Saturday, February 18, 2017

Memphis Blues

Handy & The Blues at Urban Eats

Tomorrow I'm playing background piano at Urban Eats Café at 3301 Meramec in St. Louis... it's sort of a non-Chinese dim sum where they bring out various small dishes and you pick what you want, dessert, salad, quiche, waffle, etc. Kinda fun. It keeps me in shape having something to practice for every month. I play third Sunday of the month most of the time, so pop on by if you can! The wraps are good, the quiche is good, pretty much it's all good. Plus local art's for sale, not everyone is into local art, but we have a lot at home, and it's a nice feel to have some affordable original photographs or paintings.

One thing I try to do with the old songs is play the original sheet music, which for many folks was how the song went if they didn't hear it played live. And a lot of the old recordings are pretty faithful to the sheet music, or orchestrated versions of it. It's sort of a shtick now that I do it, but it's also a challenge, and I think an homage to the era.

It's something to "shoot for," as in learning how to play it as it was published, vs. comping chords. Plus I guess it's a bit more authentic. You find out things, for instance a lot of WC Handy was originally a tango. The chorus to St. Louis Blues and Beale Street are both tangos, which you rarely hear, but you can even read about why he did that. to put in something familiar and introduce them to the blues at the same time.

Also old Blues didn't swing, but I swing it anyway. So sue me. It's just hard not to, but if you listen to the Handy Band, it doesn't swing. Also, you'll get the feel that early blues came out of ragtime, the way the left hand plays the rag bass and the right plays the syncopation is pretty much the same thing, and it goes from there.

Random thought, "Darktown Strutters Ball" which is a jazz classic from 1917, you can hear how jazz is taking over, the bass line doesn't do the rag thing, it does more the jazz thing as in it just moves along w/o so much oompah, but there's plenty of oompah to remind us we'll still in 1917. I think looking at the sheet music vs. just comping chords shows a bit of the history.

That being said, I've always been sort of proud of my arrangement of Memphis Blues by Handy, that I did off a lead sheet. It probably sounds more like 1950 than 1915. It's the version people don't sing that much, vs. the version they do, which was the version George Norton put out after he tricked Handy into selling him the copyright. (essentially he said the song wasn't selling, and it was, and bought the rights "for a song." Handy got the rights back later on.) I like that version too, and 100 years after the trickery it's still wrong, but the song is good, kind of a lazy blues. Below is Memphis Blues by The Ragged Blade Band: we recorded this in 2012 or 2013.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The United States of Pandamerica

The Brooklyn Publishers deadline for me is March 1, which means, of course, I have all year to get things done and I usually wait until February to get things started. But I've done some bigger plays over the year... I've got a full length and two one acts going into the catalog coming up, and up to 12 short plays, depending on what all they like. I tried something a bit different, which is writing about the same characters in several pieces. It was actually easier to come up with ideas that way, and though the pieces aren't related, in that you don't need to do them in any order or together at all, it might interest people who like one of them to try some more.

One of the one acts is The United States of Pandamerica, which is a comedy about a Panda getting elected as POTUS. Someone suggested that with the current state of affairs, a zoo animal would be just as good as a human being, and the public took it to heart. I like to say I was influenced by Aristophanes in that he would set up a bizarre happenstance, and rather than have a plot, just sort of watched what happens.

So I tried for a bit of a dark comedy, but the darkness creeps in a little at a time. Mostly you watch the media reaction to this chain of events, as well as the slow ostracism of the two states that actually voted against the panda. Plus, stuffed pandas for everyone! You'll meet Snappy (Miss Photogenic Vermont), Clayton (dudeblogger), Oliver and Holly the sparring broadcasters, The Vice President who's also a rapper, and of course three defeated presidential candidates who... are they plotting revenge?

Besides, this was "inspired" as in it's some idea I came up with and I ran with it. Had fun writing it, so hope y'all have some doing it on stage!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


I wrote this up for the Brooklyn Publishers newsletter awhile back, but I thought it might be good to post it here. Swatch, if I may self-evaluate, is one of my best plays. You can find it at and read a sample free!

