Sunday, July 1, 2012

Larry Karp tells us a story

Larry Karp grew up in Paterson, NJ and New York City.  He practiced perinatal medicine (high-risk pregnancy care) and wrote general nonfiction books and articles for 25 years, then, in 1995, he left medical work to begin a second career, writing mystery novels.  The backgrounds and settings of Larry's mysteries reflect many of his interests, including musical antiques, medical-ethical issues, and ragtime music.

      During his first career, Larry served as Medical Director of Swedish Medical Center's Reproductive Genetics Facility and delivered the first baby in the Pacific Northwest conceived through in vitro fertilization. He drew on that experience to write A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, the story of an overly-ambitious young obstetrician in the Pacific Northwest, secretly trying to make medical history by producing the world's first IVF baby. Unfortunately, that sort of secret is hard to keep, and the upshot was blackmail and murder.

     Other mystery novels by Larry Karp include an historical mystery trilogy (The Ragtime Kid, The King of Ragtime, The Ragtime Fool), First Do No Harm, The Midnight Special, Scamming the Birdman, and The Music Box Murders.

     Larry's books have been finalists for the Daphne and Spotted Owl Awards, and have appeared on the Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times Fiction Best-Seller Lists.

Let me tell you a story...
            Some people have trouble giving a straight account of events.  They seem unable to resist the temptation to improve upon what the real world presents, whether or not they declare their own accounts to be fiction.   One such person was Sanford Brunson (Brun) Campbell, who was known as The Ragtime Kid, or as he sometimes liked to call himself, "The Original Ragtime Kid of the 1890s."  By any name or measure, he was quite a character.

            Brun certainly led a ragtime life.  At 15, he ran away from his home in Arkansas City, Kansas to learn to play ragtime piano from Scott Joplin, in Sedalia, Missouri, and for some years after that, he worked as an itinerant pianist throughout the midwest and the south, entertaining customers in every bar, restaurant, hotel, brothel, amusement park, and riverboat where he could snatch a gig.  When jazz replaced ragtime as the national popular music craze, Brun followed his father into the barber trade, married at least three times, brought up three daughters, and moved to Venice, California, where he cut hair (by all reports, very badly) at his City Hall Barber Shop.  But  in the 1940s, his musical genre showed signs of reviving, and the old man hopped aboard the bandwagon, grabbed the steering wheel, and for the remaining decade of his life, led the way in bringing back ragtime, resuscitating the reputation of his old teacher and hero, Scott Joplin, and not incidentally, doing his best to acquaint the country with the work and accomplishments of one Brun Campbell.
            Brun's particular style of ragtime was very different from that of Joplin, whose goal was to make over the syncopated folk music of his early life into a classical form.  But in the places Brun played, the music had to be loud and fast, and in his compositions and performances, he worked in  the rough-and-ready barrelhouse style of ragtime.   Fortunately, Brun was recorded at the piano during the 1940s, and several ragtime musicians have told me that for them, Brun's music was a revelation, representing a missing link of sorts in the genre.
            But Brun drives historians bat-crazy.  Most of what we know about him comes from his own narratives, and he was without doubt a legend in his own mind.  Revision and proofing were not in the man's job description; one and done was his style.  Given that he wrote his accounts some fifty years after his pianistic career, the inconsistencies are understandable, if no less maddening.  In multiple renderings of the same event,, he had a striking habit of being one unit off.  Did it really happen in 1907 or 1908?  On June 5 or June 6?
            In addition, many of Brun's accounts of ragtime history are clearly embellished, and some are out-and-out falsehoods.  The most egregious example was his story that at Scott Joplin's funeral, there was a procession of carriages, each vehicle bearing a poster with the name of one of Joplin's rags.  But when Joplin died in 1917, he was nearly broke and forgotten, and was buried in an unmarked grave.  I figure Brun told it the way he thought it should have been.
            I was sure I had Brun dead to rights when I read about his having "played for Teddy Roosevelt and his staff in the Parlor of the Lee Hotel at Oklahoma City while he was there with his Rough Riders."  Brun didn't specify a date, and since his peripatetic career ranged from about 1900 to about 1907 or 1908, and Roosevelt became president in the fall of 1901, and thereby was not likely to have been in Oklahoma at a Rough Rider reunion after that, I wondered whether we had another whopper here.  But no, history records such an event on July 2, 1900, at the Lee Hotel in Oklahoma City.  True, there's no proof Brun really was there, but there's no proof he wasn't.
            Brun died in California in 1952.  Though I never met him, I think I got to know him pretty well through written histories, newspaper interviews he gave, and letters he wrote in the 'forties to Jerry Heermans, a young ragtime pianist in Portland, Oregon.  I said earlier that he was quite a character - such an irresistible character in fact that I plugged him in as protagonist in two books of my ragtime historical-mystery trilogy.  At 15, he was The Ragtime Kid.  At 67, a year before he died, he was The Ragtime Fool.  We spent some five years in close company.  When I finished the trilogy, I felt as though I'd lost an old friend.
            But it's a strange old world.  Last spring, I received an email from a man who claimed to have in his possession certain belongings of the late Brun Campbell, and when the man sent me photos,  I darn near swallowed my gum.  There were copies of When Ragtime Was Young, a personal history I knew Brun had been working on, had hoped to get published, but to his bitter disappointment, hadn't succeeded.  There were musical compositions unknown to the ragtime community, tunes Brun had composed during the 1940s.  There was a large collection of correspondence, including letters from Mrs. Scott Joplin and W. C. Handy.  Brun's business records were there, along with books, magazines with articles by and about our boy, and some personal effects.  Within a week, all this stuff was in my sweaty hands.

