A Subversive in Sedalia

I could be the wrong person to report on a ragtime festival. My first piano hero was Teddy Wilson, so the crowd at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, might eye me with skepticism. I heard one musician, perhaps whimsically, apologize for playing a song written in 1939.

Fifty years ago, I had records by Max Morath and Joshua Rifkin. But now, a little solo piano ragtime goes a long way, and I drawn more to rags played by Bunk Johnson and Mutt Carey, anything by Jelly Roll Morton, or improvisations by people like Dick Wellstood and Dick Hyman.

Red Wood Coast

However, I was happy in Sedalia, Missouri, and I saw and filmed over a hundred performances, which might count for something. Here are some of my highlights, as they occurred.

Andrew Oliver

The first set I caught was a solo piano excursion by Andrew Oliver, who I first encountered through his “Complete Morton Project,” a series of videos where he and reedman David Horniblow work their way through Mister Jelly’s canon, precisely and energetically. I also knew Andrew from CDs with Hal Smith and his own Bridgetown Sextet. Even though he said it was too early for him, he played brilliantly, moving from Joseph Lamb to Willie “the Lion” Smith to Artie Matthews, and two pieces new to me: Seger Ellis’ “Sentimental Blues” and David Guion’s “Texas Fox Trot.”

I walked over to the Stark Tent (blue-and-white now; on my previous visit in 2018, red-and-white) and heard part of a solo set by Neville Dickie, still ferocious at the keyboard at 87. He performed Victor Young’s pretty “Golden Earrings,” tearing it up in the best Donald Lambert manner, his own “Back to Boogie,” James P. Johnson’s “Harlem Strut,” and the surprise, a waltz by Ivor Novello, “Waltz of My Heart.” Seated nearby was his pretty American fiancée, Loretta, for whom he played the “Loretta Rag.”

Hot Jazz Jubile

Ethan Leinwand

One of the reasons I had come to Sedalia was to see more of singer Valerie Kirchhoff and her husband, pianist Ethan Leinwand. I’d known them on record since 2017, and met them in person last year at the Redwood Coast Music Festival, where their impact was seismic. Valerie’s resonant voice was well-captured by the microphone, and if you closed your eyes, Ethan’s raucous but exact playing made the sunny outdoor scene into a poorly-lit night club.

Ethan LeinwandThey offered Georgia White’s “Alley Boogie,” venerable pop songs “Aggravatin’ Papa” and “He’s A Cousin of Mine,” as well as the sad “Western Union Blues” and Ethan’s solo, “Good Gravy Rag.” Ethan has to stay on the piano bench, but Valerie is the electrifying spirit of Hot Music, dancing all over the stage most expertly. An equally varied second set began with St. Louis Bessie’s “Creepin’ Eel Blues,” which has nothing to do with sushi, a mournful “Away All The Time,” and another vintage comedy song,”I’m Afraid To Come Home in the Dark.”

The momentum continued with the first of three sets by Hal Smith’s San Francisco Jazz All-Stars, honoring Turk Murphy and friends: T.J. Muller, cornet; Tom Bartlett, trombone and vocal; John Otto, clarinet; Brian Holland, piano; John Gill, banjo and vocal; Dan Anderson, tuba; Hal, drums. I knew all of them except Anderson, who finds the right notes and has a good time while doing it.

I caught all three of their sets and won’t list the thirty songs they performed, but some standouts were “saloon songs” sung splendidly by John Gill: “Saloon,” “The Curse of an Aching Heart,” and classic Twenties pop, “Some Sweet Day,” and “Row Row Row.” Tom Bartlett sang “Wise Guys,” “Ace in the Hole,” and nimbly made his way through “Ragged But Right.” Ensemble delights were “Creole Belles” and “Original Rags,” “Down in Jungle Town,” “The White Wash Man,” and “Climax Rag.” Each set had a rollicking feature for Brian Holland: in all, a hot band, expert solos, with a steady roll.