One Color at a Time

People often ask me what inspires me to write a play; it can be range from reading a news story to waiting behind bizarre customers at a coffee shop. Here’s the story behind my most recent pages of dialogue: in my “real job,” as an editor for a couple paint industry magazines, I talk to people about color. How it affects people, how to sell people on it, what’s in, what’s out and a good dose of “follow your heart and don’t pick color for other people.” Don’t live with a color you don’t like year after year because your aunt and uncle might not approve, or because you plan to, one day, sell your house to people who will repaint anyway.

I interview color experts from companies such as Benjamin Moore, Pratt & Lambert, and PPG Paints, along with a lot of independent designers and color experts, many of whom have the odious job of travelling the world’s high fashion markets and determining color trends for as much as three years in the future.

Speaking of following your heart, playwriting can be discouraging. It’s a lot of hours alone and often you don’t see the fruits of your work. Or you look forward to someone’s feedback and all they have to offer is ‘there’s a typo on page 16.” So sometimes you want to hang it up next to those old boxing gloves. “I don’t know if I ever want to write another play again,” I said to someone right before the time I had a particularly inspirational conversation with someone about color. Some nuggets she offered jogged an idea and set me to work. (By the way, you can’t type well with boxing gloves.)

Colors inspire us and make us think and feel a certain way. Red can arouse passion, blue can inspire leadership, black can impart a streamlined elegance. Bold, pastel or medium shades evoke even more subtle feelings. So instead of color swatches, I thought, what about characters with those characteristics? I’ve written a lot of plays, so I turned “never writing another one again,” into “let’s try something different!”

Sometimes I find one-word titles arrogant, like you’re cramming too much meaning into a single word. Proof, Chess, Rent…but on the other hand, it’s easy to remember and it can really resonate. Come to think, Antigone has held up pretty well. So why not join in? Let’s try…Swatch. The young characters in this play are difficult people – kids that nobody can stand to be around or the kids that foster parents regift to the state –in the world of Swatch they are punished and rehabilitated by being forced to live only the characteristics of a single color. Once they learn do to that, they’re allowed again to re-enter the whole color spectrum.

Once I in the middle of writing I picked up the phone and a recording said, “This is a verification system for your Google listing.” So I gave that line to a new character right then and there. Then the challenge was, will it make sense down the line? Google Maps makes a difference in the plot, especially to the characters on their way to Spain.

Back in the 1500s a popular song in Europe was “A Thousand Regrets.” These days we’ve morphed that phrase into no regrets – no fear, no regrets, I don’t care what you think, all that kind of sentiment is making the rounds these days. Sometimes it’s a tasty morsel, like if Aunt Pattymelt really doesn’t like the color you chose for the curtains, who cares what she thinks? I once heard a man tell his elderly mother, “Why did you paint your house this color? We’ll never be able to sell it after you die.” I think he had his thousand regrets about that later. (She’s still with us, and she loves her blue!)

I find my regrets are mainly two – being treated badly and not speaking up, or things I said and did myself and still wish I hadn’t, even if no one found out. In the end, that’s what a lot of this play is about. With all its silliness, corruption, conflict, and odd humor, what hits the gut is the reaction Odin and Valeria have when they finally internalize how much they hurt other people, and how they wish they could go back and fix it. One will have to opportunity to fix it, while the other will realize it’s too late.

It’s this realization – that sometimes the good of others comes before one’s self, and that many times life isn’t fair but you have to make do – that releases the Swatch kids from living as only one color and lets them reenter society as fully human.

Who hasn’t brought paint home and found it wasn’t mixed right? But you can joke about it – it’s one time you can get away with “off color humor.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

One Thing I Never Learned

Well as luck and coincidence would have it, Tennessee TV is the free download of the week at Brooklyn Publishers. Go to and get a copy, particularly if you are a director looking for a 30 minute one-act, this one’s fun, fast paced and still popular. It’s the first one-act I had published too, so you can be a part of history!

