I remember reading Bill Hoffman’s fine column last year in The Syncopated Times describing his first visit to a West Coast Ragtime Festival (WCRF) and I was wishing I could someday attend. Therefore, when I learned that the Society’s Board was opting for a virtual festival this year, I was elated (one of the few, I am sure—since there is such a tradition of personal camaraderie at the 34 year-old event).
Until the weekend before Thanksgiving this year, I had been fond of referring to the faithful followers of ragtime as a community. However, after watching the entire virtual 2020 WCRF event, I realized there is a more appropriate term for our group…we are a family.
Last summer when the group’s Board decided to cancel their 2020 live festival scheduled for the weekend before Thanksgiving, they began almost immediately planning a virtual event. As such, to produce a three-day, eight concert program, they had to literally “invent” it from scratch. That intrepid group so ably led by Virginia Tichenor in conjunction with Andrew Greene and the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra did just that and even managed to maintain many of the traditions for which the Festival is known.
It will take so many superlatives to adequately discuss the technical side of the result. With my minimal understanding of what was involved, I can only say that technically, to me it seemed flawless.
The event was well publicized in both print publications and on-line. All the audience had to do was allow for time differences (or use the on-line alerts) and enjoy the music. Thus, when Virginia Tichenor opened the first concert session on Friday afternoon, I was eagerly anticipating what was to come. The annual events are part of ragtime lore, so I had a good idea what to expect and for me, it turned out to be so much more.
After Virginia’s warm welcome and greetings from the Board, it was a wonderful surprise to hear a special welcome from Max Morath nicely illustrated with slides from his seven-decade career.
The first concert of the annual festival is traditionally a sampler of the artists gathered and a nice way to meet the performers. Jack Rummel, longtime ragtime reviewer and performer emceed the welcoming concert consisting of 26 artists. The variety of their old and new selections with some original compositions made for a well-balanced program.
An advantage of a virtual event is that not only can performers come from abroad without enormous transportation expenses but those of us with limited resources or with disabilities can also attend. As a result, from Kecskemet, Hungary, The Bohem Ragtime Jazz Band directed by founder Tamás Ittzé participated. The ever affable, Ezequiel Pallejá performed from Buenos Aires. Many joined the accompanying chat in Spanish, with a comment from England, Vienna, Austria, and Peter Lundberg’s notes from Sweden. They all added to the international spirit of the festival and Morton Gunnar Larsen closed the concert from Norway playing a rousing Jelly Roll Morton composition.
The WCRF included several other ensemble groups this year including GROOVUS, with Brian Holland, piano, Danny Coots, drums, and Steve Pikal; The Pacific Coast Ragtime Orchestra provided California open-air performances. T.J. Muller performed variously with Maggie Linck, Virginia Tichenor, and Marty Eggers. Virginia and Marty also joined Frederick Hodges as The Crown Syncopators.
Diego Bustamante and Oliver Moore gave us the first split screen performance playing Mark Janza’s “The Lion Tamer Rag” featuring flashes of Diego’s cat Franz. How they synchronize those numbers is a great mystery to me but then this whole virtual experience seems like magic.
St. Louis was well represented this year. Ethan Leinwand dedicated his Georgia Grind, to St. Louis and Joplin House historian, Bryan Cather, who died earlier this year. And British band leader T.J. Muller, now living in St. Louis, played with Virginia Tichenor (an original St. Louisan) and Marty Eggers.
Board members and four hands favorites Chris and Jack Bradshaw played “Sutter Creek Strut” remembering Gil Liebernecht. John Reed-Torres dedicated a performance to Bill Coffman of the El Segundo Old Town Music Hall. Anthony Sarginson dedicated “Imperial Fox Trot” by Tom Brier to the composer and Anthony’s mentor. Tom is a brilliant performer and composer and a regular at the festival until his debilitating accident in August 2016. We all wish Tom well in his long recovery. I also appreciated several dedications to the memory of Lucille Salerno who produced the Blind Boone festivals in Columbia, Missouri, for many years.
The remaining talented “Sampler” artists rounded out a very enjoyable program. Board Member Bub Sullivan; Vincent Mathew Johnson; Larisa Migachyov introduced her newest composition named by her daughter, “The Dancing Rats.” Will Perkins out in Idaho, surrounded by pianos under repair, performed “My Little Pride and Joy” by Joe Sullivan.
An animated Frederick Hodges performed with his usual effervescent enthusiasm and I have to mention Richard Dowling who played “Roberto Clemente” by David Thomas Roberts with bright, sensitive expression. It is one of my favorite pieces. Michael Chisholm brightened my afternoon playing Jack Rummel’s “Lone Jack to Knob Noster.” My mother was born in Lone Jack, Missouri, and I drove through the tiny villages many times, visiting my Father in Kansas City when we lived in Sedalia. Tom Bopp concluded the program.
