’s Favorite Little Soubrette”
When the Mittenthal Brothers took over the Lake View Casino in 1898 and began booking the talent, one of the first acts they featured was Miss Grace Tyson, a young Kalamazoo woman who was beginning to take the stage world by storm. In July 1898, her act featured an “excellent coon song and cake walk” and brought in some of the largest crowds of the season. Her “Children’s Cake Walk” at Turn Verein Hall the following winter was a great success, as was her headline act at the Academy of Music the following year.
During the summer of 1901, Tyson made a return visit to Kalamazoo and give a final round of her “specialties and coon songs” for her hometown fans at the Lake View Casino.
The three Tyson sisters, Lena, Pearl and Grace, later went on to become world renowned vaudeville stars. In 1910, Grace Tyson was a featured performer in the Ziegfeld Follies, and scored a hit with Irving Berlin’s “Mendelssohn Rag.” Grace and her husband, Arthur McWatters, appeared in countless stage productions for many years and were praised by the press as “the epitome of vaudeville.”
“Belles of Blackville”
In November 1899, a group from Kalamazoo joined the “400” sensation with a minstrel performance by the “Kalamazoo ‘400’ Swelldom,” highlighted by a sixty member all-female cast. Sponsored by a literary and social club known as the Syracuse Temple of Rathbone Sisters (a Knights of Pythias organization), sixty “ladies of local prominence” anonymously outfitted themselves as the “Belles of Blackville” and nearly filled the Academy of Music for the benefit performance. Applauded by the Kalamazoo Gazette as “a remarkably successful amateur minstrel production,” the show featured “300 colored electric lights,” local jokes, skits, dancing, a stump speech, and “up-to-date coon and rag-time songs,” which were “received with rounds of applause.”
“The program given was right up-to-date, introduced just enough ragtime music to keep the audience in good humor, while the more classical solos were nicely sandwiched in.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, March 13, 1900
“Cousins and Brown’s Colored Stars”
During the early months of 1900, a group of Kalamazoo’s leading African American entertainers billed themselves as “Cousins and Brown’s Colored Stars” and made a significant impression on West Michigan audiences with their unique blend of ragtime and light opera.
Will Cousins, Florence Brown, William Stewart, Frank Wilson, and a host of others appeared several times in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, where they entertained large crowds with their buck and wing dancing, stump speeches, comedy sketches like “I am Living as High as Any Other Coon,” light operatic pieces from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinnafore” and Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” sentimental ballads such as “Thy Sentenel Am I” and “The Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee,” plus what the Gazette called “the proverbial rag time music,” featuring “My Chicken,” “Darktown’s Out Tonight,” and “Colored 400.”
“The entertainment seems to have ‘caught on’.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette-News, July24, 1901
Sam Mittenthal’s Lake View Park Casino
Manager Sam Mittenthal brought even more ragtime music to Kalamazoo during the 1901 summer season with “a splendid coon cake walk” by the Keystone Dramatic and Comedy Company at the Lake View Park Casino. Cakewalker Earl Coppernoll’s “blackface and rag time specialties” and Jack White & Jean Harlan’s “cake walk and specialties” drew especially large audiences, while a vaudeville performance by Kelly & Oxford featuring their “futuristic” comedy sketch called “A. D. 1910,” after which the Kalamazoo Gazette admitted that “the rag time music by Mr. Kelly was very good.”
Ragtime in Kalamazoo: Local Composers
The popularity of ragtime music quickly spread beyond the performance stage and into the local dance halls and music shops. Driven by audience demand, Kalamazoo musicians of every sort—from dance orchestras to marching bands to concert ensembles—began to embrace and perform the popular new form, while local composers began to write and publish their own ragtime and syncopated pieces.
While the dance orchestras of Oscar Clement, George Pfeiffer, the Phillips Brothers, and others filled Kalamazoo’s ballrooms with the sweet strains of popular dance numbers during the 1890s, a new group of musicians and composers began to attract attention during the latter years of the decade with the lively sound of ragtime.
Clearly, Kalamazoo was not a ragtime era songwriting Mecca like Saginaw, Detroit, or Chicago, but there were indeed several local songwriters who produced a significant body of work and plenty of musicians who were there to play it. Some pieces of ragtime interest were professionally published and survive today in the form of vintage printed music sheets. Others, while quite popular locally, were perhaps never written down (or at least never commercially published) and are known to us today only by title. Many are seemingly lost forever.
