“Perfessor” Bill brings Ragtime to school

By Faith Bemiss

February 12, 2014

“Perfessor” Bill Edwards, 2014 Artist in Residence for the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation, is traveling to local schools this week not only entertaining them by playing the piano but providing a local history of ragtime music in hopes of cultivating interest that will spread to their families.

Edwards, of Ashburn, Va., is a festival regular who has been coming to the annual June event for 10 years. He said this was his first time as artist in residence in Sedalia, and it’s his hope that young people will develop a love for ragtime music.

“The Foundation’s very pleased to have Bill come in,” said Kyle Siegel, director of the Foundation. “Bill always does a good job for us. He’s been impressive to watch, he connects well with the kids. I think he’s doing a fantastic job.”

“I’ve done artist in residence in other locations, just not in Sedalia,” Edwards said. “So this is a big deal to me.”

Previously Edwards has participated in ragtime programs for elementary schools in Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., St. Louis and several other locations around the country.

Edwards began playing the piano when he was about 5 or 6-years old.

“I was a child of divorce and I was burying myself in some records that my dad had left behind,” he said. “They were all ragtime, he liked listening to 1950s Ragtime because it’s happy music. How could you not be happy?”

He wanted to play and at the time didn’t have a piano so he played a melodeon, a mouth blown keyboard.

“So I learned a couple tunes and played them for my mom at 6 a.m. in her bedroom,” he added. “So she called her dad and a week later there was a piano at the other end of the house.”

He began taking lessons but also picked out ragtime music by ear. Through the years he continued to play, ragtime becoming his passion.

During his programs he spends time getting the students “excited” about local ragtime history and music — transposing his passion to them.

“If I can, I do anything local, like in Washington, D.C., you pretty much have Ford Dabney and Duke Ellington,” he said. “Only two composers, but it gets them excited about their musical heritage. And in St. Louis it’s easy, because Joplin was there as well Tom Turpin and Artie Matthews. Here there’s a lot of composers that you don’t know about that came from this town or spent years in this town.”

While visiting the schools this week Edwards has been telling the story of Mineola Jackson who began the Mineola Day Care in Sedalia during World War II. But her most important contribution was the gift of music she brought to young students who came to her home.

“She was a black woman born in St. Louis, and her dad came here when she was about 10, in the 1880s” he said. “And he was one of the founders of George R. Smith College, that was where Scott Joplin went to school.”

Jackson attended school there and like Joplin learned music from a blind music teacher.

“She entered a couple competition contests here and won one of them for a march that she had written,” Edwards added. “But what’s most important is that starting in 1905 to the late ’30s she was responsible for teaching children of color music in Sedalia. They get this love, this appreciation for music which is good for your soul.”

Jackson and her sister taught voice, violin and piano to students as young as three.

“Where not everyone had the opportunity to learn before, because they couldn’t afford George R. Smith, Mineola Jackson opened up her home,” Edwards said.

Edwards said not many people realize the importance Sedalia plays in Ragtime music history.

“And you should take ownership, because ragtime got some of its best publications here in the early years, before it gravitated to New York and Chicago,” he said. “The people from Sedalia don’t take enough ownership in how the music spread from here. The first instrumental piece that sold a million copies was printed here in this town, the ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’”

Often when playing at schools Edwards will begin with one song selection, but if he sees the children not responding he’ll switch gears and start playing something familiar to them, giving the music a ragtime feel. He’s even performed the “Maple Leaf Rag” as a rap.

“I can do something different at every school and not even cover everything, it’s my passion,” he said. “I try to keep it as consistent as possible, but it depends on the reactions I’m getting. If I’m losing them, I may go to Mario Brothers and play video game themes to keep them engaged.”

He said ragtime is the origin of rock ‘n’ roll and sometimes he presents it to the children in that vein.

“I can make a direct line from Lady Gaga back to Ragtime,” he said. “She actually plays ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and there’s a video of her playing it. Like Justin Timberlake’s swing music or rock ‘n’ roll mixed with swing era. So, there’s going to be someone who finds a way to do the fusion of hip hop and ragtime, and it’s really not that separated.”

Edwards hopes to cultivate the interest of children and inspire them, so they will in turn inspire their parents and grandparents to come down and listen to the entertainers at the Scott Joplin Festival. He also said it’s not the entertainers he’s worried about losing but the loss of audience members.

“The audiences are aging and every year you have some of them who don’t come back, because they’re either unable or they’re not here anymore.

“The kids who play it are big enthusiasts,” Edwards added. “And some of them are quite amazing. Daniel Souvigny, he’s 13, fantastic! So he’s part of our future, he’s pretty amazing for 13.”

Other up and coming young Ragtime performers are Adam Swanson, 17, of Durango, Colo., Stephanie Trick, 27, and Morgan Siever, 17, both of St. Louis.

The Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival will run June 4-7 and, for the first time, will have downtown venues playing up to 7 p.m.