Christensen: The Czar of Ragtime and his Ragtime
Chapter 1: The Czar of Ragtime:
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
- 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
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).
Left: Advertisement from the
back page of Progressive Rag
advertising several Christensen
- 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 –
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
7 . Monologue –
experience with the bottles, in Irish dialect.
8. Piano Solo –
A syncophonic version
of the Overture "Poet and Peasant," or "An
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
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
- Blesh, Rudi & Harriet
Grossman Janis. They All Played Ragtime. New
York: Oak Publications, 1966.
David & Gene Jones (2000). That American
Rag: The Story of Ragtime from Coast to Coast.
New York: Schirmer Books, 2000.
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