No dusting off this month, only fresh anecdotes and delightful reminiscences. I managed to spend a week at the 38th Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia last week and I had a blast.
So, this month I’m going to share some details from those wonderful days. Deb Biermann the Festival coordinator drove over to Union to take me back to Sedalia on Memorial Day like she didn’t have a thing to do, two days before the Festival opened.
Deb and I go way back to 1968 and she and Steve are close, faithful friends. I don’t know what I would do without Deb even though she and Steve are two and a half hours away.
But where to begin about the festival? As I collect my thoughts, I’ll start with the first day of arrivals. It was nice that it was a slow morning so, as people I knew came in, I had a few minutes to visit. Later it was chaotic, so I especially appreciated the slow start.
Kathleen Boswell, the Festival President introduced me to a family from Brazil who were enthusiastically attending the festival. Tarcisio and Izilda Tamega and their interpreter son-in-law Paulo, were anxious to know everything about Sedalia’s ragtime heritage. Tarcisio is an amateur ragtime pianist and avid collector of anything relating to syncopation. Thanks to Paulo, I was able to communicate with Tarisco and Izilda who knew slightly more English than I knew Portuguese.
Becky Imhauser who is one of, if not the best, local historians I know was kind enough to drop by. Her books on downtown Sedalia are classic and she knows more about the buildings and the people who owned them than any mortal is supposed to be able to find out. Becky also happens to be one of the sweetest, kindest people I know, and she doesn’t make fun of my Ozark doggerel. Several other local people came by just to say hello and offer condolences. That was gracious of them, though bittersweet for me. Nevertheless, it was a happy, joyful time and I quickly recovered from my melancholia.
I have some communication with Ed Berlin throughout the year, but he was very kind to visit with me at length about ideas for his writing projects when we had a few minutes together. He had a rental car and kindly became my chauffeur for several trips saving Deb the time and trouble. He and his wife Andree always have interesting projects in the works and I am fascinated by their eclectic pursuits. He had a foot that was bothering him, but he is as physically active as a much younger man, so it hardly slowed him down. When I am with Ed he seems of normal height, but when I’m thinking of him as I study, he seems ten feet tall when I ponder his scholarship and research, and, he did it all before there were digitized, searchable documents available.
I was visiting with an older fellow in an electric wheelchair in the afternoon and as our conversation progressed, it turned out that he went to high school with Charles Hanna and remembered him well. Charles will be pleased to hear about Jess White. I’m still recovering from recently corresponding with a Sedalia daily newspaper editor who was on the job in 1949. The Sedalia Democrat is celebrating its 150th year in 2018.
At dinner Tuesday evening one of my best friends back in Union, and a Monday morning coffee klatch faithful, tapped me on the shoulder. Ron Emig is a Western artist and his action sculptures evoke Frederick Remington and John Rogers. It was fun to see someone from home when we seemed to be so far away.
As the current generation of performers began to arrive on Wednesday, I was once again emotionally moved to have the privilege of knowing many of them and getting to visit about their recent performances and plans for the rest of the year. To say the least, they awe me and to a person make up a genuinely amiable family of talented performers.
Wednesday evening, I decided to walk (roll actually) around downtown and ran into Hizzoner, the new Mayor of Sedalia going to dinner. John Kehde is a very old and dear friend. His family ran the original “Dog and Suds” in town and I can still taste their root beer floats. I could have really used one then as the temperature and humidity were oppressive. However, then I would have gone into a diabetic coma that would have been the end of my adventure.
The new mayor of Sedalia is the son of the president of the first Festival Board. John Kehde is in his mid-seventies and is full of energy and ready to attempt a rejuvenation of Sedalia. He has his work cut out for him as the old town continues on a downward spiral of decay. However, as I suspected, after only two months in office, he’s already implemented changes and begun projects toward his goal.
John’s father, Ed, was an inspiration to me, for he was full of constant encouragement. He had boundless energy and was simply filled with joy. He was a vitally active fellow and one of the most civic minded people I knew in Sedalia. But it was Ed’s laugh that I remember most for even when problems seemed insurmountable he would find a bright side and his contagious laughing shriek could have been heard in the next county.
I was barely able to function Wednesday evening, but I was determined to attend Martin Spitznagel’s opening concert tribute to Eubie Blake. Martin performed superbly and sitting right across the stage in the wheelchair area, I enjoyed watching his facial expression as he played. He is so animated and, at the same time, intense when playing. I think I could almost have known what his selections were had I been deaf just by watching his face and body language. (A bit of a stretch perhaps but it hopefully makes my point.)
