Ragtime to riches

Down on his luck, Bob Milne was ready to give up the piano. Then something extraordinary happened.

Published March 11, 2007

SPRING HILL - Bob Milne, who is thought by many to be one of the best ragtime piano players in America, typically arrives at his shows in a primer gray van that looks like something from an FBI stakeout. When he is on the road, which is nearly all the time, he and his wife, Linda, sleep in the back on a foam pallet. The van is also equipped with a toilet, a sink, a shower, a modest pantry, a clothes rack where his tuxedo hangs, a generator and a global positioning system. He calls himself a journeyman piano player, which he defines as "anyone who will drive any place today, to play any piano tonight, so he can eat someplace tomorrow."

Several Saturdays ago, he pulled into the parking lot of Mariner United Methodist Church in Spring Hill. He was scheduled to play two concerts for a total of about 1,500 people, nearly all retirees and few more than passingly familiar with ragtime music.

Let's be frank. Ragtime is musical oblivion. You're more likely to hear a Scott Joplin tune on an ice cream truck than the radio. If you happen to come across someone playing ragtime live, he's likely to be a dentist or a bulldozer operator with a penchant for striped shirts, sleeve garters and cornball jokes.

And yet Milne has managed to make a career playing a thoroughly American music that almost no one listens to anymore. Remarkably, his audiences reflect a cross section of American society: automotive engineers to former presidents, supermarket managers to Supreme Court justices. They might not be sitting next to each other, but they're hearing the same thing: a version of the American story they can embrace.

Minutes before he was due onstage, Milne stepped in front of a mirror and made a couple of swipes at his comb-resistant hair. Then he dashed down a dark hall to the side of the stage, where through the door he could hear a man leading the audience in prayer.

He checked his zipper and wondered out loud if the crowd needed a little shaking up. "What should I start off with? Some barn burner? Maybe I'll do that."

- - -

In ragtime, the rhythm and the melody have been pried apart so they fall on alternate beats. The right hand provides the melody, and the left hand trails behind. This gives ragtime its signature syncopation, and its pistoning energy.

The sound may be cliched now, but in the late 1800s at the Chicago World's Fair it was a revolution. Critics sneered that ragtime musicians, most of them black, weren't very good. They were said to play "in a very ragged time."

Milne tells this story at virtually every concert he plays. He loves giving genius its due. Spring Hill was no exception.

He began the concert by ripping through Carolina Shout. His face was a slack mask but his legs sewing-machined in time to the music. He plays so energetically, he has been known to knock a key loose.

The song done, Milne pushed back from the piano and approached the microphone. He rocked slowly on his heels.

"Ragtime was called the music of the devil by ministers of the day," he said. "They hated it. Ragtime is the road to destruction for our nation's youth, they said. It is a riot of wild music and wild women. So naturally everyone stormed out the door to hear this stuff."

The audience, many of whom would sit in the same pews the next morning, loved this.

- - -

Milne never intended to play ragtime. He was a classically trained French horn player, good enough to be hired by the Baltimore Symphony. But the anonymity of the orchestra appealed to him less than shooting pool and fooling around on the piano at bars afterward.

So he quit. In 1964, he took a job at a Detroit bar called the Dakota Inn. The clientele liked to drink hard and sing loud.

Milne quickly picked up a repertoire of American standards. Ragtime's rhythms could pierce the din of a noisy saloon, he discovered. And professional longevity came from keeping the audience happy.

"You had a choice," he said. "You could drive a cab."

But Milne began to chafe at the predictability. "It was frustrating him to play at our level - sing along to Yes Sir, That's My Baby," remembers Stan Benmore, a regular at the Dakota.

In the early '70s, Milne graduated to more genteel restaurants, riding a brief ragtime renaissance sparked by The Sting.

He quit drinking, got divorced and remarried. Linda was a corporate secretary turned piano player. They earned enough to build their dream house, a concrete dome they built on a piney bluff in central Michigan.

Then in a matter of days in October 1982, everything fell apart. They lost their jobs. A stock they owned crashed.

Running a sawmill on their heavily wooded property seemed like a solution. "We thought we were sitting on a gold mine with all those trees," Linda said.

The mill never made any money. On New Year's Day 1990, they shut it down.

"We didn't have anything that day," Linda says. "Both trucks were broken down. Our clothes were in tatters.

"We always tried to move forward," she says. "We always tried to sell more firewood, more surveyor's stakes, more sawdust. It took a lot to make us quit."

- - -

They were four months behind in their mortgage payments. The roof leaked. The floors weren't even finished. For a while, Milne kept the lights on by hustling pool.

"I didn't want to have anything to do with pianos," he says. "I'd been snakebit by the piano. The whole business had turned around and collapsed on me, and I was totally unprepared for doing anything else."

To make any money playing ragtime, Milne realized he would have to reinvent himself as a concert musician, which he had done exactly once. In a library. For $125.

"I sat down and handwrote 100 letters to libraries all over the state. I figured if I did a concert a week, at least I'd have $100 coming in," he said. Not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme.

Nearly two years later, a woman from a library in Battle Creek called. She wanted him to play a weeklong series of concerts. "Will $3,500 be enough?" she asked.

Someone who heard him there asked him to play a New Year's concert. Someone at the New Year's concert brought him to the Cheboygan Opera House.

He wore a borrowed suit. He got half the box office.

"Sweet Jesus," Milne said, recalling the $1,800 paycheck. He turned to Linda and said, "How many places are there like this in the country?"

They got a book of names of concert halls. "We called 20 places a day," Milne said.

It wasn't an easy sell.

Take the gig in Newburyport, Mass.

"Linda and I drove 800 miles," Milne said. "There were 45 people in the audience. We made $180, turned around and drove right back again."

