Richard “Ragtime Rick” Grafing is happy with the direction Grugelfest is headed at the Holiday Inn French Quarter in Perrysburg.
Last year, Grafing moved the long-running ragtime and Dixieland jazz festival there from downtown Toledo, where it’d been since 2012. For 25 years before that, it’d been in the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville, Ohio.
The festival, which begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday, continues through Sunday afternoon. See grugelfest.com for details.
The latest setup is generating buzz for the hotel and becoming more of a draw among college students, Grafing said.
'Ragtime Rick' Grafing plays the piano for the Cakewalkin' Jass Band, one of the many bands performing at Grugelfest in Perrysburg, which begins Friday.
Last year, festival attendees from across the United States and Canada were pleased to hear local jazz legend Gene Parker’s group performing in the hotel’s restaurant at the same time ragtime and Dixieland bands performed a few feet away in the ballroom. Parker has had a long-standing Sunday brunch gig there, which patrons said impressed them about that hotel.
The two types of jazz sounds weren’t competing with one another; they were adding to the hotel’s intrigue and atmosphere, Grafing said.
This year, an Adrian College jazz ensemble will play inside the restaurant after Parker finishes, building on that cross-way connection.
Grafing said he’s excited more young people are getting involved. He also knows of students and musicians from Ohio Northern University, Bowling Green State University, the University of Toledo, and other area schools who have attended Grugelfest.
“It’s really kind of delightful that’s happening,” he said. “They’re learning about a style of jazz that isn’t even taught anymore. We want to expose students, as many as we can to it.”
As Grafing and others have explained before, ragtime was a music of the people — not elitists, but some of society’s rowdiest scoundrels.
From 1897 to 1917, ragtime — a forerunner of jazz — was one of America’s most popular forms of music. It got its name in part because some people thought of its unconventional syncopation as “ragged time,” Grafing has said.
Around 1917, it gave way to Dixieland, which brought listeners to the Jazz Age of the 1920s and the different sub-genres of music Americans now put under the general label of jazz.
Large groups of Americans were first exposed to ragtime in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, which had some 27 million visitors between May and October that year, the Library of Congress says.
All Grafing knows is that the beloved festival he took over back in 2011 — named after its founder, the late Ralph Grugel, a trombonist who led Cleveland’s Eagle Jazz Band — appears to be back on solid ground while similar events are struggling.
“The ticket sales and hotel sales are in excess of the past,” Grafing said. “Many of these festivals around the country are failing. We’re heading in the other direction.”
One of the strongest contingents is from the upstate New York, from the Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse areas, he said.
This year’s lineup includes favorites from past Grugelfests, including the St. Louis Rivermen, of St. Louis; the New Orleans Nighthawks, of Lake Wales, Fla.; the Sunset Stomp Jazz Band, of Indianapolis; the Buffalo Ridge Jazz Band of Cincinnati, and — of course — Toledo’s own Cakewalkin’ Jass Band, which last December celebrated its 50th anniversary as a group with a special weekend of shows at the Original Tony Packo’s Cafe on Front Street in East Toledo, where it had played for years.
Grafing and his wife, Betsy Smith Grafing, have for years played piano and banjo, respectively, for the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band.
“I enjoy playing any festival but the Grugelfest being local makes it unique,” said Ray Heitger, Cakewalkin’ Jass Band founder and clarinetist.
“For any genre of art, I feel that one should always be familiar with its origins,” he said.
Dixieland, Heitger added, is “a fun music meant for dancing and partying.”
“And folks are never too old to party!” he said. “Also, there are many fans in Toledo that remember the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band at Tony Packo’s and the Grugelfest gives them a chance to relive those days.”
Grafing agreed, saying it’s his mission as organizer to “making sure this whole festival is a jazz party from beginning to end.”
“We’re bringing business to the Toledo area that wouldn’t have been here otherwise,” he said.
Created in 1986, Grugelfest was originally known as the Fall Dixieland Jazz Festival. It was in Strongsville its first 25 years.
When it became so cash-strapped that board members voted to shut it down in 2011, Grafing picked it up and moved it to Toledo starting in 2012.
“We absolutely need to keep the music alive,” Grafing said.
The Ralph Grugel Memorial Jazz Festival, aka Grugelfest, is Friday through Sunday at the Holiday Inn French Quarter, 10630 Fremont Pike, Perrysburg. Tickets are $45 for individual sessions and as much as $160 for weekend packages that include some extras. Proceeds benefit the Dyslexia Education Training Center of Northwest Ohio. For more information and tickets, see grugelfest.com or call 419-321-5007.
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