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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Scott Joplin Music Festival brings back ragtime magic

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A moment of fun and pandemonium concluded the outdoor concerts for this year's Scott Joplin Festival. Pianist Jeff Barnhart led the crowd on Papa Charlie Jackson's 1925 "Shake That Thing," having the audience chant back the tag line on the refrain. By the end, Barnhart, at the keyboard at center right, had coaxed the gamut of performers at left to each come forward and play a verse, then he got the crowd on its feet to shake themselves in a wild, joyous finish. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
The Scott Joplin Festival, the biggest celebration of ragtime music held anywhere, again this year turned Sedalia into a supercharged temple to syncopation. The city's annual tribute to America's first original music, held in the town where publisher John Stark catapulted Joplin to national fame over a century ago, held four days of concerts in early June by 67 performers.

The audience, having converged from both coasts, loved the jagged rhythms spun out by the piano players and the melodic songs with quirky rhymes. Mike Schwimmer, 79-year-old washboard player and fan favorite, sang Billy Rose's 1925 "I Wish I Was in Peoria" ["The mayor of Peoria works in the five-and-ten-cent store-iah, sweeping up the floor-iah in Peoria tonight"] at the Friday night concert. Songbird Ann Gibson offered up Sophie Tucker's first big hit, "That Lovin' Rag," at the Saturday night concert and Frederick Hodges, with a voice eerily reminiscent of the 1920s high and light tenors, sang Eubie Blake's ever-popular 1921 hit "I'm Just Wild About Harry" from the Maple Leaf Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.

The songs were back at the festival and their attraction was as strong as ever. As Schwimmer said, paraphrasing Al Stricker of the St. Louis Ragtimers, "You hear a [Joplin, Mo. native] Percy Wenrich song, you go away singing. You hear a modern song, and you just want to go away." Wenrich wrote "Moonlight Bay" and the "Red Rose Rag," performed by Schwimmer and duo pianists Jeff Barnhart and Brian Holland at the final Saturday afternoon concert in tent downtown.

Tulsa pianist Donald Ryan, at left, who played with the Ozark Festival Orchestra this season, provided a classy interpretation of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" at the afternoon concert in Sedalia at the downtown First United Methodist Church. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
The trademark of ragtime music is its driving, irregularly accented rhythms. Nowhere were these more apparent than at the Friday night "Pianos on Fire" concert at the Stauffacher Center for the Fine Arts at State Fair Community College, featuring piano duos. Ragtime music was generally written for solo piano, so the combination of two pianos provides a chance for the performers to augment the written notes with multiple octaves, syncopated echoes and layered lines.

Marty Mincer and Bill Edwards amplified Alex Hill's 1929 "Stompin' 'Em Down" to where the cascade of notes sounded like running water. Their take on the 1906 "Repasz Band March" pumped the oom-pah bass line with Edwards driving the upper register for momentum.

Virginia Tichenor and husband Marty Eggers gave an equally ornate presentation of New Orleans turn-of-the-century pianist Tony Jackson's "The Naked Dance" while Hodges and Adam Swanson offered a big voiced syncopated take to Scott Joplin and Arthur Marshall's delicate "Swipesy Cakewalk" from 1900, with runs and slides thrown in.

The members of the ensemble Rhythmia showed ragtime is more than piano music with their period arrangement for strings of Scott Joplin's compositions. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
Just to show two pianos can do more than roar, Barnhart and Holland opened their part of the show with a stunningly slow rendition of Joplin's 1907 "Heliotrope Bouquet." They brought out its languid, lyrical qualities, amplified with extra harmonies and soft passages, ending on a whisper that left the audience breathless.

The concert ended on a burst of high energy on "Tiger Rag." Holland concentrated on rhythm while Barnhart took the melody in the upper register and started throwing in other tunes that could be played in the same key, like "Deep in the Heart of Texas," "Just Because," "My Melody of Love" and "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home." Inspired by crazy mismatch, three other concert performers backstage conspired and came running out one at a time to play other melodies on the upper end of one of the keyboards before Barnhart kicked it into high key for a wild syncopated finish.

Paid concerts in the afternoon at the First United Methodist Church had themes to guide the music selection. The Friday afternoon concert showcased female performers. Classically trained Canadian pianist Mimi Blais played "Pickles and Peppers" by Adaline Shephard from 1906 and "Blue Ribbon Rag" by Indiana composer May Aufderheide from 1910, both solid structured pieces with big bravura moments, contrasted with Blais' original piece, "Mimi La Biche," a deliciously slow piece with a brash middle section for bold contrast.

Pianist Brian Holland and percussion genius Danny Coots made magic on Scott Joplin's "Solace" as Coots recreated the gentle sound of falling rain with brushes on the drums. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
Virginia Tichenor, who has an uncanny knack for recreating the sound of her father, Trebor Tichenor, played his "Show Me Rag" from 1976 and her own "Virginia's Blues." Chicagoan Sue Keller showed her propensity for the blues with "Causeway Blues" by Don Ashwander and kicked it up with Jelly Roll Morton's "Wolverine Blues," sharing the admittedly weak lyrics about the Wolverines from Lansing between the bounding piano passages.

Young performers Morgan Siever, 14, and Teresa Vargas, 16, offered interesting takes on several classic rags. Stephanie Trick, of St. Louis, making her first festival appearance in her early twenties, made the strongest impression as a very polished stride pianist. Her take on James P. Johnson's "Caprice Rag" would have been impressive even without her speed for her command of the material. Trick showed poise and utter certainty playing Meade Lux's "Honky Tonk Train Blues" with its boogie woogie section and an inviting light touch, often missing in speed artists, in playing Fats Waller's "Sit Right Down and Write Me a Letter" and "Handful of Keys."

