Return of the entertainer

Joshua Rifkin didn’t know what he was unleashing.

In 1971, Boston musician Rifkin recorded and released an album of piano rags by turn-of-the-last-century African-American composer Scott Joplin (1867-1917) on the Nonesuch label, which at the time was the semi-obscure budget-classical arm of Elektra Records. The album became a best seller. Rifkin soon recorded another Joplin set, and the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, under the direction of Gunther Schuller, recorded a program of Joplin pieces arranged for a band. Then all ragtime hell broke loose when, two years later, George Roy Hill’s film The Sting used cheesy, showbiz-tweaked Joplin rags for its soundtrack.

Since then, this most elegant form of American music has bounced in and out of the public consciousness. Its gorgeous syncopations and surprising intervals and harmonies continue to mesmerize both players and audiences—players for the joy that comes in mastering the technical requirements of ragtime and breathing life into the pieces, and audiences for the sublime listening experience, which is not unlike drinking in classical architecture with the eye. To these ears, Joplin sounds like a uniquely American version of Johann Sebastian Bach.

This weekend, an organization called the West Coast Ragtime Society, a 501(c)(3) group dedicated to the preservation and protection of ragtime and vintage American music, will stage its West Coast Ragtime Festival at the Red Lion Hotel Sacramento—which some folks might know as the Sacramento Inn—at 1401 Arden Way at Business 80. According to the society’s Web site, Sacramento is known far and wide as the ragtime capital of the world, and this particular gathering claims to be the world’s largest festival dedicated to ragtime. It has been staged annually in Sacramento since 1997, and it existed before that for a decade in that other left-coast hotbed of ragtime, Fresno.

The festival will begin at noon on Friday, November 19, and will conclude at 5 p.m. the following Sunday. Admission is a bit pricey: An all-event badge is $85, a Friday badge is $35, a Saturday badge is $45, and a Sunday badge is $25. But that gets you access to six different venues around the hotel, not to mention all that sizzling-hot ragtime action courtesy of many performers and ensembles, most of them from Sacramento and Northern California, and a few from as far away as Austria and Switzerland. And for those ragtime enthusiasts with a mobile bent, there is an area set aside for RV parking, similar to Sacramento’s other celebration of antique music, the Memorial Day-weekend Jazz Jubilee.

For more information, visit the West Coast Ragtime Society’s Web site at