Though not all compositions listed here are technically “ragtime,” the following section provides us with a glimpse at the scope of the popular music that was created and performed in Kalamazoo during the ragtime era, and some of the musicians’ attitudes toward the ragtime phenomenon.
“Edward B. Desenberg’s rag time march, “Kalamazoo,” has been seen in its published form by some of his friends in this city. It is very catchy as well as a work of genuine musical merit.”
—Kalamazoo Saturday Telegraph, May 6, 1899
Edward B. Desenberg
One of the first pieces of ragtime music to be composed and published locally was by Edward B. Desenberg. Debuted in 1899, Desenberg’s “Kalamazoo, An Original Rag-Time Cake Walk” soon became a favorite with local audiences and musicians alike. The Fischer brothers were among the first to feature their friend’s new instrumental, which according to the Gazette “was very well received, and gives promise of becoming quite popular.” Desenberg himself later conducted the Chamber of Commerce Band during its June concert in Bronson Park with a full concert band rendition of the new composition.
“It isn’t doing any harm”
As a composer, musician, and performer, Edward Desenberg was seldom afraid to take chances. His illustrated lectures were new, innovative, and at times controversial, and his groundbreaking musical performances were greatly applauded. It’s not surprising then that Ed Desenberg would take a somewhat more realistic view of ragtime. “I consider rag-time generally an unsubstantial grade of music and do not believe it appeals to a very high order of taste,” said Desenberg in 1901, “but at the same time it is lively and catchy, and some of it is really clever and composed by gifted musicians.” As for the controversy over ragtime, Desenberg added, “I can’t say I’m in favor of abolishing it. In the first place it couldn’t be abolished and in the second I’m not sure it ought to be.”
Compositions by Edward B. Desenberg
“Kalamazoo” Ragtime Cakewalk (1899)
“Youwanta” March and Two-Step, arr. Ellis Brooks (1899)
Music for Charles Dickens’ “A Child’s Prayer” (1899)
“Ivanhoe” March and Two-Step, (undated)
“School of Applied Art” March and Two-Step (1910)
“Romanza” for Piano, (1911) for Miss Dorothy Lethbridge
“Canto Della Magdelena” (1911)
“Mizzoula” Intermezzo, (ca. 1914)
“Syncopated music is a fad”
Desenberg obviously valued “serious” music, but he understood that less formal “popular” music had its place, as well. “Syncopated music is a fad,” said Desenberg confidently in 1902, “and like every other fad will run its course and die and be supplanted by something newer. In the meantime what’s the use of worrying? It isn’t doing any harm. This talk about it degenerating the public taste is nonsense. Light music isn’t any worse than light literature or light vaudeville. The tendency of the times is for lightness in everything, but will recover from it and welcome the return of the legitimate” (Gazette).
Fischer Brothers’ Orchestra
One of the first Kalamazoo orchestras to feature the new ragtime sound was the Fischer Brothers’ Orchestra. Charlie and Bertie Fischer were both energetic young musicians with a keen ear for popular appeal. When the brothers performed for Miss Kent’s dancing assembly at the Auditorium in January 1899, the boys — still in their teens — played ragtime music much to the delight of the local audience. “Fischer’s playing was a feature,” said the Gazette, “every number being encored. Their rendition of rag time music was especially clever.”
At year’s end, Professor Herman Mittenthal’s celebrated cakewalk drew a crowd of five hundred to the Auditorium. Master Sammy Lewis and Miss Pearl Tyson (twelve-year-old sister of Grace Tyson) gave an exhibition cakewalk, and once again, “Fischer’s Orchestra furnished some warm rag-time melody for the affair” (Gazette).
The younger of the two Fischer brothers, Burton Fischer became a prolific local composer, and Fischer’s orchestras went on to become among the most popular dance orchestras in the Midwest, with as many as six different performing units on the road at any given time. Fischer’s “Exposition” Orchestra saw an extended engagement at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and later became known as Fischer’s “World’s Fair” Orchestra after a six week run at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. In addition to countless local appearances, Fischer’s bands fulfilled annual summertime bookings at Michigan’s finest seasonal resorts, including Petoskey’s historic Bay View Inn and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, and eventually circled the globe four times aboard the Red Star Lines’ SS Belgenland.
