By Jan Swoope/The Dispatch
COLUMBUS — Stephen Cunetto is right at home in the handsomely-appointed Templeton Museum on the fourth floor of Mississippi State’s Mitchell Memorial Library. Surrounded by rare, vintage talking machines, music boxes, gramophones and graphophones, he moves easily from instrument to instrument, telling a little about each. Cunetto oversees the Charles H. Templeton Sr. Music Museum, one of the finest collections of its kind in the country.
“This is one of the oldest we have,” he said, lifting the steel disc from a circa 1890s Mermod Freres music box manufactured in St. Croix, Switzerland. The tiny perforations covering the disc’s silver surface are anything but random. When played on the more than 120-year-old music box, they produce a lilting melody that transports the listener to an earlier time.
This pristine variety of more than 200 musical instruments, 22,000 beautifully illustrated pieces of sheet music and 13,000 recordings amassed and donated by the late Templeton, a Starkville businessman and record producer, tells a story of America’s Gilded Age of the late 1880s to the dizzying Roaring 20s. It also inspires the Charles Templeton Ragtime Jazz Festival, set this year for March 22-23.
Toes will be tapping when the seventh annual festival brings some of the premier ragtime, jazz and boogie woogie pianists in the world to Mississippi. Concerts, “living room” sessions and entertaining lectures will immerse festival-goers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and offer a glimpse into the culture and business of some of America’s happiest music.
“My dad used to say there’s no such thing as an unhappy rag; it’s impossible to play one,” said Chip Templeton Jr., who willingly admits he inherited the “disease” of music from his father. A piano man himself, the younger Templeton has embraced the genre that so intrigued his dad and once took the nation by storm.
With ragtime’s “ragged” rhythm growing out of African-American music, it’s often characterized as a blending of African syncopation and European classical music. It flourished during a time when how America heard its music was rapidly evolving. Beginning with Thomas Edison’s phonograph introduced in 1877, the development and marketing of innovations like self-playing instruments, wax-coated cylinders, cutting styluses and gramophone records fascinated the senior Templeton. His collection illustrates the “business of music” during an amazing segment of the country’s history.
“He was always interested in why did they pick this instrument, why did they pick this song,” said the collector’s son, whose earliest memories of his father’s enthusiasm date back to third grade, when he was allowed to take a vintage Victrola his dad had just purchased to show-and-tell at school.
“That’s my first recollection. I felt honored that he let me take it,” said Chip Templeton.
Shining the spotlight on ragtime again and sharing the unique collection with others is at the heart of the annual festival.
“We have people come from everywhere for the festival,” said Cunetto. “Many people return year after year.”
They come back to hear outstanding musical performances from entertainers like this year’s Jeff Barnhart, Frederick Hodges, Brian Holland and Carl Sonny Leyland. They come to glean from David Jasen’s knowledge as one of the most highly regarded authorities on ragtime music. And they come for the Templeton Museum, a feature found at no other ragtime festival in the nation.
While daytime events take place in Mitchell Memorial Library, evening concerts will be held in MSU’s McComas Hall. The schedule includes a special opportunity to see Frederick Hodges accompany silent films on piano. Festival-goers will also watch selections from “Broadway: The American Musical,” a documentary on the history of the musicals created by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon. Dr. Michael Brown, of MSU’s Department of Music Education, will lead discussion about themes in the videos, and performers will play a variety of Broadway selections, in addition to plenty of ragtime and early jazz.
“The festival is definitely first class,” said Chip Templeton. “And I certainly want to thank the library for what they do and applaud the whole staff.”
How to go
To purchase an all event badge or tickets for daily performances or evening concerts, go to library.msstate.edu/templeton/festival or contact festival planning committee member Lynda Graham at lgraham(at)library.msstate.edu or 66-325-6634. Ticket prices range from $10 for an evening concert to $50 for a weekend pass. The complete schedule can be found at the website above.
The seventh annual Charles Templeton Ragtime Festival is sponsored by the MSU Libraries, the Charles Templeton Sr. Music Museum, the Starkville Area Arts Council, the Greater Starkville Development Partnership and, in part, by grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.
For co-chairs Cunetto, Frances Coleman and Chip Templeton, putting the festival together continues a legacy that preserves and shares not only the extensive collection of Charles Templeton Sr., but gives others a vivid sense of the culture and music of a transformative era.
“Ragtime is sort of the foundation for all of America’s music,” said Chip Templeton. “Once I crawled into it, I understood my father’s love for it and why we need to cherish it and remind people why it’s important. … I know he would be proud.”