Remembering Leslie Johnson and The Mississippi Rag4 minute read

This month I’m not so much blowing off the dust as I am clearing out some cobwebs, and delightful cobwebs they are thanks to Andy Senior’s TST feature on Leslie Carole Johnson (September, 2017).

As I read his wonderful tribute I began roaming down the cluttered corridors of my memory back to 1973 when ragtime was again in vogue and Leslie began publishing The Mississippi Rag (MR). Her familiar `masthead lured me through my mental cobwebs to my early acquaintance with the publisher of that revered ancestor of The Syncopated Times (TST).

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A Classic Reference

Leslie and husband, Dennis Johnson had eclectic interests and music was an important one. When the couple realized that their favorite performers, composers, and groups were not getting the publicity they deserved in the 1970s, Leslie decided to launch her publication as “The Voice of Traditional Jazz and Ragtime.” After over thirty-five years of publication, those editions now form a classic reference on the music and the incredible people who created and performed it.

Stay with me as I’m about to ramble a bit but I promise to get back on subject. I came to know of Leslie’s ambitious enterprise from Max Morath. Max and Dennis were friends and they were organizing a roadshow called “The Jazz Train” in 1973.

The Jazz Train

Dennis was also a railroad buff and had a beautiful old parlor car he restored and wanted to hook up to Amtrak trains and travel around the country with a collection of talented musicians, performing along the way. Iron Horse Limited was his production company that included Max. The famous Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band (of Mendota, Minnesota’s Jazz Emporium) was also featured and included Butch Thompson, Mike Polad, with Tom and Bob Andrews. Banjoist Father Al Lewis from New Orleans rounded out the headliners. The performers were masters of America’s first musical forms from ragtime to Dixieland and traditional Jazz.

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I was an incredibly inexperienced festival planner working to produce the first Sedalia Ragtime Festival and Max, in his humble way was mentoring the effort.

I was approached to schedule one of the pre-festival Jazz Train concerts in Sedalia in the Spring of 1973. It was to be a leap I was completely incapable of making. However, to make a long, sad story as short as I’m capable of condensing it…Amtrak wouldn’t allow the parlor car so they had to use a chartered bus. To compound their problems I had rented the Horse Coliseum at the state fairgrounds for the concert with a feeble sound system, truck headlights for lighting, and three flatbed trailers for a stage. After semi-mucking out the arena to set up chairs we welcomed an audience of 40 to a venue seating over a thousand. The lingering odor of the barn was the least of my problems.

In the great tradition of professional entertainers, the men performed as if they were in Carnegie Hall and the Scott Joplin-laden program thrilled the tiny audience. Max and Dennis graciously took the loss the concert incurred and we learned some valuable lessons about producing musical events out in the boondocks. To this day, Max plays down the disaster that was his “welcome to the Cradle of Ragtime.”

The Rag Gets Rolling

Now to get back on subject. As all this was transpiring, Leslie was starting up The Mississippi Rag to feature Jazz groups like the Hall Brothers who weren’t getting much publicity in those days up in Minnesota. Dennis helped every way he could, and even after their divorce Dennis continued helping with The MR as Leslie’s intrepid, “RAGman Friday.”

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Leslie asked me to write an article on Scott Joplin and be the correspondent from Sedalia. Now that was quite an honor for that tiny town to have their own reporter listed among major music centers like Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis, Detroit, and Toronto. When I was also given a by-line I felt as Jimmy Olsen must have the first time Perry White gave him credit in the Daily Planet. My uncashed Mississippi Rag check #24 for $8.76 is a treasure I kept and donated to the Sedalia Ragtime Archive.

Well, my contributions were meager to Leslie’s paper, though the Festival did get a nice article in the first issue (November, 1973; Max on the cover) with a photo of Butch Thompson at the Joplin Monument. Butch was the Associate Editor of The MR when he wasn’t playing piano in his own band or with Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion.

Knowledgeable Writers

My sophomoric article on Joplin appeared in issue number two in December. That meteoric career as a correspondent was short-lived back then and I was replaced by a far more competent musician/journalist, David Reffkin, who faithfully reported on the Sedalia festivals (he hasn’t missed one to this day).

For much of the run of The Mississippi Rag David also provided transcripts of his best radio programs he was producing as The Ragtime Machine for San Francisco radio station KUSF. (David’s nearly 30 years of audio tapes are now at the Stanford University Archive of Recorded Sound in the Braun Music Center, and will probably have the dust blown off of them soon.) David’s interview with Karen and I in the December 1990 MR issue provided a fifteen-year recollection of the 1974 Sedalia Festival.

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Other Papers

In addition to Andy Senior’s recap in TST last month, I refer readers to Paige VanVorst’s (Jazzology.com) recollections of Leslie Carole Johnson and The Mississippi Rag at tinyurl.com/vanvorstjohnson. Paige has been writing insightful articles on Jazz through all the earlier incarnations of TST.

And so The Syncopated Times is now the third generation of publications dedicated to the promotion of traditional jazz, ragtime and now Swing (with the publication of Don and Cathy Jones’s, The American Rag, sandwiched in the middle.) But as I read Andy’s article last month, I realized what a privilege it is to have been involved at the beginning of this venerable series of publications and after 44 years again to be providing filler! (Jimmy Olsen has to be envious.)

I know of several complete collections of all three newspapers and like Andy, I am also trying to fill gaps in the Sedalia Archive collection. I am attempting to gather some duplicate copies though to ship to Utica and I encourage others to do the same. Not that Andy needs any inspiration or motivation as he seems to have plenty of both.

However, he will perhaps be able to mine some ideas from those old articles and appreciate that all his effort has been preceded by similar dedication.

Thanks to Andy Senior for remembering this remarkable woman and pointing out that through her last four years of terrible illness and approaching blindness, Leslie Carole Johnson didn’t miss getting out a single issue of The Mississippi Rag.

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