I was really tired, and thought I was down for the count when I finally got back to the motel Wednesday night. Thursday was a busy day and I woke up completely stressed out. It took me until noon to recover and get back to the Liberty Center. I missed most of the seminars and the afternoon concert due to my rewarding conversations in the lobby. The Donor Party however that evening, was a good chance to see people I would have otherwise missed. I always find Fred Hoeptner to be a most interesting fellow and he is a wealth of information. Fred has supported so many ragtime activities including the Sedalia Festival and we are all indebted to him for his generosity and his research and articulate writing.
Another of my favorite ragtime personalities is producer extraordinaire, and major ragtime aficionado, Danny Matson. He attends so many events and is so much appreciated by performers and fans alike. I enjoyed getting an update on his next CD collection of ragtime compositions he has personally commissioned. Watch for the next Ragtime Wizardry coming out in November on the Rivermont label.
After the best corned beef dinner I’ve had in ages at Malone’s Irish Pub and Restaurant on Ohio Street, I was wiped out and Deb carted me back to my motel. I had to miss the evening concert.
Friday was another oppressive Missouri valley day of hot muggy weather, so I had to miss the outdoor activities under the Stark Tent next to the marker and site of the 1899 signing of the “Maple Leaf Rag” contract.
However, I was a lot fresher on Friday and l had an opportunity to visit with Virginia Tichenor at length about her life in California and how she and husband Marty Eggers plan to conserve and keep hold of Trebor’s house in St. Louis and keep his collection intact. The home was such a place of pilgrimage for ragtimers and I know I’ll never forget the visits there I made, wandering through stacks and stacks of priceless sheet music, just to get to a seat or the piano to listen to Trebor play. I only got to go to the basement once, but the piano rolls stored there were so overwhelming that I felt like I was in a 1940s cartoon and it seemed the burdened shelves were going to come crashing down on me at any moment.
As an aside, I am so grateful that Virginia is going to keep everything as is for now. It broke my heart when Mike Montgomery’s collection started appearing on eBay. Nevertheless, it made it possible for his treasures to be shared. I managed to garner a Tichenor folio Tempus Ragorem that had one of my commissioned pieces in it. It was inscribed by Trebor to Mike Montgomery. It would be so sad if Trebor’s collection were broken up. I remember Tracy Doyle remarking emphatically, as Tracy does well, that collections belong in private hands where they are literally loved and appreciated and not in musty museums and libraries where they will rarely see the light of day. That condemns my own minor archival work, but it also challenges us to do something useful with the Sedalia collection.
Friday was an idyllic day at Liberty Center, listening to amazing performances and having continued conversations in the lobby. A highlight of the concerts was a performance by Scott Kirby and his fifteen-year old daughter Leah. Leah is on YouTube with her sister Sara, by the way. They both have beautiful voices and Scott harmonized with Leah perfectly on “You Are My Sunshine.”
Scott Kirby is something else when it comes to the arts. but Friday afternoon he was. first and foremost, a very proud father. I finally bought one of the paintings Scott did of Sedalia and gave it to Deb Biermann. Here’s a copy in case you haven’t seen it on-line. We share a common interest in my old teaching field of Western Trails History and hopefully, he can stop by the house sometime on his travels and we can share stories. I always enjoy the small-town images he and David Thomas Roberts post on their Facebook pages.
Many of their photographs remind me of the venues Max Morath played in the west as detailed in the book he did with his wife Diane Fay Skomars, Max Morath: the Road to Ragtime. I was blessed to travel with him a couple of days in 1976 and watch him play in a tiny town gym and old club hall as energetically as if he was on Broadway. That man is one of our nations greatest showmen and it is a blessing that Max is such a gracious mentor to young performers today.
At lunchtime Deb Biermann and I rambled down Ohio street to Malone’s. On the way we were debriefing the festival to that point and I realized I hadn’t seen Diane Skomars to really have a nice visit. As I rolled into Malones a voice caught my attention and Diane and her companions, Cynthia and Carrie, were motioning us to their table. What a magical moment. The ladies regaled us with all their wonderful impressions of the festival and of possibilities for the future. We left Malone’s stuffed with corned beef and completely invigorated. Great conversation with dear friends will do that.
Saturday dawned overcast and mercifully cool. After a week of heat and humidity it was a welcome relief and the outdoor venues snapped back to life. In fact, I think the afternoon performances under the Stark Tent were among the best ever and Jeff Barnhart, as only he can do, wrapped up the final program with a “second line” that wound around 5th Street to the delight of strutting participants and observers alike.