Royce Martin

Lest you think I shunned solo piano, I enjoyed two recitals, one by Sam Post, marvelously facile, and Royce Martin, a Joplin-and-beyond supernova. Post’s offering was unusual in that he played five originals, but four of them were compositions for one hand alone. His playing with one hand or two is vivacious and inventive. I had heard Royce Martin’s debut CD and was amazed by his technique and his thoughtful audacities. Without fanfare, he took familiar repertoire“The Entertainer,” “King Porter Stomp,” “Temptation Rag,” and four others—delicately taking them apart, holding parts of each song up to the sun, joyously. Brian Holland had told me about young Mr. Martin, and he is someone to watch. Oh, and he ended with a rap song, “Swagtime,” he’d composed. The audience was properly impressed.


I first encountered the Chicago Cellar Boys at the San Diego Jazz Fest in 2018, and they are superb. Their earlier incarnation was two horns, three rhythm, and this was my first chance to hear them as a sextet, with the addition of Natalie Scharf on tenor saxophone and clarinet. The band was hot and sophisticated earlier; Natalie adds so much, her playing expertly appropriate to the era, her ensemble work making the sextet a versatile hot dance orchestra with real depth. They are: Andy Schumm, arrangements, cornet, clarinet, leader; John Otto, clarinet, tenor saxophone, vocal; Paul Asaro, piano, vocal; Dan Anderson, tuba; Jimmy Barrett, banjo, resonator guitar.

The Chicago Cellar Boys in Sedalia (from left): John Otto, Andy Schumm, Dan Anderson, and Natalie Scharf. Present but not visible: Paul Asaro and Jimmy Barrett. (photos by Michael Steinman)

Andy is busy writing arrangements while the rest of the world is asleep, so he would tell the band their next tune by number, and the numbers were in the low seven-hundreds. Some of the songs were completely new to me; others I knew but couldn’t hum. The CCB are a convincing Apex Club Orchestra; their clarinet trios are a joy to behold. In one set, Andy played the Armstrong solo on “One of These Days,” evoked Joe Smith on “At the Christmas Ball,” and ripped through Jabbo Smith’s “Decatur Street Tutti,” complete with scat vocal. They cherish the nearly-forgotten, but there is nothing about the museum in their performance.

Colin Hancock

I don’t know if the ragtime authorities at Sedalia would have called Jelly Roll Morton one of their own, but he was at the heart of three spectacular sets co-led by Andrew Oliver and Hal Smith. One was a duet performing music by “sons of Morton,” including Frank Melrose, Don Ewell, Dink Johnson, as well as Morton’s “Big Foot Ham,” edifying and stomping both. An even more rewarding set added Andy Schumm, clarinet and then cornet, playing “My Little Dixie Home,” “Sweet Peter,” “Freakish,” and “Mournful Serenade.” The highlight of the set, and perhaps for some the highlight of the weekend, was a “Froggie Moore Rag” that just about lifted the tent poles out of the ground. (I came home from Sedalia late Sunday and posted it on my blog and YouTube the next day: it was just that memorable.)


Finally, we had the Oliver-Smith Hot Peppers, with T.J. Muller, cornet; Andy Schumm, clarinet; Colin Hancock, trombone; Andrew, piano; John Gill, banjo; Dan Anderson, string bass; Hal, drums. They offered rousing Morton classics: “Doctor Jazz,” “Original Jelly Roll Blues,” “Black Bottom Stomp,” and “Grandpa’s Spells,” as well as “Mister Joe,” “State and Madison,” and “Fickle Fay Creep.” The audience, many of whom knew Joplin, Lamb, and Scott by heart, stood and cheered for a good long time.

A postscript. Because the morning and afternoon sessions took place outdoors, and Sedalia is compact, I could walk in any direction and hear lovely music wafting to me. Since these sessions were also free and open to the public, I saw many people who might not have known Scott Joplin from Janis Joplin, smiling, swaying, enjoying the sounds. My hope is that somebody’s child went home and said, “Mom, I want to know more about this ragtime stuff,” or “Who was that man with the funny name—Jelly Roll. Can I find out more about him online?” Stranger things have happened. And I hope to be there in 2025.

Michael Steinman has been published in many jazz periodicals, has written the liner notes for dozens of CDs, and was the New York correspondent for The Mississippi Rag. Since 1982, Michael has been Professor of English at Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York. This story was originally published on Michael Steinman’s excellent blog Jazz Lives (jazzlives.wordpress.com), and is reprinted here with Michael’s permission. Write to Michael at [email protected]. May your happiness increase!

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