The annual Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival is always a reunion for the men and women who are passionate about the history, culture and joy of the traditions of Ragtime.
This year’s event is no different as it commemorates the “legends” of Ragtime with the return of many of the key players who were instrumental in founding the inaugural festival in 1974: Max Morath, David Reffkin, Terry Waldo, Richard Zimmerman and Larry Melton.
It was Melton who in 1974 had a dream to develop and bring a Ragtime festival to Sedalia where Joplin wrote the landmark “Maple Leaf Rag,”
“Larry is so self-motivated and he inspired others to take part in the first event,” Reffkin said. “”He created a Ragtime event that is the model for all others across the United States; he truly is a legend of Ragtime.”
Although Melton has not been present at all of the Festivals, he has become the custodian of the Ragtime Archives, which was one of the purposes of the Symposium featuring the ragtime legends, hosted Thursday morning at the Liberty Center Association for the Arts.
“We’re here this morning not only to put on a show for you with our panel,” Reffkin, who served as the moderator for the discussion, said, “But we’re also here to archive the discussion for you as well.
“Laughs are OK throughout the discussion, but it’s also OK if you are moved to tears too,” Reffkin added. “If you were here at one of the events in’74 or ‘75 we want to give you time to come and tell your own story too.”
The video project will become part of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation Archives, a project Melton is given much of the credit for as well.
Melton, a humble man, is quick to point out he should not be given credit for the Festival or the archives, but he rather gives credit to the countless efforts of many individuals who have helped make the Festival what it is today.
“This year really is a bookend for me of 40 years of following and watching the story of the Festival as it has developed,” Melton said Thursday afternoon. “Even when I haven’t been directly involved for a number of years this is such a large part of who I am.
“I have secretly followed the careers of all of the performers who have been a part of the Festival, many of whom have become very dear friends,” Melton added. “(The Festival) is a gift that most people don’t have in a lifetime that I am so, so grateful for.”
Melton said there was no way he could mention all the individuals who were responsible for keeping the spirit and the heritage of Joplin and the history of the Festival alive.
“I can’t thank everyone, but I do know anything I got credit for bounces off Karen, my wife,” Melton said. “Her patience and care and love have been so important to me and I am extremely grateful to her and so many others.”
The four men on the stage Thursday morning were a large factor in that development of the Joplin Festival and keeping the heritage of Ragtime alive.
“I know that we are billed as the legends of Ragtime,” Morath said during the symposium. “There are only two real legends of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake.”
Blake, who played at the ’74 Festival, is the tie between what Melton calls the first generation, Joplin and Blake, and the second generation, those who spoke during the morning symposium Thursday.
“Those men who were on the stage (Thursday) morning really are amazing men and are living legends,” Melton said. “I know they don’t like the names but they truly are legends.”
He added that during this year’s Festival, the fifth generation of performers would be taking the stage, but it is much different from those early performances.
“One of the reasons I hoped to create the video archive is to listen to these men tell their stories,” Melton said. “I was so tense and nervous during the first Festival and there were so many unexpected things that happened that I only heard one concert and the Sunday afternoon performance.
“After the first year we were in the red and we decided that the only way we were able to get in the black and try to make it was to get out and do it again the next year,” Melton said. “I still have nightmares about those first two festivals when I stop and think about how I was having all these world class musicians moving folding chairs and tables and helping to set everything up; if one of those chairs would have snapped on a finger it could have ruined a lifetime career.”
Each of the men spoke fondly of their experiences in Sedalia during the early festivals.
“I remember when I got here it was so hot that I went to my car that I fell asleep in my car,” Morath said. “I woke up and ran to the stage door as Dick was introducing me to take the stage.
“I played the big hit of 1974, “The Entertainer,” which was No. 3 on the Billboard hits for that year and everyone knew because of the movie the ‘Sting’ and I remember I was taking a few liberties with the song,” Morath added. “I would like to call it ‘improvising’ when a young man called out to me, ‘play it as written;’ that’s my memory of the first concert.”
Zimmerman, who was the musical director for the first Festival, commented on the mythical view of Sedalia he had developed prior to his arrival.
“They asked me to be a part of the first Festival because I knew how to stage and direct an event,” Zimmerman said. “I knew when I first arrived and I saw Liberty Park and Convention Hall that I had a challenge on my hands with the show but it all came together and I love the town and the people here.
“There truly is something magical about Sedalia, the old buildings and the history,” he added.
Waldo too finds something magical in ragtime.
“I play (ragtime) because I was attracted to the music,” Waldo said. “It spoke to me, that’s why I played it. It’s hard to find a real piano anywhere these days because everything is electronic.
“Sedalia and the Festival are the first chance that many people have to hear pure Ragtime,” he added.
Melton, through his archival work, plans to keep Sedalia the focus of ragtime for years to come.
“I’m so grateful the archives will have a permanent home with the Heritage Foundation at the Katy Depot,” Melton said. “They will soon become the official owners of the collection.
“Shortly after the first event one of the performers said to me, ‘playing ragtime in Sedalia would be like playing opera in Vienna,’” Melton added. “We thought about it and realized that no, Sedalia is the Sedalia of the music world and is responsible for playing a unique role in the development of American music.”
Hope Lecchi can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1484