African Americans in Jazz: Scott Joplin, The King of Ragtime

In the second of our series on African Americans in Jazz, we look at one of the greats: Scott Joplin a.k.a. the “King of Ragtime.”

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As one of the (if not the) pioneers of ragtime, Mr. Joplin was part of a pre-jazz genre that  began as dance music among African American communities in St. Louis and New Orleans. Then ragtime made its way over to popular sheet music for piano. Ragtime can have a lot of meanings – remember, music can never really be defined – but when you hear Mr. Joplin’s music, you might think of cadences (i.e., you know when a verse is about to end), and syncopation (off-beat rhythms).

Mr. Joplin is fairly popular already given he was such a talented musician. Hence, for our purposes of becoming more familiar with his music, we’ll focus on his most well-known/not so well-known pieces rather than specific historical anecdotes. Here are a few fun facts though:

Born: ??? – yes, question mark. Historians do not know for sure when or where he was born. Some pinpoint him as being born in Texas–the US Census Bureau locates him there in 1970  at the age of 2. We do know that he was the son of a laborer and former slave.

Instrument: piano, mainly.  He taught himself on a piano belonging to a white family’s home where his mother worked (note: this was later depicted in his opera ‘Treemonisha’), and ultimately studied with a local, German-born teacher who introduced him to classical music.

Cities: He moved a lot. He grew up in Texarkana, TX (where the??) but ultimately settled in Sedalia, Missouri  in 1894. About two years later, he took music classes at George R. Smith College in Sedalia, an institution for African-Americans, though evidence suggests he never mastered his musical skills there.  He later moved on to St. Louis and New York.

That was fun. Now, on to the music.



Let’s start off with his first hit, Maple Leaf Rag. Believe it or not, it wasn’t popular initially when it was contracted in 1899. In fact, only ~400 copies were sold. By 1909 however, around half a million copies had been sold, earning Mr. Joplin a steady revenue stream (1c royalty on each sale) for the rest of his life.

Perhaps the below quote from President Roosevelt’s daughter, which was recalled by a member of the Marine Band, sums it up best:

Miss Roosevelt came up [at a White House reception] and said, “Oh, Mr. Santelmann, do play the Maple Leaf Rag for me. . . . ” The Maple Leaf Rag?” he gasped in astonishment. “Indeed, Miss Roosevelt, I’ve never heard of such a composition, and I’m sure it is not in our library.” “Now, now, Mr. Santelmann,” laughed Alice, “Don’t tell me that. The band boys have played it for me time and again when Mr. Smith or Mr. Vanpoucke was conducting, and I’ll wager they all know it without the music.”



After the Maple Leaf publication, Joplin went on to complete a stage work called The Ragtime Dance and a rag called Swipsey. He then moved in 1901 to St. Louis with his new wife, Belle. There were several significant publications that Joplin released while in St. Louis, including The Strenuous Life and The Entertainer. The Strenuous Life has an interesting context, as it is believed to have been written in honor of President Teddy Roosevelt and his speech The Strenuous Life.

Of course, many of us have heard The Entertainer, probably in nursery school during a round of musical chairs, or perhaps at a carnival while on a ferris wheel that never seems to end. OR on an old cell phone ringtone…you know, the flip phones that some have never even heard of today.



Lastly, we take a look at Joplin’s opera, ‘Treemonisha’. Yes, an opera – something I know many of you have never attended. Many have asserted that the opera was never performed in full, despite a positive review received by the American Musician and Art Journal. However, a WSJ article published a few years ago cites Rick Benjamin – the founder and director of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra – as saying: “Joplin did in fact succeed in performing ‘Treemonisha’ for paying audiences in Bayonne, N.J. in 1913.” And he had himself orchestrated it.

For background, the opera is about Treemonisha, the only educated member of her community, who leads her townspeople out of the bondage of ignorance and superstition. It is a tribute to both Joplin’s mother, given the education aspect, and to his second wife Freddie, with the opera taking place in Sept 1884, the month and year of  Freddie’s birth.

For more on the opera, check out the WSJ article noted above.


Obviously, we haven’t even begun to touch the number of songs Scott Joplin wrote, nor the impact he had on the communities around him. Hopefully though, this serves as a way of background on his influence and mark on music, particularly jazz.




If you’re interested in delving further into the topic, check out these sources below:







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