When I reached out about contributing stories to The Syncopated Times last fall I included a long list of topics for articles. I had carefully crafted a list that included a mix of past and present performer profiles, spotlights on events, and anything else I could think of that would highlight the evolving future and rich history of traditional jazz, blues, and ragtime in St. Louis, Missouri.
On that list was a profile of Bryan Cather and a look at the Scott Joplin House and the Friends of Scott Joplin which I had anticipated writing this spring so that it could be published in time for the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia and the annual St. Louis Piano Festival. However, the unexpected and sudden loss of a friend required me to shift my trajectory. Larry Melton wrote a lovely remembrance piece; it really showcases the work which Bryan did over the years alongside thoughtful messages from loved ones.
I’m sure that this article will stylistically deviate from anything I write in the future, but it’s necessary. Instead of focusing on solely on Bryan, I’m going to look at the Friends group, the Joplin House and attempt to grapple with the loss of one of our music scene’s most beloved champions.
You should not begin an article about someone else, by writing about yourself; however, I need to explain my background to explain how I came to know Bryan and get involved with the Friends of Scott Joplin. I graduated college in 2012 with a degree in fashion history and Black studies. My Black studies degree focused primarily on music of the early to mid-twentieth century. After leaving school, I returned home and started working for the St. Louis Public Library system at various branches in North St. Louis. Even though my focus at work was on youth and families, I began exploring the rich history of the area my family called home for generations.
I spent lots of time driving between branches, to and from schools, and stumbling upon buildings that were of historic significance. I started reaching out to local historic sites for resources and became heavily involved in St. Louis’ growing traditional jazz, blues, and ragtime scenes. I was befriending musicians, going to shows, and making posters for events.
It was during this time that I first met Bryan. To be completely honest, I have no idea when we first met because once he knew me, he seemed to appear everywhere I was. He came to support local and touring musicians, history projects, and he took an active role in our weird and wonderful community. His involvement went beyond showing up at shows (usually wearing a mildly ridiculous bow tie). He would show up at parties and backyard barbecues, he’d be at local seminars and presentations, he would gush over the importance of the city’s Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood.
Fast forward a few years and I’m working for the Missouri Historical Society at their Library and Research Center. I had started doing more in-depth research projects and am known as the resident sheet music “expert.” It was through this work that people like Bryan, Ethan Leinwand, Colin Hancock, and Virginia Tichenor began to reach out with questions about local music history. It was also during this time that my husband T.J. Müller and I were invited to join the board of the Friends of Scott Joplin by Bryan and Ethan.
With T.J.’s passion and enthusiasm for St. Louis music of the 1910s and 1920s coupled with my knowledge of both North St. Louis history and access to countless research materials, we were just the addition Bryan and Ethan were searching for. Both were eager to get started and were plotting and scheming new ways to expand and reinvigorate the organization. At this point, I should also state that T.J. and I hadn’t yet attended any meetings and that our role on the board has not even been made official.
Bryan had been the president of the Friends of Scott Joplin for a good length of time and was well aware that, like so many other organizations, the group was struggling and needed to come up with a plan before it ceased to exist. It’s a harsh reality but one that needs to be dealt with head on. As Ethan put it “Who belongs to clubs anymore? Nobody.” It’s not an easy thing to admit when you’re the vice-president of a club, but it’s realistic. Ethan officially joined the board at the end of 2017 and soon thereafter took over as vice president. For the past two years Ethan and Bryan worked to promote both the Joplin House and New Rosebud Cafe, in an attempt to make it relevant not only to the Ragtime community but to the neighborhood it called home and various music communities in St. Louis.
Virgina Tichenor noted that “[Bryan] was instrumental in helping the local St. Louis Ragtime community relocate its monthly Ragtime Rendezvous to the Rosebud Cafe.” This move and the cafe’s hosting of the Sedalia festival “Afterglow” cemented that venue as a destination for performers and fans of the genre.
In an attempt to branch out into other musical genres, Ethan worked with T.J. to put on the New Rosebud Cafe Festival in August of 2018. It was a daylong festival that featured music on both floors of the venue. It featured jazz from The Blue Three with Andy Schumm, The Gaslight Squares with Bill Mason and Marty Eggers, and Annie and the Fur Trappers; blues from The St. Louis Steady Grinders, Mat Wilson, and Miss Jubilee; ragtime from the short lived St. Louis Ticklers and old-time from Nick Pence. It was an event that truly brought together a unique group of music fans.
This brings us to the question I’ve been circling around this entire time: where does the Friends of Scott Joplin go from here? What is the future of an organization when it’s beloved, fearless, and industrious leader suddenly leaves? The easiest and most honest answer is: talk, ask, listen, and act.
The remaining board members will be having many conversations, between individuals and as a whole. Ethan put it best when he said that the group would begin “scheming and planning about how to make it a relevant thing again moving forward.” On a basic organizational level, they can count their members and money, and make sense of any loose ends. Once organized, they can move forward and start a conversation about the future.
The asking and listening part comes next. It goes beyond listening within. They can stand back and look into their place in St. Louis’ Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood and in the larger ragtime community. Are there events, resources, or projects that need to be done? What is being done by a group that strives to honor an important and integral part of both Black history and American history?
Perhaps this looks like joining forces with other St. Louis institutions to do a program. Maybe it looks like a small, annual event or concert series showcasing ragtime and other forms of music rooted in the Black American experience. Maybe it means having difficult conversations about race and gender dynamics within traditional jazz, blues, and ragtime. They can strive to ask and listen to the community and to themselves to find out what is needed. Finally, it’s on to act. This part is often times easier said than done—it’s one thing to have grand plans, it’s another thing to implement them. Without acting, there is a potential for failure—failure to stay relevant and failure to survive. Acting is the way in which the group can honor and uphold the memory and legacy of ragtime and of Scott Joplin.
Not only that, but they can honor the countless and seemingly forgotten musicians and venues of St. Louis’ past. Musicians like Charles Thompson and Harvey Lankford, Jr; venues like the Booker Washington Theatre and the Keystone Cafe. They can carry on with the crucial and important work started by Trebor Tichenor and Russell Cassidy and continued by Bryan Cather. There’s a responsibility to do so.