Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin was known as “The King of Ragtime Writers”, a composer who transformed “banjo piano play,” which was once a lowly entertainment that was associated with brothels and saloons, into an American art form that millions love. Joplin was born in Texas in 1867 or 1868. He was the son of a former slave and a laborer. Joplin learned piano from his father, a white family who gave him the instrument. He eventually studied with a German-born teacher, who introduced Joplin classical music. Joplin attended Sedalia High School in Missouri, where he would later make his home during his most successful years. There is a museum that bears his name. The first evidence of Joplin’s musical career is discovered in 1891. It places him in a Texarkana minstrel group. He was a member of a band that included a cornet and played in Chicago at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. After his death, Joplin settled down in Sedalia and began to work with other brass bands. He also founded a vocal group, the Texas Medley Quartette. A group of local businessmen noticed the high quality of Joplin’s original songs for Texas Medley Quartette’s 1895 performance in Syracuse, NY. They arranged for Joplin to publish his first books. Joplin, who was formally studying at the George R. Smith College of Negroes in Sedalia in 1896, published a few pieces over the next several years. John Stark, a publisher from Sedalia, published Joplin’s second ragtime composition in 1899. Although it didn’t immediately catch on, “Maple Leaf Rag”, Joplin’s second ragtime composition, was a hit. However, it became Joplin’s most popular work. Joplin received a small income from the publication for the rest his life, which helped to stabilize his finances in his final years. The ballet The Ragtime Dance was Joplin’s first major work. It was presented at the Wood Opera House, Sedalia, by the end of 1899. It was only published in a reduced form in 1902 when it finally appeared in print. Joplin and Stark moved to St. Louis in the year 1901. Stark set up his new publishing company, “The House of Classic Rags.” Joplin also wrote many other rags during that time period, such as “The Entertainer”, “The Easy Winners” and “Elite Syncopations.” Joplin founded a touring company in 1903 to perform A Guest of Honor. The company failed after only a few months and left Joplin homeless. After a period of recovery, he was able to make his second major success at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. He presented his rag “The Cascades”. Joplin married a second woman, but she died just a few weeks after their first marriage. This plunged Joplin back into despair. He made a return visit to Chicago in 1907 and reconnected with Louis Chauvin, a St. Louis pianist. The visit did not last long. Joplin used a strain from Chauvin’s playing to create the best of his “collaborative” fabrics, “Heliotrope Bouquet.” This was published in 1907, after Joplin moved from Chicago to New York. Stark also had settled in New York and the two of them rekindled their relationship to some extent. However, Joplin published through Seminary Music which was also home to Irving Berlin, an aspiring songwriter. Seminary was the home to many of his best works, including “Pine Apple Rag”, “Solace”, “Mexican serenade,” and “Euphonic sounds,” which are all beautiful and transparent. Between 1911 and his death in 1917, most of Joplin’s efforts went into Treemonishia, his second opera. He heard it in concert, but never had the chance to stage it in his lifetime. Joplin and his third wife Lotte Joplin started their own music company. He published his last piano rag, “Magnetic Rag”, (1914), which was one of his finest. Joplin was already suffering from the long-term, debilitating effects of Syphilis. However, he still managed to create seven hand-played piano rolls between 1916 and 1917. These rolls, though edited heavily, are as close to Joplin’s playing as you can get. W.C. Handy’s “Ole Miss Rag” suggests that Joplin may have been involved in its arrangement or composition. Joplin was selfless and tireless in his support of fellow ragtime composers. He collaborated with James Scott and Arthur Marshall and helped to arrange others by Artie Mathews and Joseph Lamb (a white New Jersey composer whose work Joplin pitched Stark). “Maple Leaf Rag”, a popular song in Jazz Age music, remained constant until the “ragtime revival”, during which Scott Joplin became a household name, and Treemonishia was finally performed by the Houston Grand Opera. Even though primary sources of Joplin’s music are still available as late as 1940s, not one manuscript page from Joplin’s hands is still in existence today. Only three photos of Joplin have survived along with very few first-hand quotes. Joplin was convinced that his mission of becoming an African-American composer and producer of serious music had failed, and he died in a mental institution. Joplin would be shocked to discover that a century since his first publication, he is still the most successful African American composer of serious music. Many of his songs have been recorded hundreds times, and they can be arranged for almost any instrumental combination. They are played by everything from symphony orchestras or ice cream trucks. Scott Joplin’s music is the American tradition, even though it has been heard by a few generations of Americans who had never heard of Stephen Foster. Allmusic

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