Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Young Man in the Jazz Age

If I could drop into any point in my grandfather’s life for a short visit, I’d probably choose the 1920s.  It would be like Owen Wilson’s character in Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris, time-traveling to 1920s Parisbut without the romance element, and substituting the East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota for the Left Bank of Paris. 

My grandfather Ronald Riggs was born in 1901, during the rise of John Philip Sousa’s popularity, and he was a college student when the Great Migration and the proliferation of radios and record players helped popularize jazz throughout the country.
Ronald, on left, and friends in Minneapolis.
Ronald entered college in the fall of 1919.  He spent his first two years at the University of Minnesota, followed by one year at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, and then he returned to the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus for another two years.  He graduated on Dec. 18, 1924, with a bachelor of arts degree; he majored in economics and had a minor in political science.

Although he did not major in music, it was an important part of his college life.  During those years, he played clarinet and saxophone in several different bands (I imagine the gigs helped him pay for school), including the Art Emard dance band, the University of Minnesota band, and Arnold Frank’s university dance band.
Ronald, second from left, as a member of Arnold Frank and His University Orchestra.
I did an online search for Arnold Frank and found two YouTube videos of songs played by Arnold Frank and his Roger’s Cafe Orchestra.  The songs were recorded in Minneapolis in September 1927 by OKeh Records.  I don’t think my grandfather played with Frank at this time, but if you listen to the songs, you’ll get a good sense for the type of dance music that Frank played, and of the quality of his musicians.

Here’s the Roger’s Cafe Orchestra playing “Rain.”  I'm not sure who made the video or why, but it includes cool photos of Paris (sans Owen Wilson).



The song on the flip side is “Black Maria.”  I guess Black Maria was slang for a police vehicle used to transport prisoners to jail.  But it also was the name of a racehorse that won several major races in 1926 and 1927.

I’m not sure who made this video, either; it includes a photo of the band and photos of black Americans from the 1920s.



When my grandfather wasn’t playing in a band or studying, he was active in his college fraternity, Zeta Psi.  He played on the fraternity’s basketball, baseball and bowling teams, and he served as its treasurer his senior year.

After graduation, Ronald was hired as a salesman for the Fritz-Cross Company of St. Cloud, an office supply business.  This was during the time that Ronald’s dad, G. Oliver Riggs, had moved to St. Cloud from Bemidji to direct a municipal band and form a boys’ band.   

Interest in school bands was growing,  and in 1926, Ronald took a job as a band organizer and salesman for Frank Holton & Co. (this was the same year that G. Oliver got a job organizing school bands for C.G. Conn).  In my next post, I’ll time-travel to the 1930s to explain Ronald’s experience with Holton, and his successes as a school band director.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

California or Bust

It’s been a hectic month, and I have fallen behind in my plans to blog about the life of my grandfather, Ronald.  I do plan to pick up where I left off, and write about his musical adventures in college and his early career as a band director, but it will have to wait for next week.  Today, we are leaving for a vacation to Yosemite and San Francisco!

My grandfather loved to travel, too.  Here's a great photo of him with my uncle Bob, my dad and my aunt Dana on vacation.
My grandfather Ronald, with his three children and a groovy car.
More when I return!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Bandmaster’s Kid

Much of my musical family blogging and research has focused on the career of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.  This month, I’m devoting my posts to G. Oliver’s oldest child, my grandfather Ronald.  Ronald Graham Riggs was a talented band director and educator who happened to be the son of an acclaimed bandmaster.  He was born on Oct. 23, 1901, and he died Oct. 12, 1968.

My paternal grandfather was a BK – a bandmaster’s kid.  I’m not sure that’s a real term; I may have just coined it.  He died before my first birthday, so I don’t have any memories of him.  But from what I have learned about him, I get the impression that his sense of identity and his career path were profoundly influenced by the fact that he was the son of an accomplished, driven, well-known bandmaster.
Ronald Graham Riggs, 1901-1968
What was it like to be a BK?  I imagine it was similar in some ways to being a PK, or pastor’s kid (a term not thrown around much during my Catholic upbringing, but one I hear often now, living in a college town populated with retired pastors).  It’s a generalization, but PKs are said to feel great pressure to meet the expectations of their parents and their community.  Some respond to this by rebelling; others follow in their pastor parent’s footsteps and become pastors themselves.

