I'm about eight years old, and I'm at my grandparents' house in Los Angeles. My grandfather has a Victrola on which he plays a kind of music I've never heard before. Mostly piano solos, the pieces are jaunty and sad, raucous and dreamy, all at the same time. As my grandfather listens, his fingers move as though he's playing. My great-grandmothers also live in the house; they both look like Whistler's mom, and actually say things like "Land o' Goshen!" and "Well, I swan!" One afternoon some equally ancient friends are visiting in the sunroom. There's a lull in the conversation, finally broken by Great-grandma Taylor saying: "Norman, why don't you put on some of that nice whorehouse music?"
It's a few years later, I'm in New York, and someone has taken me to a silent movie. A pianist accompanying the film plays a piece that is either the happiest sad song or the saddest happy song. It sounds like the stuff my grandfather loved. Afterward, I ask the piano player if the music has a name. He tells me it's ragtime, specifically Scott Joplin's "Solace."
Post-college, I become a ragtime junkie, hooked on Joplin's melodic fragments, Jelly Roll Morton's 16th-note parentheses, Eubie Blake's spider-fingered obbligatos, and Willie "the Lion" Smith's thunderous stride style (some of the happiest jazz weekends of my life have been spent listening to Smith and to James P. Johnson jam in 1950's New York).
In the early eighties, I run into a guy playing piano in a Shakey's Pizza Parlor in the San Fernando Valley. The requests from the pizza-eaters are inevitably for overplayed hits from the score of The Sting. I ask whether he thinks ragtime will ever make a comeback. "It has," he says. "Try Sedalia."
So I've been trying it—and adoring it—every few years now. I fly to Kansas City (where I spend the night filling up on Gates Bar-B-Q spareribs), then hit Highway 50 to Sedalia, Missouri, for the annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, a five-day frenzy of musical events—concerts (free or cheap), orchestral exhibitions, old-time dances, musical picnics, parades, and vaudeville shows. It all takes place in Sedalia because a century ago Scott Joplin studied and taught there, and named his most famous piece, "The Maple Leaf Rag," in honor of his hangout, the Maple Leaf Club on Main Street.
The club is long gone, but on its site at festival time a stream of professionals and amateurs mount a tiny stage and enchant or distress the audience. Actually, it's hard to get too distressed when an 11-year-old tries to wrap his mite-sized fingers around "Dill Pickles." This is in old Sedalia, a frontier town that had the temerity to call itself the Queen City of the Prairies. (The modern side of Sedalia is instantly forgettable, but a little way out of town in any direction the country opens up.) And on well-preserved Main Street, it's not hard to imagine the cattle drives that ended here, where freight trains carried the stock to Kansas to be turned into steak. Trains still come through, about 30 feet from the stage, and it's often a measure of the musicians' hand and lung strength to be heard. No matter—you can always move on to a half-dozen other stages where musicians from around the world play all day long in 20-minute shifts.
The first afternoon I was in Sedalia I heard more rags, strides, boogie-woogies, stomps, slow drags, and barrelhouses than I knew existed. That evening, in the high school gym, composer and musician Dick Hyman played gorgeous jazz, and a young Norwegian named Morten Gunnar Larsen performed the best Jelly Roll Morton since, well, Jelly Roll Morton. And later, in the Music Hall, the legendary "Ragtime Bob" Dartch was followed by Montreal's Amazonian Mimi Blais, then New York's irascible Terry Waldo, Maine's affable Glenn Jenks, Mississippi composer/writer/artist David Thomas Roberts (whose ragtime elegy "Roberto Clemente" is one of my favorite pieces), Frank French from Boulder, Colorado (whose composition "Bucktown Buck," although named for New Orleans's Bucktown section, I like to think of as a personal homage), and a pair of French guitarists who . . . well, you get the idea.
When all this ended, I wandered over to the Best Western Hotel, where, in a large top-floor room, most of the musicians jammed into the night while a couple of historians got into a fistfight over a disputed point of ragtime arcana. A good time was had by all.
I've tried to play ragtime piano myself, but good (even passable) ragtime is devilishly tricky. It took me six months to learn Joplin's "Bethena," and two weeks to forget it. Now and then, my friend George Segal, the actor, and I have forced an audience to listen to us sing such standards as "The Charleston Rag." But the highlight of my erstwhile musical career came in one of Sedalia's theaters, where I joined festival mainstay Ian Whitcomb in a rousing rendition of "The Motion Picture Ball," backed up on piano by ragtime great and itinerant magician Dick Zimmerman.
This year's festival runs from May 31 to June 4. In the lineup: Bob Dartch, Mimi Blais, Terry Waldo, Butch Thompson, and Trebor Tichenor. Many others will perform, too—maybe even me, maybe even you, if you've got the nerve.
For more festival information, call 800/827-5295 or 660/828-2271.
YOU HAVE TO HEAR THIS
Buck Henry's recommended ragtime starter collection
• The Complete Works of Scott Joplin performed by Dick Zimmerman (four-CD set from Bescol)
• Bucktown in the Nineties by Frank French (Stomp Off)
• Fingerbreaker by Morten Gunnar Larsen (PolyGram)
• Geraldine by Mimi Blais (Les Productions Targart)
• Best of New Orleans Piano by David Thomas Roberts (Mardi Gras Records)
• Ragtime Bigtime by Glenn Jenks (Stomp Off)
• And, for an excellent overview of the major composers and players, A Century of Ragtime (two-CD set from Vanguard)