by Monica Hayde
When Paul Price's father used to tell old war stories for the umpteenth time, young Paul didn't whine, "Oh, dad, not that one about storming the hill again." He listened intently. He asked questions. What was it like back then? What did people wear? What music did they listen to?
To say young Paul grew up to be a history buff, though, would be like saying World War II was a little skirmish. Price, 37, a graduate of Palo Alto High School, is a history fanatic, a man who lives so far in the past that he has a Victrola in the family's dusty, Victorian-decorated living room where most families would put a television. And he wears a hat every time he steps outside his house--like any good gentleman would have at the turn of the century.
His devotion to and fascination with the music from the late 1890s through the 1920s is what really drives this professional pianist and violinist's affinity for times gone by.
Dedicated to keeping alive the syncopated beats and happy ragtime rhythms of turn-of-the-century American dance music, Price and his Society Orchestra have been playing waltzes, fox trots, one-steps and tangos at their "Vintage Dances" the first Monday of every month at the Palo Alto Masonic Temple since 1987. The next Vintage Dance will be March 6.
Seated in a frayed, overstuffed chair that looks to be from the elegant era he talks about so fondly, Price recites the names of his beloved musicians with the same sort of reverence he shows for his extensive collection of 78s: Paul Whiteman, Art Hickman, Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin.
While his wife, Michelle, works on a quilt in the dining room, Price, who studied music at Foothill College, UCLA and San Jose State, extols the virtues of the music of the good old days.
There's something about this music that transcends mere nostalgia, he says. "The craftsmanship, the blending of orchestral instruments . . . It reflects a straightforward, positive way of looking at the world," he says.
In a written explanation of what his Society Orchestra stands for, Price says: "Unfortunately, recent mass culture has appealed to the egotistical, brutish and negative side of human nature, the lowest common denominator. Wispy, incoherent melodies, or repetitive chords are dead; heavy backbeats do little to uplift the spirit."
Ah, but songs like "Rose Room," "Wall Street Rag," "Railroad Blues"--that's music that wants to live again, Price says. And he and the Society Orchestra are there to give it life.
Formed in 1982, the ensemble features Price on piano, violinist Tyane Boye, bassist Norton Bell, reed musicians Bob Boynton, Tony Gallardo and Mike Wirgler, trumpeter Jim Young, trombonist John Kinney and drummer and ragtime xylophonist Todd Manley. On some nights, Michelle joins her husband for a Price-and-Price vocal number.
In the early '80s, the Society Orchestra played tea dances at the Lucie Stern Community Center. After eight years at the Masonic Temple, they've built up a sizable group of regulars.
"We never have had a dress code or anything like that, but we do have this hard-core group of fans who like to wear their period outfits, tuxedos, even some men come in period military uniforms," Price says.
Greg Chow, who is involved in "living history" organizations, has been coming to the Vintage Dances for four years, usually in period dress.
"When Paul plays, it's a really friendly atmosphere," Chow says. "First-time dancers are always very welcome to come out, and there is usually someone who will help teach them something--get them out there on the floor."
For those who want instruction beyond the informal help offered at the first-Monday Vintage Dances, dance instructor Stan Isaacs gives lessons at the Masonic Temple on the other Monday nights of the month.1 Vintage Dances
When: 8-10 p.m. the first Monday of every month; dance lessons by Stan Isaacs on the other Mondays
Where: Palo Alto Masonic Temple, 461 Florence St., Palo Alto (across from Liddicoat's)
Cost:$8 for first-Monday dances; $6 for dance lessons
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