In 1901, Charles Fischer had only just begun to earn his reputation as one of the community’s most respected musical forces, ever. Fischer’s orchestras would dominate the popular music scene in Michigan and across the nation for more than five decades. It’s not surprising then that even at this early stage, Fischer’s insight was clear, if not profound. “Rag-time is gradually disappearing of its own volition,” stated Fischer in a self-assured tone, “so I consider this talk about abolishing it as useless. I have noticed in the music coming out this year that good marches are much more numerous and rough and rugged rag-time songs are scarcer.”
Compositions by Burton E. Fischer
“I’d Rather Waltz Just With You, You, You” (1907)
“Yankee Toys” (1907)
“What’s in a Kiss” (1908)
“A Message” (1908)
“Saint or Sinner” (1908)
“A Toast to All the Girls” (1909)
“Sweethearts True” (1909)
“If Wishes Were Horses” (1910)
“The Bee” (1911)
“Just One Little Dance in Your Arms” (1912)
“All Hail to Kazoo” (1915)
“The Squad March” (1916)
“Uncle Sam is Calling You” (1917)
“Oodles of Pep” (1917)
“I am not a radical opponent of rag-time.”
Clearly, Fischer saw ragtime as a mere step in an evolutionary process, which we now know was true. “I am not a radical opponent of rag-time,” stated Fischer. “I think most of it is crude and too choppy for real beauty, but it hasn’t degraded musical tastes to any great extent. It had a ring and a rhythm that struck home and the people liked it. They’ll soon get over it, in fact are getting over it and rag-time will make way for a better music. But let the orchestra leaders unite and refuse to play it, and it will only give new life to the fad. Better let well enough alone.”
Simons Brothers’ Orchestra
The Simons Brothers’ Orchestra became immensely popular after it was organized in 1899. The six piece orchestra was led by violinist Luveian H. “Louis” Simons, a member of Kalamazoo’s Chamber of Commerce Band, and featured his brother, Gardia P. “Gardie” Simons, who was a trombonist with Ellis Brooks’ famous band in New York. The orchestra included Martha Hardella, piano; Chicago-based clarinetist George Balcom; plus the three Reams brothers: Arthur Reams, clarinet; Jay Reams, flute; and Silvo Reams, saxophone.
“This scheme of abolishing it will never work.”
Sylvester “Sylvo” Reams was a former member of the United States Marine Band in Chicago, and later the secretary, general manager, and one of the initial investors in the Gibson Mandolin Company. By 1898, Reams was directing the Kalamazoo Chamber of Commerce Band, and a year later, was playing saxophone in the Simons Brothers’ Orchestra. His brother, Arthur Reams, was proprietor of the Reams Brothers’ Music Store, where the orchestra practiced and occasionally performed.
Clearly Sylvo Reams was not a fan of ragtime, but at the same time, he saw the trend for what it was and felt strongly that it should not be “banned.” “Rag-time is mostly rot and the way it is being obtruded into every kind of music is disgusting,” stated Reams. “But this scheme of abolishing it will never work. If a band master or leader says he won’t play rag-time then the public won’t hire him, so what’s he going to do?”
As for the future of ragtime, Reams was clearly in favor of giving the public what it wanted. “The only thing I see is to give the people what they want and wait patiently for the time they’ll want something good. The craze for rag-time is simply the result of degeneracy in taste, and the public will have to become educated in music before they can recover from it.”
Compositions by Gardia P. “Gardie” Simons
Aside from performing with the Simons Brothers’ Orchestra, Gardie Simons was an active composer. An April 1900 performance for the “Tattlers’ Ball” featured some forty numbers, including Gardie Simons’ newly composed two step dedicated to the Tattlers (social club), and a popular ragtime march called “Celery Tops.”
“Tattlers” Two-Step (1900)
“Celery Tops, a Kalamazoo Kake-Walk” (1900)
“Murzella” Three-Step (1900)
“The Campbells are Coming” (1900)
“This’ll Help Out Some” Waltz and Two-Step (1901)
“Soldiers In the Park” Two-Step (1901)
“Company C” Two-Step (1901)
“National Guards” Two-Step (1901)
Professor E. L. Weinn’s Orchestra
A six piece orchestra led by violinist and local violin instructor Edward L. Weinn was organized in the spring of 1899, and initially featured a young Burton Fischer on piano. Other members included Gardie Simons and Arthur Reams from Simons’ Orchestra, and Ed Taylor of the Symphony Orchestra. Soon after, Weinn’s Orchestra was engaged to be the house orchestra for the summer at the Lake View Park Casino. During the winter months, Weinn’s Orchestra was kept busy providing music for an endless array of cakewalks, balls, dancing parties, and social gatherings.
