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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Soul of ragtime thrives at Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia

Friday, June 12, 2009

The first family of ragtime, Trebor Tichenor, at right, with his daughter, Virginia, at left, son Andy, front center, and son-in-law Marty Eggers, on bass at rear, performing at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia. Trebor Tichenor played at the Theron Bennett Festival in Pierce City in 1997 and 1999. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
Despite the economy, the 2009 Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival once again attracted large crowds and put on an exciting event in Sedalia last week. Organizers tried different strategies to adjust to less affluent conditions and generally found success throughout the four-day festival, the largest ragtime festival held anywhere.

Around 80 performers were again on hand, playing during the day in the downtown Sedalia area, mostly where no admission was charged. The big Stark Pavilion tent, named for publisher John Stark who championed the work of Scott Joplin, was again centrally located in the street on the south side of the Pettis County Courthouse, after moving two blocks north last year due to construction. Performers also played in the historic Katy Depot four blocks east of the courthouse, in two other outdoor venues downtown, in the VFW Hall for dancing and at the Ragtime Store in the Bothwell Hotel.

Venues changed

Venues for most of the paid concerts moved this year. After successes in holding first-day shows at State Fair Community College, all of the evening concerts except for the big Music Hall extravaganza on Saturday night moved to the college's 250-seat auditorium. Afternoon concerts moved into the century-old United Methodist Church downtown, a smaller setting than the 450-seat Liberty Center, where paid concerts have been held usually.

According to Stacy Purvis, director of the Scott Joplin Foundation, use of the college's two grand pianos saved the festival the usual expense of bringing two pianos from Kansas City for the paid shows. Two other grand pianos usually placed in the church for symposiums moved to the Liberty Center for Saturday night with little trouble.

Afternoon concerts, which have been more sparsely attended in recent years, drew between 100 and 150 people on weekdays and topped 200 for the Saturday show, the best attended day of the festival. Evening concerts at the college had 80 percent and higher attendance. The Saturday night show again packed the Liberty Center.

Instead of committing one evening to the traditional costume ball, which is never that well attended, Friday night had both the dance and a full concert at the same time. Attendance at the dance at Smith-Cotton High School was down about a third, but the concert was packed, so on balance more tickets were sold.

Three major performers did not arrive, mostly for health reasons, offering more savings for organizers. Pianist John Petley suffered a wrist injury, forcing him to cancel. One of the most popular performers, Canadian Mimi Blais, had great difficulty securing a work visa and arrived a day late, missing scheduled appearances.

Flamboyant performances

One of the strongest indicators of attendance is the crowd on Saturday afternoon gathered under the Stark Pavilion and on the courthouse lawn for the big free show by the festival's most flamboyant performers. The crowd of around 400 loudly cheered the acrobatics and pianistic pyrotechnics all afternoon.

Blais, in her Saturday afternoon appearance, tantalized the crowd with classical tunes lumped together in a free wheeling theatrical medley delivered with ease and finesse that belied her classical training. Combinations offered opportunities to show off. On Brian Wright's "Ticklish Palm Rag," the composer and fellow pianist Martin Spitznagel gave a rapid-fire show on two pianos, joined by Brett Youens on tuba and Andrew Barnett on washboard.

Providing a chance to showcase younger performers, Wright and Spitznagel were goaded into performing Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" blindfolded on two pianos. Then, in a second try, the veteran pianists rolled the pianos out from under the newcomers, leaving the melody to slide across the keys.

Brian Holland and Jeff Barnhart, the greatest showmen in the field, closed the outdoor show with two-piano knockout performances of "New Era Rag," the bluesy "Shake That Thing," "Down in Honky Tonk Town," and Jelly Roll Morton's "Wolverine Blues." Holland and Barnhart found innovative ways to build the volume, cascading notes in waves and thundering the music to an unbelievable intensity to big finishes. The audience roared its satisfaction.

Adding jazz to the program

This was the last year Chicago-area performer Sue Keller served as music director for the festival. Completing her seventh year, Keller continued to book performers that blurred the lines between classic ragtime and early jazz.

The difference is a fine point. The musical vocabulary used by Scott Joplin and the other southwest Missouri ragtime composers like James Scott, of Carthage, Theron Bennett, of Pierce City, and Percy Wenrich, of Joplin used simple harmonies. The left hand alternated between a high and lower note.

In stride piano, the next 1920s style, the left hand walks through a series of chords before repeating. Syncopation is increased, along with the complexity of the harmonies, working in the jazz strains of chords in sevenths and ninths. The effect is less classical and more exciting, since playing stride piano is out of reach of most amateurs.

