Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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JOPLIN, Scott

(b 24 Nov. 1868, Texarkana TX; d 11 April '17, NYC) Pianist and composer; considered the greatest of all composers of ragtime, though the piano rags of James Scott and Joseph Lamb are probably just as fine (see entry for Ragtime). Joplin played cornet in the Queen City Negro Band of Sedalia MO 1890s; played at Chicago World's Fair 1893; sold first compositions 'Please Say You Will', 'Picture Of Her Face' 1895, first rags in 1899: 'Original Rags' was sold outright to a publisher in Kansas City, but 'Maple Leaf Rag' was published in Sedalia by John Stark, who gave Joplin a royalty agreement, unusual then in business between a white man and a Negro. It was easily the biggest ragtime hit of all, and Stark moved his business to St Louis in 1900. Joplin intended to create a body of serious American music in the ragtime style, but even if the form could have borne the weight of that ambition, the music business of the time would not allow the necessary development, for racist and other reasons. 'The Ragtime Dance' '02 was a 20- minute ballet; Stark published it but sales were poor. An opera, The Guest Of Honor, was to have been published '03 but never appeared and is now lost. He also wrote nine songs for a musical comedy called If.

He and Stark tried to establish the 'classic rag' in the teeth of a national obsession with ragtime as rinkytink party music; it became the fashion in Joplin's lifetime to play rags at breakneck speed, partly because of coin-operated player pianos in penny arcades, and despite the fact that some of the rags were printed with the instruction 'Do not play fast'. He went to NYC '10; his opera Treemonisha was performed in Harlem '11 at his expense, and he was depressed at its failure; he died in a mental hospital. He wrote about 50 piano rags, as well as collaborations (such as 'Sunflower Slow Drag', with Scott Hayden). John 'Knocky' Parker was the first to record virtually all Joplin's rags, on a two-LP set on Audiophile early '60s; they were revived more successfully c'70, along with rags by other composers, by Joshua Rifkin and William Bolcom, who played them as the stylish, often subtle miniatures they are; they recorded collections on several labels, especially Nonesuch. Joplin's rags have also been recorded by Max Morath on Vanguard, James Levine on RCA, Dick Hyman on RCA (incl. five-disc complete set), André Previn and violinist Itzhak Perlman on EMI/Angel, Gunther Schuller with the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, many others. Film/Broadway composer Marvin Hamlisch (b 4 Dec. '44, NYC) used 'The Entertainer' in the soundtrack of The Sting '74; the hit film brought Joplin's music to a much wider audience than any records. Treemonisha was revived by the Houston Grand Opera '76 with Schuller conducting (two-disc album on DGG). Joplin made piano rolls '16, available on Biograph; but ordinary piano rolls (also made by James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, many others) provide only a one-dimensional idea of the musician's skill, with no dynamics at all.