Ragtime is a truly American genre of music. It’s fun and danceable — dominated by the piano. Ragtime is characterized by “a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass,” according to the Library of Congress in an article titled The History of Ragtime. It was most popular in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Ragtime helped define a generation, and progress music and popular culture for young adults in the United States during this period.
Max Morath was a ragtime pianist. Ragtime saw its peak of popularity well before his career ensued; nonetheless he kept the genre and culture alive throughout his performing and touring career, which lasted most of his adult life. A music career was seemingly written in the stars for Morath. According to a New York Times article, published on July 30, 1982, Morath’s mother was the pianist for a silent movie theatre in Colorado Springs, so he was surrounded by ragtime piano from a very young age and began touring in 1959, performing on piano.
Max Morath had a genuine desire to entertain, and to create a unique experience for his audience. Being a ragtime artist in the mid to late 1900’s wasn’t a top pick for most, as ragtime wasn’t exactly a top genre. Jazz, a near descendant of ragtime, had taken over the mainstream, and the first semblance Rock n Roll began to rear it’s head. People, especially young people, weren’t all that concerned with ragtime. But Morath was focused on more than just popular genres and trends. “A pianist who sings ends up in nightclubs at piano bars. I’ve done that and I detest it. But I found that with the repertory of rags and World War I songs and a demonstration of the kind of songs that people have thought of as ”off color,” I could walk into a convention in Omaha with a suitcase full of lighting equipment and put on a unique 45-minute act,” Morath said in an interview with the New York Times, on July 30, 1982. This is what set Morath apart. He knew the power of a strong and unique performance, rather than buying into the gimmick of popular music.
And his unique approach paid off. According to an article in the Weber College Signpost published on March 30, 1962, Morath performed at Weber College on April 6, 1962, in their Union. According to another article in the Weber College Signpost, published on April 4, 1963, the show was so widely enjoyed that the university invited him back to perform a second time, the following year, on April 10, 1963; “Max Morath Returns By Demand” read the headline of the Signpost article. In an article published in the Ogden Standard Examiner, on April 8, 1963, Dianne Bitton was quoted, saying, “It is because he made such a hit last year with both students and members of the community that the students decided to bring him back for a return engagement.” Perhaps praise for Morath spread south, because on the same tour in 1963, Morath performed at our very own University of Utah Union, on Friday, April 12, according to a Daily Utah Chronicle article published April 10, 1963. Another article published on April 3, 1962, in the Daily Utah Chronicle, quoted Variety Magazine, which dubbed Morath “the ideal spokesman” for ragtime.
Among his prowess in touring and live performance, Morath developed two national television programs throughout his career. The first, in 1960, was called Ragtime Era. It discussed the rise of ragtime music, it’s interaction with American culture, and how it has come to shape his life and career, according to a New York Times article, published February 21, 1961; the article described Morath’s role in the program as “an infectiously gay spirit, hilarious but in good taste.” His second program, “The Turn of the Century” debuted in 1969; it was a one man show, similar to his coveted live performances, according to a New York Times article published on July 30, 1982.
Today Morath is 93; a living legend who carried on the culture of one of America’s most influential music genres to generations who would otherwise have missed out on the sensation of ragtime.
Garrett Whaley is a junior at the University of Utah. He is studying journalism.
Jack Gould, “Max Morath Presides on ‘Ragtime Era,’” The New York Times, February 21 1961, 71.
“‘Gay 90’s’ Week To Be Featured At U B With Rag-Time Artist,” Weber College Signpost, March 30, 1962, 1.
Sally Coltrin, “Upright Piano, Old Suit Marks Ragtime Session,” Daily Utah Chronicle, April 3, 1962, 1.
“Max Morath Returns By Demand,” Weber College Signpost, April 4, 1963, 1.
“Pianist Will Offer Evening of Ragtime,” Ogden Standard-Examiner, April 8, 1963, 10.
“Carefree Music Spotlights Max Morath,” Daily Utah Chronicle, April 10, 1963, 1.
John S. Wilson, “Max Morath in Rag and ‘Unragtime,’” The New York Times, July 30, 1982, 63.
“History of Ragtime,” the Library of Congress.