By Dr. Rosemary Hallum
Who's that tall, nice-looking blond man playing up a storm lately at different festivals? It's the multi-talented pianist/vocalist Frederick Hodges of the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra. He has built up a large, enthusiastic following of fans from his RSJO appearances, and many of them are following him to his solo gigs.
Frederick is very impressive, with excellent, well-honed piano skills, a large and varied repertoire, cheerful personality and magnetic stage persona. He's the epitome of gentlemanliness, with poise, good manners and impeccable grooming. He's often in this RSJO uniform, with light-colored slacks, navy jacket with brass buttons, and saddle shoes.
If you have seen and heard him at festivals or at one of his solo gigs, you know that he is an exceptional musician with a solid classical background, and also a fine entertainer. But there's a lot more to Frederick Hodges than that. Listen in on our conversations and e-mails and you'll find out more about his interests, education and early years.
How long have you been with the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra?
I joined the group in December of 1982. They had been playing festivals since the 1970s. By the spring of 1984, I had performed as a sideman - a band member - at my first festival: the Sacramento Traditional Jazz FEstival, which had a slightly different name at the time. The same year, I performed with the RSJO at the legendary St. Louis Ragtime Festival, which was tremendous fun. I had the great thrill of meeting for the first time ragtime luminaries, including Trebor Tichenor, David Jasen, Max Morath, Richard Zimmerman, and Ian Whitcomb, — men whom I had idolized and whose books, music folios, and records I had devoured as a young boy.
So you've been with the RSJO for over 20 years. YOur extended work with them has played a huge part in developing you as a musician and performer, hasn't it? For example, in your knowledge of the repertoire, "feel" for the musical style of the '20s and '30s, experience playing with a group, singing, developing stage poise and personality, and doing emcee duties and whatever else needs to be done.
Yes, my wonderful years with the RSJO have made me the musician I am today. I am grateful for every moment I've spent with them.
When I was a teenage boy, I was already listening not only to ragtime but also to 1920s dance band records on 78s. I greatly disliked the contemporary rock music and popular music that prevailed when I was growing up. I found refuge and inspiration in the recordings of bands like Paul Whiteman, George Olsen and Jack Hylton. I dreamed of playing in a band but never really imagined it would be possible, since the 1920s were long over. So, discovering the RSJO and being hired as its pianist was a dream come true!
More than the realization of a dream, however, the job provided the opportunity, challenge and absolute necessity of improvement. I quickly had to learn and master important stills such as playing in strict rhythm, listening to and supporting the other musicians, and highlighting the ensemble with improvised passage work that added sparkle to the ensemble without interfering with its moving lines.
Working with the RSJO also taught me many of the valuable skills you mentioned above, such as showmanship, having a stage personality that would engage the audience, keep their interest, and reward them for their support. The RSJO leader, Don Neely, also provided me with the opportunity to develop my singing style. He's a marvelous band leader for many reasons, one of the most important being that he gives his musicians chances. He allows and encourages each band member to take solos. New musicians are usually horrible at soloing. I know that I was. But Don understands that beginners are going to make mistakes and need practice, so he provides generous opportunities for practice and improvement. He nurtures each performer, provides him with recordings to learn from, gives friendly pointers, and most importantly gives the musician innumerable second chances. This is one reason why RSJO musicians are universally recognized as being among the finest musicians anywhere.
I've had amazing gigs with the RSJO. Right now, we do mainly private society parties. With the band, I've had access to the finest mansions, homes, and private clubs with the finest food and champagne. I get to live like a millionaire sometimes without having to do all the work!
Then when did you start playing solo for festivals?
The 2004 West Coast Ragtime Festival was my first time as a solo festival artist. I want to thank Marty Eggers and Virginia Tichenor for their encouragement and work on my behalf. Marty, a talented and much-sought-after pianist and bass player, and I have performed together for years in the RSJO. We also live close to each other, so we'd car pool to gigs. During many of our rides, Marty would tell me about the world of ragtime piano festivals, and then one evening his wife Virginia asked me if I'd be interested in playing for the West Coast Ragtime Festival. She must have contacted the music committee and lobbied on my behalf, because I was soon invited to perform at their very next festival. It was one of the great thrills of my life! They were taking a big chance on me, since I was not known as a ragtime pianist. I was well known as a 1920s dance band pianist and society cocktail pianist, but the world didn't know that behind the scenes, I had been devoted to ragtime ever since I was a boy. The invitation to perform at the festival allowed me the wonderful opportunity to display my passion for ragtime in a professional arena.
