Old Time Piano Playing Contest crowns first female winner in over 20 years

Published 1:30 pm Monday, May 30, 2022

Los Angeles pianist Eve Elliot was awarded first place at the 44th Old Time Piano Playing Contest, making her the first female winner in 22 years.

The semi-final and final rounds of the contest took place Sunday at 1 p.m. in the David H. Nutt Auditorium at Ole Miss.

Elliot was one of 14 contestants in the competition. Contestants came from all over the country, and even from across the world, to show off their skills and best renditions of classic ragtime compositions.

This year’s contest theme was dance songs. Competitors would have to choose one dance song and one ballad, both composed before 1939, and play them for judge evaluation.

Ten pianists competed in the Regular Division: Paul Stewart of Greensboro, North Carolina; Paul Orsi of Mission Viejo, California; Damit Senanayake of Folsom, California; Goto Masayoshi from Oshu City, Japan; Eve Elliot of Los Angeles, California; “Perf” Bill Edwards of Ashburn, Virginia; Warren Ertle of Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Tom Lakeland of Cannock, England; David Leinweber of Oxford, Georgia; and Pedro Bernardez of Tarzana, California.

Four in the Senior Division: Bobby “Mr. Piano” van Deusen of Pensacola, Florida; Monty Suffern of Waco, Texas; Diana Stein Kabakoff of Memphis, Tennessee; and Larry Wade of Decatur, Illinois.

Renowned pianists Carl “Sonny” Leyland, Brian Holland and Oxford’s own Bill Perry Jr. judged and evaluated each performer based on technique, style and interpretation, showmanship, and costume. Audience members displayed their enjoyment of the performances by filling the auditorium with whistles and applause after every set.

Before moving into the Regular Division final round, judges awarded Bobby “Mr. Piano” van Deusen first place in the Senior Division.

In his sets, Van Deusen played the daunting “Finger Buster” as performed by American ragtime and jazz pianist/composer Jelly Roll Morton and his own interpretation of “Revolutionary Etude,” as if the piece were composed by Frederic Chopin’s fictional sister.

“I’m a classically trained pianist so one of my favorite things to do is to take classical pieces and butcher them,” Van Deusen said. “I made up a cockamamie story about Frederic Chopin having a younger sister that nobody knew about that wrote ragtime pieces back in the middle of the 19th Century.”

After wrapping up the Senior Division, judges narrowed down the finalists to five pianists: Elliot, Ertle, Edwards, Orsi and Stewart.

The final contestants were given a chance to perform one last song before judges would crown their winner. Pianists pulled out their best songs. Ertle played “Minor Drag,” Orsi “Pickles and Peppers Rag,” Edwards “Bill Bailey Rag” and Stewart “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” but Elliot’s rendition of “Temptation Rag” by Henry Lodge secured her first place position.

Orsi was awarded second place with Ertle coming in third, Edwards in fourth and Stewart in fifth.

Elliot said Temptation Rag was the song that got her into rag. She witnessed pianist Andrew Barrett play the piece at a bar and was immediately taken with it.

“It was the first rag that really made my eyes light up,” Elliot said. “[Barrett] was burning it. I can’t play as fast as he can but I still chose to play it.”

This year was Elliot’s first time participating in the Old Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival.

Back home in Los Angeles, Elliot regularly plays piano at a local bar. She told The Eagle that playing at the contest in Nutt Auditorium was a new experience for her.

“For me, it’s really different because I usually play ragtime in a bar, it’s rowdy and it’s on a bad piano,” said Elliot. “Nobody’s really listening. So to play on a grand Steinway in front of an audience is a really different experience.”

Although it was a completely different setting from her usual performances, Elliot committed to showing her range as a pianist and as a performer.

During her semi-final set, Elliot played “Memories of You” by Eubie Blake and ended the set with the 1920s classic, “The Charleston” composed by James P. Johnson. Elliot surprised the crowd by getting up in the middle of her performance and dancing while still playing, her black-beaded, flapper-inspired dress cinching the entire performance together.

For “Temptation Rag,” Elliot donned a short red wig with a blue bow to emulate the drawing of a red-haired woman on the record’s cover.

“I tried to just put in everything I could,” she said. “I know that I’m not as capable of a piano player as a lot of people in this contest and I’m certainly newer to ragtime, so I certainly tried to throw in whatever extra stuff I could just to give myself an edge.”

Elliot did not imagine winning first place, but she’s honored and hopes to see more pianists like her onstage.

“It’s really cool,” said Elliot. “I feel very happy and excited and I hope it inspires more people and other lady piano players to come to the contest.”