The first thing you notice as you stroll down Columbia's South Ninth Street toward the newly renovated Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts is the scrolling digital marquee hyping the stars of the John W. "Blind" Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival -- an ultra-modern and somewhat jarring display that's a marked contrast to what awaits the patrons inside. The updated lobby is spacious and now has such amenities as improved restrooms and a coffee bar. But the view inside the theater itself takes your breath away.
All of the Grand Dame's stained glass, golden filigrees and painted swirls have been lovingly restored, recreating a sense of an earlier time and providing the perfect venue to celebrate the music of that era and the man who, during the early days of ragtime, called Columbia, Mo., his home.
Sponsorship of this year's festival, held on June 1-3, was assumed by the Missouri Symphony Society as part of their "Hot Summer Nights" series. Fortunately Lucille Salerno, who founded the festival in 1991, was retained as its artistic director, and her good taste was evident throughout the three-day event. Opening the festivities was Morten Gunnar Larsen from Oslo, Norway, who played a two-hour solo matinee concert. Considered to be among the finest pianists in the world, Larsen captivated the afternoon crowd with his mastery of many different styles.
Recalling Blind Boone's habit of beginning his concerts with a hymn, Terry Waldo opened each evening concert in like manner, although in each case the stately introductory bars quickly gave way to a tailgate rhythm that set the mood for what was to follow. As evening emcee, this writer introduced Sunday's line-up, which included pianists Dave Tucker, Adam Swanson, Dave Majchrzak, Nan Bostick, the team of Gilles Poirer & Gabriel Bourque, Frederick Hodges and Mimi Blais, plus guitar wizards Craig Ventresco and Meredith Axelrod, joined, at times, by Bob Ault and his impressive array of strings.