The J.W. "Blind" Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival, held in Columbia the previous weekend, has become much more of a stride piano celebration. Keller booked Paul Asaro, a stride specialist and regular at the Boone Festival, for the Scott Joplin Festival. Asaro played stride pieces throughout his appearances.

On the final concert, Asaro played "Caravan" by Big Band instrumentalist Juan Tizol. Keller herself played "Modernistic" by the father of stride piano, James P. Johnson. Jelly Roll Morton, whose 1920s' piano pieces offer a mountaintop experience for jazz at the end of the ragtime era, was represented by Brian Holland on "Fingerbreaker" and Dave Majchrzak on "The Perfect Rag." The cascade of notes and technical skill needed to perform these showpieces received a warm response from the crowd, more so than less flashy numbers, as audiences throughout the festival cheered on the performers as much as the music.

Improvisation debated

Improvisation, inherent in jazz but limited in ragtime, was one of the symposium topics. Jeff Barnhart, who capitalizes in making music more exciting with speed and layers, argued that ragtime has a tradition of improvisation that would have been heard in its time. To hear authentic ragtime, then, also means opening the written page to additions by performers.

Barnhart said he hears three kinds of performers. Classically trained pianists perform ragtime close to the printed sheet music. They are challenged to find ways to make repeats in the B section of pieces interesting. The second type is "a bit more adventurous and inquisitive." Barnhart said. These players give more individualistic performances.

The third type of pianist is more like those of the ragtime period, with varied training and often no skill at reading music. These "intuitive" players typically execute embellishments on the spot, adding their own harmonies and extra lines to the music.

"In the ragtime era, it was less about playing the sheet than keeping it exciting," Barnhart said. He demonstrated a number of the techniques that a pianist can add to personalize the music.

Barnhart himself tries to acknowledge the difference between his own additions and the composer's writing, for those who can't tell. At the Legacy of Scott Joplin concert, Barnhart played Joplin's "Elite Syncopations" as a "stomp," a later jazz form that rocked with syncopation. He played Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" with the caution, "I'll try to make as much of it as recognizable as I can." From the beginning Barnhart added harmonies, repeated bars in runs up the scale for an intriguing stutter effect, and toward the end, doubled his speed to the edge of performability with all the layered harmonies included. It was bravura Barnhart, and the audience loved it.

Other performers were less sensitive to telling the audience about tampering. In the Thursday night "Easy Winners" concert, billed as "ragtime and beyond," formidable pianist Frederick Hodges doubled the octaves in the right hand in playing "The Favorite" by Joplin, making a much bigger piece than the refined jewel of simplicity Joplin wrote. James Scott, who wrote much like Joplin, had his 1919 waltz "Springtime of Love" put on steroids in Hodges' hands, coming out as if James P. Johnson had written it, full of huge chords and flourishes.

Traditional ragtime heard

There was plenty of traditional ragtime played throughout the festival. The Friday night "Cradle of Ragtime" concert concentrated on Missouri and Midwestern composers as the core of ragtime evolution. Though a native of Texas, Scott Joplin became established as the king of ragtime while living in Sedalia under publisher John Stark's management.

J.W. "Blind" Boone was represented in his "Camp Meeting Medley #1" and "Southern Rag Medley #1" by pianists Richard Egan and Max Keenlyside. Joplin's friend Arthur Marshall's "Kinklets" from 1906 was played by Marty Eggers, who also played the folk rag "Kansas City Blues" by Euday Bowman. The string band the Skirtlifters, led by banjo player Clarke Beuhling from Fayetteville, Ark., played "Dill Pickles" by Kansas Citian Charles L. Johnson, "Dimples" and "The Smiler" by Percy "The Joplin Kid" Wenrich, and Theron Bennett's "St. Louis Tickle."

One of the great treats of the festival was to see the active return of Trebor Tichenor to performing after several years of poor health. The renowned ragtime historian who appeared with the St. Louis Ragtimers in Pierce City in 1961, played such gems as "Chestnut Street in the '90s" by Scott Joplin's pupil Brun Campbell, "Those Hesitating Blues" by W.C. Handy and "Calliope Rag" based on a fragment by James Scott and finished by "Ragtime Bob" Darch.

Tichenor's own compositions, some of the best written in the last 50 years, were played at several concerts. Keller played his "Show-Me Rag." His daughter, Virginia, played "Buck Snort Stomp," named for the Arkansas town so thick with moonshine fumes that the animals would snort in response.

