by Shannon White
Shannon revisiting her familial jazz roots at the KC Museum of
Jazz – Sept 2007
High school year book entry for Ralph C Wentz,
Shannon’s Grandfather & Jazz Pianist
Two sides of the room sang bebop rhythms back and forth, repeated, then overlapping each other. The groups waited while vocal and instrumental solos gave their spontaneous variations, then let the chorus respond. We sang and listened through several sets, awaiting our turn to scat or hear to another soloist. I reconnnected with my slightly unfamiliar familial jazz roots last June 2007 in Minneapolis, Minnesota at a an Artists Gathering called Via Affirmativa. Dr. Kyle Gregory, a family man who works as a professional jazz musician in Italy — an amazing jazz musician, teacher and person — gave the multi-disciplinary group of artists brief history of jazz with improvisational performances, an education on jazz scale construction, rhythm emphasis, and best of all scatting bebop group improvs with instrumental solos. We were all involved no matter what our artistic background. It was interactive and exciting, and made me want to try jazz piano or flute for the first time since I started learning in grade school through high school and beyond — I said “try”. I was also inspired to sketch the trumpeter with the energetic marks traveling up his arched spine, through the bell of his horn, then activating the space around him as I have seen so many other artists do, not to mimic, but because that was simply what I envisioned. The creative experience in Minneapolis also made me want to discover more about this personal and local history with jazz than I had for my eighth grade speech class on my grandfather and his jazz career years ago. I began to wonder why he chose jazz, what it was like to have his career during his lifetime and later carry it on with a family, how his piano playing was integrated into the American jazz scene altogether and the regional KC scene as well. This quest involved online research, interviewing my father and thinking about what made jazz spread from America throughout the world as a truly American art form.
Bix Beiderbecke and his gang, which often changed players
Apparently, jazz began in New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century, as a culmination of African, Spanish, Italian, South American and French cultures. The blues and marching band style combination with spontaneous music with syncopated “rag time” rhythms traveled up from the seaport town. The Mississippi River carried African American and Caucasian musicians looking for better futures in Chicago, Illinois, making it the new center for jazz by 1920. Jazz had always been in my grandfather’s blood. My grandfather, Ralph C Wentz was born in Ottawa, Illinois, not too far from Chicago in July 7,1909. He took piano lessons as a child paid for by his grandmother, and took his first piano job playing for silent movies in his father’s silent movie house in Geneseo, Illinois, which is where he grew up. He then played ragtime in the band his father, Ralph Sr. and Uncle Harry Wentz formed and played in the area. He studied piano at the Sheridan Institute of Music in Chicago in the early 1930s and then was hired by a piano company in Chicago. America was in a great period of prosperity at this time, and the country was celebrating with jazz. No doubt my grandfather was caught up in this progressive American sound and couldn’t resist the proximity or the excitement. His Uncle Harry was the a pianist for one of the first caucasian jazz bands, Bix Biederbecke , in the quad cities on bordering Illinois and Iowa. My grandfather ended up filling in for Uncle Harry occasionally at the stool, and ended up playing for Al Capone and at a nunnery, inadvertantly, at one point. When he realized Capone was actually hiring him, he politely bowed out of these assignments. I believe an ailing grandmother was mentioned.
Where Wentz performed and met his bride-to-be
Chicago hosted the World Fair 1933-34 to showcase an age of progress and technical achievement, while it drew from the past achievements as well. One of the exhibits at this fair was a jazz pianist playing his newest spontaneous styles of American jazz on a crystal piano turning on a pedestal. My grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Alleman, visited the world’s fair and began to fall in love with the man playing the piano at the time. He was to become my grandfather when they would meet again eleven years later in Junction City, KS, where she taught and he was stationed for the war. He played with many bands during the “big band” or “swing” era in the USO, country clubs and VFW around World War ll, bands like Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, and Les Brown’s Band of Renown in the 1940s. These bands made records, named after the famous trumpet, clarinet or vocal soloist they featured. My grandfather moved close to Kansas City along with the jazz migration with a severe stomach ulcer from dealing with snipers and leading raids in the war. He was sent to a Colorado hospital and then home to Lansing to die with his wife and children, when his ulcer perforated, speeding up the process. Fortunately, a young country doctor stopped the bleeding with a new procedure and saved his life. He already had one child by 1949, when my father came along and made two, and there would be two more.