By 1904, Weinn’s Orchestra had grown to a full ten pieces, with E. L. Weinn and Charles Wolff, first violins; William Warner, second violin; Ed Taylor, viola; Sylvo Reams, saxophone; Frank Newell, bass; Jay Reams, flute; Arthur Reams, clarinet; Sam Born and G. L. Trombley, cornets; and Frank Burnell, trombone. Weinn later directed Salomon’s Orchestra for a short period during the early months of 1904, before eventually moving his family to Seattle.
A New Sound: The Beat of a Different Drum
Instrumentation within the newer bands remained essentially the same as the pre-ragtime orchestras; a violin (or sometimes two), a cornet or two, or perhaps a trombone, flute or clarinet and piano. But one change came along that created a distinctly different sound and signaled the beginning of a new era in popular music—the addition of a drummer. And not just a bass drum or singular snare like the military bands, the newer bands began featuring a trap drum, ancestor to the modern drum kit.
With a bass drum turned on its edge, a simple pedal (trap) mechanism allowed a single drummer to incorporate a syncopated beat by playing bass, snare and cymbal at the same time.
Kalamazoo audiences were no strangers to the new innovation. When E. C. McElhany’s Academy of Music Orchestra gave a concert at Sterns’ store in April 1892, John Vlieken was touted by the Gazette as “the great trap drummer, best in the state.” But it was Fischer’s Orchestra, of course, that would lead the way as one of the first to associate this newfangled trap drum contraption with ragtime. A February 1899 performance at the Auditorium featured “Fischer’s orchestra of 10 pieces and trap drummer.” By 1901, at least two more local orchestras, Goddie Rosenbaum’s Orchestra and Herman Salomon’s Orchestra, had begun to tout the trap drum. Banks Baird’s Orchestra was formed a short time later and followed suit.
Goddie Rosenbaum’s Orchestra
Rosenbaum’s Orchestra was organized in the fall of 1901 and featured several of Kalamazoo’s leading musicians, including Godfrey H. “Goddie” Rosenbaum, director and first violin; Ed Taylor, viola; and Frank Newell, trombone (all former members of the 1894 Symphony Orchestra); Martha Hardella (formerly of Simons’ Orchestra), piano; Albert Hendricks and/or Fred Hinrich, clarinet; Sam Born, first cornet; Banks Baird, second cornet; and Lewis Lawton, trap drums.
A November minstrel show put on by the Knights of Pythias at the Academy of Music featured Rosenbaum’s new orchestra. “The opening overture by the orchestra, ‘The Monarch of Minstrelsy,’ was a jolly jumble of ragtime airs, arranged by Prof. Rosenbaum. The selections, both ballads and ragtime, were excellently well rendered and each and every one was encored” (Gazette-News).
“Who wants rag-time abolished?”
“Abolish rag-time?” questioned Rosenbaum in a 1901 interview. “You can’t do it. It has a grip on the people’s hearts that all the band masters in the world can’t loosen. And why should they be allowed to? Who wants rag-time abolished? None but a few polished musicians who can’t appreciate light music of any kind. The public doesn’t want to go to a concert and listen entirely to Wagner and Strauss and Chopin; we can see that right here in Kalamazoo. If you gave a concert tomorrow and played the finest classical music I don’t believe more than ten per cent of the audience would or could enjoy it, but give them a melody of popular two-steps and rag-time songs and they’ll go wild with delight.”
“Some ministers say rag-time is immoral and appeals to the animal passions,” continued Rosenbaum. “I can’t see it that way. In my estimation, it’s the rhythm, the life and the soul that keeps time with beats of the human heart and appeals to a person’s poetic nature. No, instead of rag-time being abolished, you’ll see it increase and grow. And,” he concluded, “I’m glad of it.”
Banks Baird’s Orchestra
Soon after Rosenbaum’s Orchestra was formed, trombonist Banks Baird struck out on his own with an eight piece orchestra, featuring a trap drummer and a harpist. “Baird’s Orchestra with its fascinating strains kept the merry feet in motion until midnight,” said the Gazette in December 1902. By 1903, Baird was operating Baird’s Music House at 206 West Main Street, where he sold pianos and other instruments. The following year, Baird joined with local musician and performer Ted Daken to manage the newly revamped Casino Park at Woods Lake. The duo there formed Baird’s Casino Orchestra (8-12 pieces) and provided musical support for the theatrical programs throughout the summer.
