Newcomer to the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, Jazzou Jones, a pianist, composer and singer, was truly happy to perform Thursday morning at Gazebo Park in downtown Sedalia. Coming to the festival has always been on his list of the things to do; after retirement he got his wish.
“This is my first visit,” he told the Democrat after his performance. “I’ve always wanted to come here, but because of my riverboat commitments — I worked for the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. for a long time — I just couldn’t get here.”
Jones, of Bangor, Maine, is a classically-trained musician who composes ragtime music and often plays and sings riverboat-themed music. According to his biography, he was a cruise director, an entertainer and solo pianist on the Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen and American Queen steamboats. He is also a piano entertainer for American Cruise Lines at various ports along Maine’s coast.
“I entertain on boats and ships wherever I can,” he added. “Along the coast of Maine in the summertime we have cruise lines, so I go on board and do my ragtime show for them.”
He said he was drawn to ragtime music because his grandparents played it.
“I’ve been interested in it from a young age,” Jones said. “When I got out of music school, it was right around the time ‘The Sting’ was coming out and ragtime was getting popular again. So it was right in line for me to start playing.”
On Thursday, Jones formed a trio on stage with his friend Bob Schad, of Kansas City, and Steve Standiford, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jones played piano and sang, Schad played a banjo and sang, while Standiford played a tuba. The men played several riverboat-themed songs including “Riverboat Days,” Mighty Mississippi” and “Oceania Roll.”
Jones said his longtime friend Schad was one reason he was performing at the festival.
“We met on board the Mississippi Queen in 1981,” he noted. “We often worked together as as a duo, a piano and banjo singing duo. Then we both became cruise directors for the lines, so our schedules didn’t coincide as much.
“Now that we’re both kind of finished with that, we do gigs together now and then, whenever we can,” he added. “He lives in Kansas City and I live in Maine, so it’s few and far between, but we get together several times a year.”
Jones and Schad were close to Sedalia in April when they played at the Big Muddy Festival in Boonville.
“We have some nice Missouri connections,” Jones said.
His favorite original ragtime composition is “High Water,” written in 1981, which he played for audience members Thursday morning.
“A riverboat is mighty fast,” he told the audience. “So, I tried to reflect the feeling of what it’s like to be on a riverboat during the high water season. It received its premiere performance on the Delta Queen on May 5, 1982, at mile 417.5 on the Ohio River.
“It’s my favorite one to play,” he added later. “It was the first one I wrote, so it has a special place in my heart.”
When asked about his name, Jones said Jazzou is a stage name.
“It’s a mixture of Jazz and Yazoo River, it’s a lower Mississippi tributary,” he said. “Some passenger dubbed me that late one night in the lounge.”
Jones added that the Scott Joplin Festival is “wonderful.”
“This is a beautiful town,” he said. “Being in New England, we have an appreciation for the heartland. This is the heart of America. It’s great to be here where the music began — there’s something very special about that.
“I feel like I’m making a pilgrimage,” Jones added. “I’ve always wanted to come to Sedalia in particular.”
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss.