Transcripts

Making Old-Time Music New Again

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this week, in honor of Veterans Day, we're going in the trenches with stories about battles and struggles of all kinds. And not just military battles, but political, educational, environmental and now, musical.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:36
If you're familiar with popular American songs of the 1920s you probably know this one. It's called, "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" or "5 Foot 2, Eyes of Blue." And thanks to this ragtime ditty, the pianist you're hearing recently won a rather particular sort of battle. He even has the trophy to prove it sitting atop the wooden upright in his King Street apartment.

MR. MARTIN SPITZNAGEL

00:00:56
My name is Martin Spitznagel, I live here in northern Virginia. I'm also the World Champion of Old-Time Piano Playing.

SHEIR

00:01:03
Spitznagel nabbed that title by wowing the judges with his rendition of "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" at, yes, the 2011 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing contest.

SPITZNAGEL

00:01:13
It's just this fabulous collection of really creative, eccentric people who get together in a ballroom in Peoria, Illinois and dress up in old-time clothes and play on this beat-up old upright and vie for this trophy.

SHEIR

00:01:29
Now, Spitznagel admits he's not super keen on the whole dressing up in old-time clothes part, you know, the corn cob hat, the vest, the sleeve garters.

SPITZNAGEL

00:01:37
Actually, it really is hard to play a piano with garters. I don't know who invented that because it cuts off your blood flow, you know, like when they take blood from your arm, they put that thing around your arm.

SHEIR

00:01:44
Yes.

SPITZNAGEL

00:01:45
It's the same thing. I don't understand who thought that was a good idea.

SHEIR

00:01:48
I mean, sure he'll be a sport and don the vintage duds for competitions, but the truth is, at age 29...

SPITZNAGEL

00:01:53
I've got nine months and, like, 21 days until I'm 30.

SHEIR

00:01:57
Not that you're counting.

SPITZNAGEL

00:01:57
I'm counting.

SHEIR

00:01:59
Spitznagel is a man on a mission. See, he worries too many people these days think ragtime is...

SPITZNAGEL

00:02:04
Old music.

SHEIR

00:02:05
…and...

SPITZNAGEL

00:02:05
Dead music.

SHEIR

00:02:06
…and...

SPITZNAGEL

00:02:07
Gone music.

SHEIR

00:02:08
So his mission is to prove to the world...

SPITZNAGEL

00:02:10
No.

SHEIR

00:02:10
…it's anything but.

SPITZNAGEL

00:02:11
It's very much alive. You can play anything in ragtime. It's just a style.

SHEIR

00:02:15
A lively syncopated style, which Spitznagel first stumbled upon in seventh grade music class. The way he tells it, one day a boy came in and just started busting out some ragtime on the piano.

SPITZNAGEL

00:02:25
And you know how they describe Cupid's arrow? So I got shot by ragtime's arrow, okay? And I know that sounds silly, but that's exactly how it felt. Like, literally this kid came in and played...

SPITZNAGEL

00:02:41
It just captured me. I can't even explain to you. Literally, it was like a concussive force. Like, my gosh, I must now be a vessel of ragtime.

SHEIR

00:02:49
Hence Spitznagel's desire to contemporize ragtime, to modernize it and make it accessible to a whole new generation. Which is why earlier this year, he was jazzed to be the artist in residence with the Scott Joplin Foundation, named, of course, for the man who wrote "The Entertainer," "The Maple Leaf Rag," and a whole slew of other ragtime standards.

SPITZNAGEL

00:03:07
They hosted the Scott Joplin International Festival in Missouri, but they also have the artist in residence program where they bring in that musician and then he or she goes around to the area schools and plays for the kids.

SHEIR

00:03:18
So as he went around, Spitznagel would, of course, play the classics.

SHEIR

00:03:24
Like, yes, "The Entertainer." But remember, like he says...

SPITZNAGEL

00:03:28
You can play anything in ragtime.

SHEIR

00:03:29
So he'd also mix in a bit of television.

SHEIR

00:03:38
Some video games.

SHEIR

00:03:46
Even the movies.

SPITZNAGEL

00:03:54
Right, "Darth Vader's March."

SHEIR

00:03:56
You did not. You just -- oh my gosh, you just did that.

SPITZNAGEL

00:03:59
Yes, actually. While other people were, you know, learning how to make out, I was ragging "Star Wars" music in high school, yes.

SHEIR

00:04:05
Spitznagel presents the same eclectic mix on his two recordings, "Tricky Fingers," and his brand-new release, "Handful of Keys: Face-melting Ragtime Played by Martin Spitznagel," a title which just begs the question. Face-melting?

SPITZNAGEL

00:04:20
Yes.

SHEIR

00:04:20
What's the story behind that?

SPITZNAGEL

00:04:22
So I was playing a new piece of mine for one of the teenagers who was attending this music festival and I looked over and he had his hands to his face. He's like, that was face-melting. You know, he was just -- he couldn't get over it, you know? And what I love about it is that, I mean, face melting is very much a modern slang, right, and it perfectly encapsulates for me how I want to combine old good stuff with, like, new fire. I just want to breathe new fire into this stuff, you know?

SHEIR

00:04:49
But for all his fears of ragtime becoming old, dead and gone, Martin Spitznagel actually has hope. He says that teenager with the melting face is part of a whole crowd of youngsters being shot by ragtime's arrow.

SPITZNAGEL

00:05:03
I mean, I'm like, middle-aged when it comes to ragtime performers. There are these kids who are 18, 19, you know, the age that I was when I discovered this stuff who are writing and recording and can play the socks off of -- I mean, it's just ridiculous.

SHEIR

00:05:18
Of course, one might say the idea of 29 year-old Martin Spitznagel being middle-aged is ridiculous, too, but if you want to talk about playing somebody's socks off...

SPITZNAGEL

00:05:30
Right.

SHEIR

00:05:30
Whoa, bravo.

SPITZNAGEL

00:05:32
Thank you very much, yes.

SHEIR

00:05:33
Well, reigning world champion of Old-Time Piano Playing knows a thing or two about that.

SHEIR

00:05:42
Martin Spitznagel is performing November 12 at 10:00 p.m. at the Black Fox Lounge near DuPont Circle in Northwest D.C. For more on the show, Spitznagel's recordings and the history of ragtime, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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