Artist Spotlights

Who Is Scott Joplin?

By Jesse Preis
Who is Scott Joplin?

What kind of music is Scott Joplin famous for? He’s the King of Ragtime!

Scott Joplin was an African-American composer and pianist, who is now well-known as the King of Ragtime! He was partially responsible for popularizing a new era of music. Maybe you’ve heard his famous piece, a ragtime gem released in 1899: The Maple Leaf Rag. His compositions would later spark the beginning of swing music, which later evolved into jazz.

Other well-known works by Scott Joplin also include The Entertainer, and his unique compositional stamp on ragtime is heard in films and other music dating to the early 20th century. Ragtime is an accented and vibrant type of music primarily performed on the piano. It features syncopations and dotted eighth notes, and the name “ragtime” possibly comes from the “ragged” rhythms in the right hand. Scott Joplin held ragtime in high regard and elevated it to a classical form, like a sonata. To him, it was more than just peppy popular music. Whether he regarded it as popular or serious music, this style remained popular from the 1890’s to the 1920’s. Check out this article to learn more about ragtime!

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Early Life

Music was an important part of family life for the Joplins, allowing them to celebrate their lives and time together in the face of adversity. Scott Joplin came from a musical family and lived in Texas when he was young. His father, Giles, played violin and his mother, Florence, played banjo and sang. Joplin’s father Giles was formerly an enslaved person who worked as a laborer, and his mother cleaned houses to support the family of 6 children. Florence was particularly devoted to helping young Scott achieve his musical goals, and supported the family by cleaning houses after his father left.

While Scott’s first music teachers were his parents, he was devoted to his musical studies and practiced after school, outgrowing the local teachers. His next teacher was a Jewish man from Germany, a professor of music who immigrated to Texas. Julius Weiss chose to teach Scott for free, sharing folk and classical music with him. 

Scott Joplin – Musician and Composer

The young Joplin traveled eventually from Texas to just outside St. Louis, Missouri. What instrument did Scott Joplin play? During this time, he worked as a gig musician, playing the piano for nightclubs and shows and striving to get his work published. In Missouri, he met Tom Turpin, an African-American musician and businessman who ran the Rosebud Cafe. This bar was a crucial meeting point for ragtime players and composers like Joplin. 

While in Missouri, Joplin began working to publish his music with companies. Eventually, a lawyer helped Joplin negotiate royalties for The Maple Leaf Rag before its release in 1899. Joplin earned a penny for each sale of the piece. The Maple Leaf Rag was so popular that these royalties gave Joplin a steady income in later years. During this time, Joplin wrote an opera about civil rights leader Booker T. Washington, which he worked to produce himself by hiring singers and a theater. As a part of this scene of clubs and piano bars specializing in African-American music, Joplin found success and made a living as a composer.

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What are some favorite pieces by Scott Joplin?

What are some popular pieces by Scott Joplin? While his most well-known works are “rags” (the name for ragtime pieces), like “The Entertainer” and the “Maple Leaf Rag,” he also created a ragtime-influenced ballet and two operas. He composed over 40 rags during his lifetime! Joplin was a serious composer, whose operas and ballet suffered from a lack of critical attention despite their unique combination of classical and ragtime qualities. Unfortunately, his opera Treemonisha was not produced during his lifetime, but his ballet type work, The Ragtime Dance, was put on in Missouri and featured a cast of African-American dancers from the clubs that popularized ragtime music. 

Scott Joplin’s ragtime pieces are perky and distinctive. His rags are classical ragtime, which developed within African-American communities, particularly around St. Louis, Missouri. These syncopated rhythms are characterized by accented notes that fall on the up beat. The beats themselves remain accented, which makes the pieces driven and danceable. Inspired by African traditional music, this sounds as if two unrelated rhythms are being played at the same time, which is called a polyrhythm. For a simple example of a polyrhythm from a different musical tradition, the “Carol of The Bells” features a two – against – three polyrhythm. 

 A Landmark Musician

The popularity of ragtime continued to grow following Joplin’s death. It provided the foundations for jazz and swing, which rapidly outpaced ragtime in popularity. His own music was nearly lost following his death until its rediscovery in the 1970s when it was featured in a piano album and in Hollywood film scores.  In the 1970’s, Scott Joplin’s second opera, Treemonisha, was also produced to great acclaim. By 1976, Joplin received a posthumous award for his compositions, the Pulitzer prize.

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