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Spotlight: C. Richard Zimmerman, '59, MS '63

The Entertainer

By Sam Williams

In four decades, pianist Richard Zimmerman has gone from the back room at the Los Arcos Eating Club to the main room at the Montreux Jazz Festival, spreading the simple joy of ragtime music. “Ragtime makes people feel good,” he says. “I’ve had people tell me they just floated out of the room when it was over.”

Zimmerman traces his own ragtime rapture to 1956, his freshman year. “I had learned a few rags in high school. Back then, they were mostly considered honky-tonk tunes. I remember I was playing a song on the Stern Hall piano when a student came running down the hall.” The student invited Zimmerman to hear his collection of 78-rpm recordings of “classical” rags by composers such as Scott Joplin and James Scott. “It was a revelation hearing Joplin’s work for the first time,” Zimmerman recalls. The experience was the start of his quest to bring authentic ragtime back to a mass audience.

Ragtime -- a blend of African-American and classical European music styles featuring a pulsing bass line, march tempo and a highly syncopated melody line -- flourished in the 20 years before World War I. Written before recorded sound, most ragtime hits sold as sheet music or player-piano rolls. The Jazz Age and the phonograph all but erased this music from the public consciousness. By the late 1950s, Zimmerman says, “you either had jazz interpretations or you had real ragtime being played too fast in the honky-tonks. It was virtually impossible to hear the music the way Joplin might have intended it to be heard.”

Zimmerman never took a music class at Stanford, but 10 years of childhood training in classical music helped him decipher the scores and player-piano rolls he picked up at antique shops and garage sales. Interviewing surviving ragtime performers also helped him get a feel for the music’s proto-jazz rhythms.

With degrees in civil and mechanical engineering, Zimmerman went on to design games for Mattel Inc. But when the 1973 movie The Sting revived Joplin and ragtime with its theme tune, “The Entertainer,” Zimmerman quit his job to devote more time to performing, recording and research. In 1974, he released his own five-LP collection of Joplin’s complete works. In 1983, he became the first ragtime artist to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

Today Zimmerman runs American Ragtime Co., a Grass Valley, Calif., business that records and publishes ragtime classics and the works of early-20th-century blues composers. He still sees potential for a bigger ragtime revival.

“Look at how big blues is, how big country is. Ragtime is the last authentic American music form not to have a full-scale revival,” Zimmerman says. “Those of us who play it know how people react to it. I’ve done concerts for schoolchildren, and the kids go crazy.”

-- Sam Williams, ’91

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