It’s amazing where the internet can take us in just a few minutes.
Case in point: This morning’s “5 minute” Google search for the origins of jazz led me to an fascinating, hour-long rediscovery and appreciation of Scott Joplin. In fact, this internet excursion led me to an entirely new feeling for Scott Joplin, his music, and his place in musical history.
Like many pianists, I’ve occasionally enjoyed playing some of Joplin’s ragtime piano pieces. I know The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag, as well as lesser-known works such as The Crash Collision March and his hauntingly beautiful Solace (A Mexican Serenade). I’ve even orchestrated some of his music for small bands. But I was unprepared for what I discovered today.
My journey began with a Google search for “the origins of jazz.” I’ve become increasingly interested in how all the musical diversity of the 1800s coalesced in 1900s New Orleans to become jazz, and I was looking to spend just a few minutes reading about this. And since any discussion about the roots of jazz will involve ragtime music, I clicked on some Scott Joplin links.
The first thing I found was that Joplin was in the first generation of Southern African-Americans to be born “free,” after the demise of slavery. This is significant, because it meant that his parents, former slaves themselves, had no historical precedent for their son’s education. He was being raised “free,” and they, as a culture, were “inventing the wheel,” as it were. Even though I had known that he come of age during the second half of the 19th century, and that the Civil War was in the 1860s, I had never made this direct connection before.
At the time, (late 1860s – early 1870s) Joplin’s family was living in Texas, and while one might think that Joplin’s musical education would be limited to folk music and maybe the blues, he was fortunate to take classical piano lessons with an accomplished piano teacher. The teacher, Julius Weiss, was a German Jewish emigrant who taught Joplin for free because the family was poor. He even arranged for Joplin’s mother to buy an inexpensive, used piano from the family of another of his students. Weiss nurtured his young student’s musical talent, introducing him to the European classics as well and piano arrangements of folk music. Joplin appreciated his teacher so much that once he became successful, he continued to send Mr. Weiss gifts until the elder man passed away. Trying to visualize Joplin’s lessons with the kind and encouraging Mr. Weiss brings a tender and “human” element to what might otherwise be a mere footnote in a jazz history book. These were real people, just like us!
My brief research also reinforced something I had long suspected: the banjo influence on ragtime. If you listen to bluegrass music played on banjo while keeping ragtime in mind, you’ll hear the similarity. I’ve checked this out before and found a contemporary account of this: a music critic in the 1800s remarked on this similarity the first time he ever heard the “new” sounds of ragtime. He though it sounded like banjo music played on piano. So I was delighted to discover today that Scott Joplin had actually played the banjo before switching to piano! So it was very natural for him to recreate some of the syncopated arpeggiation of country banjo music in the right hand of his rags. That’s where the “ragged” sounds came from. And this in turn eventually led to the birth of jazz rhythm.
I also came across a few sentences that spotlighted how Joplin’s music reflected all the different musical genres of his day. Since I’ve usually primarily thought of ragtime as having a march-like left hand and a banjo-like right hand, this got me thinking of it in broader terms. I now hear the echos of much a richer cultural palette in Joplin’s music: folk music, parlour piano pieces, and opera have all found their way into even the jazziest of his compositions, and his music provides more of a window into the broader musical world of the American 19th century that I had previously realized. As just one example, there are far more waltzes in Joplin’s collected works than you’d probably guess. He saw himself as a kind of “American Chopin.” And as Chopin put European folk songs and dances into his compositions, Joplin put their American counterparts into his pieces.
I concluded my “Joplin hour” by reading a little bit about his opera “Treemonisha.” If you’ve ever come across the opera before, you’ve most likely heard it described as a “ragtime opera.” This phrase, though, puts the work into a small box and leads many people, myself included, to kind of dismiss it. “Oh, yeah, I know what that is; it’s his ragtime opera.” Today, however, I listened to highlights for the opera and discovered that the music is far more varied than usually acknowledged. In fact, some of it sounds like Gershwin’s much later “Porgy And Bess,” with African American folk songs influencing much of the melodic material. I hear a kinship to the operetta’s of Victor Herbert and in general, a much more sophisticated dramatic work than the term “ragtime opera” may imply. The complete “Treemonisha” is now on my listening list for the coming week.
If you’re interesting in experiencing for your yourself the rich musical world of the 1800s that produced jazz, there’s no better place to begin than with the music of Scott Joplin. There’s more in his ragtime music than meets the eye (and ear!).
Here's a piano roll of Joplin himself playing his "Maple Leaf Rag," in 1916. Enjoy!
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