To call Lucille Salerno a ragtime champion is an understatement. Salerno was a New York native with a lifelong love of syncopated music. In 1999, she started organizing ragtime concerts in Columbia.
Those concerts for devotees of ragtime and early jazz grew into what is now the Blind Boone Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival.
Ragtime was born in Missouri in the years after the Civil War. Pianists in St. Louis and Kansas City experimented with simultaneously playing multiple rhythms that embraced both European classical works and traditional black musical forms.
In a recent interview, Salerno explained that 150 years after ragtime’s Midwestern genesis, its performers really only come together at one of five annual festivals:
[Ragtime exists] in pockets where devotees cluster... The most popular area is the state of Missouri largely because it is part of this culture. Missouri natives - no matter where you live, no matter where you grew up - took ragtime in with their milk. It happened more frequently in the big cities.
Early 20th century Columbia resident John William Boone was one of those who took ragtime in with his milk, having heard the music during late-night sojourns from the St. Louis School for the Blind to nightclubs where itinerant performers entertained St. Louis business leaders. Boone’s musical style was more in a folk tradition whereas fellow Missouri ragtimer Scott Joplin wrote rags based on a more classical style.
Today, ragtime performers are as likely to comes from Europe as from Missouri. I asked Blind Boone Ragtime and Early Music Festival organizer Lucille Salerno how Europe became fertile ground for new ragtime performers such as Morton Gunnar Larson.
Norway, Sweden Denmark [are] very much into ragtime. And, of course, Dixieland, Early Jazz. They really are devotees. Morton was so interested that he took a trip to New Orleans and had the good fortune to meet [American composer and jazz player] Eubie Blake and he became Blake’s protege. Eubie introduced him to his own and to [ragtime and early jazz pianist] Jelly Roll Morton’s work.
The Blind Boone Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival runs Sunday through Tuesday night at Columbia's Missouri Theater.