Since then, I've had the good fortune to be invited to perform at other ragtime festivals and to fly around the country to give ragtime concerts for local ragtime societies. For instance, in October, I'll be presenting two concerts for the Ragtyme Jazztyme Society of Arizona. It's great fun to meet new audiences and to meet and listen to other ragtime pianists.
Like Tony Caramia, you like to present new things and less familiar pieces to your festival audiences, such as your Roy Bargy set in Sacramento. Your rationale?
I enjoy presenting unfamiliar masterpieces to festival audiences because I like to champion the works of unsung heroes like Roy Bargy, George L. Cobb, and Phil Ohman. I'm also following the sage advice of Marty Eggers, who encouraged me to find a musical niche that would distinguish me from other performers. After taking careful note of the repertoires of my fellow ragtime pianists, I found to my delight that almost no one was specializing in playing the late ragtime and novelty piano music that I especially loved. Thus, it was very easy for me to carve out a place for myself in the ragtime world.
Also, you don't repeat yourself in your festival sets. You prepare a new play list for each. Your rationale?
Even at the biggest festivals, I've noticed that my audiences often contain a core group of fans who seem to catch every one of my sets. It's partially for the benefit of these wonderful people that I have privately vowed never to repeat a piece from another set unless I'm honoring a request from an audience member. Other reasons are that I personally find it more musically satisfying this way, and I have a goal to play entirely new pieces at each festival. This little rule of mine forces me to learn at least 50 new rags and novelties a year. It's an excellent way to exercise the musical departments of my brain!
It seems that just about your whole life is built around ragtime, novelty and the music of the '20s and '30s — the songs, lyrics, recordings and films. What started this great interest?
From the earliest age, I always loved the music of the ragtime era, 1920s and 1930s. My parents didn't have any music of this kind in the house, so I suspect I first heard it on television — and it captured my attention. I first received a large, satisfying dose of ragtime when the movie The Sting was released in 1973. I distinctly remember the first time I heard "The Entertainer." I was being driven to elementary school by a neighbor in a car pool. Usually, rock tunes were on the car radio, but all of a sudden the DJ played "The Entertainer" from the soundtrack of The Sting. Astonishing! Instead of rock, which I hated, here were the jaunty, melodic and harmonically complex strains of the Joplin tune in Marvin Hamlisch's clever orchestral arrangement. It was like a rich, sumptuous feast for a starving man! At that time, all the top ten radio stations were playing "The Entertainer" — an amazing period in American musical history, one that may never be repeated.
Soon thereafter, I bought not only the LP soundtrack for The Sting, but also three individual pieces of Joplin sheet music, and then the Collected Works of Scott Joplin. I had been taking piano lessons for only a few years, so I wasn't at the level necessary to play these, but I was determined to learn them. Soon, I was playing the "Maple Leaf Rag," and my teacher said there was no more she could teach me, because I wasn't interested in practicing my lessons with scales and arpeggios. It must have been frustrating for her to deal with a pupil like me.
What made you interested in piano rather than guitar or another instrument?
I never had any real interest in learning to play any other instrument besides piano. My grandparents had a nice Baldwin grand in their home, and I loved to hear my grandfather play it. He had limited abilities, but he made the most of them with great showmanship and careful arranging so that pieces sounded grander than they really were.
I remember coming home from first grade one day and announcing to my mother that I wanted to take piano lessons! Quite conveniently, our next-door neighbor was a piano teacher. AFter I progressed beyond her abilities, my second teacher, who instructed intermediate levels, lived just at the end of the block. My parents easily agreed to let me have piano lessons, since they were not inconvenienced any way except monetarily.
Did your parents ever have to tell you to practice? (My mother said she had to tell me to stop.)
LIke you, my parents had to tell me to stop practicing. I loved spending time at the piano. I found all my practice sessions to be enjoyable and rewarding.
You planned on becoming a concert pianist?
Yes. At about 13 or 14 years old,
I developed an intense interest in classical music, especially Chopin and
Liszt. I studied with an advanced, wonderful teacher, Mrs. Virginia Moore,
noted as one of the best in the Bay Area. With my developing maturity,
I recognized the immense value of scales, arpeggios, and good technique.
Mrs. Moore, and later Trula Whelan, guided my progress and entered me in
contests, some of which I won. About 1978, I was a winner in the California
Music Teachers Association Young Artists contest. I remember traveling
to Los Angeles to play Bartok's "First Elegy" and Liszt's 'Ballade No.
2" and receive an award.
How has this classical foundation influenced your professional performance?
It has been of enormous value in my current professional career. Without my classical background and solid technique, I would not be able to play with success or musicality the rags, novelties, and popular songs that I enjoy playing.
