Return to the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Home page


A review of the 2003 Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival


A Ragtime Festival That Rocks

            by Lucille Salerno


(Originally published in the Fall 2003 edition of Chandelier,
official newsletter of the Terra Verde Society, reproduced
by permission)


            I did my first radio show since attending the

Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival this morning-three

days since my return to Columbia from Boulder.  I

launched the show with great energy and

enthusiasm-planning to chat about the event and treat

my listeners to the many new compact discs I brought

back.  Chat I did.  And, the CDs, in a line, were

having their turn on air.  However, within about thirty

minutes, I was feeling uneasy.  I was somehow

missing the mark.  The recordings were great but they

paled-'anemic' compared to my memories of the event.

I was not giving my listeners a taste of the event's real

artistic moments-many of them collaborative-creating

art before our very eyes.  I have come to believe that

it's the spontaneous melding of virtuosity that is the

hallmark of ragtime's annual 'Rocky Mountain High.' 

Peak performance experiences are 'happenings' that

just ripple out-they are birthed in the basement of the

venue, during the Afterburners, on stage -everywhere

enthusiastic performers are gathered.  In the presence

of this facile creativity, nobody sleeps-participants try

to miss nothing and performers just cannot govern

their need to express something unique with other

artists.  The result is a level of performance that no

festival producer is able to buy-certainly not this sort

of creative flow.


Artists themselves produce the Rocky Mountain

Ragtime Festival.  And, in moments, they are not

really playing for the audience but for each other.  It's

reminiscent of experiencing a traditional Greek

café-where out of respect for a performer-someone

who has just come out of the audience to dance-alone,

viewers are constrained from applauding.  Only

respectful finger snapping acknowledges their

appreciation of the 'act' because it is understood the

performer danced for himself-you are simply a

privileged witness.  That is not a totally fitting simile.

The audience in Boulder maintains a respectful quiet

only for the length of a performance.  Thundering

applause, whistles, loud calls are the

acknowledgements of pleasure-even when an audience

is awed.  All festivals have peak performances and

moments of great beauty.  Boulder adds a dimension.

Artists are somehow synergistically locked in their

craft during their sojourn there.  You could call it

magical but that would miss explicating the causal

chain.   While they are paid performers, not one is "a

hired hand"-artistically, they own the event.

Compensation may be meager but that fact is easy to

transcend.  Their rewards are intrinsic-artistic highs,

for the moment, count more than money.


These are the thoughts ran through my mind as I felt

letdown in a show I had begun with such enthusiasm.

I have been doing radio long enough to know the

intimacy of the medium-listeners easily experience my

emotions from the tone and force of my voice, what I

play, how frequently I come on mike to share feelings,

thoughts, ideas, responses.  Not to lose them, I began

telling my audience about the emotional soberness that

had come over me-and about the fact that it was

taking me down from the high with which I had

begun.  I related most of what I have told you above.

Somewhat helplessly-my witnessing failing-I urged

folks to make the trip to Boulder next year.  The

quality of the experience simply could not be recreated

in a radio studio.


It is ironic that I took this writing assignment for a

Terra Verde publication; I do not always groove to

dissonant riffs.  Earlier, as I told ragtime colleagues

that I would be going to Boulder, a few answered that

they were not too keen about Terra Verde.  I even

confided to one of the festival producers the group

needed to get out from under the Terra Verde label

because I feared that Boulder's turnout was being

suppressed because it's seen as a "Terra Verde event."

After this festival, I can answer with a question:

Aren't we really all into talent?  If you share the

opinion of that buzz in ragtime circles-admittedly, I

did-know that there is high art happening in Boulder.

It 's true even if Music Director Scott Kirby responded

to my enthusiastic compliments on the quality of what

he had produced over the entire 4.5 days with a

deadpanned: "Most of it worked but I made some

mistakes."  I realized that tacitly he was already

working on the 2004 event.  'Fixing it'-amid the

accolades!  That drive tells the story of the gift the

event is to us.


By now you realize that this is not a review, it's an

endorsement.  Let's get down to the thrills. 


August has now begun, yet I am still able to awaken

the 'high.'  It is a lot more difficult to recreate the

specific aspects at which I marveled.  I neither

recorded events nor took notes during the festival-I

did not know I was to be asked to take on this task

until the very end of the festival.  You will just have to

believe my soul-or wherever the seat of emotion lies.

My professional colleagues point to the amygdala-but

'soul' makes it.


ˇ           Sophie Rivard--and her ubiquitous violin-was

astounding.  With ease she performed with every

musician in every music style-with grace, charm, wit

and pleasure.  Frank French had planned her

contributions to their duets-apparently arriving at the

festival with ready arrangements.  Much of her effort

was spontaneous-or hatched in just a few minutes,

perhaps at the Afterburner.  As the festival

progressed, her duet appearances were so numerous

that MC Jack Rummel suggested that Sophie should

be invited to autograph every CD purchased.  She is

an energetic delight and a most impressive artist.


