Features and Reviews
Rocked in the Cradle of Ragtime
By Fred Hoeptner
Flying into Kansas City for what has become an annual spiritual regression into the cradle of ragtime, I looked down through scattered fluff past the sparkle of the Missouri River to the green, rolling Missouri countryside that had spawned the syncopated musical genre. This year's agenda included the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, the Blind Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival in Columbia, and a special concert by the Ophelia Ragtime Orchestra in Kansas City. The pleasant two-hour drive through the undulating Missouri countryside passed quickly and, having eaten little since 5:00 a.m., I arrived in Sedalia just in time to avoid starvation by partaking at the local Ryan's all-you-can-eat buffet.
After registering at the motel, I headed for downtown Sedalia and the Scott Joplin Park, where a free preliminary musical program was underway directed by Sue Keller and John Petley. This is the event for meeting and greeting all the ragtimers whom you haven't seen since last year. A friend from Canada wanted me to hear her perform one of my compositions, so we wound up the evening at the elegant Victorian era home of one of the Sedalia locals who is a pianist and music teacher.
The 25th consecutive festival (there were two others back in the early 1980s) opened Thursday morning, June 2, with the vintage costume contest and parade down Ohio Ave. from the Liberty Center auditorium to Joplin Park, on the site of the demolished Maple Leaf Club. The contest winners were a couple who had just retired to Sedalia from Pasadena, CA, in order to purchase and restore a Victorian home. Riding in some of the twenty or so vintage automobiles were the local politicos and Keller and Petley in a rumble seat. Our local washboardist Kitty Wilson accompanied a three-piece Dixieland group on the flatbed of a truck. Following a few short speeches and musical selections, and some pertinent announcements (78 performers this year, more than ever before; two new free venues this year—the restored Katy Railroad Depot replacing the gazebo and the VFW Hall replacing the tea dance tent), Scott Kirby officially kicked off the festival playing the theme rag, "Leola."
Soon it was time for the stroll back up Ohio to Liberty Center auditorium for the Kickoff Concert. This year it featured a tribute to composer Joseph F. Lamb and celebrated the publishing of a new folio of his previously unpublished instrumentals and songs, A Little Lost Lamb. Lamb's daughter, Patricia Lamb Conn, had found the manuscripts in his effects and three years ago asked Sue Keller to prepare and publish the scores so that they would be available. Between selections Pat recited anecdotes of growing up in the Lamb household. "Patricia Rag," played by Mimi Blais as a tango, had been named before Pat was born, apparently by John Stark, Lamb's publisher, who used cover artwork originally prepared for another project. At the family dinner table Joe would pridefully repeat his famous anecdote about meeting Scott Joplin in John Stark's office, and then being invited to play for Joplin and guests at a gathering in Joplin's apartment, so often that the kids would silently protest "Here he goes again." Pat took piano lessons for eight years, but when she queried her teacher about learning some of her father's rags the teacher shook her finger and admonished "Don't you ever play that music." Fearing her, Pat ostensibly complied, but she would play it surreptitiously anyway; however, her rhythm seemingly left something to be desired. She recalled her father chiding from the kitchen, "Pat, won't you count that thing." John Remmers performed Lamb's seldom-heard "Beehive Rag." Sue Keller, piano, and Jim Radloff vocalized on "I Want to Be a Bird Man," Steve Standiford on tuba, with lyrics by one "G. Satterly," which Pat thought was a Lamb pseudonym. Sophie Rivard, violin, and Mimi Blais, piano, duetted with appealing renditions of "Bohemia" and the newly published "Brown Derby," the latter reminiscent of salon music of the twenties. Joined by John Petley, piano, they capped the concert with "Champagne Rag" as Sue uncorked champagne and served it to the performers and the first row audience.
After grabbing a bowl of homemade soup and a sandwich at the United Methodist Church, I headed for the afternoon Cradle of Ragtime concert, which features rags by Missouri composers. Folk ragster Trebor Tichenor from St. Louis gratified with "Coon Hollow Capers," which had been a staple of Sedalia's Queen City Cornet Band from the 1890s, and a Brun Campbell medley. Susan Cordell, protégé of the late Bob Darch, performed Charlie Thompson's seldom heard "Delmar Rag" as transcribed by Swedish ragtimer Kjell Waltman from a recording. However, there were also less appealing aspects. Alex Sandor did Joplin no favors with his overly arranged "Scott Joplin's New Rag," embellished with pretentious pseudo-classical flourishes. Marty Mincer raced through Lamb's "Bohemia" and Scott's "Efficiency Rag," obscuring much of their charm.
Thursday evening the party for donors to the Scott Joplin Foundation was held at the elegantly restored Katy Depot to the accompaniment of live ragtime. Wandering teens served an assortment of hors d'oeuvres that one had to stab with toothpicks and place on tiny plates to consume. The trick here is to garner enough to serve as an evening meal, which all attending seemed able to do. The Ragtime Dance followed at the fairgrounds to the syncopated strains of the superb nine-piece Sunflower Ragtime Orchestra, many of the dancers sporting elegant period attire. The highlight cakewalk contest, however, was won by a young couple from Germany dressed in casual street clothes.