When did you start giving piano lessons?
When I was in my twenties. My first students were all adults, neighbors who called up and asked me to give them lessons. I began teaching in earnest when I was a student at Cal Berkeley, and my pupils at that time were mostly college students.
Do you specialize in any ages?
No. I enjoy teaching students of all age groups. Each group is enjoyable for different reasons.
What is your teaching philosophy?
My philosophy, if it can be called that, is to tailor the teaching plan to each student's abilities and needs. I also follow the principles of my advanced teachers, Virginia Moore and Trula Whelan: build a solid technique and thorough understanding of harmony and theory in each student so that he will have the ability to play whatever kind of music he enjoys. Technique plus theoretical knowledge gives the student the freedom to play and improvise successfully and musically. Once a student has attained a certain level of proficiency. I let them choose most or all of their own pieces, like you. [Writer's note: I have been a coaching student of Frederick for over a year now. He is excellent, holding the student to high standards and inspiring them to practice well.] This keeps them interested and involved.
On a different topic, you seem like a well-educated English gentleman.
[Laughing] Thank you for the compliment! It's partially true. I was educated first at UC Berkeley, majoring in German literature. My true interests, however, were in classics and classical Greece. I was enthralled and captivated by the classical world after reading Will Durand's well-known book, The Life of Greece, so I began taking U.C. classes in ancient Greek, classical architecture, and related topics. I was fortunate to have two professors who conducted archaeological digs at classical sites in both Greece and Turkey. I accepted their invitations to visit the digs and assist the graduate students with their work, such as carefully unearthing mosaic floors and measuring stone blocks. A marvelous experience!
In addition to a doctorate, I earned a Master of Science degree from Oxford University in England, in conjunction with my doctoral program there in Modern History, which covered the period from the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Byzantine Empire up to the present. My specific interest was in the history of science, and my doctoral dissertation was about classical Greek medicine.
Why Oxford? It's noted for excellence, of course.
I visited oxford one summer in the early 1990s while visiting friends in England. I instantly fell in love with the place with its majestic gothic spires and crenelated buildings, built out of honey-colored Cotswold sandstone. The town of Oxford is also situated in one of the loveliest corners of England. I was determined to return there for my graduate studies, and I did.
You had built up some wonderful regular piano performance jobs in the San Francisco area - playing at L'Etoile restaurant on Nob Hill, Mason's restaurant in the Fairmont Hotel, the Rotunda restaurant in the top floor of the Nieman Marcus department store in Union Square, Etrusca restaurant in the Rincon Center, and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the flank of Nob Hill. Then you left all of that to go to Oxford. Many musicians would not have left. Comments?
True. Many musicians would not have given up their careers, but I was determined to fulfill my dreams of getting a doctorate from Oxford. I wanted the chance to live in ancient medieval buildings, experience a different culture, immerse myself in the history and life of Oxford University with its rich traditions, and improve my mind in one of the world's top universities. Life is short, so you might as well enjoy it and do everything you want before it is too late. It was very hard for me to leave the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra, but at the time, I thought it was a sacrifice worth making. Thankfully, I never really "left" the orchestra, because whenever I returned to the U.S. for holidays, Don Neely would hire me to play with the band at its gigs. I also was fortunate to be flown back to the U.S. on several occasions to perform with the RSJO, at the expense of a generous client who insisted that I appear with the group at the party he was throwing.
After you got your doctorate, you came back to the U.S. and got back into music. Why?
While I was at Oxford, I was very active musically, giving concerts, accompanying silent films, and playing for parties at my college. As much as I found academia thrilling, I also discovered that music was the central part of my being. Despite my many passions and interests, music is at the core of my soul. So, when I returned to the U.S., is was with great excitement and renewed enthusiasm that I dove back into a musical career.
You're very busy with music now. Does history remain an important, meaningful part of your life?
Yes, indeed. I'm frequently invited to present papers at academic conferences. One of the nicest rewards for earning my doctorate are all-expenses-paid trips to glamorous foreign capitals that I receive each year. Recently, I was invited to give a paper I had written on ancient Greek concepts of heredity at a conference in Vienna. Prior to that, I delivered a paper to a scientific conference in Prague. The paper was about scientific principles conveyed in Hollywood films of the silent era. At an otherwise dry conference, my paper got the most enthusiastic response, primarily, I think, because of the enticing images of Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Swanson that I showed as part of my PowerPoint presentation.
Your living room is full of well-organized bookcases with piano music, books, LPs, and CDs, a big Steinway grand, a couple of stuffed chairs, and — this may surprise some of your fans — a bigger-than-life-size robot. You built it all yourself? How long did it take to research, study, plan, and construct? I've never seen it move. Will it move?
