Excerpt from the Charles Templeton Ragtime and Jazz Festival 2022 – The Syncopated Times
I made my first visit to the Charles Templeton Ragtime and Jazz Festival the last weekend in March at Mississippi State University in Starkville. This festival is perhaps unique in that it takes place on a large university campus while school is in session.
It began with a Gatsby-themed fashion show in the lobby of the Mitchell Memorial Library, which also houses Templeton’s vast and outstanding collection of antique phonographs and vintage sheet music. When I asked about the relationship between the fashion show and the music, I was told that there were plans to involve the college more in the festival. The fashion models were designed and made by MSU students. Looking at the bigger picture, I can see this as an overall benefit, but these were by no means Ragtime-era styles. The 45-minute show was accompanied by Jeff Barnhart, the festival’s musical director, on piano with his wife Anne on vocals.
Before arriving, I learned from the festival website that MSU also houses the US Grant Presidential Library. I arrived quite early on Thursday to take a tour. How did Grant’s archives end up in Mississippi? They transferred from Southern Illinois University because of a personal connection between the former head of the US Grant Association and his successor, who taught at MSU. An addition to the Mitchell Library has been made to house the exhibits and documents, and it is a nice addition.
This festival is more loaded with seminars and scholarly discussions than others I have attended. Therefore, there is only one concert per day. This keeps the expense down for the musicians, but the entry fee is so modest that I would gladly pay a little more if it meant either hiring more musicians or adding a set or two of music with the performers on hand.
On the card, in addition to the Barnharts, were pianists Adam Swanson and Donald Ryan, drummer Josh Duffee from Davenport and multi-instrumentalist TJ Muller from St. Louis. He played banjo, acoustic and resonator guitar, trumpet and trombone, and sang.
MSU has a very attractive campus, although I dare say it ranks second to rival Ole Miss. All events took place at two locations. The seminars and fashion show were at the Mitchell Library and the evening concerts were at McComas Hall Theater about a 5 minute walk away. There are a variety of eating places on campus, so there was no need to leave for meals.
The Charles Templeton collection of antique musical machines and sheet music deserves a column in itself, and one will be forthcoming. I spent nearly an hour with the benefactor’s son Chip (Charles Jr.) learning how the collection came about.
The first Friday morning seminar was a tour of part of the collection, led by Jeff Barnhart and Lynda Graham, the museum’s full-time custodian. They also organized the “back room” visit on Saturday morning. The museum alone is worth the trip.
The other seminar themes and their leaders, in addition to the two presentations from the Templeton Collection, were: The Legacy of Early Twentieth-Century Music in St. Louis by TJ Muller; the teaching and writing of pop music history by Joseph Thompson, professor in the Department of History at MSU; the life and music of Janice Cleary with Adam Swanson; Race and the Early Popular Music Industry by MSU PhD Candidate Xavier Sivels; an analysis of ragtime throughout its history by Donald Ryan; and a “show-and-tell” of drum sets (or more accurately percussion) from Josh Duffee. Aside from the Templeton collection, I found those of TJ, Adam, and Josh the most entertaining, not only because I know those guys, but because their topics, in my opinion, were most directly related to the objective of the festival.
A word (or three) on Adam’s presentation: in her 96th birthday, Janice Cleary has amassed a collection of 46,000 scores which was previewed in these pages a few months ago. Adam, an avid collector himself, befriended Janice, who lived in Omaha, not far from where Adam’s parents live. It has been determined in consultation with the most competent and dedicated authorities that MSU should become the home of the collection. The cataloging and digitization process has just begun. Members of Janice’s family were present this weekend.
Now onto the evening concerts. The pianists performed solo or in duos. There was also the “Sweet and Hot Quartet” with Jeff, Anne, TJ and Josh, then the six musicians were together for the finale. On Friday evening, the annual Keyone Docher Award was presented. It honors an MSU music student who died shortly after his performance in 2014. This year’s recipient was Madeline Lee, a junior pursuing a Bachelor of Music degree with a concentration in oboe. She performed two numbers, both of which were very well received.
An addition to the weekend’s events, although not part of the program and therefore not seen by festival-goers, was Donald’s performance in front of 400 students from the MSU Partnership School. I interviewed Donald one evening which will be the subject of a future column.
Among the highlights of the concerts, Josh on the xylophone evoking his hero Teddy Brown, the piano duets with Jeff and Adam or Donald, and the Saturday finale where Jeff played the trombone of TJ! All of the individual and ensemble performances were top notch (not that I expected less).
The concerts were much more popular than the seminars. It occurred to me that registrations for the whole festival are low, which is a shame; its quality should command a much larger crowd. The seminar room was planned for about fifty people, but only about two-thirds of the seats were occupied. Obviously, this festival has room to grow, and should. The facilities on campus and those in Starkville are well able to absorb a much larger crowd. It’s the only such festival in the Southeast, and Starkville, while not near a major transportation hub, isn’t too difficult to reach. This is an event I would return to, as the roster of musicians (and possibly seminar presenters) changes every year.