Tommy Dorsey’s big band, whom my grandfather played with occasionally
KC it was the next big town to be known for “swing” and then “bebop”. In 1948, my grandfather had his own band in KC and played with other bands as well. The war draft caused the “big bands” to form these more intimate bebop groups featuring group improvisations, as band members were sent overseas. He played in the Charlie “Bird” Parker band a little, although my grandfather preferred the rhythm driven and amplified “big band” or “swing” sound to the bebop style. The music style would travel to New York, but my grandfather moved his family to Leavenworth and stayed in the Midwest. This was where he remained for the duration of his life.
He played with Charlie “Bird” Parker a few times
My father, a part-time clarinetist, teacher and musician, remembers hearing his father practicing hours into the night after his latest gig. My grandmother played piano, cello and coronet, and was musical as well. I remember hearing my grandfather practice or play at dining establishments long after his career was largely over due to failing health. Around 1948 he had started a piano tuning business, becoming the Piano Tuners’ Guild President in Kansas City in 1952. During this year, my grandmother was sick with what was initially thought to be leukemia, and grandfather prayed at the chapel each day for her to recover, which she did. He also appraised property in his small business and continued learning piano at the KC Conservatory of Music, where he shared some classes with Jay McShann.
My grandmother would “deedle-dee-dee” around their historic house and dance with her finger to jazz on the radio, smiling at bygone memories and enjoying the moment, as she swept the floor after the hungry relatives, dog, two cats. I was one of the silent grandkids who looked on amusedly, knowing that my grandmother did not like to clean. After all those years, she still found joy in reliving those moments she spent with my grandfather while participating in the jazz culture firsthand. She was always a progressive and people-oriented person herself. Grandpa managed to live as a stable, loving husband and family man, father of four children, and maintain his jazz career through most of his life. My grandmother always loved him and adored his music while she continued her teaching.
There was one other time I felt especially close to my grandfather after he was gone. As I sat in KC’s famous Jardine’s during a live jazz set with my husband and some friends, I turned my head towards the piano player almost expecting to see Grandpa Wentz sitting at the bench but seeing Joe Cartwright, instead. His piano playing sounded just like my grandfather’s as I remembered hearing it. His “bossa nova” La Luna Negra CD is my closest memento to a recording of my grandfather. I found from my father that my grandfather tutored and mentored Joe Cartwright, a contemporary KC jazz legend, when he was young in a time when many parents discouraged their children from learning the jazz style over the classical styles. At least one of my grandfather’s later students worked in lessons with my grandfather against the better judgement of their parents. Maybe the newness, ethnic diversity, and working class roots of the music instilled fear in some people, as many creative, progressive movements do, that it would somehow make them less respectable or taint their morals merely by association. Another student of my grandfather’s who is still playing the jazz circuit successfully all over the world is Gary Foster, who my grandfather introduced to his Leavenworth jazz trio, after gaining permission from his Gary’s parents to include him. Gary Foster played at the Topeka Jazz Workshop Sunday, September 16th, and I would have liked to attend. People say the Grandpa Wentz also sounds a lot like Oscar Peterson, one of his contemporaries in Canada. I will have to give him a listen, now that I am on the jazz trail.
That innovation and collaborative combination of backgrounds which formed jazz are what make it so exciting to perform and listen to still, and are possibly the reason the rest of the world still listens to it, today. Besides, Thomas More might say that a county’s character is defined by its everyday “rustics”, as they perform tasks, and as they celebrate life. Jazz may have seen infamous moments, but it inspires me to collaborate with other artists, be a part in the fabric of life in my local community, to let my art be an extension of my life experiences and past and present surroundings, to be bold in my creativity, to celebrate life expressively, to teach my children to always be innovative, to encourage others in their artistic pursuits, to spend more time enjoying the still organic KC jazz scene, to sing while I clean and to share this wonderful short classic cartoon called I LOVE TO SINGA produced by WB Merrie Melodies in 1936. The film captures the tension between jazz and classical music in its emergence, resistance to new underground styles and a little human nature. I love the happy ending.