The grandfather of old-time music festivals returns for its 40th year.
Forty years ago, Ted Lemen had an idea. He gathered a handful of the best piano players he could find and formed the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival. It began on the back of a caboose on a railroad station platform in Monticello, Illinois, an event designed to promote the still-popular Monticello Railway Museum. A few hundred people showed up to listen. It has grown every year since, with contestants coming from the four corners of the globe. This year, they will celebrate their 40th anniversary over Memorial Day Weekend at the Embassy Suites in East Peoria.
Ted is a fine player, and though he is more than a little humble about his talent, he will admit that he is king of the sing-along. He’s won the New Rag songwriting contest twice, and numerous young pianists point to him as their mentor. He has also built a great committee to do a lot of the heavy lifting in organizing and promoting this event. But according to his friends, one of Ted’s greatest talents is his ability to spot and nurture talent in others.
One of Ted’s protégés, Marty Sammon, is now touring with the great bluesman Buddy Guy, and has recently played on The Tonight Show, The Late Show With David Letterman and The Ellen Degeneres Show. Another, Adam Swanson, recently played for the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Hall and the weekly concert series at the Kennedy Center. Ethan Uslan played on A Prairie Home Companion. And last year’s winner, Russell Wilson, regularly plays for presidents and world leaders at the White House. It is truly amazing to witness the talent that comes to central Illinois every spring to participate in this, the grandfather of old-time music festivals. And because it’s the 40th anniversary, many past champs are returning to be part of this year’s celebration.
Adam Swanson, who first entered the junior division at the age of 11, has become a regular fixture. Even he was surprised when he won that first time. “I remember when they announced my name,” Swanson recalls. “I have this photo of me in a straw hat; I was pointing at myself, saying, ‘You want me?’ I had not had many accomplishments. It was very inspiring to become part of this community.”
Swanson went on to win the junior division at ages 11, 12 and 14, and because he won three times, he was able to enter the adult division. He placed in the top five at age 15, and then, in an unprecedented move, became the youngest contestant to win the adult division three times in a row at ages 16, 17 and 18. “Through these people, I have learned more about music,” he adds. “This is the best on-the-job training.” Swanson is currently finishing a degree in music at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, where he has organized the Durango Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival, building on the master-of-ceremony skills he learned from Ted Lemen.
“I am not ready to sign my death certificate yet,” Lemen notes wryly. “But now we have someone who has spent two years co-hosting the shows.” Continuing, he fairly glows when he says, “Adam can play a song everybody knows that isn’t ragtime, and then play it in ragtime. Then I say, play it in stride.” This way, the audience can get a clear sense of what makes ragtime and stride piano unique.
“Ted is the perfect emcee for the contest,” Swanson says. “He can talk to anybody. He keeps the show entertaining, he keeps things moving.” Clearly, there is mutual admiration between the 20-something young upstart and the 70-something old hero.
To hear these two masters of ragtime and sing-along, plan to come to the 40th annual World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival. As Lemen says, “You will have the ‘old time’ of your life!” a&s
The World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival takes place over Memorial Day weekend (May 22-26, 2014), with ragtime and honky-tonk piano players from around the world competing for more than $4,000 in cash prizes. For more information, visit oldtimepianocontest.org.