Despite rainy skies outside, the Stauffacher Center for the Fine Arts at State Fair Community College was filled with eager attendees ready for the first day of the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival.
Wednesday saw a full lineup of ragtime artists at SFCC, including the afternoon Kickoff Concert, featuring festival favorites Daniel Souvigney, Phillip Dyson, Frederick Hodges, John Remmers, Bryan Wright, Bill Edwards and Faye Ballard.
Many of the concert’s performers are far from strangers in Sedalia, as they have been performing at the Scott Joplin Festival for years, or even decades. 2015 marks the 10th year in a row pianist Bryan Wright, of Pittsburgh, Pa., has performed in Sedalia.
“(I come for) the people,” he said. “I have a lot of friends among the performers as well as the audience. I love the music of course, I got into it for the music, but I come back because it’s like a family reunion.”
Wright began studying classical piano as a child, but said he got bored with the “rigidity of it, always being asked to play exactly the way the composer wrote it,” so he switched to ragtime.
“I appreciate the flexibility within ragtime,” he said. “It’s not quite jazz, we’re not expected to just launch into a solo and improvise. It’s fun to play I think, and there’s enough freedom for the performer to change it, which keeps it fresh to me.”
For the past few years, Wright has had a partner in his ragtime performances — his wife, Yuko Eguchi.
“She came with me a few years ago and we were not performing together at that time, and people started asking, ‘When is your wife going to do something with you?’ She’s a pianist herself and sings traditional Japanese music. She was able to compromise and sing some ragtime music with me,” Wright said with a laugh. “We’ve been doing duets for three years now, we always try to work up a few new numbers when we come to this.”
Eguchi will be joining him at the Stark Pavilion on Saturday afternoon and they have “a couple special surprises cooked up for that. We try to have fun with that last Saturday set. … It’s becoming a little tradition,” Wright said.
Bill Edwards is also a frequent performer at the Scott Joplin Festival. He’s been attending for at least 12 years, but his love of ragtime far surpasses his time in Sedalia. It began when his parents were going through a divorce while he was a young child.
“I was 5-years-old, and it’s a very sad time for anyone in that situation, and my dad left some ragtime records behind that he wasn’t fond of, and I listened to those and escaped, and it was happy music,” he said. “By the time I was 6 I knew what I wanted to be and I still am. I’m a little boy who plays ragtime.
“You cannot be unhappy with really good ragtime, blues, jazz. It’s musical joy.”
Like Wright and many other performers, Edwards said coming to the festival is a reunion of the ragtime community.
“The camaraderie is a very good thing,” Edwards said. “We’re in a genre of music where musicians trade ideas, rather than try and bite each other’s back, like in classical, rock, even country, it’s not as friendly. We’re very friendly, we often do duets together. It’s meeting old friends.”
Edwards said he also loves the history of Sedalia, and the opportunity to present ragtime to a new audience every year.
Faye Ballard, like Wright, also called the annual Scott Joplin Festival a “family reunion.”
“It’s just a lot of fun to see some of your old friends, and it’s just a fun entertainment venue,” she said. “All of these people are here to have a good time and they give you such a wonderful, warm reception.”
Ballard got her start in ragtime at age 10 when she heard Les Cripe, the pianist for the Harry James Band. She began competing in the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest in Peoria, Ill., at age 12, where she is now the contest coordinator.
“I love the challenge of (ragtime), because if you’re going to do it and do it well, you have to be a decent classical player, you need to understand jazz,” she said when asked why she enjoys ragtime. “You have to have a good solid knowledge of not just classical technique but the chord structure. You have to be a well-rounded musician if you’re going to do ragtime, and do it justice.”