- - -

Not long after, Milne's phone rang. The caller introduced himself: "My name's Pete Buchanan."

Buchanan, Princeton Class of '50, is a gangly retired trust and estate planner with a couple of bad knees, an average background in music appreciation and a gift for working the phones. He'd been one of the 45 people.

"I told Bob, 'You're not playing for the right people.' "

Buchanan's first act was to bring Milne back to Newburyport. The crowd the second time was much closer to capacity. Then he began booking Milne at private clubs around Boston.

"One day Pete called me up and said, 'I've got you in the Chilton Club,' " Milne recalls.

"You want to hear who's going to be there?" Buchanan said.

"Okay, who?" Milne said.

"Does the name Rockefeller mean anything to you?"

The next morning, Milne got an e-mail:

"I think you unhinged some wonderful Yankee listeners from their proper straight chairs and had them giving voice to their engagement by evening's end.

"I particularly liked the timeline thread of musical origins you spun out for us, beginning with (was it?) 1820ish and moving past WWII. And what a nice thought that the human hand and brain was competing with the player piano for complexity and density of notes! It's like the champion chess players today trying to beat the machine. . . .


"David R (David Rockefeller Jr.)"

The CEO of Stride Rite shoes, David Chamberlain, was there that evening, too. He mentioned that he was a member of a club in California that for the past century has provided a secret summer refuge for power brokers in the redwood forests north of San Francisco.

"I mentioned the name, but Bob didn't know what it was," Chamberlain said. "I invited him to come out the next summer."

Milne went west in the summer of 2003. He went back in 2004 and 2005 and 2006. On those trips he played for Supreme Court justices and the former Senate majority leader and the librarian of Congress, who invited Milne to perform at the Library of Congress.

"Playing at the Chilton Club," Buchanan said, "that took him into the big leagues."

- - -

While Buchanan was working the phones along the East Coast power corridor, Bob and Linda continued to travel the Midwest in their converted van, playing for crowds who arrive in tour buses, not limos; who belong to the Elks, not the Princeton Club; whose idea of a catered event is a potluck supper.

Turns out that Milne's audiences, no matter where they fall on the socioeconomic scale, have something in common:

In a very deep way, his music taps a shared notion of what they think America is meant to sound like: energetic, optimistic, redemptive. Ragtime had roots in poverty, in violence and vice, but look what it had become. Now you could take your wife to hear it at church, have a nice meal and smile at stories of America's wayward past.

A month after 9/11, Milne was at a ragtime festival in the Thousand Lakes district of New York. The promoter asked Milne to play "something patriotic."

Milne agreed. He has made a career playing requests.

A couple of hours before the show, he still hadn't settled on the music. "You can't just go up and play Yankee Doodle Dandy."

War was on everyone's mind - bombs had already begun to fall on al-Qaida hideouts in Afghanistan - so Milne began to think about the music of conflicts past. He figured he could start with the Revolutionary War and work his way up to the present.

Milne began with Yankee Doodle. He followed that with snippets of Shenandoah, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, My Old Kentucky Home, Marching Through Georgia and Battle Hymn of the Republic. He covered World War I with Lili Marlene and Over There.

About 18 minutes into the show, Milne played the first notes of New York, New York. Then he tore the song to pieces.

"I had some idea in mind of trying to simulate the attack on the World Trade Center on the piano," Milne wrote later in his liner notes. "But I didn't know how to go about it."

Discordant flats, trembling bass, a cascade of angry notes. This went on for almost a minute and a half before slowly emerging into The Mariner's Hymn.

Out of patriotism, or relief, the audience began to clap.

Milne would later explain that he included the anthems for all branches of the military because "I knew we were going to kick some a--, and I wanted to capture that feeling of military might." He knew the tunes from years of playing for veterans in bars.

In the summer of 2004, Bob and Linda loaded their van for the two-day drive from Lapeer to Kennebunkport, Maine, to play for former President George Bush. (His niece had heard Milne play in Boston.)

That night they dined with the Bushes; the menu was grilled swordfish steaks.

Then Milne sat down at a white spinet and played about an hour's worth of ragtime for the former president and a couple dozen friends. He finished with the America Medley.

"The president was in tears afterwards," Milne says.

"After the guests left, the president says, 'We're having pancakes for breakfast tomorrow. Do you want to join us?' Pancakes, oh, my god, this is just too much to believe."

Milne really likes pancakes.

- - -

In what other economic system could a man rescue himself from bankruptcy playing a largely forgotten style of music?

In what class system less fluid than ours could an itinerant pianoman move as freely between gated privilege and fixed-income suburbia?

A little more than a year ago, as Congress was thinking about raising the minimum wage, Milne wrote a letter to the editor. Such a move, he said, would raise prices and generally sap Americans' natural industriousness. "Don't expect the government to do everything for you. If you're worth more money than someone's paying you, convince that someone of this and get more money for yourself."

He forwarded it to Bill Frist, then the Senate majority leader, who sent an instant response from his BlackBerry: "Love it. You are a great American."

For the most part, Milne doesn't talk about politics onstage. He doesn't have to; his worldview is transmitted in stories he tells about musicians who survived in hostile environments and succeeded because of their ability to innovate.

It's his story, too. And ragtime, so utterly nostalgic, accompanies it perfectly.

In Spring Hill, a man in a neat blue sweater vest listened to Milne and remembered his father picking tunes on a banjo on a Montana ranch at the end of the Depression. A lithe 72-year-old drifted back to the year she left home to dance in a traveling revue. A woman did the Charleston in the aisle.

Sometime in the fall, Bob Milne, who may be the best ragtime piano player in America, plans to travel to the Middle East to play for the king of Jordan.

Bill Duryea can be reached at duryea@sptimes.com.