After the first “Sampler” concert I was left with several observations. First, the quality of the videos was so much better than I was expecting given that the recording capabilities varied so much among the performers. The continued use of the overhead camera to see the keyboard was a great feature. I also was fascinated by glimpses into the artists’ homes or practice venues. Many recorded in very personal spaces and displayed favorite mementos. Finally, the text chat along side the videos was fascinating and rather than finding it distracting, for me it added so much to the performances especially with the artists responded to comments about their recorded sets. The comments were positive, often personal, and very encouraging.
The Friday evening concert and the Sunday afternoon program were like traditional events with great performer lineups and playlists. There was extraordinarily little duplication perhaps due to production guidance and when pieces were repeated, I found them to be of such excellence that I welcomed hearing different interpretations.
Matt Tolentino emceed the Friday evening concert amid his treasures in an appropriately appointed room. He introduced Frederick Hodges as a staple of the WCRF. Vincent Matthew Johnson included a composition of his own, as did many of the performers this weekend. From Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, Ivory and Gold (in the persons of Jeff and Anne Barnhart played) a bit of slower ragtime as their New England salty air wafted through the room (or maybe that was just Jeff wind jamming).
Diego Bustamante continues to amaze me and was followed by a performance recorded outside that featured the nine-piece Pacific Coast Ragtime Orchestra, all seated appropriately distanced. Ezekiel Pallejá closed the concert.
Several remarked on the chat side that it was hard to hear great performances without audience applause at the end. At least for the performers they could get texted comments that would be unavailable in a live venue. Emcee remarks after each piece did help to acknowledge the merits of an artist.
The After Hours Zoom meetings afforded an opportunity for some participants to discuss the day’s performances, actually visit with one another, see some living spaces, and even hear a few impromptu pieces played on home instruments. A highlight of Saturday’s After Hours was what may become an annual component as we were introduced to a veritable plethora of pets This year, cats far outnumbered dogs. Like I wrote earlier, just like a family.
Richard Dowling hosted the Saturday afternoon concert that featured GROOVUS, John Reed-Torres, Morton Gunnar Larsen, Will Perkins, T.J. Muller and Marty Eggers, and Carl Sonny Leyland.
The Special performance by Andrew Greene and the Peacherine Ragtime Orchestra was the Saturday Evening concert repeated on Sunday afternoon. Andrew has gathered an enormously talented group of musicians and his vocalists have perfect voices for the period music. Tired as he had to have been, Andrew even managed a solo rendition of Max Keenlyside’s “Northern Lights Rag.” The talented group also performed two modern pieces, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and a short silent film accompaniment for the 1927 film, Papa’s Boy. This weekend festival was co-sponsored by The Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra
The Saturday night concert was the annual Centennial concert this year featuring music from 1920 hosted by Shawn Sharp. Performers included The Bohem Ragtime Jazz Band, Michael Chisholm, and Matt Tolentino. Magically, Richard Dowling, and Frederick Hodges, performed a perfectly synchronized split screen performance of “Whispering.” The Barnharts, T.J. Muller, Marty Eggers, and Virginia Tichenor, Carl Sonny Leyland, and the Sullivans rounded out the program.
Another tradition of the West Coast Festival is the Youth Concert produced as the Sunday afternoon virtual program this year with Jeff Barnhart as emcee. Veteran Tom Bopp played his usual Sunday set from his home in Yosemite where he plays at the Wawona Hotel. The young people were amazing and as many commented on the chat side, ragtime has a great future in their talented fingers. Jade Anderson, Isaiah Burton, Devin Cheng. Eileen Chih, Chris Lo, Omar Rasidagic, Andrew Sachs, and Anthony Sarginson performed.
The last evening concert of the Festival was emceed by Tom Bopp and featured Morton Gunnar Larsen, Adam Swanson, Matt Tolentino, Larisa Migachyov, Chris and Jack Bradshaw, and Michael Chisholm who played one of his multiple screen pieces featuring Michael playing multi-instruments to simulate the annual grand march. His videos have entertained me through this period of social isolation. I have no idea how he manages to put these performances together, but they are perfectly synced and beautifully arranged.
And so, the 2020 West Coast Ragtime Festival ended, maintaining the continuity of the event for the last 34 years. It was a real treat for me, and I would like to suggest that Festival groups all consider including a virtual element when everything eventually returns to a modicum of normal. Also, in the ragtime world, I have been quite impressed by Sedalia’s Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival’s virtual Syncopated Saturday Night programs produced monthly this fall. I very much appreciated the live streams from the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest & Festival over the Labor Day weekend from Oxford Mississippi. It is a digital world and what was old is new again.