After three seasons at the Casino and winters with the Academy of Music Orchestra, Baird and Daken parted ways. Daken left to manage a summer park in Illinois, while Baird took his new 17 piece orchestra on the road with yet another entertainment impresario from Kalamazoo, Ed F. Davis, and his lavish new production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Eugene C. McElhany’s Orchestra
Under the direction of E. C. McElhany since its inception in 1891, the Academy of Music Orchestra often performed for dances and other social occasions as a contracted orchestra outside of the Academy of Music, but was known more for its “sweet” dance music rather than ragtime. In fact, McElhany, who received his education at the Chicago Musical College, often made his distaste for the “rot” of ragtime known. Not only did he dislike ragtime from a musical standpoint, McElhany clearly sided with the Chicago contingent who proposed banning it from public performance. “The Chicago Musicians’ union anti-rag time movement will again bring this subject before the musicians of America,” said McElhany, “and will doubtless assist in the placing on the low plane that all such compositions as are generally considered rag-time, deserve.”
“99 percent of these compositions are simply nauseating.”
“The condemnation of the rag-time compositions began three years ago, explained McElhany in a 1901 interview, “when the delegates from the musicians’ unions of the United States met in Denver. There the rag two-steps and songs were considered and decided upon the veriest unmusical rot, and that decision was endorsed by the local unions all over America which sent delegates to that convention. The Chicago musicians have gone farther than to endorse the Denver movement; they appeal to all musical organizations and people to assist in the abandoning of any such pieces that are now known as rag-time. The movement is a good one, and should have the co-operation of musicians everywhere.”
“The defense of rag time becomes more shallow as rag time becomes better known. It is proper in the dive and brothel: there should it remain.” E. C. McElhany
—Kalamazoo Gazette-News, January 14, 1902
“Damn Wagner; play a cake walk!”
“The cause of this uprising against that style of composition,” continued McElhany, “is directly due the fact that the country is deluged with music for piano, orchestra or band and called two-steps in rag-time, from obscure or alleged ‘composers’ of music, and about 99 percent of these compositions are simply nauseating. The great concert band masters have had to give some of this class of music at times for there were conditions ‘pecuniarily’ and otherwise that made it necessary, and if they gave such music the smaller organizations everywhere did the same – for the desire that caused a man in Chicago to send Thomas a note on which was written ‘Damn Wagner; play a cake walk,’ is not a fault; just a choice – a preference for something that sounded lively; to something that he could not understand.”
In November 1903, however, that all seemed to change and McElhany did an abrupt about-face. Having recently entered his own ragtime song (replete with embarrassing pseudo-dialect) in a local music composition contest, McElhany negotiated “the largest and best contract for musical services ever awarded in Kalamazoo” and formed the Palace of Amusement Orchestra to provide entertainment at the newly opened performance venue on West Water Street. This ten piece orchestra featured a host of well known musicians, including George Balcom from Fischer’s Orchestra and Arthur Reams of the Chamber of Commerce Band playing clarinets; “Jay” Reams of the Chamber of Commerce Band, flute and piccolo; Winn Forbes, W. J.. Clark, and Sam Born (Second Regiment Band, Weinn’s and Salomon’s orchestras), cornets; W.E. Wheaton of the Second Regiment Band, alto and bass clarinets; Fred Davis (City Band, Second Regiment Band, Chamber of Commerce Band), alto and violin; Joe Robson, trombone; W. T. Jones, euphonium; P. Longjohn, bass; H. S. Thacker, double bass; Kate Newton, piano; and E. C. McElhany, director, playing saxophone, violin and “double drums.” The band’s first performances featured “special musical selections… in jag-time, rag-time.”
McElhany’s Casino Park Orchestra
Further evidence of McElhany’s newly found acceptance of ragtime came in 1905, when an orchestra was selected for the summer season at the Lake View Casino near Woods Lake. By then called Casino Park (managed by Banks Baird and Ted Daken), the small lakeside theater was still THE local hotspot for ragtime entertainment. The Casino Orchestra was directed by Banks Baird and featured many of the best musicians the local community had to offer; Harry Jay, cornet soloist; Harry Parker, piccolo; Fred Curtis, solo clarinet; Herman Salomon, first clarinet; John Vocell, second clarinet; Wallace White, Fred Davis and Charles Jannasch, alto horns; Gardie Simons, Clark John Dye, Joseph Robinson and Frank Newell, trombones; R. P. Warren, baritone; Nicholas W. Hodgeboom, bass and E. C. McElhany himself on drums.
