Sometimes too much of a good thing is, well, too much. That was the case at this year’s Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri. The lineup of pianists, as well as symposium presenters, was so extensive and outstanding that it was virtually impossible to experience them all.
Ragtime is, admittedly, not my favorite genre, although I do enjoy it. But not all the music that’s played at the SJRF is ragtime. If I lived closer, I’d attend this festival more often. I’ve been greatly impressed by the caliber of talent I’ve seen both times I’ve been there—this year and in 2007. A few musicians were at both, and in fact, there seems to be a core of regulars—Dave Majchrzak, Jeff Barnhart, Adam Swanson (whom I remember as a 14-year-old my previous time), Bryan Wright, Sue Keller, Frederick Hodges, and Brian Holland, who took over as artistic director this year. But there is enough year-to-year variation to keep things fresh.
The format seems to change little, however, but it evidently pleases the crowd. There are free sets in three different outdoor venues, all within a few blocks’ walk, and paid concerts and symposia in the Liberty Center concert hall in the center of all the venues. If I could change one thing about the schedule, it would be to allow five or ten minutes between events, so one would not have to walk out early at one in order to arrive on time at the next, or arrive late and possibly not get a seat.
To me, the most outstanding event this year was Max Morath’s symposium “Living a Ragtime Life”–a chronicle of his 50-plus years as a performer. To many people, Max is Ragtime. His presentation alone was worth the entire festival fee. Now nearing 90, Max is still vibrant, even though he no longer plays publicly. In another seminar, Max, Terry Waldo, David Reffkin, and Dick Zimmerman, all of whom performed at the first Joplin in 1974, presented a panel discussion of the early years of the latest (and still ongoing) ragtime revival. It was a privilege to be in the company of these titans, who kept ragtime alive as the Eubie Blake era was winding down.
On the music front, we were treated to the first appearances by John Reed-Torres, Frenchman Sebastien Troendle, making his first-ever trip to the US (with his family), Frank LiVolsi, 15-year-old Daniel Souvigny, and Jazzou Jones, who has just retired from a long career as pianist on Mississippi and Ohio riverboats.
It being Missouri and June, the weather is not always ideal. This time nobody had cause to complain; we enjoyed four days almost completely rain- and humidity-free. The only distraction at one of the music venues is the frequent trains on the adjacent tracks. But Sedalia always was a railroad town, and perhaps that inspired some of the music written there.
The festival culminated late Saturday afternoon and evening, first in the Stark pavilion, a large tent set up in the street alongside the courthouse. Who better to lead this set than the irrepressible Jeff Barnhart, a man whose poetic and emcee skills nearly match his keyboard prowess. To a (very) extended version of “Shake That Thing,” he got every musician in attendance in on the act. I don’t think anyone left, despite the set running nearly twice as long as scheduled.
Then at the paid evening concert, Jeff again took to the rostrum to introduce all the participants, some playing solo, some in duos. Not to be overlooked at this program was the presentation of the Scott Joplin Memorial Award to “Perfessor” Bill Edwards, whose pianistic skills and extensive research on the genre were duly recognized. Bill was joined on stage by several previous recipients, including the aforementioned Morath, Waldo, and Reffkin.
It was good to see a number of my musician friends and meet other aficionados. Quite a few of the several hundred attendees come every year. If I didn’t live 1,000 miles away, I’d probably be one of them.
Jazz Travels columnist Bill Hoffman is a retired management consultant and is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.