I call this the Little Rascals photo: Ronald is on the far right; his brother Percy is third from right and sister Rosalie is on the far left The other boys are cousins.
I have not conducted an extensive study of BKs (partly because I just made up the term), so I don’t know how it was for other BKs.  But I can guess, based on a quick internet search.  Did you know that John Philip Sousa had a son, John Philip Jr.?  Me neither.  I found a mention of his name, but nothing about his life.  The same was true for the namesake son of Iowa composer and bandleader Karl King.  I found a photo of an adult Karl King Jr., but no information about him.

Having a parent who’s well known in a community, no matter what the profession, can have its advantages, but also its frustrations when it comes to finding one’s own path.  My grandfather had a gentler personality than his dad, he loved puns, he was active in the community, and he accomplished much during his life, even though he lived in the shadows of his dad’s success for many years.

Ronald was born in Crookston at the turn of the last century; his mom Islea and dad G. Oliver had moved there in 1898.  It was a bustling railroad junction, and the musical Riggs couple became a vital part of the town’s growing arts and culture scene.  John Philip Sousa’s band first performed in Crookston on March 28, 1899, as part of a national tour, and it returned on March 4, 1901, seven months before my grandfather was born.  By my calculations, that means my grandfather was technically in the audience for that second Sousa concert – a cool claim to fame, although I’m not sure he ever claimed it.
Islea with baby Ronald.
My grandfather lived in Crookston for his first 9 years, and then in Grand Forks for one year, when G. Oliver took a job directing a band in that North Dakota city.  Ronald and his brother Percy (born 1904) spent a lot of time helping their dad at band rehearsals, even as young boys.
My grandfather Ronald, left, with his dad and his younger brother Percy in about 1910.
In 1911, when G. Oliver went to Tacoma with plans of directing a band, and that effort fizzled, Ronald and his siblings Percy and Rosalie (born 1908) stayed with their mom and grandmother Flora Bassett Graham in Islea’s hometown of Aledo, Ill.  Ronald’s mom had taught him to play the piano from an early age, and he and his siblings always performed for guests who came to the house.  He so disliked the experience of those recitals, he made sure to never put his own kids through it, my dad has said.
A program from a recital of Islea’s students, held in her mother’s home.  Ronald played a duet with his mom, and G. Oliver also performed.
When G. Oliver took a job in Havre, Montana, in 1911, the family moved to that northwestern town, which owed its development to James J. Hill’s railroad.  According to my dad, my grandfather had fond memories of those days.  Havre was a wild city in some ways, but it was a paradise for a preteen boy who loved fishing, hunting and riding horses.  Ronald played clarinet by this time and he had two jobs: operator’s helper at the Havre motion picture theater, and organ pumper at the Presbyterian Church, where his mom played the organ.

Ronald (black shirt, lighter suit) and two friends in about 1912, pretending to be tough guys.
The family returned to Crookston in 1914, and that’s where Ronald attended junior and senior high school.  He played in the Grand Theatre orchestra and dance band with his mom and dad, and he also played in the Crookston municipal band and the Crookston Juvenile Band, both of which were directed by G. Oliver.
Part of the Crookston Juvenile Band.  Ronald is No. 26, G. Oliver is No. 28, and Percy is No. 44.
Ronald was a member of the high school orchestra:
G. Oliver, center, directed the Crookston High School orchestra in 1917-18.  Ronald is two over from G. Oliver, holding a clarinet.  Percy is in the front, to the right of the drum.
 and the glee club (which likely had little in common with the TV show Glee).
Ronald is in the top row, second from left.
Music wasn’t his only interest, though.  He played on the football and basketball teams, he was president of his class in 1916-17, he was in the junior play and he was sports editor of the school paper and the yearbook.  He also held a few jobs, clerk at Ruettel’s Clothing Store and surveyor’s helper with the Polk County highway department.  Ronald was a busy guy with many interests – and it’s the kind of pace he would keep up for the rest of his life.

Ronald graduated from Crookston High School in the spring of 1919, and he enrolled at the University of Minnesota the next fall.  In my next post, I’ll explain his adventures in college and his early career in music.