From the 2023 West Coast Ragtime Festival

For the third year in a row (not counting the Covid interruption), I attended the West Coast Ragtime Festival on the weekend before Thanksgiving. If you don’t have the time or desire to read this report, the bottom line is that it was well worth a trip across the country. Personally, I like to have more than one reason to take a transcontinental flight, so each time I’ve gone I have combined this event with another activity. This year it was the Arizona Classic Jazz Festival that you read about last month. In between the two I spent about a week visiting four national parks in central California.

WCRF is held at a Marriott hotel in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova. There are several other hotels within walking distance of the Marriott, but those seeking cheaper digs can find them not far away, and the Marriott is a one-minute walk from a light rail station, so getting there by public transportation is very doable, and trains run until past the last evening set (but not the after-hours doings).

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One wing of the Marriott was under renovation, so some of the rooms normally used for music weren’t available. There were three venues on the ground floor, plus a room used as a store, and a 10th floor room was used for piano sets. I did not go there so I can’t comment on it, as there was more than enough music downstairs to keep me occupied. There was a screen in two rooms on which was projected the pianist’s hands so those in what Frederick Hodges calls the cheap seats could see the action. But where there were two pianos, there was only one screen.

One room had a dance floor with seats ranged around three sides—no screen there. A second, larger room with a raised stage held the main events, and the smallest was used for seminars and piano sets (there were two pianos in there). I don’t know if the attendance this year was higher or lower than last year, but as far as I could tell nobody was turned away at any venue for lack of seats.

Between Friday noon and 5 PM Sunday, a total of 130 sets took place, not counting special sets like silent movies, the festival sampler, youth master class and concert, and the two-hour grand finale. In addition to 23 pianists, there were several bands with a ragtime bent and several non-pianist musicians who sat in for some of the pianists’ sets. Among the latter were TJ Müller, Matt Tolentino, and Clint Baker, all of whom are multi-instrumentalists. It didn’t matter if any of them had never played with any of the pianists or with each other; they are such pros that the whole was invariably more than the sum of the parts. It was a joy to watch these spontaneous collaborations.

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Four seminars were offered, of which I attended three: Frederick Hodges on the role of ragtime songs as they affected World War I in the US; Richard Dowling’s riveting analysis of Bix Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist”; and TJ Müller’s depiction of St. Louis (where he lives) jazz in the 1920s—clearly thoroughly researched. What many people don’t realize is that in 1920 St. Louis was the sixth largest city in the country (it was fourth in 1910, being surpassed in that decade by Detroit and Cleveland). All three seminars were augmented with photographs and recordings.

With so many worthwhile offerings to choose from, hard choices had to be made. I was torn between loyalty to my friends and their sets and the desire to see people I hadn’t seen before or see very seldom. Still, I managed to catch most performers at least once, though a few of them only in the finale where everyone participated. It was good to see my British friend Neville Dickie, who has been to WCRF before, but not during my three visits.

I made an effort to see as many of the young performers as possible. Some of their sets were on the 10th floor. Most were allotted only 30 minutes whereas the “big names” got 45 minutes. Two of the youths who stood out were Isaiah Burton and Tadao Tomokiyo. Tadao, now 17, debuted here last year and I noticed marked development in his stage presence. Isaiah, 18, has been at the past three festivals; he demonstrated a maturity on the ivories and the stage well beyond his years.

Another young performer, Anthony Sarginson, 22 and a senior at Fresno State, announced that he had been working on Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto for an upcoming competition and started playing it, but near the end of his 30 minutes. This piece has three movements and would have filled his entire set. He was 8 minutes into the first movement when he was stopped for exceeding his time. But it was a great performance while it lasted, and actually better than the rags he played.

I will list here some of the festival highlights from my perspective, not necessarily in priority order:

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♫ The trio of Adam Swanson, TJ Müller and Matt Tolentino (they had two sets together). I think the musicians enjoyed them as much as the audience.

Matt Tolentino, accordion; Adam Swanson, piano; and TJ Müller, banjo please the crowd (and the reviewer) at the 2023 West Coast Ragtime Festival in Rancho Cordoba, CA. (photo courtesy World Championship Old Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival’s Facebook page)

♫ A performance by Richard Dowling of a piece written by Vincent Matthew Johnson (who was in the room) and commissioned by Glenn Robison for his wife Rita titled “Belle Adair,” (Rita’s maiden name is Adair). I happened to be sitting next to Rita at the time, having known her and Glenn for some years. Richard has played it before, but not in the composer’s presence. Glenn, by the way, is the host of Rapidly Rotating Records which airs Sunday evenings on KISL-FM and anytime on the internet. I commend it highly to your attention.

♫ Duets by Messrs. Dowling and Hodges. These occur almost every time the two of them are on the same bill, and they never fail to enthrall.

♫ The festival finale dedicated to Max Morath, who had died in June at 96 and who was known and loved by many of the performers here. A four-minute video produced by Colorado Music Experience (Max was a native Coloradan) was shown, and several musicians gave poignant tributes of their personal connections with Max. Martin Spitznagel, during his time at the finale, played his composition “To the Max” that he entered into a blind competition to honor Max’s 95th birthday. Max selected it as the winning entry.

I believe this was the first ragtime festival I’ve attended where I did not hear the “Maple Leaf Rag.” That’s not to say it wasn’t played, just not during any of the sets I attended. But that’s okay; I got to hear lots of other great things that deserve more frequent exposure.

If you’ve read this far, I hope I’ve convinced you to put West Coast Ragtime on your 2024 calendar. The dates are November 22-24 at the same location. It’s a very well run event with no detail overlooked. I would like to see one thing change next year: a break of 5 or 10 minutes between sets, which would allow people to move to a different room, use the restroom or just stretch without either leaving before one set ends or walking in on a set that had already started. Without this break, it was left to the departing performer(s) to give a proper introduction to who was next, and that didn’t always happen.

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.

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