I arose early Friday morning to attend the annual ragtime societies meeting initiated by Rod Tillman of the Ragtime for Tulsa Foundation to allow representatives of the various ragtime societies to compare notes on their operating procedures, festivals, and concerts. I then headed downtown to the United Methodist Church where the symposia were getting underway.
Dr. Paul Stewart, professor of music at University of North Carolina, led off with Banjos, Bands, and Bars, a survey of the cultural factors affecting ragtime during its formative years, 1899 to 1905. He cited some of the ludicrous contemporary assertions about its deleterious effects such as that from an 1899 music magazine that it would cause the brain to "stagnate." He also offered his own unique (and undocumented) theory on the origin of the word "ragtime." A prostitute was said to be "on the rag" during her menstrual period when she could not practice her profession, and instead would entertain in the bordello by dancing with customers to the pianist's strains; hence, her "rag period" or "rag time." It seemed rather far-fetched to me and to others whom I heard discussing it.
Squeek Steele, professional entertainer from Virginia City, NV demonstrated her techniques for accompanying silent movies to the screening of the Laurel and Hardy comedy Dirty Work and the John Barrymore film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The horror movie evoked numerous tone clusters and her comment, "Thank God for the diminished seventh chord."
Trebor Tichenor presented his Music of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, updated and augmented with information from a newly published study by Dr. Richard Schwartz, who has compiled all the printed programs of the bands playing at the fair. While Sousa's band programmed numerous cakewalks and the other bands at least a few each, non-classical (including ragtime) selections still constituted only about 10% of the offerings. "The Entertainer" was performed once, on the plaza, while Victor Herbert's 1901 piece "Panamericana" (which does include some syncopation) was performed 41 times.
After relatively sparse attendance at the first two concerts, The Legacy of Scott Joplin attracted nearly a full house. Jeff Barnhart opened with a rather elaborate arrangement of "The Entertainer" that included a boogie base on the second strain repeat and some added runs on the final strain repeat. Other highlights were Donald Ryan with "Leola" and "Solace," demonstrating how entrancingly a proficient classically-trained concert pianist can style a performance while adhering strictly to the score; Brian Holland stomping through an arrangement of "Pineapple Rag" a la Jelly Roll Morton; guitarist John DeChiaro accompanying whistler Mary Francis Herndon on "Bethena;" Scott Kirby with "Magnetic Rag;" and Jeff Barnhart capping the concert with his arrangement of "Swipesy Cakewalk" in the spirit of the original.
I was fortunate to obtain a ticket to the sold-out barbecue dinner (accompanied by live ragtime of course) at the State Fair Community College. After the feast many of us participated in a cleverly devised fun game at the adjoining Daum Art Museum where the object was to match a list of ragtime tune titles to a list of art works that the titles suggested. Then it was off to the fairgrounds for the Easy Winners Concert.
Scott Kirby hosted the Friday evening concert featuring a variety of ragtime and related music. He led off with "Peacherine," "The Strenuous Life," and "Magnetic Rag." Mimi Blais (piano) and Sophie Rivard (violin) continued Mimi's seeming obsession with the works of fellow Quebecois Jean-Baptiste LaFreniere. Known as "the Canadian Strauss" for his waltzes, he composed eight rather unexceptional rags during the ragtime era. Of course, Mimi and Sophie can convert even the most mundane material into delectable fare. However, their rendition of "Graceful Ghost" by Balcom, replete with double stops on the violin, was memorable. Sophie remained onstage for two duets with Scott Kirby, Joplin's "Paragon" and (with Louis Chauvin) "Heliotrope Bouquet." A set of four by a duo from Quebec known as "Two Pianos Alive," whose bombastic propensities often exceeded their discretion, led into the intermission. Consummate strider Paul Asaro opened the second half with a set of five. Memorable were Thompson's "Lily Rag," James P. Johnson's seldom heard, introspective " Blueberry Rhyme," a fantastic emulation of Fats Waller playing and singing "I Wish I Were Twins," and "Caravan," per arrangement borrowed from pianist Dick Wellstood, performed to a standing ovation. However, the climax was yet to come. The TurpinTyme Ragsters from Kansas City—cornet, clarinet, tenor sax (doubling on piccolo), trombone, tuba, piano, and drums—offered precision arrangements of cakewalks and rags in the authentic ragtime mold. "Mississippi Rag" was played in its original "patrol" format—as if a band were parading past the listener. The Ragsters also performed Mills' "At a Georgia Camp Meeting," Johnson's "Blue Goose" with its entrancingly melodic trio, Bennett's "St. Louis Tickle," Lamb's obscure slow drag, "Rapid Transit," Scott's "Grace and Beauty," and four others in elegant period style. I then headed for the Best Western for the "after-hours" events.