McElhany retired from the Academy of Music in 1903, but remained a driving force in the local music scene well into the 1920s.
Compositions by E. C. McElhany
“To Thee” (love song), E. C. McElhany (1902)
“He Done Took Ma Wench, Ma Babe, My Honey Lou” (ragtime song), E. C. McElhany (1902)
(Both were submitted to the Gazette-News “Original Compositions” contest in March 1902.)
“Captain Kidd, or the Island of Ziz” (comic opera), E. C. McElhany (1903)
“Garden of Love” Waltz, Earl Combs, arranged by E. C. McElhany (1904)
Herman Salomon’s Orchestra
When the 22 piece K.O.T.M. (Knights of the Temple Maccabees) Band was formed in April 1901, it included E. C. McElhany as director, plus Otto Schultz, Fred Redmond and Herman Salomon of the Second Regiment Band, and others. This later led to the formation of a new dance orchestra, “the largest orchestra of picked musicians ever brought together for dance music,” of which McElhany was also the director.
“One of the best known orchestras in the state”
By fall, McElhany had returned to the Academy of Music Orchestra, and the K.O.T.M. Orchestra was reorganized as Herman Salomon’s ten piece dance orchestra (with trap drum). Salomon’s Orchestra, which gained almost immediate acclaim, was led by violinist N. Scheriner, and included Herman Salomon, clarinet and manager; former White’s Military Band and Symphony Orchestra cornetist Peter Closterman; Bessie Keiber, piano; Fred Golden, trombone; and former White’s Band, Second Regiment Band, and Symphony Orchestra drummer Carl Catherman. Other members included violinist Edward Weinn (replaced in 1904 by Charles Wolff), cornetist Sam Born, and local piano teacher George L. “Lem” Trombley. Salomon’s Orchestra remained a leading local musical institution until 1919 or after.
George L. “Lem” Trombley
The musicianship in Salomon’s Orchestra was superb, but the group drew the most attention when it featured its pianist, Lem Trombley, “because he played so beautifully” (Gazette) and because he composed “just the kind of a song everybody likes” (G. L. Trombley Publishing Co.). Between 1904 and 1917, Trombley composed and published a string of hits, many of which received national attention.
During the early weeks of 1904, Baird’s Orchestra began featuring Trombley’s newly penned “Sitting Bull” March, which the Gazette called “splendid,” earning “rounds of applause.” By 1907, Trombley had joined Salomon’s Orchestra and was teaching piano and cornet. His first composition with that orchestra was “My Aeroplane Jane” in 1911, followed by “Why Don’t You Smile?” a year later. By October 1912, Trombley had published and already sold 20,000 copies of “The Story of a Rose,” four thousand of those in Kalamazoo alone. Two ragtime pieces followed soon after, “Harem Scarem Rag” and “Rag-Time Eating Place.” Perhaps the most famous of Trombley’s works was the 1916 composition, “Under the Summer Moon,” written by Trombley and Leonard Marx, and featured as part of an early Marx Brothers stage production called “Home Again.”
Compositions by Lem Trombley
“Sitting Bull” March (1904)
“My Aeroplane Jane” (1911)
“Why Don’t You Smile?” (1912)
“The Story of a Rose” (1912)
“Harem Scarem Rag” (1912)
“Rag-Time Eating Place” (1914)
“The Queen of Beauty” Hesitation Waltz (1915)
“Just to Hear You Call Me Dear” (1915)
“Under the Summer Moon” w/ Marx Bros. (1916)
“Sweetheart Days” (1916)
“The Uncommercial Minstrel” (poem) (1916)
“I Left My Heart In Ireland” (1917)
“When The Girl You Love Loves You” (1917)
Herman F. Siewert
The son of an enterprising professional local photographer, Herman F. “Herm” Siewert was an organist at St. Lukes Church and Peoples Church until 1911 when he replaced Frederic Rogers as organist at the First Presbyterian Church. Siewert received formal training from William C. Carl at the Guilmant Organ School in New York, and from Frank Damrosch at New York’s Institute of Musical Art. While studying in New York, Siewert was among a crowd of onlookers at the pier when the Carpathia arrived with survivors of the Titanic disaster.
