Woog’s World: A Westporter discovers ragtime roots
If you’ve been around Westport and Weston for a while — oh, say, the last 50 or 60 years — you probably know Roger Kaufman.
A 1966 Staples High School graduate, he was fortunate to grow up in an era of great — and varied — music. Around 1968 — when most people his age were listening to “Sgt. Pepper,” the Doors and Janis Joplin — Kaufman began performing “old school music” in Fairfield County. His group (Four on the Floor) sang a cappella doo wop tunes at the Players Tavern, the much-loved and usually pretty wild bar next to the Westport Country Playhouse.
They moved on to soul music at Mark’s Place (a Main Street disco where Acqua is now located), and jazz, rhythm-and-blues and folk tunes at Grassroots (the coffeehouse just over the Post Road bridge, next to what’s now Vespa at National Hall).
Music changed, but Kaufman didn’t. He formed “Old School Revue,” which featured rock-and-soul and iconic rock anthems. He performed at the Levitt Pavilion and Fairfield Theatre Company.
He was all about roots music. He thought he knew where his own roots were.
But in May 2012, Adam Lubarsky — late of the Georgetown Saloon — opened another music venue: Blu Parrot (the former Jasmine, better known to Kaufman as the old Arrow restaurant). Lubarsky asked Kaufman to organize a “New Orleans-kinda-music night.”
Kaufman wanted to make sure he knew what the owner wanted. Googling “ragtime” and “New Orleans/jazz roots,” he discovered two touring ragtime orchestras.
Then he threw something else into the search box: “Mel B. Kaufman.” Roger’s grandfather died at age 53 in 1932, so he never met the man. But he was well aware that Mel Kaufman was a prolific songwriter. He published more than 50 songs, received ASCAP royalties for eight decades, and underscored over 200 films. Roger knew his grandfather was held in high regard by the ragtime world.
But he had no idea that anyone was still performing Mel’s music live anywhere in the world. He learned that the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra are doing just that. They play compositions like “Me-Ow” and “Taxi” — right beside hit tunes by Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin and John Philip Sousa.
Invigorated and amazed, Kaufman decided to learn more. He found that the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra’s leader, a young Marylander named Andrew Greene, “specialized” in the music of Mel Kaufman. Greene has gathered historic orchestrations and piano sheet music, dug through newspapers and music catalogs, and worked tirelessly to uncover the story of what he calls “this wonderful but overlooked composer.”
Roger emailed, called, then met Greene. The ragtime aficionado took a train to New York that week. He led Kaufman to his grandfather’s grave in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn — a place Kaufman had never been. “Both my grandparents were buried there,” Kaufman says with wonderment. “Andrew knew where they were. I did not.”
Greene, Kaufman soon discovered, is a multi-talented bandleader. He is a fine ragtime pianist, archivist, ragtime historian and entertainer. What started as an exploratory email has blossomed into a great friendship, and rewarding working relationship.
Kaufman and Greene have joined forces. They’ve enjoyed performances at the Kennedy Center and many “vintage” theaters across the country. They’re in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign, raising funds to make the first CD dedicated solely to Mel Kaufman’s works. It will feature 20 rare and five never-before recorded compositions, plus a full biography of Kaufman’s life, a discography and photos.
Now Greene’s ragtime show is coming to the Levitt Pavilion. It’s set for 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 9. Kaufman is the executive producer.
“The rediscovery of Mel’s music of 100 years ago has been a wonderful event for the families and descendants of the relatives of the composer,” Kaufman says. They’ve learned, for example, that Mel’s mother Ida Bernd emigrated in 1848 from Germany. She came first to New Orleans, then settled with other Bernds and Kaufmans in Macon, Ga., the home of Little Richard, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers.
Now, Kaufman says, he understands a bit better his love for old music, particularly rhythm and blues.
He and his family have connected with ancestral homelands — and newfound relatives — in Macon, as well as New Jersey, New Mexico, London and Koblenz and Germany.
Now, he’s getting ready to welcome Peacherine. The orchestra — called “the premier American ragtime ensemble” by the Washington Post — is an exact recreation of a 1910-era theatre orchestra. They highlight the music of the late 1800s and early 1900s, playing selections by composers like Joplin, Berlin, George Gershwin, W.C. Handy, George M. Cohan — and, of course, Mel Kaufman.