Saturday morning the symposia resumed with Rod Biensen's Wally Rose Remembered. Biensen praised Rose, the pianist with Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz band, as the one who had single handedly kept ragtime popular during the 1940s and early 1950s when virtually none was being performed. Gary Kremer, Executive Director of the State Historical Society of Missouri and social historian, followed with Scott Joplin's Sedalia, a study of the perils, prejudices, and injustices that blacks faced during the early ragtime era in Missouri including racist quotes from various newspapers. Even so, Kremer suggested that Sedalia must have seemed an inviting place to the young Scott Joplin. As a railroad center in the 1890s it had attractive cosmopolitan attributes: a population larger that that of Jefferson City or Columbia, a federal garrison such that blacks felt protected, an area called "Lincolnville" that the city's founder had set aside for black residents, and a strong black community with culturally rich institutions including churches, fraternal lodges, musical organizations, and a black newspaper.
In the final symposium Scott Kirby presented Perspectives on Scott Joplin, "an effort to understand Joplin through his music." Admitting to not being a scholar, he relied on Berlin's book, Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, for much of his background material. Joplin and his publisher John Stark had strong ideals to further ragtime as concert music. Joplin eschewed flashiness; his instruction not to play ragtime "fast" was a reaction to "Maple Leaf Rag's" use in piano "cutting" contests.
After lunch it was back to Liberty Center for the Ragtime Revelations concert, focusing on newly composed ragtime, or at least ragtime composed after the "ragtime era." Host Jack Rummel began with several of his compositions. Our local washboardist Kitty Wilson accompanied him on "Lone Jack to Knob Noster." Other highlights were Mimi Blais, with Roberts' "Roberto Clemente," Trebor Tichenor with his "Bucksnort Stomp" ("the deer would smell the moonshine and snort"), and Sophie and Mimi with Frank French's "Centennial Cakewalk," and Rummel's ragtime waltz, "When the Work's All Done I'll Dance." Bill Long, member of the foundation board, then presented the Scott Joplin award for achievement in the field of ragtime to an emotionally moved Jack Rummel. College phenom Adam Yarian, who performed for the Rose Leaf Club last March, closed the program with two of his showstoppers: "Royal Garden Blues" and "I Found a New Baby."
Following the concert I strolled over to the "John Stark Pavilion," occupying Fifth Street next to the county courthouse, where popular emcee Bill Long was hosting a series of 20-minute sessions. The venue's festive ambiance and Long's camaraderie with the audience enhanced the performances. The tent was filled to overflowing with appreciative listeners extending out onto the courthouse lawn.
Sue Keller hosted the major Saturday night concert, The Entertainer, at the fairgrounds. Alex Sandor opened with "The Cascades" taken at a fast clip, but still he aced the difficult third strain. His father, Tim, joined for four more numbers, concluding with an elaborate arrangement of "Great Scott Rag." The Butch Thompson Trio (Butch, piano; Marty Eggers, bass; and Hal Smith, drums) followed with a varied set of stride and ragtime in informal style, including Morton's "The Crave," "Rag Bag Rag" by Dink Johnson, and "Smokehouse Blues by Charles Luke. Classical pianist and professor Tony Caramia took over for an eclectic set of five ranging from the 1899 cakewalk "Walkin' de Rainbow Road" through a delightful arrangement of Pauline Alpert's 1935 "Ivory Tips" to a modernistic arrangement of Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow," with vocal by Sue Keller. After the intermission the Tichenor Family Five (Trebor and Virginia, piano; Marty Eggers, bass and tuba; Andy Tichenor, trumpet; and Susanna Tichenor, violin and viola) finished out the concert with a varied set of rags and stomps. Butch Thompson joined on clarinet and Hal Smith on drums to conclude with Papa Charlie Jackson's 1926 "Shake That Thing."
It was time for the annual drive back across Sedalia to Liberty Center for the Ragtime Music Hall, a pastiche of vaudeville, tomfoolery, and high jinks emceed by John Petley. Mimi led off with "Hello, Ma Honey," "Too Much Mustard," and "Everybody's Doing It" sung in French and English. John entered and they launched into their "Last Temptation of Bach from the Well-Tempted Clavier" routine where Lodge's "Temptation Rag" is converted to a fugue. Keller and Holland soon began the animal portion of the show with "Lion Tamer Rag," "The Chips Are Down," and a western skit—Keller singing "Cow-Cow Boogie" and "Get Along, Little Dogies" with Barnhart and Holland performing as dogies. Reciting the story of "Frankie and Albert" (later retitled "Frankie and Johnny"), Dick Kroeckel played and sang it and the droll "Don't Go n the Lion's Cage Tonight," with choral accompaniment (or perhaps harassment). The Dave Majchrzak Trio (piano, helicon, and banjo) closed the festivities with a set including "Alabama Jubilee" and "Twelfth Street Rag" and concluding with "Tiger Rag" as Mimi emerged on a leash costumed as a tiger.
The Sunday morning brunch at the Best Western Motel provided an opportunity for socializing and goodbyes. I then headed for Columbia and the Blind Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival.