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Scott Joplin Biography

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Scott Joplin (born between June 1867 and January 1868 [1] – died April 1, 1917) was a black musician and composer of ragtime music. He remains the best-known ragtime figure and is regarded as one of the three most important composers of classic ragtime, along with James Scott and Joseph Lamb.

Joplin was born in Linden, Texas, to Florence Givins and Giles (sometimes listed as "Jiles") Joplin. He was the second of six children. While for many years his date of birth was thought to be November 24, 1868, new research by ragtime historian Ed Berlin has revealed that this is inaccurate.

After 1871 the Joplin family moved to Texarkana, Texas, and Scott's mother cleaned homes so Scott could have a place to practice his music. By 1882 his mother had purchased a piano. Showing musical ability at an early age, the young Joplin received piano lessons for free from a German music teacher, Julius Weiss, who gave him a well-rounded knowledge of classical music form. This is something that would serve him well in later years and fuel his ambition to create a "classical" form of ragtime. He would later further his musical education by attending George R. Smith College in Sedalia, Missouri, studying composition.

By the late 1880s, Joplin had left home to start a life of his own. He may have joined or formed various quartets and other musical groups and traveled around the Midwest to sing. What is known is that he was part of a minstrel troupe in Texarkana around 1891. In 1895, Joplin was in Syracuse, New York, selling two songs, "Please Say You Will" and "A Picture of Her Face."

But despite all this traveling, his home was in Sedalia, where he moved in 1894, working as a pianist in the Maple Leaf and Black 400 clubs, both social clubs for "respectable [black] gentlemen."

By 1898 Joplin had sold six pieces for the piano. Of the six, only "Original Rags," a compilation of existing melodies that he wrote collaboratively, is a ragtime piece. The other five were the two songs mentioned previously, two marches, and a waltz.

In 1899, Scott Joplin sold what would become his most famous piece, "Maple Leaf Rag" to John Stark & Son, a Sedalia music publisher. Joplin received a one-cent royalty for each copy and ten free copies for his own use, as well as an advance. It has been estimated that Joplin made $360 per year on this piece in his lifetime.

"Maple Leaf Rag" boosted Joplin to the top of the list of ragtime performers and moved ragtime into prominence as a musical form.

With a growing national reputation on the success of "Maple Leaf Rag," Joplin moved to St. Louis in early 1900 with his new wife, Belle. While living there between 1900 and 1903, he produced some of his best-known works, including "The Entertainer," "Elite Syncopations," "March Majestic" and "Ragtime Dance."

Joplin had several marriages. Perhaps his dearest love, Freddie Alexander, died at age twenty of complications resulting from a cold, just two months after their wedding. The first work copyrighted after Freddie's death, "Bethena" (1905), is a very sad, musically complex ragtime waltz.

After months of faltering, Joplin continued writing and publishing. In those days before recorded music, he was a best-selling composer of sheet music. Joplin, with much hard work, produced the unrecognized but award-winning opera Treemonisha. The score to an earlier ragtime opera by Joplin, A Guest of Honor, is lost.

Joplin wanted to experiment further with compositions like Treemonisha, but by 1916 he was suffering from the effects of terminal syphilis. He suffered later from dementia, paranoia, paralysis and other symptoms. Despite his ill health, he recorded six piano rolls that year — "Maple Leaf Rag" (for Connorized and Aeolian companies), "Something Doing," "Magnetic Rag," "Ole Miss Rag," "Weeping Willow Rag" and "Pleasant Moments - Ragtime Waltz" (all for Connorized). These are the only records of his playing we have, and are interesting for the embellishments added by Joplin to his performances. The roll of "Pleasant Moments" was thought lost until August 2006, when a piano roll collector in New Zealand discovered a surviving copy. It has been claimed that the uneven nature of some of Joplin's piano rolls, such as one of the recordings of "Maple Leaf Rag" mentioned above, documented the extent of Joplin's physical deterioration due to syphilis. A comparison of the two "Maple Leaf Rag" player-piano rolls made by Joplin in 1916, one in April the other in June, has been described as "...shocking. The second version is disorganized and completely distressing to hear." However, the irregularities may also be due to the primitive technology used to record the rolls, although rolls recorded by other artists around the same time are noticeably smoother.

In mid-January 1917 Joplin was hospitalized at Manhattan State Hospital in New York City, and friends recounted that he would have bursts of lucidity in which he would jot down lines of music hurriedly before relapsing. Joplin died there on April 1, 1917. Joplin was 49 or 50 years of age, as his exact birthdate is unknown.

Joplin's death did not make the headlines for two reasons: Ragtime was quickly losing ground to jazz and the United States would enter World War I within days. He was buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in the Astoria section of Queens.

Joplin's musical papers, including unpublished manuscripts, were willed to Joplin's friend and the executor of his will, musician and composer Wilber Sweatman. Sweatman took care of these papers and generously shared access to them to those who inquired. However, these were unfortunately few, since Joplin's music had come to be considered passé. After Sweatman's death in 1961 the papers were last known to go into storage during a legal battle among Sweatman's heirs; their current location is not known, nor even if they still exist.

There was, however, an important find in 1971: a piano-roll copy of the lost "Silver Swan Rag," cut sometime around 1914. It had not been published in sheet-music form in Joplin's lifetime. Before this, his only posthumously published piece had been "Reflection Rag," published by Stark in 1917 from an older manuscript he'd kept back.

After his death, Joplin's music and Ragtime in general waned in popularity as new forms of musical styles, such as Jazz and novelty piano emerged. However, a number of revivals of ragtime have occured since.

In the early 1940s many jazz bands began to include ragtime in their repertoire and put out ragtime recordings on 78 RPM records. In 1970, Joshua Rifkin released a Grammy nominated recording of Joplin's rags on the classical label Nonesuch. In 1972, Joplin's opera Treemonisha was finally staged at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Marvin Hamlisch's adaptation of the Joplin rag "The Entertainer," taken from the Oscar-winning film The Sting, reached number 3 on the Billboard magazine Hot 100 music chart in 1974. Ironically, Hamlisch's arrangements and performances of Joplin's rags for The Sting, were ahistorical, as the film was set in the 1930s, well past the peak of the ragtime era.

In 1974 Kenneth MacMillan created a ballet for the Royal Ballet, Elite Syncopations, based on tunes by Joplin, Max Morath and others. It is still performed occasionally.

Scott Joplin was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his special contribution to American music. He also has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

In 1983 the United States Postal Service issued a stamp of the composer as part of its Black Heritage commemorative series.

Joplin left little doubt as to how his compositions should be performed: as a precaution against the prevailing tendency of the day to up the tempo, he explicitly wrote in many of his scores that "ragtime should never be played fast." According to Joplin biographer Rudi Blesh,

Edward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (ISBN 0-19-510108-1) — the most authoritative book on Joplin's life.
Artist information courtesy of their Wikipedia entry, which is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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