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Axel Christensen: The Czar of Ragtime and his Ragtime Review

Chapter 1: The Czar of Ragtime: Axel Christensen

 

By Ted Tjaden

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Axel Christensen (1881-1955) is given relatively prominent discussion in both They All Played Ragtime (Blesh and Janis, 1966) and That American Rag (Jasen and Jones, 2000), in addition to being given an entry in Grove Music Online (Hasse). This prominence is likely due more for his ragtime instruction methods than his compositions. Unlike Scott Joplin, James Scott and Joseph Lamb whose legends live on primarily through their music Axel Christensen's legend lives on through his influence of spreading the popularity of ragtime through the United States. Christensen was a great proselytizer of ragtime music through his instruction manuals, his ragtime schools and his monthly magazine, the Ragtime Review, which ran from 1914 to 1918 before being merged with Melody magazine (Walter Jacobs) in 1918.

A few quick facts about Christensen's life:

  • Axel Waldemar Christensen was born in Chicago on March 23, 1881, and died in Los Angeles on August 17, 1955, at the age of 74.
  • Christensen studied piano as a youth; Jasen and Jones (2000: 124-25) describe him as only an average player as a child who was "shown up" by a "nerdy" teenage boy on the piano at a party who wowed the girls with ragtime music compared to the parlour pieces that Christensen was playing at that time. This caused Christensen to take up ragtime with a passion. Jasen and Jones (2000: 125) note that Christensen composed his first rag in 1902, being Ragtime Wedding March (Apologies to Mendelssohn).
  • He opened his first ragtime instruction school in 1903 in Chicago at the age of 22, advertising it as "Ragtime Taught in Ten Lessons." The school expanded and by 1909 he opened a branch school in San Francisco (Jasen and Jones: 2000: 126), followed later by branches in Cincinnati and St Louis. By 1918, Jasen and Jones (2000: 126) report that there were schools in over 25 cities, including 4 branches in Chicago alone.
  • Three of his more well known teachers, who also composed rags of their own, were Robert Marine (New York), Bernard Brin (Seattle), Edward Mellinger (St. Louis), and Marcella Henry (Chicago). Jasen and Jones (2000: 127-28) describe in some detail the success that Edward Mellinger had at his St Louis schools where it "was not uncommon for 500 or more to attend [student recitals] and to cheer as the students played in various combinations and as teachers played solos and in duets with their pupils" (128).

Sample Ad For Christensen
                                  Publications (from back of Progressive
                                  Rag)

Left: Advertisement from the back page of Progressive Rag advertising several Christensen publications.

  • Christensen published a very successful instruction manual in 1906 entitled Christensen's Instruction Book No 1 for Rag-Time Piano Playing. This manual was revised and expanded five times between 1906 and 1915 (Jasen and Jones: 2000: 125). Christensen also adapted his instruction manuals to incorporate new trends in music (such as "Jazz and Novelty" in 1927 and "Modern Swing Music" in 1936). Two of Christensen's teaching manuals are available in Chapter 5.
  • Jasen and Jones (2000: 130) suggest that Christensen's school were eventually hit hard by the Great Depression and started to close during the 1930's but that Christensen continued to operate a small number of schools and to continue to publish his instruction manuals. It also appears that Christensen continued to perform in vaudeville and as an entertainer at banquets.

For vaudeville, where his time is naturally limited to not more than 20 minutes, his routine is usually as follows:

1. Novelty Piano Solo.

2. Pianologue A Reminder of Bert Williams, in colored dialect.

3. Monologue Skandinavian atmosphere in dialect and full of laughs.

4. Piano Solo Medley of popular tunes, played in his own style, with plenty of breaks, fills and embellishments to delight the modern music lover.

5. Encore: His impression of a tobacco chewing old soldier telling a duck story.

For club entertainments this routine is lengthened out to about 30 minutes by adding a character monologue in English dialect, such as:

6. The Honorable Bassington-Bassington talks on Physiology.

7 . Monologue Mrs. Gilhooly's experience with the bottles, in Irish dialect.

8. Piano Solo A syncophonic version of the Overture "Poet and Peasant," or "An Alpine Storm."

For full evening programs he delves deeper into his repertoire and gives serious pianologue readings such as James Whitcomb Riley's "An Old Sweetheart of Mine" and "The River Smi!e." This is followed by selected piano solos, interspersed with pianologues, monologues, stories, etc., etc.

Anyway, when the evening is over you'll say you've been ENTERTAINED.

I have found that the easiest way to sell laughs is to take the customer by surprise. For instance if the customer (or guest) thinks that the speaker who is being introduced is going to try to sell a lot of dry and uninteresting ideas (about a business that he would prefer to forget for the moment altogether) he will be doubly pleased when he discovers that this same man is a laugh dealer. On the other hand, when a speaker is introduced as a humorist the immediate reaction in the mind of the listener is something like this: ''Well this fellow had better be good." "We'll see." "I wonder what old bromides this fellow is going to pull", etc. The speaker is received with some polite applause, his first few quips get some obliging laughter and he is often half way through with his routine before he wins the whole-hearted interest of his listeners, most of which have been joked to death at previous banquets.

However, the element of surprise can make this same speaker's routine a hundred percent efficient, and that's why I always try to do my laugh manufacturing incognito at the speakers' table to start with.

For example: At a recent convention in Chicago, I was on the speakers program as "Count Anton Carlson, President of the Such and Such Bank of Stockholm, Sweden" for an address on "Banking Conditions in the Scandinavian Countries".

Before sitting down to dinner I was introduced individually to as many of the members as possible, and during the dinner I had to answer questions (in dialect) about banking conditions in my "native" country. The ladies at the table were evidently so thrilled at the idea of talking to "a real count," that they took turns sitting next to me and making me feel thoroughly at home.

Finally, "Count Anton Carlson", was introduced by the toastmaster in a manner fitting to his station, upon which the entire audience stood up as a tribute to this honored guest from abroad.

Can you imagine a more perfect setting for a humorous speaker?

Well, I began my talk in a rich Scandinavian dialect that was funny in it-self. Of course, at the beginning I made a few remarks on banking, so that for a time it looked like the real thing, and no one expected anything more than a few dull platitudes and some dry statistics. Gradually, however, I infused more and more humor into my talk, until at last it was just one long series of laughs after another.

At first of course, some of the people didn't really dare to laugh out loud, because they were afraid they might offend their "distinguished visitor." But when they did get wise, they let out all their suppressed laughter and some more too. As you can imagine, the results were almost deafening. And "a good time was had by all," judging from the wonderful manner in which the audience treated me.

  • Blesh and Janis (1966: 140) describe Christensen's impact on the ragtime industry through the sheer number of students who were trained under Christensen's system: 200,000 registered students from between 1903 and 1923; a cumulative total of 350,000 students by 1930; and around 500,000 students by 1935.
  • In 1950, when They All Played Ragtime was first published, Christensen was still alive (nearing seventy) and is described by Blesh and Janis (1966: 140) as "still a sought-after pianist, monologist, and homespun philosopher at conventions and banquets."

Sources:

  • Blesh, Rudi & Harriet Grossman Janis. They All Played Ragtime. New York: Oak Publications, 1966.
  • Jasen, David & Gene Jones (2000). That American Rag: The Story of Ragtime from Coast to Coast. New York: Schirmer Books, 2000.


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This site created by Ted Tjaden. Page last updated: February 2017.