ˇ           Carl Sonny Leyland has a chemistry and talent

that just does not quit.  Cheers to the festival

producers for never doubting that they were right to

bring in a Boogie and Blues great.  Warm and

personable, Sonny's duets with Scott Kirby were

barnburners-especially the concluding boogie at the

Monday night concert, hosted by the elegant Chris

Finger Family-at which no fewer than seven pianists

are able to perform simultaneously.  Rocked by what I

had just experienced, I went in search of anyone who

would listen to my appeal to have the artists agree to

the production of a CD of festival highlights-actually,

I imaged at least two dozen CDs-capturing every

glorious performance.  Festival producers agreed-at

least two of them and the engineer but the Music

Director voiced a long-range plan that had me

wondering if I would live long enough-just a little

pressure on you, Scott Dear.  If Sophie had a

synergistic impact on the entire festival-and she

certainly did-Sonny, too, energized everyone and gave

us an almost giddy high-even when he played Da



ˇ           Tom McDermott, another new experience for

me.  Originally, a St. Louisian, the Tichenors and DTR

talked about him at events in the Gateway City.  He

went off to find his fortune in New Orleans and now

his music is really difficult to 'pigeon hole.'  Tom is

unique in style and in the impressive range of his

repertoire, including his own compositions.  To my

listeners, I glossed it into "fusion".  One day I shall ask

him.  At one time a performer with the Dukes of

Dixieland, he has the coolest body rhythm-and,

perhaps, the coolest temperament of any of the artists

at the festival.  So cool, in fact, that I found myself

listening more cognitively than emotionally-which is a

little like my response to Bop.  I could really get into

some of his music-especially when I was grooving to

those gentle rhythmic motions of his at the piano.  I

love the memory of Tom's absolutely placid facial

expression while, as one of five percussionists forming

a rhythm section that had been recruited by composer

French at the Afterburner the previous night, while he

energetically contributed to the debut of Frank's new

composition, Carnevalesca.  Tom's performances are

cognitive acts-but he 'dances' at the piano.


ˇ           Credited with having 'thought up' the Boulder

Fest, Frank French was at the top of his form at this

the eleventh annual event.  At least a part of him has

morphed into Ernesto Nazareth-and his new works

were thrilling-especially Carnevalesca accompanied by

Sophie-and his once-rehearsed 'Rhythm Five'. Frank

was as hot and as enthusiastic performing in the

Afterburners as he was in concert.  His talents, his

hands were just simply flowing.  Complimented by

many for his compositions and his buoyant

performances, he just smiled a little distantly and

answered-almost spiritually, "Yes, I just have to listen

and it's there, it comes out."  I really don't know what

to highlight to convey what he contributed.  I just bear

witness to an artist who has come into his own, Big



ˇ           Luis Simas, like Tom, has hypnotic physical

motions that accompany the music he performs.  This

was my second experience of Luis's artistry-the first

was also in Boulder.  His warmth and charm was

familiar, enjoyable as he performed the music of his

native Brazil-including his own chorinhos.  Unfamiliar

at the start, you find yourself lulled by the softness, the

gentle rhythms and Luis's apparent ecstasy as he plays

the music of the land of his birth.  It was almost

levitation inducing to hear Luis and Sophie-and, in

Afterburner, Luis and a clarinetist with the sweetest

tone whose name I failed to get-as they performed

Doce de Coco.  One wants to hasten to Brazil for

more-actually, just to New York, where Luis now

lives.  He is in Oslo as I write-about to perform with

Morten Gunnar Larsen at the Oslo Jazz Festival.  I

won't think about it, though-it would make me feel

totally deprived in the midst of this plenty.


ˇ           Brian Keenan is the young performer who I

expect will succeed Trebor Tichenor, as the folk

ragtime guru-both as performer and composer.  He is

refreshing as he takes you 'down' with the sounds that

once emanated from early 20th century parlors when

the piano was the center of family life.  So young a

man with a grasp of a style that likely predates his

birth by 70+ years-and in which he is commanding and

totally at home.  I grow fonder of him with each

experience of his pluck and his fine talents.  Although

a fine composer, in addition to his own pieces, Brian

performs many compositions of his contemporaries.

He, too, is ready to  duet whenever presented with the

opportunity.  Brian proved his impressive

sight-reading abilities one night in Afterburner.

