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World Piano Champ Makes Old-Time Rag Music New Again

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Martin Spitznagel has won many awards for his old-time piano playing, including "World Chamption" at the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest, and first place in the 2010 Scott Joplin Foundation's worldwide "Train Town Rag" composition contest.
Martin Spitznagel
Martin Spitznagel has won many awards for his old-time piano playing, including "World Chamption" at the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest, and first place in the 2010 Scott Joplin Foundation's worldwide "Train Town Rag" composition contest.

Ragtime is undergoing a resurgence, quite literally at the hands of a self-taught pianist in Alexandria. Martin Spitznagel nabbed the title of World Champion of Old-Time Piano Playing at the 2011 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest, which he describes as "this fabulous collection of really creative, eccentric people who get together in a ballroom in Peoria, Ill., and dress up in old-time clothes and play on this beat-up old upright." And they're all vying for a trophy: the trophy that now sits atop Spitznagel's upright piano in his apartment overlooking King Street.

Spitznagel admits he's not too big on the dressing-up-in-old-time-clothes part. Granted, he'll be a sport and don the vintage duds for competitions. But the truth is, at age 29, he's a man on a mission.

He worries too many people think ragtime is "old music, dead music, gone music." So his mission, he says, is to prove to the world that "it's very much alive! You can play anything in ragtime; it's just a style." And it's a lively, syncopated style, which Spitznagel first stumbled upon in seventh-grade music class, when a boy came in and started busting out some ragtime on the piano.

"You know how they describe Cupid's arrow? So, I got shot by ragtime's arrow," Spitznagel says. "That's exactly how it felt... it just captured me.... Literally, it was like a concussive force. Like, 'Oh my God, I must now be a vessel of ragtime!'"

Hence Spitznagel's desire to contemporize ragtime, 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 in Missouri. The artist-in-residence visits local schools and plays for the students. Spitznagel would visit classes and, of course, play the classics. But he'd also mix in ragtime versions of television-show themes, video-game themes, even music from movies; his "ragged" version of the Darth Vader March is a favorite.

"While other people were learning how to make out, I was ragging Star Wars music in high school," he jokes.

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. As for where he got the latter title, Spitznagel says he was playing for a teenage ragtime pianist, "and I looked over and he had his hands to his face, and he's like, 'That was face melting!' ... And what I love about it, is '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?"

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 new crop of youngsters being shot by ragtime's arrow.

"I'm like middle-aged when it comes to ragtime performers," he says. "There are these kids who are 18, 19, 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!"

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,' the reigning World Champion of Old-Time Piano Playing just might know a thing or two about that.

[Music: "Super Mario Bros. Theme" by Koji Kondo played by Martin Spitznagel]

Photos: Making Old-Time Music

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