Jim Boston was a 20-year-old student at Iowa State University in Ames, walking back to the dorm from class one day, when he stopped into Lord of Life Lutheran Church on the edge of campus. In the basement he stumbled on an old, beat-up Haddorff upright piano manufactured around 1910.
The chance encounter in October 1976 changed his life.
“It had lion’s head legs and a horrible, tinny sound — like the piano Jack Nicholson played in ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ ” Boston remembered. “But I was hooked on it right away. I spent the next 17 years looking for old uprights in church basements, just to play them.”
The love affair between Boston, 58, and old pianos eventually led him in 2005 to start Omaha’s Ragtime to Riches Festival, an annual July fundraiser built around old-time piano. He founded the Great Plains Ragtime Society the next year, also in Omaha. It meets most months at the Salvation Army headquarters’ Dora Bingel Senior Center at 38th and Cuming Streets.
Discovering that old upright in 1976 made Boston decide to teach himself to play piano.
“I figured if I was going to mess around on an old piano, why not learn some older songs,” he said.
Among the first pieces he learned to play: “Bicycle Built for Two,” written in 1896, and “In the Good Old Summertime,” from 1906.
He learned by watching others play on TV or in person and listening to old records or tapes. He tried lessons for a year in 2001, and it didn’t work out. He prefers what he calls the Nike method: “Just do it.”
Boston left ISU in 1980, just shy of a degree when his interest in interior design waned. He worked for an inventory service in Omaha for several years, managed a used-records store in Sioux City for several more, then moved back to Omaha to work as a data storage technician for Peter Kiewit Sons Information Services. He’s been a machine operator at Majors Plastics in Omaha since early 2004.
The seeds for Boston’s interest in old-time piano were planted when he was a kid watching Jo Ann Castle play on “The Lawrence Welk Show.” His taste for ragtime was kindled in 1993 when he began competing in the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest in Illinois.
He finished dead last that first year, but it only made him want to practice more. The next year he finished fifth and won $200. At a similar Iowa event he has finished as high as third. Since learning to play ragtime, he has written 16 original rags, including “Stompin’ at the Children’s Museum.”
For nine years Boston tickled the old ivories at the Omaha Children’s Museum. He now plays regularly at his church, St. Paul United Methodist, the Ambassador Omaha nursing home near 72nd and Seward Streets, and Film Streams’ movie theater, where he accompanied the classic Buster Keaton silent film “The General” last year. Boston often practices on Friday mornings around 11 a.m. at Film Streams.
He’s also recorded half a dozen CDs.
Boston calls ragtime the first uniquely American form of popular music.
“Every form of music we’ve developed in this country since the early 20th century owes something to ragtime,” Boston said. “Even hip-hop. You’ve just got to listen a little harder.”
Ragtime, he said, is worth preserving. It’s fun for the players and the listeners.
The next Ragtime to Riches Festival will be July 7 at First Central Congregational Church, 421 S. 36th St. The Great Plains Ragtime Society next meets at 2 p.m. Jan. 26 at Salvation Army headquarters. A typical meeting consists of music, conversation and good times, he said.
Boston recommends the perfessorbill.com website for great ragtime playing and history. For more on the Rags to Riches Festival, visit r2rfestival.webs.com.