Scott Joplin (1868-1917), African American composer and pianist, called the "King of Ragtime," son of Jiles and Florence (Givins) Joplin, was born on November 24, 1868, probably at Caves Springs, near Linden, Texas. His father, a laborer and former slave who possessed rudimentary musical ability, moved the family to Texarkana by about 1875. Encouraged by family music making, Scott, at age seven, was proficient in banjo and began to experiment on a piano owned by a neighbor, attorney W. G. Cook, for whom Florence did domestic work. At about age eleven, young Joplin began free piano lessons with Julius Weiss (born Saxony, ca. 1841), who also taught him the basics of sight reading, harmony, and appreciation, particularly of opera. Weiss lodged as family tutor for lumberman Col. R. W. Rodgers, and possibly introduced Scott to the same academic subjects he taught the Rodgers children. Indeed each of the Rodgers family learned a musical instrument, and young Rollin Rodgers became a lifelong opera enthusiast (the same subject which would haunt Joplin in his later years) due to Weiss's encouragement. The second-hand square piano that Jiles Joplin bought for Scott probably came from the Rodgers home when the family bought a new instrument during Weiss's residence there. After Colonel Rodgers died in April 1884 and following the subsequent departure of Weiss, Joplin may also have left Texarkana. September 1884 seems to be a seminal month in Joplin's life, signifying either his departure from the border town or the date when he became an assistant teacher in Texarkana's Negro school. Some authorities believe that he remained there until about 1888, performing in Texarkana and area towns.
After several years as an itinerant pianist in brothels and saloons, Joplin settled in St. Louis about 1890. A type of music known as "jig-piano" was popular there, and the bouncing bass and syncopated melody lines were later referred to as "ragged time," or simply "ragtime." During 1893 he played in sporting areas adjacent to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the next year moved to Sedalia, Missouri, from whence he toured with his eight-member Texas Medley Quartette as far east as Syracuse, New York, and in 1896, into Texas, where he possibly witnessed the staged collision of two M.K.&T. railroad trains near Waco. In 1897 he enrolled in Sedalia's George R. Smith College for Negroes, studying piano and theory. During this time he was an "entertainer" at the Maple Leaf Club and traveled to Kansas City, where in 1899 Carl Hoffman issued Joplin's first ragtime publications, including his best-known piece, "Maple Leaf Rag". The sheet music went on to sell over one million copies. Thereafter Joplin entered into an on-and-off arrangement with John Stark, a publisher in Sedalia, but later in St. Louis and New York. In addition to his output of increasingly sophisticated individual rags, Joplin began to integrate ragtime idioms into works in the larger musical forms: a ballet, "The Ragtime Dance" (1899), and two operas, "The Guest of Honor" (1902-03) and "Treemonisha" (1906-10). Unfortunately the orchestration scores for both the operas were lost. A piano-vocal score and new orchestration for "Treemonisha" was later published. When he moved back to St. Louis in 1901, Joplin renewed an acquaintance with Alfred Ernst (1867-1916), conductor of that city's Choral-Symphony Society, and possibly took theory lessons from him. The German Ernst noted, "He is an unusually intelligent young man and fairly well educated." Joplin had a strong conviction that the key to success for African Americans was education, and this was a common theme in his works. After further periods of residence in Sedalia, Chicago, and St. Louis, with a possible visit home to Texarkana, Joplin followed publisher Stark to New York in 1907, using the city as a base for his East Coast touring, until he settled down there permanently in 1911, to devote his serious energies to the production of "Treemonisha", mounted unsuccessfully early in 1915. Joplin had contracted syphilis some years earlier, and by 1916 his health had deteriorated considerably, as indicated by his inconsistent playing on the piano rolls he recorded. He was projecting a ragtime symphony when he entered the Manhattan State Hospital, where he died on April 1, 1917. He was buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in New York City. Joplin was married twice: to Belle Hayden (1901-03) and Lottie Stokes (from ca. 1909); one daughter (born ca. 1903) died in infancy.
Joplin's works include the ballet and two operas, a manual, "The School of Ragtime" (1908), and many works for piano: rags, including "Maple Leaf", "The Entertainer", "Elite Syncopations", "Peacherine"; marches, including "Great Crush Collision", "March Majestic"; and waltzes, including "Harmony Club", "Bethena". Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century Scott Joplin's music has won more critical recognition. His collected works were published by the New York Public Library in 1971, and his music was featured in the 1973 motion picture "The Sting", which won an Academy Award for its film score. In 1976 Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "Treemonisha", the first grand opera by an African American.
Theodore Albrecht, "Julius Weiss: Scott Joplin's First Piano Teacher," College Music Symposium 19 (Fall 1979). Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime: The True Story of an American Music (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1958; 2d ed., New York: Oak Publications, 1966). James Haskins and Kathleen Benson, Scott Joplin (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978). Vera Brodsky Lawrence, ed., The Collected Works of Scott Joplin (2 vols., New York Public Library, 1971).
"JOPLIN, SCOTT." The Handbook of Texas Online. <http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/view/JJ/fjo70.html>
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