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Scott Joplin Festival marks 30 years with festive concerts: a report on Missouri's ragtime festival

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wesley Reznicek, one of the teen wonders performing at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia on June 4, played to a near capacity crowd in the historic downtown First United Methodist Church. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
This year's Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia represented 30 years celebrating the core of original American music. The four-day event drew both performers and audience members from all over the nation for rousing performances and nostalgic journeys into musical literature seldom heard outside of festival venues.

New leadership took over this year. Under music director David Majchrzak, the festival maintained a strong commitment to exceptional musicianship by the choice of nearly 60 musicians booked to perform. Music dating back to the 1890s dawn of ragtime through today's improvised creations received spotlight treatment.

"Everything is ragtime," Majchrzak said, making the definitive statement of the festival's approach to ragtime.

At the Friday night "Cradle of Ragtime" concert, Majchrzak led off a series of performances that began with straight ragtime and migrated through blues, boogie-woogie and stride piano performances. Majchrzak played Robert Hampton's 1914 "Cataract Rag," a lively piece with a contrasting easy-going section, showing the ragtime bass drive does not require fireworks, followed by a series of falling water runs.

Chicago-based blues specialist Sue Keller followed with the "Arkansas Blues" and "Dallas Blues," two technical showpieces exhibiting a more complex harmonic style. Keller's vocals growled and caressed the lyrics of love and life gone bad, paired with her powerhouse piano playing. She followed with "Sunday Morning Blues" by James P. Johnson, "Come Rain or Come Shine" by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, and W.C. Handy's "Yellow Dog Blues" from 1915.

Martin Spitznagel, a 27-year-old with growing technical prowess, moved next into novelty pieces. He played Joseph Lamb's "Hot Cinders," a simple piece built on a two-note pattern, followed by Billy Mayerl's 1927 hit "Marigold," a leisurely paced excursion of surges and softness that faded away on high light notes. Spitznagel then played one of the oddest and hardest pieces of the entire festival, Arthur Schutt's "Blue in the Black Keys," a charging work that changed keys every few bars.

Paul Asaro followed with the complex language of stride piano, where the bass line goes from a series of repeating notes in ragtime to a series of constantly changing chords in the left hand underpinning the jazz harmonies in the right hand. Asaro played the most strenuous pieces with impeccable ease. His fingers danced through James P. Johnson's "After Tonight" and "Blueberry Rhyme," and brought out exotic atmosphere in Fats Waller's "Martinique" from a 1943 musical. Asaro closed with his specialty, the romping "Caravan," written by Juan Tizol for Duke Ellington.

Carl Sonny Leyland next demonstrated how ragtime provided the foundation for boogie-woogie. Leyland played "Pinetop's Blues" by boogie woogie inventor Pinetop Smith, followed by the 1928 "Cow Cow Blues" by Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport, demonstrating barrel house piano playing with a walking bass and a jagged melody line played with force and little subtlety. Leyland then applied the boogie style to Con Conrad's 1920 song, "Margie," and concluded with an extended piece he and Asaro made up as they played it.

With such scope, the festival had the freedom to move in any direction to explore music from the first half of the 20th century. One area frequently neglected at the Scott Joplin Festival has been the songs of the period. With catchy melodies and frequently poetic lyrics, ragtime era songs provided the foundation for America's Golden Age of songwriting in the 1920s and 1930s.

More songs were heard this year, in part due to booking a song specialist. Ann Gibson, from the San Francisco, Calif., area, frequently dressed in outfits harkening back to Mae West to enhance her delivery. Accompanied by Frederick Hodges, her selections for the Saturday night concert perfectly captured the quirkiness of the songs, including West's 1910 hit "I Never Broke Nobody's Heart When I Said Goodbye" and the 1919 anti-Prohibition song, "You Can't Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea."

For the Friday night concert, Majchrzak played and sang Joe "Fingers" Carr's 1952 hit, "Somebody Stole My Gal." Another lover of the old songs, powerhouse pianist Jeff Barnhart, sprinkled vocals into many of the numbers performed with his ensemble Ivory and Gold, with flutist and wife Ann Barnhart and percussion specialist Danny Coots. Under the John Stark Pavilion big outdoor tent located two blocks north of the courthouse this year, Barnhart offered a delicate touch on the ivories and softly sung lyrics on John Frederick Coots' 1934 hit "For All We Know."

Barnhart's natural exuberance could not be restrained on numbers showing off all his pianistic powers. In the last hour of outdoor concerts on Saturday afternoon, Barnhart and his favorite two-piano partner, the impeccably smooth Brian Holland, let loose on pieces that thundered from the stage in a cascade of piano chords. Barnhart punched in the lyrics for "I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby" by Alex Hill and Fats Waller, and got the audience to chant back the refrain on Papa Charlie Jackson's rousing 1925 hit "Shake That Thing."