Mixing history with his performances, Tichenor told an outdoor crowd how one ragtime tune he played had been appropriated for the "Missouri Waltz." He played an early hit by Maceo Pinkard, "an African American whose name no one knows, but everyone knows his song 'Sweet Georgia Brown.' " Tichenor's playing has a reserved quality, a high polish with great clarity without the percussive accents common among other players, even in the way he and Virginia Tichenor play the same piece.

"Trebor's got his lilt back," commented fellow pianist Steve Standiford.

Stellar moments

Throughout the festival were special riveting moments. During the Ragtime Revelations concert, focusing on new compositions and young performers, Barnhart played his "Eagles and Ivories Rag," a piece he wrote for the January festival in Muscatine, Iowa, when people come to watch the bald eagle fish in the frozen Mississippi River.

Guitarist Giovanni De Chiaro was back with his crystal clear transcriptions of Joplin's piano pieces. This year De Chiaro chose to show off what a guitar can do by playing a transcription he made of Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody #2."

Detroit pianist Taslimah Bey, making her first appearance in Sedalia and one of the rare times an African American female performer has played at the festival, talked about discovering ragtime in her search for African American composers. Calling herself a ragtime performer, Bey thanked crowds for championing ragtime. She played a slow gospel-chorded hymn tune with runs and rolled chords that transitioned into Joplin's "The Entertainer" as a New Orleans-style funeral tribute, combining the weight of the blues with a celebration at the end.

The "chills down the spine" moment came at the final concert on Saturday when Barnhart and Holland sat down at two pianos after Barnhart had rocked the house with a raucous take on "High Society" from 1901 by Porter Steel. The duo played the slow reverie "Planxty" by Maine-based composer and pianist Glenn Jenks. Holland started the piece very slowly. Barnhart added high harmonies. The piece grew as a grand, sorrow-tinged hymn then faded back to a whisper as Holland finished alone.

Concert highlights

Each of the concerts had particularly outstanding performances.

The "Easy Winners" concert offered 17-year-old Adam Swanson from Shenandoah, Iowa, an opportunity to show why he won the Peoria, Illinois, Old-Time Piano Competition for the second consecutive year in May. Swanson's skills have grown greatly in the four years he has appeared in Sedalia to where he played Charles "Lucky" Roberts' "Park Avenue Polka" with popcorn bursting intensity, placing him in the ranks of seasoned stride players.

The festival featured a number of young players. Twelve-year-old Morgan Siever, 16-year-olds Wesley Reznicek and William Perkins, Keenlyside, and 17-year-old Swanson gathered for their own concert, "Morgan and the Boys," on Friday at the Katy Depot.

The Tichenor family assembled for the Thursday night concert for six numbers. With Trebor's son, Andy, on trumpet in classic New Orleans style, daughter, Virginia, on drums, son-in-law Marty Eggers, on bass and piano, the ensemble percolated with energy. Selections ran the gamut of the period, from "Carbolick Acid" by Clarence Wiley from 1901 to Jelly Roll Morton's "Shreveport Stomp" recorded in 1923.

The first half of the Music Hall concert on Saturday had one of the most novel performance formats. Keller was lying face down on the stage as the audience came in. The performers came on stage, declared her dead and promptly started a who-done-it investigation.

"Sherlock" Holland made everyone play a piece to determine guilt. Paul Asaro played Fats Waller's totally appropriate "Where Were You On The Night of June the Third?" Blais arrived as the detective Jean-Baptiste Lafrenière Poirot (combining the Canadian ragtime composer Jean-Baptiste Lafrenière and Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot) and dragged both Barnhart and Holland away as suspicious characters.

Keller revived long enough to tell Dave Majchrzak he was succeeding her as next year's festival director. Then she walked offstage into the light with images of past festival directors appearing before her.

Eyeing the future

The only point where festival crowds seemed lower than last year was for the Saturday morning parade and costume contest. The crowd was very small, and only about a third of last year's contestants turned out. A major air show at nearby Whiteman Air Force Base may have pulled away the local participants.

A "buy-two, get-two free" ticket promotion offer for Sedalia residents was offered for the last week before the festival. Purvis said the promotion was successful enough to try again.

Organizers are anticipating cuts in grant funding for the coming year and have begun talking about possibly shortening the festival next year if necessary. Scheduling for the "Blind" Boone Festival and engagements that Blais, Barnhart and Holland have been booking in Versailles and Lake of the Ozarks after the Sedalia event will be weighed in the process, Purvis said.

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