A little known bit of trivia is that along with No Luck at Home, I also wrote “One Thing I Never Learned” to be included in the original movie version that never got done. Long time ago, I’m over it!

You can hear it here, this is from about 1994 or so, not exactly sure. I saw a guy named Jim Wasenius at a coffee house and I dropped a note in his tip jar asking if he’d like to play guitar on this. So he was kind enough to come over and put down a track on this cassette recording.

I’ve never done this song live, but I hope to, soon. At the time, I thought it really came out good (I still do) considering I had a cheap mike and a tape player. The vocal harmony in the middle section “so lonely to be free” is pretty cool. Enjoy!

When we did the play originally in 1998, I swapped this song out of the show. The actor playing Torry Don, the singer in the play, was also a songwriter, so I suggested we use one of his songs instead and he had a good one to fit into the show.

I got to see Tennessee TV and Tennessee TV Take Two in Mansfield Arkansas, where a class put on both shows at once. They were awesomely nice to me and my partner Cherry when we came to visit. It rained, then it hailed, and they had to stop the show because it was so loud you couldn’t hear the dialogue.

One the way out, we could see the hail on the ground, it was big pieces of ice, looked interesting to say the least. Mansfield is in western Arkansas in a really pretty part of the state, south of Fayetteville.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

No Luck at Home and Tennessee TV

"No Luck at Home" which almost always goes on the Stone Spiral set list, is one of the first country tunes I wrote... I think. Wrote it back in 1993 perhaps.

I wrote a short screenplay called Tennessee TV and there was a country singer in it called Torry Don. Part of the movie was going to be some of his music videos. I even tried to write it "in character" as in what would be some things that Torry does with melody when he writes a song, vs. what I did. I decided he ended his phrases going down to a note vs. going up to a note.

The band recorded it back in 2013 on the What Kind of Love album, and you can hear it here

At the time we had a clarinet and alto sax in the band, and there was a challenge of putting them into a country tune, but it worked out pretty well. We've got two St. Louis music celebrities on it: Roger Netherton added fiddle, and Chris Powers, a former band member, came back to put in some guitar.

The last chorus was inspired by the Oak Ridge Boys, who would do a lot of acapella at the end of the song. I put a fiddle behind the vocals, so it's not really acapella. It's half-capella. Anyway, it sounds cool and folks seem to like it when we do it live. Enjoy!

Meanwhile, Tennessee TV the movie never got finished, the film maker had to leave town and he left all the footage on my doorstep. He didn't do "takes" but we did come close to getting it done, just never happened. However it has been performed as a play several times, and there's a sequel, Tennessee TV Take Two; recently I got to see them both done in the same afternoon.

"If it ain't happening on Tennessee TV, it ain't happening!"

I wrote the sequel on a plane from Kansas City to Portland. I didn't bring anything else to do to make sure I would get it done. Unfortunately I finished it half way there; since it basically took the first play and did it backwards, it went quickly. I'm glad folks still do these shows on occasion. They're talk show spoofs, at the time I wondered if the trashy talk show would go out of style and the play would be obsolete, but not quite.

Anyway No Luck has a life of its own, and I'm glad it's well received.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Richmond, Indiana and Jackson, Tennessee

So we tried adding a guitar to May Aufderheide’s Richmond Rag (she’s from Richmond, Indiana) and it really brought the piece to life – despite the classical protestations of some, I get a thought that if you make it really backwoods and throw in some African rhythm on the drums, you’ve got the spirit of the thing more than a grand piano in a dark auditorium.

I have a friend who mentions “Piano Hell” where a ragtime festival is nothing but a bunch of guys and a couple gals on a grand piano, when the genre really demands a band, orchestra, or SOMETHING. There’s never going to be a huge market for pop music of 110 years ago, but, yep, I like to restore it much as I can, along with some of the (much of it ugly) history that goes with it.

