Scott Joplin - Biography
By J Poet
Scott Joplin was one of the first African-American composers to win a broad audience in mainstream white America and while he didn’t invent ragtime, a syncopated piano music that was said to have been invented in an attempt to transpose black banjo music to the piano, he surely perfected it, creating dozens of melodies that continue to amuse and amaze pianists and layperson alike almost a century after they were composed. Joplin died penniless in 1917, but his music lives on. He was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for music in 1976 and he’s honored on a 1983 Black History commemorative postage stamp.
Joplin’s biography is sketchy. He moved around a lot and his many bankruptcies scattered any personal papers that may have survived. He was born in 1868, in Texarkana. His father had been a slave, his mother a freeborn black woman. Both parents were musicians and augmented their salaries by playing weddings, funerals, and parties. Joplin learned to play on a neighbor’s piano; at 11 he was improvising and impressing his family. A German piano teacher, impressed by his talent, gave him free lessons, in classical piano and music theory.
Joplin left home in his teens to play in honky-tonks and salons, where he played the dance music that would evolve into ragtime. In 1893, he played cornet with a band at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where Otis Saunders suggested Joplin to write out his compositions. Joplin next started a male vocal group, which sang slave songs, popular hits, and his own compositions. His first published songs were “A Picture of Her Face” and “Please Say You Will,” sentimental waltzes.
After the vocal group broke up, Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri and studied music at the George R. Smith College for Negroes, played in bands, and taught piano to ragtime composers including Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden.
His first ragtime compositions “Original Rags” and “Maple Leaf Rag,” were published in 1899. Publisher John Stark gave Joplin a $50 advance and a one-cent per copy royalty rate. By 1909 “Maple Leaf” had sold 500,000 copies of sheet music. Joplin’s hits for Stark - “A Breeze From Alabama,” “Elite Syncopations,” and “The Entertainer” – allowed him to stop playing in public and devote his time to composing. He was soon known as The King of Ragtime, but was irate at the way many white critics dismissed his music. In 1902 he composed “Rag Time Dance,” an extended “ragtime ballet” that combined folk dances, choreographed by himself and a story he wrote. He stared and produced the piece himself, but it was not a major success.
His next underrating was the ragtime opera “A Guest of Honor.” It too failed when it was produced and none of the sheet music for the piece has survived. His next project was “Treemonisha,” an actual opera, started in 1911, that he thought would establish him as a serious composer of serious music. With words, choreography, and music by Joplin, “Treemonisha” combined Gilbert and Sullivan style show music, spirituals, slave songs, marches, and barbershop harmonies. It was composed 20 years before “Porgy and Bess” and should have made Joplin’s name as a serious composer, but the production only had one brief showing while Joplin lived.
By 1915 the ragtime craze was over and Joplin’s health was failing, due to untreated syphilis. He died in 1917. Not one page of his original manuscripts survived and there are only three known photos of his face. His music was a major influence on Claude Debussy and Antonin Dvorak and ragtime staged a comeback when the Paul Newman/Robert Redford movie The Sting (1973) used “"The Entertainer” as its theme song.
There are hundreds of CDs available with Joplin’s music, but very few that feature Joplin himself at the piano. He died just as recording technology was making it possible for musicians to distribute their work on a mass level. He did make some hand played piano rolls in 1916 and 1917, a popular form of home entertainment at the time. Hand played piano rolls were made by playing a piece on a piano using a device that marked the piano roll each time a note was struck. When the rolls are played back on a player piano, there was no way to control tome, timbre and tempo, so the “performance” varied widely. Ragtime Piano Roll (2007 Milan) solves that problem by digitally manipulating the music to provide an approximation of what Joplin might have had in mind when he made these “recordings.” The 20 tracks here include Joplin’s greatest hits – “The Entertainer,” “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Heliotrope Bouquet,” “The Cascades” and “Felicity Rag.” Another piano roll CD with Joplin’s performances is Elite Syncopations (2003 Shout Factory) a set that includes one W. C. Handy piano roll for some reason. It includes Joplin “playing” tunes that are not on Ragtime Piano Roll including: “Magnetic Rag,” “A Real Slow Drag,” and “The Chrysanthemum.” Many piano roll CDs have Joplin’s name on them, but few are taken from rolls actually created by Joplin, so read the packaging information carefully before buying.