[Laughing] All those questions! Yes, I built it myself. No, it doesn't move right now, but it will. All robot questions can be answered at my robot website: www.berkeleyrobotproject.com.
The site made me laugh — it's so full of details and tables that I'd think an engineer had put it together, not a musician and historian.
My website's purpose is to assist the robot builder and also to reduce the number of e-mails I receive and have to answer. There are a fair number of robot builders out there, and my site can give assistance to new builders, helping pay back those who helped me.
Do you belong to a robot group?
Yes, the B9 Robot Builders Club. They have local and national chapter meetings. [Note: the robot website has an account and pictures of a meeting held at Frederick's.]
What are your next robot plans? To get this one walking? To build another?
I want to take this one a step further, literally! There's not much room in my apartment, but he'll be able to roll around like an electric wheelchair. I got a free controller from a new wheelchair — the latest in technology — in a dumpster! So the robot will be remote controlled to move.
Have you ever composed a Robot Rag? Is that on your To Do list? It would be fun to compose a simple robot duet that you and your students could improvise on.
That's a great idea! "The Robot Rag." I like the sound of that. Billy Mayerl published a piece called "Robots," but no one to my knowledge has written a "Robot Rag." Thanks for the suggestion!
There's another big area we haven't discussed yet.
True! Now would you like to ask me about my latest venture as a silent film pianist? This is very important to me. You can find a little essay on my activities in this area on my website: www.frederickhodges.com — see the page on "silent Film" and the section on "The Art of Accompanying Silent Film."
I've just returned from playing at the two-day Silent Film Festival in Redding, California. I got rave reviews on my DVD with soundtracks from silent films, and Leonard Maltin praised my work as a film accompanist and musicologist. There's an art, actually, to accompanying silent films. You need to respect the film and the culture and the music of the era. You can use appropriate music of the time, music printed in that year or before, but not modern music that didn't exist at that time. movie studios would frequently hire composers and arrangers to produce Thematic Cue Sheets, telling the pianist what to play — or at least ideas and suggestions of what to play — at what point in the film. If I don't have one, I create one. The aim is to fit the mood and support the action on the screen. I research everything and supply appropriate music. It's challenging and fun!
You seem very happy with all your activities and how your life is turning out.
Absolutely! Everything I do I enjoy. I love my music, and I also love history, classics, robots, lots of things! If I had more time, I'd pursue more interests. I need constant change and stimulation from completely different areas, and then I come back to music fresher and everything is exciting.
I also love living where I do, in the Elmwood district of Berkeley. I love the relative serenity and the close proximity to shops, banks, libraries, and the UC Berkeley campus. Almost everything I need is within walking distance. I'm also very close to several freeways, which is a great help when I need to get to a gig in a hurry.
What are you plans for the immediate future? Pursue the top cocktail jobs you had? More recording? Composing? Writing a book?
[Laughing] All that and more! I still love the cocktail jobs, and I do it at private parties. Commercially, though, this isn't a good time for live piano music. My goal as far as piano playing and technique is always to improve and maintain my skills. As for recording, I'm finishing up a new CD, this one on a beautiful Bösendorfer grand piano, a magical instrument. It will include the works of Roy Bargy and a few other pieces. I don't see any need for me to compose, as there's lots of piano literature out there for me to explore and learn.
Funny that you should mention writing a book. That's a big project for me at present. I'm actively researching and writing a book on the TV program Lost in Space. I've been going to Los Angeles to visit film archives. I figure I need six months more to wrap it up.
You seem to have the gift of being able to look at yourself analytically and accurately — to know yourself.
Interesting! I think it's difficult to know yourself. Bit it's better to be honest with yourself and about yourself. You need to see and recognize your deficiencies that need help or that can be helped — for instance, to know exactly what's going on in your performance. As an example, I don't have a good voice at all, so to be effective, I need a good choice of songs. I like songs that are playful and fun, or teasing.
Last questions: How would you describe yourself, using just three words?
[Smiling] Passionate — about what I do. Iconoclastic — in the sense that I like to go back to the piano style of the '20s and '30s. Determined — a nice way to saying stubborn" I like to get what I want when I want it.
And your parting words?
They're about my feelings. First, I really love ragtime and novelty music — they give me a joy that goes through my entire being. Second, I deeply enjoy playing ragtime and novelty for festival audiences who truly appreciate it. That gives me tremendous joy and personal satisfaction. Thank you to all my fans! You're wonderful!
To read more about Frederick
Hodges, order his CDs, and check his current performing schedule, get on
his website: www.frederickhodges.com