For the essence of ragtime, the Saturday afternoon "Legacy of Scott Joplin" concert brought out many of the master's works published by William Stark, who met Joplin in Sedalia and championed him as the "king of ragtime." The classical purity of Joplin's line and quickly recognizable musical voice came out clearly in the polished playing of 80-year-old Roy Eaton. Known for dozens of advertising jingles for Jell-O, Cheer and dozens of accounts, Eaton set the mark playing "Maple Leaf Rag," "The Entertainer" and "Euphonic Sounds."

Holland showed how subtlety could make Joplin's works into poetry, injecting softness into passages of "Binks Waltz" from 1905 and pacing slower passages for contrast in "Scott Joplin's New Rag" from 1912.

The most striking interpretations of Joplin's work came from Richard Egan. Ragtime music generally has very few dynamics markings, like music from the time of J.S. Bach, leaving how to play it largely up to the performer. Egan solves the question by enhancing the piano voices throughout pieces with sudden crescendos in small parts of phrases, building passages with unexpected strength, contrasting sections or even voices within sections with volume, plus adding dramatic tension with pauses between sections.

Other pianists, particularly Holland in using contrasting softness, apply a similar strategy to a lesser degree. In Egan's hands, the 1902 "Breeze from Alabama," "Gladiolas Rag" from 1907 and the posthumously published "Reflection Rag" sounded startlingly fresh, maybe not what Joplin would have played, but still distinctly ragtime.

In contrast, John Remmers followed with the most common way to play Joplin: all at the same loud volume at a rather up-tempo pace. Remmers gave this straightforward approach to "Weeping Willow" from 1903, "The Sycamore" from 1904 and "Parrigon Rag" from 1909.

A big part of the festival is the chance to hear both familiar and unfamiliar works by a wide range of performers. For example, Tulsa pianist Don Ryan played two standards of the ragtime repertory by Carthage, Mo., pianist James Scott: "Grace and Beauty" from 1909 and the 1921 "Don't Jazz Me Rag."

Ryan's son, Barron, played two pieces by contemporary composer William Bolcom: the frequently done "Graceful Ghost" and "Poltergeist," filled with odd chromatic moments and quirky rhythms which the pianist enhanced by glancing around the room as he played through the passages. Barron had been a hit at the Friday night concert playing his body as a percussion instrument in a half dozen surprising examples that even included part of the "William Tell Overture" on his cheeks.

More often the outstanding showpieces were from after the ragtime period, offering more virtuoso opportunities. Adam Swanson, an 18-year-old with amazing technique that has grown year by year, showed off his chops with bravura performances on Friday afternoon of Tom Brier's "Blue Sahara," a bouncy piece recalling a sense of a car going up and down on a roller coaster country road. Swanson played the 1950s rewrite of Charlie Roberts' 1908 "Park Avenue Polka" with a bit of Zez Confrey that bounded into a romping finale.

One of the biggest attractions was the return of the St. Louis Ragtimers, who are one year away from their 50th anniversary as a group, having first played at Theron Bennett Days in Pierce City in 1961. The Ragtimers gave an extended set outdoors at the site of the Maple Leaf Club, the namesake of the "Maple Leaf Rag," as well as at the Saturday afternoon and evening shows. The foursome, who played in Pierce City in 1997, have maintained their signature sound with Trebor Tichenor on the piano, Al Stricker on banjo and vocals, Don Franz on tuba and Bill Mason on cornet and harmonica.

The St. Louis Ragtimers offered classic arrangements of Scott Joplin pieces; a number played by the all-black Queen City Concert Band in Sedalia when Joplin played cornet with the group; Leadbelly's "Midnight Special;" "King Chanticleer" from 1911 that was written in Springfield, Mo. by Nat Ayer and Seymour Brown; and the 1915 riverboat song "Loadin' Up The Mandy Lee" by Henry Marshall. Stricker's voice retains its crystal clarity and the balance of instruments is still a marvel. Audiences responded warmly at each performance.

Back again this year was the TurpinTyme Ragsters, the Olathe, Kan., based dance orchestra that played in Pierce City in 1997. The Ragsters provided authentic arrangements for the costume dance on Friday night, demonstrating how ragtime music can sound like much more than a piano. All the dancing was held in one of Sedalia's downtown department stores that retain much of its early 20th century charm. With a concert scheduled at the same time as the dance, non-dancers tended to leave a smaller crowd to enjoy the TurpinTyme ensemble, but the dancers were well rewarded with a rich concert for their heel tapping pleasure.

