The weather gods smiled on this year’s Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival on June 1-4 in Sedalia, Missouri. After a cold front dumped 2.9 inches of rain on Sedalia, enough to be the most anywhere in the US that day, just before the event opened, the skies cleared and ushered in three days of delightful temperatures and low humidity. Well, almost; there was a brief light shower during the last set in the Stark tent on Saturday afternoon. And by then the humidity was creeping up, perhaps to remind us that the weather we had enjoyed the past few days was not the norm in Missouri in June.
This was the first in-person festival since 2019, and the feeling of joy was as evident among the musicians as among the audience. I attended that event, as well as the 2016 and 2007 editions. But for the distance, I would attend more often. An exemplary roster of performers were on the card, several of whom were new to me. These included pianists Peter Bergin, Dick Moulding, Jonathan Levin, and Virginia Eskin. Virginia, I learned, has an extensive pedigree not only in ragtime but also in the classical field. She has performed at several past Joplin festivals. The others were making their Joplin premieres. There were four non-pianists on the agenda: violinist David Reffkin, a well-known figure in the ragtime genre who has been there many times; vocalist Joyce Richardson, a retired music teacher from New Jersey, plus a regular, drummer Danny Coots, and a newcomer (but not to me), multi-instrumentalist T.J. Muller from St. Louis.
Three more musicians had to cancel at the last minute due to COVID exposure: Brian Holland, Bill McNally, and a new name to me, Marilyn Nonken. The Festival did a good job of finding subs and adjusting the schedule, but apparently not soon enough to make public announcements of the changes. Valerie Kirchhoff, a/k/a Miss Jubilee, and her musical partner, barrelhouse pianist Ethan Leinwand, came from St. Louis but had not planned to be on the roster. But they were pressed into service, to the delight of the audience, as subs.
This year’s free sets were held in the Stark tent, which is set up as usual on Fifth Street alongside the courthouse; the new “pavilion on Ohio” at the southwest corner of Second; and the Katy Depot at 600 East Third. There were fewer sets there, and I did not attend any. The new pavilion is a welcome addition to the scene; it’s covered with the west side enclosed to keep out the afternoon sun. It was set up for about 75 people but could easily accommodate more. The two downtown venues are a five-minute walk apart (or one minute by bicycle), while the Depot is five blocks away, necessitating driving for most people. I noticed that some people seemed to set up shop at one venue and stay there for the day. Food vendors operated at both downtown sites for those who did not want to walk or drive to restaurants. Other than the new pavilion, none of the above is a departure from past practice.
An important feature of this festival are the symposia and themed concerts. The overall festival theme was women in ragtime. Originally scheduled for 2020 to mark the centennial of women gaining the vote, it was twice postponed until now. Hence, there were more female performers than usual.
The morning symposia, each lasting about an hour, did not seem well attended, which is unfortunate. These were curated by “Perfesser” Bill Edwards, one of the country’s foremost authorities on ragtime. He led three of them himself.
The themed concerts dealt, naturally enough, with women in ragtime; the early revival; and Scott Joplin’s legacy. Each had an emcee and a large number of musicians performed two or three numbers each. The audience for these paid events was much larger than for the morning sessions, but there were still plenty of empty seats in the Liberty Center, conveniently located half a block from the Stark tent. This theater also housed the festival store where artists’ CDs and other merchandise were offered.
While the symposia and afternoon concerts were going on there were the free 30-minute sets in the three venues. I attended as many as I could without missing the paid events. Sets started at 9 or 10 AM and ran continuously until 5 PM. As to be expected, I enjoyed some sets more than others. If I did not remain for an entire set, it was because I had to leave for another one of a high priority. I would have liked the sets to be 35 minutes each with a 10-minute break so people could go to another venue, get something to eat, use the restroom or just stretch their legs. That would’ve allowed the sets to start at a commonly recognized time, such as 15, 30, or 45 minutes after the hour, rather than an unusual time of, say, 10 or 35 minutes after the hour. I so noted on the feedback form that was given to all attendees.
There were so many remarkable spontaneous occurrences in the sets and concerts that I cannot recount them all, or even some of them. You just had to be there to see them. A perusal of YouTube or Facebook might reveal some privately recorded parts of sets and/or concerts that the photographer posted. I write this enroute to the Glenn Miller festival in Clarinda, Iowa, which starts on Thursday, June 9, and I wanted to submit this report by the editor’s nominal deadline. Therefore, I don’t have time now to search for any clips from this festival.
If you want more information about the symposia and concert topics, you might find it on the festival’s website: www.scottjoplin.org. A good place to start is the printed program, if it’s posted after the fact.
I need to mention the annual Outstanding Achievement Award, given every year since 1989. This year for the first time there were two recipients, who are selected by the Scott Joplin board. Michael and Penny Schwarz from Baltimore were jointly given one of the awards for their long-standing support of the Festival and ragtime in general. Sadly, Mike died in February and Penny was not able to attend in person. Their award was presented by Adam Swanson, who had developed a close relationship with the Schwarzes while in grad school at the Peabody Conservatory, if not earlier. Knowing all three of these people quite well, I was often a witness to their friendship.
The other award, presented via video by Larry Melton, a frequent contributor to this newspaper, went to Fred Hoeptner, a retired engineer and ragtime composer from California who has not missed a Joplin festival in about 30 years.
There was also the Chrysanthemum Award, begun in 2019, to honor a volunteer at the festival. This award by nature goes to a local resident. This year’s winner was Dave Menefee.
An award called Ragtime Kids was introduced this year. It’s funded by the Larry Karp Memorial Fund. The first winner, in 2021, was Leo Roth from Springfield, Missouri. This year’s recipient was Tadao Tomokiyo, a 10th grade student at an arts high school in Pittsburgh. Both performed at one of the concerts.
The 2023 edition of the Scott Joplin festival will occur on June 2-5, its usual time. If you have any interest in ragtime, or if you’d like to learn more about it, you could do no better than to attend.
Bill Hoffman is a travel writer, an avid jazz fan and a supporter of musicians keeping traditional jazz alive in performance. He is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and The New York Bicycle Touring Guide. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.