Surrounded by the hushed and emotionally tense

audience who three years ago had commissioned a

composition from Reginald Robinson-actually it was a

barter for a piano, Brian, announcing that he was

about to play music he had never before seen, debuted

Reginald's Tears of Joy.  It was a sensitive, tender

performance of a piece that Brian understood had

great meaning to both the composer and the

emotionalized 'commissioners' who had gathered in

late night in the hope of hearing 'their' piece.  There

we witnessed the artist's impressive grace and his

humanism as he obliged our solicitous group.  Brian

had many wonderful stage performances.  Yet, I find

myself relating this one in Afterburner to you because

of the spirit and depth of feeling with which it was

performed.  I can only hope that I live long enough to

know the fullness of this man's contribution to the

music we love.


ˇ           Craig Ventresco and Company-with Tom

Marion that's the description in the program of an

early morning performance-too early for the two

performers who had arrived from California just hours

before.  I know Craig as a virtuoso guitarist-this was

my first experience of Tom.  It was a bit like a scene

from Saturday Night Live!  Gifted musicians both,

they were joined by Dennis Pash and Bob Ault-to

more gifted musicians.  Tom has a way of fixing his

gaze on one player, gesturing and commenting to

Craig about him as if the audience-indeed, the other

players-were not there-all the while playing beautiful

mandolin, even playing guitar with a mandolin strum.

Scott joined them at the piano for one set-which I

welcomed because it was an opportunity to experience

Tom's talent.  Tom immediately began to play

beautiful harmony to the melody Scott was playing.  It

did not quite come together but the act was

enjoyable-funny really.  It seemed as if everyone but

Tom played American music.  The situation reversed

when they broke into Italian and Latin music-that was

all Tom's.  It was good fun-and wonderful to see and

hear Craig and Dennis again after soo long.  Bob

seemed to be the only one aware of the fact that there

were about 200 people watching 'the backstage talk

on stage'.  He began narrating for the audience as he

smiled his warm smile and played his exotic harp

guitar.  You had to be there.  The group performed

subsequently in an evening concert as the All Star

String Band--and the fact is that they were Stars in

that pleasurable set-but their first appearance was just

plain fun, albeit perhaps somewhat unintentionally so.


ˇ           David Thomas Roberts outdid himself at this

event.  For the first time since he composed it, DTR

performed his entire suite, New Orleans Streets, in

one sitting.  It was a magnificent experience that, at its

conclusion, left the audience as emotionally drained as

the performer.  David, who now seems in demand for

requests for commissioned pieces, premiered two of

his newest compositions-both, he explained, are a

work in progress.  Nevertheless, there was no

mistaking DTR's musical signature in the works.  It

seems a sort of immortality to have a DTR

composition that relates personally to you, your life

and times.  We are fortunate to be in such close touch

with so fine a composer-actually composers-plural,

given all of the talent in the genre.


ˇ           Jack Rummel -with his wonderful understated

style, is far and away the genre's BEST MC and, more

and more, his real talent as a composer of beautifully

lyrical melodies is becoming apparent.  Sure he is not

always a totally proficient performer but you just wait

for the wonderfully humorous self-description that will

follow and you are grateful for the opportunity to

experience his lighthearted approach to life-and you

would not have it any other way.  He is simply a

delightful presence at any festival.  For days, the

melodies in When the Work is Done, I'll Dance have

repeatedly played in my mind-especially in duet with

Sophie on violin.


ˇ           The Mont Alto Ragtime and Tango Orchestra,

the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival's 'house'

orchestra, giving pleasure every year at this

event-including the Afterburner-where leader Rodney

really cut loose in solo piano.  While there was a

dance-where you might have expected this group to

play, the music was recorded.  The dance was really

an event for dancers-serious ones who are frequently

together and have accompanying vintage

outfits-largely 20s garb.  Wonderful to watch-with

you feet tucked under the chair-the space was not



ˇ           Scott Kirby-the master himself!  It's hard to

paint a picture of this most energetic, most talented

being-who is never satisfied, even with his own

wonderful accomplishments.  The Man was on duty all

of the time-every moment of the festival-insuring that

it was coming off, not well, but perfectly.  Yet he had

the energy to perform with incredible grace and

lyricism-or drivingly powerfully in duet boogies,

blues-and with Frank doing Escoregondo!  In the final

concert, immediately following a series of barnburners

by other performers, Scott steps up and does a

thrilling sweet, poignant, gentle, blues composition.  I

cannot tell you the title.  The roar of the audience

drowned out Scott's words.  MC Rummel came on,

with his gentle smile, gentle tone, and look of wonder,

said: "That's when less is more."


I hope that you are still with me. I should have taken

my cue from Jack's statement.   If I had taken notes,

this write-up probably would have been shorter. But I

had only feelings to guide me.  It was wonderful to

revisit the event with my heart and share the memories

with you. Clearly, this very personal overview is, in a

sense, giving something back to these most talented

folks who produce, perform and, create, likely,

Ragtime's finest event.  Judge for yourself-unless you

can't handle the beauty, the intimacy.


Return to the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Home page