Los Angeles pianist Eve Elliot won first place at the 44th Old-Fashioned Piano Competition, making her the first female winner in 22 years.
The semi-finals and final of the pageant 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. Competitors came from all over the country, and even the world, to show off their skills and their best interpretations of classic ragtime compositions.
The theme for this year’s contest was dance songs. Contestants had to choose a dance song and a ballad, both composed before 1939, and perform them for the judge’s 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, Fla.; 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, staging and costume. Audience members showed their enjoyment of the performances by filling the auditorium with whistles and applause after each set.
Before moving on to the final round of the regular division, the judges awarded Bobby “M. Piano” van Deusen first place in the senior division.
In his sets, Van Deusen played the intimidating “Finger Buster” performed by American ragtime and jazz pianist/composer Jelly Roll Morton and his own interpretation of “Revolutionary Etude”, as if the piece had been composed by the sister fictitious by Frederic Chopin.
“I’m a classically trained pianist, so one of my favorite activities is taking classical pieces and butchering them,” Van Deusen said. “I made up a cockamamie story about Frederic Chopin having a younger sister no one knew who wrote ragtime tunes in the mid-19th century.”
After concluding the senior division, the judges narrowed down the finalists to five pianists: Elliot, Ertle, Edwards, Orsi and Stewart.
The final contestants had the chance to perform one last song before the judges crowned their winner. The pianists released 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 assured him the first place.
Orsi took second place with Ertle in third, Edwards in fourth and Stewart in fifth.
Elliot said Temptation Rag was the song that brought her to the rag. She saw pianist Andrew Barrett perform the piece in a bar and was immediately smitten.
“It was the first rag that really made my eyes shine,” Elliot said. “[Barrett] burned it. I can’t play as fast as him, but I chose to play him anyway.
This year, Elliot took part in the Old Time piano competition and festival for the first time.
Back home in Los Angeles, Elliot regularly plays the piano at a local bar. She told The Eagle that performing in the contest at 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,” Elliot said. “No one really listens. So playing a big Steinway in front of an audience is a really different experience.
Although it’s a completely different setting from her usual performances, Elliot is committed to showing her range as a pianist and as a performer.
During his semi-final set, Elliot played Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” 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 his performance and dancing while performing, his flapper-inspired black beaded dress cinching the entire performance together.
For “Temptation Rag”, Elliot donned a short red wig with a blue bow to mimic the design of a red-haired woman on the record cover.
“I tried to put in everything I could,” she said. “I know I’m not as capable of being a piano player as a lot of people in this contest and I’m definitely newer to ragtime so I definitely tried to add whatever I could just to give myself an advantage. “
Elliot never imagined winning first place, but she is honored and hopes to see more pianists like her on stage.
“It’s really cool,” Elliot said. “I feel very happy and excited and hope this inspires more people and other pianists to come to the competition.”