COLUMBIA — A lone piano sat on the Missouri Theatre stage, but the lively pianist playing it was animated enough to captivate the entire audience as he tapped his heel in time with the music while his hands flew over the piano keys. The “Blind” Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival commenced Sunday afternoon with a solo performance by Morten Gunnar Larsen of Oslo, Norway.
“He’s a superstar. He’s probably the finest performer of his type,” said Lucille Salerno, the festival’s artistic director. “We are grateful to have him perform.”
Many of the ragtime fans attending the festival agreed with Salerno’s review of Larsen.
“Morten Gunnar Larsen is the greatest of all,” John Bauman, who attended the concert, said. “Seeing him makes the year.”
Larsen has appeared at the festival 10 times and has performed regularly since 2002. Seeing a solo ragtime performance is a treat for some fans.
“This is really unique because he doesn’t do solos all that often,” Salerno said. “It’s unusual to have a solo concert at a ragtime show.”
The “Blind” Boone festival began in 1991 and is a three-day affair, running Sunday through Tuesday at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts at 203 S. Ninth St. It features daytime and evening concerts each day, along with several seminars and a visit to “Blind” Boone’s home, grave site and piano.
John William “Blind” Boone was a ragtime composer and pianist who made his home in Columbia in 1889. When he was six months old, doctors removed both his eyes in an effort to cure his “brain fever.” He became a popular pianist during the late 19th century and early 20th century.
At the end of each night of the festival is an event titled “Afterglow” at the Regency Hotel in downtown Columbia, where performers and “raggies,” or ragtime lovers, can mingle and continue to enjoy music.
According to Salerno, the festival is a celebration of the very first genre of American music.
“Ragtime has a special meaning to Columbia because the pioneer in developing this form of American music was ‘Blind’ Boone,” Salerno said. “Missouri is where American music that is purely American music began.”
Also featured in the festival is John Davis of Brooklyn, N.Y., who recently released an album titled “Marshfield Tornado: John Davis Plays Blind Boone.” Unlike veteran performer Larsen, this year will be Davis’ first appearance at the “Blind” Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival.
“This album is Boone’s entire musical output, showing he’s more of a classical musician,” Davis said. “He never fully embraced the ragtime movement. Classical salon music was most of what he wrote.”
An immersion in African-American music at an early age sparked Davis’ interest in ragtime.
“I started looking at “Blind” Boone and “Blind” Tom because they are one of the missing links in the continuum of American music,” Davis said. “Most people have never heard of “Blind” Boone’s music because it’s really classical.”
Davis has a strong musical background. He graduated from Juilliard and is a professional pianist. He also released an album of “Blind” Tom’s music, another ragtime artist after whom Boone modeled his early career.
“I’m looking forward to playing and meeting other musicians and hearing them play,” Davis said. “It will be a learning experience as well as a chance to play my music.”
The second half of the evening concert on Monday is devoted to Davis in a solo performance of “Blind” Boone’s music that appears on his CD. Davis will also contribute to Tuesday’s seminar on the life of “Blind” Boone.