Last year I put Magnetic Rag on a set list when we played on the Hyvee Stage at Kaufman Stadium. It was a “fear of God” thing that if I screwed it up, 1000’s of people would hear it and it was really loud, so Magnetic came out pretty good. Just practice until it’s 2nd nature. Or first.

Anyway if you come to the show you’ll hear the guitar on this short piece and see/hear/experience! the difference.
Once again, Stone Spiral, Saturday Feb. 11, 8 PM, 2500 Sutton in Maplewood. Weather should be nice.

Some years there’s an award ceremony overlooked by most, but it’s probably because I always win. The award is for “Jerry’s song of the year,” and “Jerry” gives the award based on the song he wrote that he likes best. Past winners have been “Good Times Comin’ Round,” “All of My Life,” and “Slow Days in New Orleans.” In 2016, where was no competition because I only wrote one song. It’s called “Jackson, Tennessee.” I wanted to call it “Jackson” but Lucinda Williams has a song called Jackson which is soooo good! So if you have an Alexa, ask her to play it.

My version was born out of my inability to get a gig in Jackson, TN, despite my best efforts and the efforts of a friend who lives there. So I turned this frustration into a failed romance of someone who walked away from me without explaining why. It’s country folk with a tag line of “I will never play a song in Jackson, Tennessee.”

Which in fact took awhile to find the best melody for, but I think the song sounds good. Josh arranged an acoustic guitar, bass, and an effect that sounds like a string mellotron. (we thought it would suck but it sounds really cool, when mixed in quietkly) I put on piano and vocals and added a riqq on afterbeats for the choruses. We’re hoping to add fiddle, but it’s good either way, so as soon as it’s ready I’ll post it.

Or come hear it live, of course!

I’d still like to play there.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Stone Spiral and May Aufderheide

I’ll be playing music with Josh Bohm on guitar at Stone Spiral in Maplewood this Saturday, and you can find them at It’s an off the beaten path coffee house and I like to play there because I can pretty much play what I want… it’s more a “concert” than background music.

I’ve played a couple classical pieces on occasion – which is a big deal because I’d never worked up a classical piece to performance level – and usually we do rags and original tunes. Plus there some great food, it might cost a dollar more than you think it should but the chicken salad sandwich with the Great Harvest bread, OMG! And the staff is good folks.

So as we like to say “it’s a show you won’t want to miss!” Random thoughts on stuff I play, in the ragtime world, May Aufderheide is considered the best female composer. She wrote a bundle of rags, more than most women, between the ages of about 20 to 25. In “those days” once you got married, writing ragtime was considered “unwomanly” and you gave it up to raise kids and feed your husband.

This is too bad, but on the other hand, it seems to be the first time where women composers got themselves on reasonably equal footing with men. May to me is an original… you have to get into it a bit to notice, and she hooks you by waiting to show her stuff.

Usually the first strain of her rags is the most conventional, and after that… it’s “on.” The rhythms are different than most other rags I play, some of the harmonies are more unusual, and a lot of “Full” chords, with three or four notes. I play three: Dusty, Richmond, (both from 1908) and Buzzer (1909). I liked Buzzer because of the end of the first strain, which is really easy, but the rest of it’s been a bear, and it’s taking a long time and a lot of frustration for me to get it together. But finally! I can pretty much play it without fear.

In any case, I’m doing the other to this weekend. Dusty has a “beer garden” feel and Richmond is the simplest of the bunch but again in a very original fashion. The third strain has a really cool bass line, and there’s a certain heartfelt simplicity about it that “gets you”… especially if I play it right.

“Perfessor” Bill Edwards has a good bio of her here If there’s one thing I’ve learned playing this music, it’s that if you think you should know it by now but you don’t, it means you need to practice it more. Eventually it comes around. Anyway pop by Stone Spiral if you can!