The 2023 Charles H. Templeton, Sr. Ragtime and Jazz Festival was held on Thursday through Saturday, March 23-25 at Mississippi State University in Starkville. This edition followed last year’s format, but with two additions: there was an online symposium on Thursday featuring a five-person panel. I did not hear it, as it lasted most of the day and I was traveling then, but I hope it will be made available at a future time. Also new this year were 30-minute mini-concerts on Friday and Saturday mornings. Jeff Barnhart, the festival’s music director, reminded me that this was my idea after my first visit last year. I had suggested (and had since forgotten) that the symposia be supplemented with live music.
Thursday’s panelists: Greg Johnson, Blues Curator and Head of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Mississippi; Dr. Eric Weisbard, Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama; Dr. Ari Katorza, lecturer at the Rimon School of Music in Israel; Whitney Thompson, MLIS student at Indiana University/Purdue University in Indianapolis; and Alan Munshower, Digital Collections Archivist at Virginia Tech. These five spoke about various composers, famous and little-known.
The in-person events always begin Thursday evening with a fashion show with creations by students of the MSU Fashion Design and Merchandising Program. There were about a dozen models, all female, showing tote bags, T-shirt dresses, and haute couture of their own designs. The audience was then invited to vote for their favorites. During the modeling and at intermission, music was provided by pianist Jeff Barnhart, with his wife Anne on vocals, Dave Bennett on clarinet, and Hal Smith on drums. The program lasted about an hour followed by refreshments. Had the festival been held during a school break, this show probably would not have happened. The entire festival is open free to MSU students.
Friday’s (and Saturday’s) events began with a one-hour tour of the Templeton collection of old music-playing devices, led by Lynda Graham, the museum’s director. I had done the tour both days last year but there is always something new to discover. What makes this museum special is that it houses the only known examples of a number of different type machines. Its collection of some 200 devices is also the largest in the world. The museum has engaged a technician from Georgia who comes twice a year to work on the instruments. Given the fragility and uniqueness of many specimens, some repairs are too risky to attempt, and those are skipped.
Then Scott Kirby presented a half-hour mini-concert that mostly featured Scott Joplin pieces plus an improvised blues piece mixing the styles of Jimmy Yancey from the ’20s with Fats Domino from the ’50s. He was followed by two silent movies: “The Bell Boy” from 1918 with Fatty Arbuckle and “Cops” from 1922 with Buster Keaton. Jeff Barnhart provided piano accompaniment.
The afternoon program was highlighted by a most interesting panel covering the piano works of black composer William Grant Still, a native of Woodville, MS. Woodville was also the birthplace of Lester Young. Three MSU music majors comprised the panel. Still rose to prominence as an arranger for W.C. Handy and played in the bands of Artie Shaw and Fletcher Henderson, and also accompanied Sophie Tucker. Yet he was mostly known as a composer of unusual classical works. At the end of their presentation, each student performed a work of their choice. So engaging was their program that Jeff Barnhart, who was scheduled for a mini-concert next, ceded most of his time to the students. This was not something you will hear at most festivals.
The panel was followed by Taslimah Bey, who related how she got into ragtime. She performed several Joplin rags, including “The Entertainer” but with her own New Orleans touch (though Taslimah lives in Detroit). I had seen her at the two most recent Scott Joplin festivals I attended. Taslimah was followed by Dave Bennett doing a compare and contrast (but mostly compare) of “Ben and Jerry”— Benny Goodman and Jerry Lee Lewis. Goodman’s music was played on clarinet and Lewis’ on piano. Dave is as accomplished on the keyboard as he is on the licorice stick.
Following the dinner break, the evening concert, titled “Ragtime to Rockabilly” was held in an auditorium that the festival had not used for quite a few years. It was much larger than needed to accommodate the crowd but had excellent acoustics. The first half was given over to Scott Kirby for his “Main Street Souvenirs, Part I” presentation consisting of Scott’s water color images of rural and small-town America, including some done in Starkville, with Scott accompanying on piano. This show was highly promoted and was most enjoyable. Recent video interviews of several Starkville residents were also included. Shows such as this are certain to generate pride among people living in the towns portrayed.
The second set began with a Benny Goodman trio re-creation with Jeff, Dave and Hal, followed by solo piano with Taslimah. She played two of Artie Matthews’ Pastime Rags, Joplin’s “Solace,” and a reprise of “The Entertainer” she had played in her afternoon set. Then the fun began for those who like rock-n-roll, with Dave (on piano) and Hal. It was very well performed and received, but this is not a genre I ever warmed up to, even in my youth. During part of one number, Dave played standing on the piano bench, first with both legs, then with one, never missing a note. Everyone went home on a high note—literally!
Saturday’s museum visit, again, was very enjoyable. Lynda Graham has become intimately familiar with all the machines in her 15 years working there. She plays some of them as part of the tour.
The next event was Taslimah’s mini-concert which featured several works by Tom Turpin, a St. Louis composer not frequently featured at ragtime festivals. Then it was Chip Templeton’s sheet music collection with a jitney theme. If that term is unfamiliar, a jitney is a small bus, sometimes with two seating levels. They were more flexible than fixed-route streetcars and preceded the now-familiar municipal buses. I have only seen jitneys once, in Atlantic City in 1958.
The afternoon sets were, to my mind, the best of the weekend. First, Hal Smith presented an overview of the often neglected work of composer, arranger, and pianist Alex Hill, born in Little Rock in 1906. He was a professional by age 16 and worked in Chicago, and later New York, with top bands in both cities. Hill died at age 30 in 1937 of tuberculosis, no doubt aggravated by heavy smoking. That’s undoubtedly a major reason for his relative anonymity today. Hal had Dave and Jeff accompanying him on several Hill tunes, to good effect.
Then, Scott talked about the evolution of his “Main Street Souvenirs” programs for a half hour, followed by a jam with Dave and Hal, with Scott and Jeff taking turns on piano. Taslimah was also invited to sit in on two numbers and turned in an excellent impromptu performance of “King Porter Stomp” and “Maple Leaf Rag” (which she had played the previous day).
The evening concert was quite similar in format and content to its Friday counterpart, again ending with Dave and Hal’s rockabilly set. The audience liked it, but I had had my fill the previous night.
I have enjoyed both Templeton festivals I’ve attended and hope it can attract a larger audience in the future. The 2024 dates have been announced: February 22-24. This is a return to its former pre-Covid time.