Scott Joplin was the best-known American ragtime musician and composer, setting the standard for all that followed. Ragtime which gave birth to Jazz has a rhythm in which the accompaniment is strict two-four time and the melody, with improvised embellishment, is in steady syncopation. Joplin`s instrument of choice was the piano.
Scott Joplin was born near Linden, Texas, to Florence Givins and Giles Joplin. He was the second of six children. His birthdate is unclear. For many years, it was thought to be November 24, 1868. Available documents point to a birth between June 1867 and mid-January 1868.*
After 1871, the Joplin family moved to Texarkana, Texas. His mother cleaned homes, giving young Scott exposure to the piano. His musical talent was noticed by a local music teacher, Julius Weiss, who gave him well-rounded lessons without charge.
In the 1880s, Scott lived in Sedalia, Missouri, and attended Lincoln High School in the black neighborhood north of the railroad. Unconfirmed anecdotes tell of his musical career in the 1880s and traveling to St. Louis, which would become a major center of ragtime.
During the summer of 1891, Joplin was back in Texarkana, performing with a minstrel troupe. In 1894, he returned to Sedalia, which became his home, and played first cornet in the Queen City Cornet Band, a local ensemble of African-American musicians. Joplin stayed with the band for about a year, then left to form his own band, which performed at dances and other events. In 1895, he traveled to Syracuse, New York, with his group, the "Texas Medley Quartette." He published his first two songs, "Please Say You Will," and "A Picture of Her Face."
When Joplin was not traveling, he worked in Sedalia as a pianist, playing at two of the town social clubs for black men. He also taught a few of the young local musicians in town, including Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall.
"Maple Leaf Rag"
In 1896, Joplin published two marches and a waltz. In 1899 he contracted with Sedalia music store owner and publisher, John Stark, to publish "The Maple Leaf Rag," which became his most famous piano rag. The contract specified that Joplin would receive a one-cent royalty on each sale; that left him a small, but steady income for the remainder of his life. By 1909, approximately a half-million copies had been sold, and continued at that rate for the next two decades.
In 1899, The Ragtime Dance, a stage work for dancers and singing narrator, was published; it was released in 1902. Joplin published one more rag while in Sedalia, "Swipesy," a collaboration with his student, Arthur Marshall. He moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1901 with his new wife, Belle. Some of his publications in St. Louis were "Sunflower Slow Drag," "Peacherine Rag," and "The Easy Winners," all of which came out in 1901. In 1902 he wrote six more songs, including "The Strenuous Life," a tribute to Theodore Roosevelt; "The Entertainer," and "The Ragtime Dance."
In 1903, Joplin filed a copyright application for an opera, A Guest of Honor. He formed an opera company and went on tour, but it failed and Joplin returned to Arkansas to visit relatives.
There Joplin met 19-year-old Freddie Alexander. He was so taken with her he dedicated "The Chrysanthemum" to her. By June 1904, Scott`s marriage with Belle was over, so he returned to Arkansas to marry Freddie. The newlyweds returned to Sedalia, where he continued his concerts.
Tragically, in September 1904, Freddie contracted a cold that progressed into pneumonia. She died at the age of 20, just 10 weeks after they married. Following Freddies funeral, Scott left Sedalia and never returned.
The music plays on
Joplin spent most of his time in St. Louis, working on insignificant playing jobs for very little money. In 1905, his publications included a ragtime waltz, "Bethena," and ragtime tunes "Sarah Dear," and "Leola."
Over the following few years Joplin worked on several projects, including "Sugar Cane and Pine Apple Rag" in 1908, and in 1909 "Wall Street Rag" and "Pleasant Moments."
In 1913, Joplin and his new wife, Lottie, formed their own publishing company, and they issued "Magnetic Rag" in 1914. During the following two years, Joplin composed several new rags and songs, a vaudeville act, musical, symphony, and piano concerto. However, none of them was published, and the manuscripts have been lost.
The music world loses
By 1916, Joplin was suffering the devastating physical and mental effects of tertiary syphilis, which he had contracted nearly two decades earlier. By mid-January 1917, he had to be hospitalized. He was soon transferred to a mental institution, where he died on April 1, 1917. Joplin was buried in St. Michael`s Cemetery in the Astoria section of Queens, New York.
A new interest in Scott Joplin and ragtime was stimulated in the 1970s, when his music was used in the Academy Award-winning score to the film The Sting.
Scott Joplin was awarded a Pulitzer Prize special award for music in 1976 and was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987.
*The U.S. Census locates him in north Texas in July 1870 as a two-year-old child, and that he was already two at that time, indicating that the frequently cited and celebrated birthdate of November 24, 1868, is incorrect.