The only serious misstep of the festival was the Saturday night concert. For the second time in recent years in the festival attempted to use the nearly 900-seat auditorium in the old Smith-Cotton High School, now the junior high. Electrical issues had marred last time. This time festival organizers moved in with only one available microphone.

Performers discovered the echo-filled hall could not be brought under control and there were no resources available to fix the acoustics. Even the cavernous Matthews Hall on the State Fairgrounds had sounded better in past years than what happened at Smith-Cotton. Singers using the one mike could be heard well, but it sounded like the accompanying piano was a block away. The subtlety in much of the piano-centered concert was simply lost, a great shame since the musicians tried even harder knowing the situation to give stellar performances.

The show nonetheless closed on a full flourish with Barnhart and Holland in bravura two-piano mode playing Clarence and Spencer Williams' 1919 "Royal Garden Blues" and Jelly Roll Morton's "Wolverine Blues."

The festival held a composition contest for the first time in a number of years. Composers were invited to write a piece based on the theme "The Train Town Rag." Twenty-five entries were submitted. The winner was named at the end of the festival. Martin Spitznagel won first place. Brett Youens, another frequent performer in Sedalia, took second. Copies of the winning entry will be published and available at the Ragtime Store in the Bothwell Hotel.

A costume contest was also held on Saturday, largely catering to local participants. Winners were announced in categories for boys, girls, men, women and couples.

The festival's top honor, the Friend of Ragtime Award, is given for making a major contribution to promoting ragtime. Majchrzak presented the award to Sue Keller on Saturday morning under the Stark Pavilion tent. Stepping down after seven years as festival music director had been a difficult move for Keller last year. She tearfully accepted the prize after Majchrzak praised her for helping many careers, including his own.

Keller said she had never stopped thinking about the festival and had offered to help Majchrzak any way she could. Keller's father had been a teacher and she credited him with teaching her skills that she used to make the festival more successful.

Plans are underway for the 2011 festival next June.

Festival organizers see lower overall turnout, higher ticket sales


"Everything worked pretty good," said Stacy Purvis, director of the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation, organizer of the annual Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia. "The crowds were down but the enthusiasm was as high as ever."

Purvis estimated the walking crowds coming to attend festival events might have dropped by as much as 30 percent this year. However, ticket sales for the paid concerts increased over last year, showing the health of the festival despite the economy remains strong.

For innovations this year, the festival introduced the "Musically Yours" extended sets at the Maple Leaf Pavilion, showcasing special performers. The St. Louis Ragtimers attracted a full crowd for their return outdoor concert.

"We had a lot of new CDs in the Ragtime Store this year," Purvis said. "There was a lot of buzz about the younger performers releasing some of their first CDs. It's been fun having them back each year."

The teens, including Max Keenlyside, 18; Wesley Reznicek, 17; Morgan Siever, 13; Adam Swanson, 18; Luke Vandermyde 16; and Will Perkins, 17; were booked to perform together on the Friday afternoon concert as well as other venues. Swanson, from Shenandoah, Iowa, graduated from high school this year and won the Old-Time Piano Playing Contest in Peoria, Ill., for the third time, making him ineligible to compete again.

A last-minute family emergency forced veteran performer Scott Kirby to cancel his first appearance at the festival in several years. Purvis is hopeful arrangements can be made for another year.

The Stark Pavilion outdoor tent was moved from its usual Fifth Street location on the south side of the Pettis County Courthouse downtown to two blocks to the north. Planned streetscape construction ended up not happening by festival time, but a commitment had to be made early for the publication of maps. Purvis said she has been talking at length to streetscape engineers about a permanent installation of mounts for the tent and electrical hookups for the sound system. Street work is expected to be finished by Christmas, making way for the tent to be back in its regular spot, with much more additional space for seating on the courthouse lawn, for next summer.

Using the Stauffacher Center at State Fair Community College has continued to provide a good location for evening concerts in the 240-seat auditorium, Purvis said. The commons room at the center became the venue for this year's opening concert on Wednesday. The historic United Methodist Church downtown remained big enough to hold crowds for the afternoon concerts.

Purvis was hopeful arrangements could be made to use the new state-of-the-art performing arts center at the new Sedalia High School for next year, which would resolve any issues about housing a big show like the Saturday night concert. Her goal is to have all the venues for 2011 booked by the end of summer.

"[Artistic director] Dave [Majchrzak] had a good first year," Purvis said. "The festival board will do a rehash of this year's festival and discuss performances. We'll get surveys back from the performers and the guests. The board will have a big powwow, then around August we'll start working on the next one."

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