Siewert later worked as a theater organist at the Empress Theater in Grand Rapids and at the Elite Theater in Kalamazoo. During the war, he was a member of the 337th Infantry Band in France, where they once led a performance for General Pershing and the troops.
“That Coon Town Rag”
In 1912, Siewert tried his hand at ragtime songwriting with “That Coon Town Rag,” which he wrote with lyricist Gilbert Perry especially for a minstrel show to be given the following January by the young men of the Peoples Church.
Down across the border lives a rag-time coon,
Who plays upon a banjo such a rag-time tune
We slides and sways when he sings and plays
Such a syncopated trance,
And I’m gone, that’s all, when that man does call
“Come on hon’ an’ do dat dance.”
The piece was published in 1913 by C. A. Ross Publishing Company in Kalamazoo, and first featured by Fischer’s Orchestra at an October 1912 dance, where it was sung by composers Siewert and Perry, with publisher Cecil Ross.
More Ragtime Repertoire
In addition to those already mentioned, there were a handful of other local orchestras that were active shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, and are known to have featured ragtime music, if only on occasion. George Pfeiffer’s Orchestra accompanied L. O. DeWitt when he sang a ragtime piece called Absent Brothers at a Lincoln Republican Club banquet in January 1900. Later in the spring, the Kalamazoo High School Glee Club performed during the Class of ‘00 High School Seniors’ Musicale, and “made a great hit with their variety of songs, mostly rag-time.”
George B. Newell’s Orchestra
When George B. Newell (instructor, director, and brother of musician Frank Newell) took over as leader of the Academy of Music Orchestra for the 1904 season, he brought in several new players, including Miss Burns, piano; Mr. Curtis, clarinet, Mr. Walton, bass; Banks Baird, cornet, and John Vlieken, trap drum. Newell later reorganized his orchestra in 1906, and performed during the summer months at Casino Park on Woods Lake. In September 1906, more than 1,200 were on hand to hear Newell’s Orchestra perform during the grand opening ball at the new Duplex Phonograph Company factory.
Charles Brocato’s Band
Charles Brocato, “one of the finest clarinet soloists in the country” (Gazette), came to Kalamazoo from Buffalo, NY, in 1908 and became a member of Fischer’s Orchestra. In 1915, he formed Brocato’s Band, which remained active until at least 1923 and often shared membership to a great extent with Fischer’s Orchestra. Brocato was the proprietor of the Saxophone Shop, 156 E. Michigan Ave. in 1916, and managed the Oakwood Park dance pavilion from 1918 until 1921, when he joined the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.
Brocato’s Band was known for its extremely broad range of repertoire. “The repertoire of the band ranges from the lightest of ragtime selections to standard classic compositions,” wrote the Kalamazoo Gazette-Telegraph in September 1916. Brocato’s outfit helped usher out the ragtime era with everything from classical standards and sweet waltzes to lively jazz favorites, marches, and even an occasional bit of (by then) nostalgic ragtime.
End of an Era
The racist ragtime songs and caricaturish cakewalks had all but run their course by 1904, though ragtime music itself continued to be popular until the end of the first World War. As early as 1909, however, composers and performers like Sousa were beginning to proclaim the death of ragtime, saying it had “been shelved to make way for the tuneful airs of the popular musical shows that last but a season and for the music of the old composers.”
But America was losing its innocence. In February 1917, syncopation met improvisation somewhere between New Orleans and Chicago, when the Victor Talking Machine Company released the first ever jazz record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. This, combined with the closing of Storyville and the end of the Great War, marked the beginning of a new age, “The Jazz Age.”
Ragtime saw a tremendous surge in popularity in 1974 when the film, The Sting, introduced Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” to an entirely new generation. Today, music archivists carefully document and study the form, as they mine obscure “sides” from rare 78s and compile readily available digital collections what once would have taken a lifetime to assemble.
Ragtime continues to live on through organizations like Michigan’s River Raisin Ragtime Revue, and our own Greater Kalamazoo Dixieland Society Jazz Band, who enjoy recreating the classic sounds of Dixieland, early jazz and ragtime for current audiences.
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it may be viewed as a work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.
Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, 2010.