            How was it the man with the treasure had happened to contact me?  He knew nothing about ragtime, had never heard of Brun Campbell, had googled his name, and up had come The Ragtime Kid and The Ragtime Fool, by Larry Karp.  Whose website includes a contact link.
            I could only laugh.  Of all people, the work of the Great Ragtime Storyteller had found its way to another storyteller, someone who would find it impossible to resist editing Brun's admittedly rambling and unfocused narratives into something publishable.  His story, not history.  The tales of an old man in a barbershop in California, regaling his uneasy customers as they watched him emphasize one or another point by waving a pair of scissors or a razor much too close to an ear or a nose.  One of Brun's customers seventy years ago was a young Ray Bradbury.  Did you know that?  Not many people do.  Bradbury did quite the little hatchet job on Brun in a book titled Death is a Lonely Business. 
            But in the last analysis, Brun was a dedicated ragtime pioneer, and a fascinating and entertaining yarnspinner.  I hope one day, sooner rather than later, you'll be able to enjoy his account  of a singular life in a world long vanished.  Maybe Brun might evenl become the legend he always hoped to be.   He'd sure love that.
            Want to hear Brun Campbell play ragtime as only he could?   This is his Essay in Ragtime originally recorded during the late 1940s.  


Earl Staggs said...

What a fascinating story! Easy to seee how an off-the-wall character like Brun could capture a writer's attention. That's the stuff legends are made of, for sure.

Julia Buckley said...

What a GREAT story, and what a great song. This is a delight for any lover of history, not to mention lovers of ragtime. I must admit that I had never heard of Campbell, although I've always admired Joplin.

Thanks for sharing this great tale! Now of course I'm curious to know what you'll be doing with all the Campbell literature--will it eventually go to a museum or library? And how was the original collector made willing to part with it?

Patty said...

Fascinating! Another example of how the Internet works wonders. Somehow stories like this always off-set the bad things we are always hearing about.

Congratulations on the find. Now, I have to get busy and finish reading your books.

Larry said...

Thanks, Earl, Julia, and Patty. Your comments make my day. And I hope you'll enjoy my ragtime historicals.

The material will stay will me as long as I inhabit this mortal coil; then I suspect it will go to another ragtimer who will give it the same care I intend to. Maybe he or she will also find some diamonds in it to mine. I've seen too many special items get destroyed, deaccessed, ignored, and otherwise abused by museums.

The person who had the material before me went to a nursing home, and the antiques dealer who cleaned out her house had no idea who Brun Campbell was. So he googled Brun, and up came Larry Karp's books. The dealer then emailed me, and the rest was, history. What a thrill that was!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Kaye, thanks for hosting Larry with this great story. This is one biography I'd love to read. Brun Campbell sounds like a fascinating character.

jenny milchman said...

What an interesting piece of history. How lucky your paths crossed, and that this particular time in history enabled them to.

Lewis Motisher said...

I briefly spoke to you at the recent West Coast Ragtime Festival. I had been much impressed with the level of research that had gone into "The Ragtime Kid."

Now I can't wait to see whatever "diamonds" you polish from this trove of Brun Campbell material. I think it fell into the right hands.