Three-day ragtime festival heads to Columbia this weekend

Friday, May 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
J.W. "Blind" Boone home


"Blind" Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival

All concerts and seminars are in Jesse Hall at MU. Tickets are available online at, at 882-3781 or at the box office. Evening concerts are followed by informal jam sessions at the Regency Inn Downtown, 1111 E. Broadway. For more information on each concert, go to


2 p.m. – The Spirituals Concert with Morten Gunnar Larsen, Vernel Bagneris, Butch Thompson and his Trio, Carl Sonny Leyland, Terry Waldo, Paul Asaro, Frederick Hodges, John Davis

7 p.m. – The Ragtime Concert with Morten Gunnar Larsen, Mimi Blais, Thompson Trio, Paul Asaro, Terry Waldo, Frederick Hodges with Crown Syncopators, Adam Swanson


1 p.m. – The Jazz for Kids Concert with The Butch Thompson Trio

3 p.m. – Seminar on ragtime musician and historian Johnny Maddox, led by Adam Swanson

7 p.m. – The Early Jazz Concert with John Davis, Vernel Bagneris, Morten Gunnar Larsen


1 p.m. – Music Fair with headliners making cameo appearance

3 p.m. – Seminar on "Blind" Boone by Mike Shaw

7 p.m. – The Stride, Boogie and Blues Concert with Paul Asaro, Butch Thompson, Terry Waldo, Adam Swanson, Frederick Hodges, Carl Sonny Leyland

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Ragtime comes home to Columbia on Sunday with three days of concerts chronicling the evolution of early American music.

The "Blind" Boone and Early Ragtime Festival in Jesse Hall at MU pulls in performers and “raggies,” or ragtime-lovers, from around the world for concerts, seminars and after-hours informal jam sessions called afterglows.

“People literally come from all over the country and Europe to Missouri because it’s the home of ragtime,” said Lucille Salerno, the festival’s artistic director.

Twelve headlining performers will cover ragtime history, starting with spirituals and ending with stride, boogie and blues.  

Paul Asaro, primarily a stride pianist, is to perform Sunday and Tuesday.

Asaro said stride is a solo jazz piano style in which the left hand plays the rhythm traditionally kept by an accompanying band.

“If I wanted to play solo jazz, I can’t think of a better way,” he said. “Anything else, it seems to me, is like putting one hand behind your back.”

Asaro got into ragtime when he was 5 years old and has been playing stride since college.  His interest in ragtime was sparked by the film, "The Sting," which featured Scott Joplin's music.

“Joplin did it all for me,” Asaro said. “He made the piano interesting to a kid.”

He said he is excited to see other performers during the festival.

“The level of talent is top drawer in the county – in the world,” Asaro said. “It won’t get any better than this.”

While the official “Blind” Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival began in 1996, an early form of the event took shape in 1991, according to Salerno. She said the first event was a natural outgrowth from the KOPN community radio ragtime program she had at the time.

“There was such a wonderful response to the event,” Salerno said. “I thought, ‘Gee, there is something here, we ought to do this more frequently.' ”

If ragtime had a home, it would be the house on 10 N. Fourth St. – the historic residence of John William “Blind” Boone, the man responsible for bringing the syncopated style to Columbia.

He was born to a runaway slave in Miami, Mo., in 1864. After his birth, his mother brought him to Warrensburg. According to Salerno, at 6 months, Boone had a fever that threatened his eyes and brain. In order to reduce the swelling on the brain, his eyes were removed.

“He was a talented kid, a very loved kid,” Salerno said. “He made music. From the age of 3, he was beating out rhythms.”

Boone's mother sent him to St. Louis where he attended the Missouri School for the Blind and where he first encountered other black pianists entertaining transient businessmen.  

“He took these songs that people knew, but he repackaged them with this African rhythm – that’s really the birth of ragtime,” Salerno said.

Boone was originally a trained classical pianist. It’s the blend of the European romantic style slaves heard from the settlers and the African tradition of multiple rhythms they brought with them that makes this music truly American, Salerno said.

He moved to the house in Columbia as a 25-year-old in 1889 and lived in the house until his death in 1927.

“We really should be proud of what happened here right on Fourth Street,” Salerno said.

Salerno said the festival will contribute to the ongoing restoration of the home. Although the exterior restorations will wrap up this fall, Salerno estimates the interior could cost $250,000.

“It’s a lot, but not a lot when you consider that the home is a monument to our own history,” she said.

Like Boone, one of the festival performers, John Davis, is more of a classical pianist. He said he specializes in classical pieces influenced by black American music – such as the music of “Blind” Tom, an influence on Boone, as well as “Blind” Boone.

“The music of ‘Blind’ Tom and ‘Blind’ Boone allows me to display ongoing issues about race in America,” Davis said. “And that’s a more dynamic way to be a classical musician.”

Since he first heard the music of Sonny Boy Williamson as a 10 year-old, Davis said, he has immersed himself in black classical music, which includes ragtime. In 2008, he released an album titled "Marshfield Tornado: John Davis Plays Blind Boone" to encourage people to hear music that – until then, he said – had rarely been recorded commercially.

“When I went into classical, I never expected to be doing this,” Davis said.

John Bauman has attended the concerts since before they were part of an official festival.

“Each year, the festival gets better and better,” Bauman said. "I'm sure I'll be saying the same thing again this year."

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