The Saturday afternoon concert focused entirely on compositions by Joplin, getting back to ragtime fundamentals. Scott Kirby, a longtime favorite in ragtime circles, showed how effective a relaxed, unhurried and totally certain approach was on Joplin's 1909 "Paragon Rag," "The Cascades" from 1904, "Heliotrope Bouquet" and the 1914 "Magnetic Rag," Joplin's last published work.

More of that sensitivity to fundamentals came through in Tulsa pianist Donald Ryan's offerings: "The Entertainer," the concert waltz "Bethena" and "Laola," showing lively tempos, strong buildups and delicate dynamic variations.

An intriguing contrast in sound came from the string band Rhythmia, with Pat Ireland on fiddle, Bob Ault on mandolin and Kevin Sanders on guitar. Joplin's pieces adapt attractively to voicings on different instruments. Using arrangements published by Stark in 1903, the group played "Sunflower Slow Drag," "Pleasant Moments" and "Maple Leaf Rag," where the fiddle carried the melody and the others offered rhythm accompaniment.

For diverse sounds, the seven-member TurpinTyme Ragsters, from the Kansas City area, brought the big sound of a period dance band to the festival. Their primary appearance was for the Friday night dance at Nostalgia Vintage Apparel, in a vintage department store downtown.

Those attending the dance found the ceiling festooned with blue draperies, with tiny white lights serving as a chandelier and ringing the buffet area. The TurpinTyme band offered a well balanced sound with cleanly played brass, light and quick woodwinds plus tasteful and unobtrusive percussion.

Their selections covered the gamut of dancing styles, from a brassy take on J. Bodewalt Lampe's 1900 "Creole Belles" to the grand march from John Bratton's 1907 hit "The Teddy Bears Picnic" to subtle touches like the tom-toms underpinning Irving Berlin's 1913 "In My Harem." The audience broke into a spontaneous sing-along to Kerry Mills' 1904 World's Fair tribute, "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis." Their accompaniment to the annual cakewalk contest brought a genuine period atmosphere for the dancers, many of whom attended in period costume.

The Saturday night Music Hall concert took the festival into a new setting, the year-old Heckart Performing Arts Center at the new Smith-Cotton High School. Funded by the Heckart family, which runs the largest funeral home in Sedalia, the 770-seat auditorium had first-rate acoustics and accommodations equal to any hall in Branson.

Dr. David Majchrzak, the artistic director of the festival for the second year, introduced the concert as an "anything goes" affair. The musicians followed with a full sampling of all the music heard throughout the festival.

Ann Gibson sang Carmen Miranda's 1943 song "The Girl in the Tutti-Frutti Hat." Stride pianist Paul Asaro kicked up the keys on Jelly Roll Morton's "Animule Dance" and returned later to play a sweet jazz trumpet on two other numbers. Mimi Blais gave a big-voiced and unrushed reading of Eubie Blake's "Classical Rag." Brian Holland played Joplin's Mexican rhapsody "Solace, "combined with Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou," while percussion expert Danny Coots playing drums and cymbals with brushes, providing an ethereal effect of raindrops, after which he shifted to light hand tapping for a gentle bongo feel.

Several played original material. Martin Spitznagel, a pianist in his twenties who plays with the confidence and skill of someone twice his age, offered three original pieces, including is "Newbie Eubie," evoking the sound of Eubie Blake. Mimi Blais' "Ricardo" touched on the musical pallette of both Satie and Debussy in a contemplative piece with a strong middle section and a soft finish. Scott Kirby improvised on the "Jimmy Yancy Blues."

The audience got into the act, singing back the refrain tag line as Jeff Barnhart played and sang Fats Waller's "Rump Steak Serenade." Barnhart and Holland wrapped up with high energy renditions of "Darktown Strutter's Ball" and Jelly Roll Morton's "Wolverine Blues." Majchrzak ended the show with a brief version of "Real Slow Drag" from Joplin's opera, "Treemonisha," the poster piece for this year's festival. The slow melody was penetrating after the tumult that preceded it, leaving a tinge of melancholy as the music faded away.

Stacy Purvis, having completed her seventh festival as director of the Scott Joplin Foundation, said this year's event generated the least number of phone calls over problems that needed her attention of any she has seen. The EF-2 tornado that blew into Sedalia on May 25 barely missed the Heckart Performing Arts Center, causing worry a week before the festival started.

A bus tour caused the Friday night concert to sell out. Purvis said many chose instead to go to the dance, helping both events. Majchrzak, who had planned the two-piano concert since September, 2010, felt the Friday night attendance could have equalled the Saturday night show, which drew around double the number that will fit in the community college's auditorium.

Purvis said the foundation board would explore using the Heckart Center more in the future. Board members planned to meet later this month to review surveys submitted by festival goers before making plans for the 2012 event, slated for June 6 through June 10.

Majchrzak said he was already working on general categories for concerts for next year.

"Everybody played really well. The performance levels have been higher than ever. That's what I had hoped for," Majchrzak said. "There's a lot of talent out there. Hopefully in the future we can bring in new people and maybe get a rotation of performers going."

For more information about the festival, contact the Scott Joplin Foundation at 866-218-6258 or by e-mail at ragtimer@scottjoplin.org.

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