It seems only natural to begin the start of our timeline with the birth of Scott Joplin. Chances are you’ve heard his world famous “Maple Leaf Rag.” Here, take a listen. It’s fun, right? That particular recording claims to be the original arrangement by Joplin himself- that would have been 1899. The style the piece is written in came to be known as “ragtime” because the listeners of its day felt that the rhythm sounded rough, uneven, or “ragged.” What you hear is a rhythmic quality known as “syncopation.” Oxford’s Dictionary of Music defines it as, “[a device] used by composers in order to vary position of the stress on notes so as to avoid regular rhythm. Syncopation is achieved by accenting a weak instead of a strong beat, by putting rests on strong beats, by holding on over strong beats, and by introducing a sudden change of time‐signature” (Syncopation). This unevenness of beat would pave the way for the swung rhythms of jazz.
Joplin, who expressed a love for music at an early age was born in the late 1860’s to a poor family of railroad laborers who couldn’t afford to put the young Scott through lessons. Julius Weiss, a German immigrant trained formally in Europe, offered to teach the eager Scott for free. He remained an influential figure in Joplin’s life and helped him to develop his skills at the piano as well as a deep appreciation for music.
He traveled to the city of Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition, more commonly referred to as the Chicago World’s Fair. This enormous event showcased neoclassical architecture, anthropological exhibits, the newest in railway technology, plants, and the first ever moving walkway. Sandy Mazzola writes in the American Music journal that, “Countless band musicians flocked to the metropolis, among them the legendary Scott Joplin, who allegedly played cornet in a band for a sideshow near the official fairgrounds. His presence provides one more indication that events promoted or encouraged by the fair were transforming the character of musical entertainment in Chicago” (Mazzola 420). His style really began to catch on after his performances at the World’s Fair and his stay in Chicago.
His music was very important at a time when, as I noted in my introductory post, the music and culture of African-Americans was largely being suppressed. Joplin’s response to this was different from his other African-American counterparts. Earl Stewart and Jane Duran comment on this in an excellent article called “Scott Joplin and the Quest for Identity.” They discuss how in using the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, Joplin preserves black rhythm and how he employs pentatonicism (a musical structure centered around a series of five notes) and call-and-response elements, both of which are found in African-American folk music traditions. They go on to say that, “to assure an intrastructural linkage with the African American vernacular music of his day, he frequently used phrase structures that were consistent with those employed in folk music, particularly the black spiritual, for example, aaab. In his opera, Treemonisha, he based his libretto largely on black dialect, thus linking it with black literature” (Stewart 95).
Whether he was aware of it or not, his compositional techniques were vitally important to the preservation of African-American culture and his style would usher in a new major player in Chicago jazz history: Joe Jordan.
“Maple Leaf Rag Played by Scott Joplin.” Youtube, uploaded by TJaep, 19 October 2006, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMAtL7n_-rc.
Maple Leaf Wallpaper. pcwallart. pcwallart.com/maple-leaf-wallpaper-3.html. Accessed 12 Feb. 2017.
Mazzola, Sandy R. “Bands and Orchestras at the World’s Columbian Exhibition.” American Music, vol. 4, no. 4. 1986, pp. 420.
Stewart, Earl and Jane Duran. “Scott Joplin and the Quest for Identity.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 41, no. 2, 2007, pp. 95.
“Syncopation.” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev. Ed. Michael Kennedy. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t237/e10023>. Accessed 13 Feb. 2017.