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April 30th is International Jazz Day, so we’re highlighting the man who sparked the American musical phenomenon. But did you know that for nearly 60 years, the "King of Ragtime" was lost to history?
Scott Joplin was born in 1867 or 1868 in Texarkana, TX, just years after the end of the US Civil War abolished slavery. His father, the former property of a North Carolina plantation owner, brought with him to freedom the spirituals he’d grown up with in the fields. He found in them hope and possibility and passed them on to his six children. Among them, only Scott’s was tuned for music.
In fact, Scott was such a natural musician that his mother, Florence, cleaned houses for free in exchange for Scott being allowed time at their pianos. When his father abandoned the family, a teenaged Scott was forced out in the world to work. He did what he knew best: play piano. He found a place in the profoundly racist world of Vaudeville, whose soundtrack was Ragtime.
Ragtime got its name from the description of playing in “ragged time.” Improvisational and nontraditional, it was likened to a pianist doodling with his fingers. It suited the self-taught Scott, who made the genre his own. As he rode the rails from town to town, his reputation grew. When he landed in Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair, folks flocked to hear him.
By then, he was writing his own Ragtime compositions, including “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag,” which sold 10,000 copies when it was published in 1899. But racism and lack of business savvy left the “King of Ragtime” ill-equipped to protect his royalty income.
Though popular, he remained poor. It didn't help that Ragtime was considered “whorehouse music.” Even black ministers bemoaned its bawdy popularity. So, Joplin turned to European music traditions to elevate his stature. He wrote an opera, “Treemonisha,” but it saw only a single performance, in Harlem in 1915.
Two years later, Joplin was dead. Lost to history in a pauper’s grave.
That is, until the 1970s.
First, “Treemonisha” was brought back from obscurity. It was re-staged in Atlanta and Houston before returning to New York for a Broadway run. T.J. Anderson Jr., then composer-in-residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, said “Treemonisha” was as influential on George Gershwin’s monumental “Porgy and Bess.”
Then, in 1973, the hit movie “The Sting” introduced the greater public to Joplin’s music again. A re-release of his recordings followed by popular demand.
In 1976, Scott Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American music. Unappreciated in his lifetime, the “King of Ragtime” finally earned the recognition he deserved as the Father of Jazz. Ironically, this wouldn’t have surprised him. He was aware of the contribution he was making to music history. He once said, "When I'm dead twenty-five years, people are going to begin to recognize me." Again, the only thing ragged about the King’s prophesy was his timing.
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