Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Scott Joplin (1868-1917), African American Composer & Pianist of Ragtime & Classical Music

[Piano Rags; Roy Eaton, piano; Sony SBK 833 (1995)]

Scott Joplin was born in East Texas in 1868. He is profiled at His father was a former slave who worked as a laborer. His mother was born free in Kentucky. Both played musical instruments, and Scott and his five siblings were raised in a musical environment in which singing, fiddles and banjos were common. In the mid-1870s, we read in Africana Encyclopedia, the family moved to Texarkana, Arkansas. There his mother was a domestic employee for a family which allowed Scott to play its piano, before his father bought him a used one.

At the age of 11 the boy learned the basics of music theory from a local musician with classical training. Joplin left home while still a teenager, and it is thought that he then supported himself as an itinerant pianist working at bars and brothels in such places as St. Louis, Memphis and Dallas. Africana Encyclopedia recounts: “In 1893 Joplin emerged as a well-practiced musician at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, where he probably played along the Midway Plaisance. Although white management excluded African Americans from the official program of concerts, black pianists entertained fairgoers along the exposition's bustling periphery.”

It was at the Exposition that Scott Joplin met his friend and partner Otis Saunders. For the next two years they were part of a traveling quartet which performed pieces composed by Joplin.
Joplin and Saunders settled in Sedalia, Missouri in 1894. Africana Encyclopedia continues: “In Sedalia, Joplin married Belle Jones, wrote pieces for the Queen City Band, took a course in music composition at the George R. Smith College for Negroes, and, most importantly, began to peddle his music.”

Joplin struggled until he sold Maple Leaf Rag to a White businessman, John Stark. The piece was an instant success, and its first printing of 10,000 copies sold out quickly. More than half a million copies were sold by 1909. Stark and Joplin signed a contract and both moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Stark gave his client the nickname “King of Ragtime”. Subsequent hits included Peacherine Rag in 1901 and The Entertainer in 1902. Joplin attempted to establish himself as a composer of larger-scale works, with a folk ballet called The Ragtime Dance in 1902 and a 1903 opera A Guest of Honor, but neither work was performed widely.

Some of Joplin's most famous ragtime pieces are performed by the African American pianist Roy Eaton on the CD Piano Rags, Sony SBK 62 833 (1995). Eaton writes in the liner notes: “Joplin became a fixture in the ragtime craze with the publication of his Maple Leaf Rag in 1899, and his name became synonymous with ragtime. Still, he dreamed of the legitimization of his music as an art form, and even went so far as to compose three operas, the best known of which, Treemonisha, was ignored in his own lifetime. When Joplin died in 1917 from an advanced case of syphilis, both he and his ragtime had been forgotten in favor of another new rage, jazz. It would not be for another half-century, when Joplin's The Entertainer was used as the theme music for the film The Sting, that Joplin's extraordinary contribution to American musical life was finally acknowledged.”

Scott+Joplin" rel="tag">Scott Joplin
Black+Composer" rel="tag">Black Composer
Joplin's+Treemonisha" rel="tag">Joplin's Treemonisha
Classical+Composer" rel="tag">Classical Composer
African+American" rel="tag">African American
Black+History" rel="tag">Black History

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