In memory of Ken Ragsdale, Austin music icon

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the main band I played with was the Ken Ragsdale Orchestra. We were a 7 piece “little big band” (keys, bass, drums, trumpet, alto, tenor, bari). All 3 sax players doubled on clarinet. Ken played bari & clarinet, led the band and booked the shows. We worked a lot, mostly at country clubs and events for ballroom dance groups and military retiree events at Bergstrom (when it was an air force base) and Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.  We played an average of 70-80 shows a year every year I was in the band.

One of the things that made the band interesting was our book. Many of the charts were written in the 50s (or earlier), and most of the “new” charts were written by Johnny Ross, who came from that era and knew how to write in the authentic style those songs required. It was a real education in the history of “hotel” music as well as Big Band era jazz — something most jazz players don’t get the opportunity to learn in depth.

In December 1993 we played 12 shows in 14 days. I recorded all the shows and created a ‘best of’ compilation that’s available for free download here:

I learned a lot playing with Ken – not just about music but about the music business, but also about Texas history (through conversations as well as reading his books). Ken was gifted at building relationships with those that booked us and our audience. He also served as a great role model, showing that it was possible to be a working musician into his 80s and even his 90s, while continuing to write and even pursue new interests. His obituary, describing his very full and accomplished life, is here. He will be missed.

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