Max Morath, Pianist Who Staged a One-Man Ragtime Revival, Dies at 96

Max Morath, who stepped out of the 1890s only a lifetime late, and with syncopated piano rhythms and social commentary helped revive the ragtime age on educational television programs, in concert halls and in nightclubs for nearly a half-century, died on Monday at a care facility near his home in Duluth, Minn. He was 96.

His wife, Diane Fay Skomars, confirmed the death.

Having learned the rudiments of music from his mother, who played a tinkling piano in movie theaters for silent films, Mr. Morath — after false career starts as a radio announcer, newscaster and actor — found his calling in a fascination with ragtime, the uniquely syncopated or “ragged” style whose heyday spanned two decades, roughly from 1897 to 1917.

A college-educated student of both music and history, Mr. Morath fell in love with ragtime’s dreamlike, bittersweet sounds. He researched the styles and repertoires of its era. He combed libraries, studied piano rolls and old sheet music, consulted historical societies, read antique magazines and talked to folks old enough to recall the work of the ragtime greats and the milestones of their age.

What emerged was a new form of entertainment that combined showmanship with scholarly commentaries on ragtime itself, on its players and fans, and on the etiquette and tastes of a long-vanished age when horses pulled streetcars and women’s suffrage was still just a dream of the future.

In a straw boater and sleeve garters, pounding an old upright with a cigar clenched in his teeth, Mr. Morath played Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” Jelly Roll Morton’s “Tiger Rag” and Eubie Blake’s “Charleston Rag.” In those moments he might have been a vaudeville copycat trading on nostalgia. But his mood grew serious — and strangely more engaging — when he paused to tell audiences what they were hearing.

“Ragtime is the folk music of the city,” he would explain. “It represents 25 years of a music that’s been overlooked.

“Classic ragtime isn’t the honky-tonk music you hear today. That’s just a popular misconception. Nobody has paid the classic ragtime much attention, because of the attitude that folk music had to come from the hills. We were looking in the wrong direction.”

Mr. Morath made ragtime come alive again. In the 1890s, he said, people heard it in vaudeville houses or just walking around town. There were newfangled inventions: player pianos, phonographs and nickelodeons. Middle-class homes had upright pianos. Sheet music was booming. Tin Pan Alley, the Manhattan home of the songwriters who dominated popular music, was flourishing.

After a few years in clubs and on radio and television in the West and in his native Colorado, Mr. Morath broke through in 1960 at KRMA-TV, Denver’s educational TV station. He wrote and produced “The Ragtime Era,” a series of 12 half-hour shows on the music and history of ragtime and the blues, as well as the origins of musical comedy and Tin Pan Alley, for the 60-station National Educational Television network, the predecessor of PBS.

Reviewing that series for The New York Times, Jack Gould wrote: “In an uncommon mixture of earthiness, emphasized by his chewing of a big cigar and wearing of loud vests, and erudition, reflected in his knowledgeable commentary on music and the social forces that influence its expression, he presides over a wonderful rag piano and lets go.”

The series was bought by commercial stations, greatly expanding Mr. Morath’s audience. He was soon juggling recording dates, college gigs (some 50 a year), and concert and club bookings. He also crafted another NET series, “The Turn of the Century” (1962): 15 installments that related ragtime music to its social, economic and political period, using lantern slides, photographs and other props.

With its wider focus — on life in America from 1890 to the 1920s — “The Turn of the Century” was a runaway success. In addition to being seen in syndication on commercial television, it became a one-man theatrical show. Mr. Morath presented it at the Blue Angel and the Village Vanguard in New York, brought it to the Off Broadway Jan Hus Playhouse in 1969 and then toured nationally for many years.

“In a two-hour jaunty excursion, Morath gives us a look at the 30-year period that spanned the time of McGuffey’s Reader, women’s suffrage, the grizzly bear dance, Prohibition, legal marijuana and Teddy Roosevelt,” The Washington Post said when Mr. Morath opened at Ford’s Theater in 1970. “It was a time of sweeping changes in the moral climate of our nation, and Morath uses popular music, chiefly ragtime, as the centrifugal force for sorting out the different phases.”

As the ragtime revival surged into the 1970s, it was given momentum by the musicologist Joshua Rifkin, who recorded much of Scott Joplin’s work for the Nonesuch label in 1971, and by the success of George Roy Hill’s Oscar-winning film “The Sting” (1973), starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as con artists, which featured Joplin’s “The Entertainer” on the soundtrack.

Mr. Morath appeared on “The Bell Telephone Hour,” “Kraft Music Hall,” “Today,” “The Tonight Show” and Arthur Godfrey’s radio and television programs. A series of Morath productions — “The Ragtime Years,” “Living the Ragtime Life,” “The Ragtime Man,” “Ragtime Revisited,” and “Ragtime and Again” — opened Off Broadway and were followed by national tours.

“I must have played in 5,000 different places, and many of them were not all that classy,” Mr. Morath said in 2019 in an interview for this obituary. “Mostly they were saloons, and it wasn’t all ragtime either. Some of them were piano bars. When you work a piano bar, you’d better know 1,500 tunes. You’re playing requests. It was Gershwin. Cole Porter. Rodgers and Hart.”

Mr. Morath continued touring until retiring in 2007. By then, he had long been known as “Mr. Ragtime,” the unofficial keeper of America’s ragtime legacy.

Asked for a favorite memory from his life in music, he reached back to his childhood.

“Actually,” he said after a moment’s thought, “it was when I was 7 and I heard my mother play something Joplin wrote, called ‘The Original Rag.’ It was published in Kansas City, and somehow my mother got ahold of it. We had a piano bench full of good stuff, mostly show tunes. But ‘Original Rag’ was my favorite.”

Max Edward Morath was born in Colorado Springs on Oct. 1, 1926, the younger of two sons of Frederic Morath, a real estate broker, and Gladys (Ramsell) Morath. When Max was 4, his parents divorced. His mother became society editor of The Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, and his father went to Europe, remarried and spent his days climbing in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

Max and his brother, Frederic, attended local public schools. He was active in choir and theater at Colorado Springs High School and, in his senior year, got a job as a radio announcer with KVOR (the call letters stood for Voice of the Rockies). After he graduated in 1944, he paid his way through Colorado College as a pianist and newscaster for the station. He majored in English and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1948.

In 1953, he married Norma Loy Tackitt. They had three children before divorcing in 1992. He married Ms. Skomars, an author and photographer, in 1993.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Morath is survived by two daughters, Kathryn Morath and Christy Mainthow; a son, Frederic; a stepdaughter, Monette Fay Magrath; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson. His brother died in 2009.

In a recording career that began in 1955, Mr. Morath made more than 30 albums, mostly of unaccompanied piano solos, for Epic, RCA Victor, Vanguard and other labels. His original compositions were recorded by the pianist and composer Aaron Robinson and released in 2015 as “Max Morath: The Complete Ragtime Works for Piano.”

Mr. Morath wrote an illustrated memoir, “The Road to Ragtime” (1999), and “I Love You Truly: A Biographical Novel Based on the Life of Carrie Jacobs-Bond” (2008), about the first woman to establish a music publishing firm in America. She had been the subject of a paper Mr. Morath wrote for his master’s degree, which he earned at Columbia University in 1996.

In 2016, Mr. Morath was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, along with the bandleaders Paul Whiteman and Glenn Miller. “It made me feel really great,” he said. “Of course, they’re both Colorado boys. I felt I was in very good company.”

Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.

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