The Royal City Saxophone Quartet
Profile and Review
by Timothy Roberts for Saxophone Journal

If it were not for Robert Redford and Paul Newman in the classic 1973 movie The Sting, ragtime might now only
exist as a historical curiosity in the jazz world. With a soundtrack based on Scott Joplin’s classic turn-of-the-century rags, the film gave new life to this earliest form of popular music. The Royal City Saxophone Quartet is also doing their best at keeping the art alive. Their first CD, Ragtime for Rent, is the first saxophone quartet recording dedicated entirely to the timeless melodies and classic syncopations of ragtime. This debut recording venture of the Royal City ensemble, independently produced and completed on the one-hundred year anniversary of Scott Joplin’s first rag, is a tasty collection of several different styles of ragtime, both famous and obscure. Included are the saxophone quartet mainstays of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer along with Marcel Mule’s classic arrangement of Debussy’s Le Petit Negre. But the project also includes a delightful rendition of George Cobb’s The Russian Rag and a new commission by Canadian ragtime mainstay Bob Milne, titled Bassoons for Rent. The resultant union of ragtime and an ensemble made up of perhaps the four most indicative and timely instruments of the ragtime era make for a unique listening experience.
The four members of Royal City met while performing together in the Wellington Winds back in 1991. The ensemble first got together for fun, using a more diversified and typical saxophone quartet program. Their performance debut
occurred at “College Royal 92”, the University of Guelph Ontario’s annual open house. The repertoire developed expeditiously, but didn’t take long to notice that the ragtime portion of their program showed potential as a unique and previously unexplored niche in the world of the saxophone quartet. It was this niche that slowly developed into
the centrepiece of their concert programming. By the beginning of the 1998 performance season, ragtime had become the clear focus of this young quartet’s existence.

Today, Royal City performs about fifty to sixty jobs a year, most of which occur during the summer festival season of May through October. Over fifty percent of their bookings are repeat venues, including all sorts of arts, jazz, and ragtime festivals along with outdoor concert series throughout Ontario. Each year one might hear Royal City’s ragtime show at the Manistee Ragtime Festival in Michigan, the summer concerts at Ontario Place in downtown Toronto, the duMaurier Downtown Jazz Festival, the Fergus Ragtime Festival, the Elora Festival of Song, and the Guelph Spring Festivals, all in Ontario. On June 6 and 7 of this year Royal City performed at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Music Festival in Sedalia, Missouri. It’s the world’s largest ragtime festival, and the infamous site where Joplin wrote his beloved favorite Maple Leaf Rag. A typical performance at one of these festivals and at many of the other Royal City performances has
the four ragtimers opening and closing the first half of their show walking down the aisle, playing any of their six or seven memorized rags with a grand entrance. For an exciting finale, they bring out their ragtime mentors Bob Milne and Sue Keller for two or three closing numbers on the piano-of course, the granddaddy of all ragtime instruments.
According to Ernie Kalwa, the ensemble’s leader, co-founder, and baritone saxophonist, emulating the ragtime pianist is what these saxophonists are all about. “We think of ourselves as entertainers much more than musicians,” Kalwa explains. “If we were playing the heavy classical stuff, we’d have to keep in shape in an entirely different

In addition to their programming niche, the Royal City Saxophone Quartet is unique in that they are one of the few successful quartets made up entirely of amateur saxophonists in diverse careers. Kalwa is a computer programmer, maintaining a large database system for a major corporation in Guelph. He is a unique and fascinating
individual to speak with, as he maintains an expansive and chronological history of the works of Scott Joplin in his home library. Humble in his knowledge, Kalwa answered every obscure question I could think of concerning the fascinating life of the father of ragtime. The diversity carries over into the other three present-day quartet members. Tim Moher, soprano and alto saxophonist, teaches in the Waterloo Region School Board and also has performed in Orchestra London (Ontario) and the Forest City Saxophone Quartet. Bradley Moggach, also alternating on the soprano and alto saxophones, teaches elementary school with the Wellington County Board of Education and serves as organist and choir director at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Cambridge, Ontario. Peter Wendell performs on tenor and is a free-lance photographer for several Ontario-based newspapers and magazines. He also helps out as the quartet’s photographer. The Royal City Saxophone Quartet and its music can perhaps be best summed up once again with the wisdom of Bradley Moggach in his liner notes for Ragtime For Rent:

“As we approach the beginning of a new century, our subconscious calls forth a variety of responses to the moment. We tap our heels to the relentless beat of the left hand. Even when the machine stops, your head keeps rocking to the rhythm.

Meanwhile, the right hand artfully stumbles, spins, and syncopates, improving as it improves; improvising as it improves. On this disc you have popular music wedded to one of the century’s favorite instruments. The saxophone quartet brings a genuine ragtime spirit to the party. Here we have a street-smart, down-and-dirty, wailing
music machine capable of spinning out all the right nuances of the idiom.”

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(c) 1998
Reprinted with permission from The Saxophone Journal – Sept/Oct 1998