Ragtime Lives On at a Southern California Chinese Restaurant
Rose Leaf Ragtime Club co-founder Bill Mitchell, 91, commands the upright at Wang's Place. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)
In a small restaurant in Monrovia, a town just east of Pasadena, a handful of faithful music fans meet once a month to keep the genre they love alive. The group’s members range from their teens to their 90s, all bound by a deep passion for ragtime.
The pale light of a December afternoon comes through the picture windows of the banquet room at Wang’s Place, as Vincent Johnson coaxes a haunting piece called “Blueberry Rhyme” out of an old Yamaha upright.
Steam rises from the buffet table heaped with noodles, stir fry and egg rolls. It costs $2 to get in; admission is free if you’re a player. And most of those who show up are indeed players.
About 20 people sit at tables scattered across the black-and-white checkerboard flooring. Eyes are closed. Heads nod slightly with the syncopated pulse of the song as they take in perhaps the most American of popular music, here in a Chinese restaurant, played on a Japanese piano.
Welcome to the Rose Leaf Ragtime Club.
It’s Bill Mitchell’s turn at the keys. He makes his way up to the piano, an instrument he’s been playing for 84 years.
“I’ve been playing ragtime since about 1950,” he says. “I’m 91.”
He’s been a founding member of local rag clubs since 1967. For him, the music is transcendent.
"It takes me back in time,” Mitchell offers. “It takes me into kind of an enchanted world. Certainly a more innocent time, I think.”
The style was born in the not-so-innocent African-American red-light district of St. Louis in the 1890s. When jazz took over in the late teens, ragtime began to fade. But it refused to die. In 1974, the music re-entered the culture -- and topped the easy-listening charts as the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning film "The Sting."
And while most of the Rose Leafers are easily old enough to have seen the film in theaters, there are three guys in the room who missed it by a long shot.
Ryan Wishner, 18, hunkers down at the piano and launches into a strident, rollicking tune he penned himself, “The Indestructible Rag,” inspired by an ad he saw for Indestructible phonograph records from the early 1900s.
But how does an 18-year-old get into this?
“One night I heard my mom playing ‘The Entertainer,’ ” he explains. “This was about eight years ago, and I asked her to show me what notes to play and it turned into this.”
Edward Maraga, who’s 23, started playing the music of Joy Division and other ‘80s post-punk bands before discovering ragtime.
“I think not too many people our age play this type of music,” states Maraga. “It’s just rare. I listen to heavy metal every day, so I’m the oddball.”
Vincent Johnson, also 23, sits down for another tune. He’s been coming to the club, where the trio met, for a decade. He’s playing one of the 80-some compositions he’s written since he was 14, “Milk and Honey.”
“I feel like it’s my primary way of relating to America as a country because often times, culturally and politically, I feel at odds and it’s hard for me to say, you know, America!” explains Johnson. “But when I play this music I feel it’s very, very American. There’s definitely a connection to the land, the culture, to what life was like about 100 years ago.”
At a table in the back, Jeff Hartmann, who’s 56, hunches over his sketchbook, a plate of glistening noodles at his elbow. He’s drawing pen-and-ink images of vintage locomotives, cars and street scenes that fit perfectly with the music that fills the room.
“Between the drawing and listening to the music, you just forget about the bills you have to pay and your job and all the day-to-day things you have to deal with,” says Hartmann. “It’s nice to kind of forget about that for a while.”
But what’s the future of this music that has somehow managed to hold on for a century of ups and downs? Doug Haise ought to know. His day job has been performing ragtime at retirement communities and other venues since 1987.
“At any given ragtime event, there are fewer people and the ones that remain are generally old. But that’s fine with us because they love the music, we love to play it, so we’ll just keep going,” Haise says. “So if it ends up there’s no audience except ourselves, we’ll be playing it for each other, I guess.”
At the very least, there’ll be an audience at Wang’s Place next month.