I shared a memorable dinner at the Ivory Grill in the Bothwell Hotel in company with ragtime gentry. Jack Love, Danny Matson, Arlo “Chip” Busby, and Chester Katnipski are the greatest conversationalists ever. It was my first acquaintance with Chip and Chester and I was fascinated to find out about their ragtime activity. My companions were pleased with their grilled salmon but my four tiny over cooked scallops were a disappointment; a veritable insult to the entire family Pectinidae. The eatery also has no wheelchair accommodation, so I was stuck bouncing down three stairs like a bicyclist bouncing down the Italian Steps. Fortunately, the opportunity to be in such erudite company more than compensated for venue failures. I always enjoy Facebook images of ragtime friends at a sumptuous meal taking time to record the moment with a photo. Thanks to Chester and Jack, I have my photo and it is a treasure I have already framed to join my distinguished ragtime rogue’s gallery.
I miss-pocketed my billfold after dinner and the search for it nearly made me late for the final “Music Hall” concert of the Festival. Fortunately, I was in time to see the annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award presented to Mary Grace and Jerry Lanese. For years this couple has been a driving force behind Kansas City and Missouri ragtime and they have been hosting performers in their home for years. When this year’s headliners were lined up on stage and asked to raise their hands if they had ever stayed at the Lanese home, most of the hands went up it seemed.
That means Mary Grace did a lot of laundry and cooked a lot of meals for them. No wonder they are surrogate parents to many ragtime personalities. Thanks to Award recipient Smiley Wallace for nominating Jerry and Mary Grace and making the announcement. The Wallaces, Laneses and dear Lucille Salerno now share this prestigious award for their work promoting ragtime in Missouri. What a team. I can’t imagine the number of collective years they have been active.
After several of the evening concerts, the entertainment continued on Fifth Street outside the Liberty Theater. Rich Berry, ragtime photographer and performer in his own right, pulled his car to the curb, got in the back seat and proceeded to play a piano he installed there complete with a speaker system and tip jar. I enjoyed several rich conversations with this amazing fellow and he told me he installed the piano back in his performing days to use as a rehearsal instrument since practice pianos were often hard to procure.
I heard the events I was unable to attend were outstanding and the ones I would have most liked to experience would have been the pub crawl or the nightly “after hours” fun. Those informal gatherings often host the best performances and an opportunity to visit with the entertainers. The city tour narrated by Ed Berlin and Becky Imhauser is another activity I regret missing. The opportunity to view Sedalia as described by Joplin’s definitive biographer and downtown Sedalia’s premier historian would have been a treat. They could both also teach an incredible course on historical research and writing.
I pause here for some well-deserved kudos. Brian Holland expends a lot of energy as Artistic Director, planning the programs and working with busy and often distracted but very talented performers to get them contracted. He also has the challenge of working with the Sedalia Board by email and telephone and signals sometimes get crossed in the process. Brian is a very busy performer and he deserves real praise for his artistic direction of the Festival.
Bill Edwards seemed to be everywhere this year. He has taken his job description position as Seminar Director to include creating amazing Power Point images for projection during the programs and assisting with a myriad of technical issues. He bounded about Liberty Center in constant motion and his contributions greatly enhanced every element of the Festival.
And on the technical side I must mention Mike Kelly, a professional videographer who now turns out beautiful recordings of the festival for the Board each year. Nicki, Mike’s wife, is an old family friend in my son’s generation, from our days when we lived in Sedalia.
If I begin mentioning the cast of Sedalia volunteers, this article will never end. For 38 Festivals, the Sedalia community has turned out to support the event with untold hours of labor and enormous financial support. The festival could have never happened or been sustained this long without that faithful assistance.
As we were all wrapping up on Sunday morning I had a treasured moment with Danny Coots. Danny’s versatility on the drums adds a rich dimension to many of the performances and he is often requested to accompany just as a headliner goes stage. He may have never heard the piece, but he plays along, often without previously practicing or even knowing the number. From my perspective I simply assume he’s had hours of rehearsal. I’ve never seen Danny without a smile on his face and he has an energy that electrifies everyone listening.
The inspirational story of Danny Coots donating a kidney to Danny Matson four and a half years ago will always uplift my spirits. The account is now legendary and takes human friendship to its highest level of perfection. It is a privilege to know these men.
Thanks to Jack Love’s kindness I was transported, along with my trusty wheelchair, back to Union and Jack and Danny Matson went on to the annual “Afterglow” event at the Scott Joplin House hosted by Bryan Cather.
It will take me a long time to recall and embrace all the special moments of my week in Sedalia. For someone who rarely leaves the house it was comparable to Phileas Fogg’s great adventure. It took Verne’s protagonist 80 days to accomplish less than it seems I managed in only six.