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:







African Americans in Jazz: A Walk Through the 1800s – Francis Johnson

Here we begin our first leg of learning about jazz and take with a walk through the 1800s.

As most know, jazz became a widespread phenomenon during the 1900s, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist during the 1800s. Over the next week, we’ll take a look at three African American artists who made big strides in music during this time: Francis Johnson, Edmond Dede, and Scott Joplin.

First, we take on Francis Johnson. It’s difficult to find his compositions, but as you read the below, take a listen to some of them here. One of my favorites is “The New Bird Waltz.”

Francis Johnson


Born in 1792 as a free African, Francis Johnson represents one of the most influential African American composer-conductors of the pre-Civil War era. Philadelphia-raised and the child of an interracial union, Johnson quickly made his mark as a musician by performing in local venues and playing for the elite.

By his 15th birthday, he was an expert in flute and piccolo, fiddle, bugle-horn, and pianoforte. And by 1815,  he had become a band leader, teacher and composer for militias, notably composing in rapid succession 4 of the most important pieces in the annals of American martial music.  What we’ll focus on here however is his biggest legacy: his introduction of Promenade concerts in Philadelphia.

In 1837, Frank Johnson made an announcement that he was traveling to Europe to further his knowledge in music.

During his journey, Johnson heard Auguste Pilati and his promenade concerts in Britain. Pilati was a former player in the orchestra of Frenchman Philippe Musard. He tried to capitalize off the success of Musard’s promenade concerts in Paris by introducing them in London, but this attempt was short-lived. Curious about these concerts, in early January 1838, Johnson voyaged to Paris, where he attended a few promenade shows and met with Musard himself .

Johnson’s attraction to the promenade concerts stemmed from his own interests and talents in the creation of cotillions and marches, which were a form of dance music. The difference between this ballroom dance music and the promenade concerts lied in how people perceived them. Audiences went to the ballroom to dance while they went to concerts to listen to dance music. People loved to both listen and dance to Johnson’s music, whether it was outside in Saratoga Springs or inside a hotel in Philadelphia. However, unlike Johnson’s own ballroom performances, Musard’s promenade concerts served as a source of entertainment available to the masses. They attracted “the ordinary man and woman who never went to a concert and could not afford to do so but who wanted a pleasant evening’s entertainment at a low price.”  It was this concept that Johnson found valuable enough to bring back with him to America.

By the time Johnson arrived back in Philadelphia on May 19, 1838, he carried with him a new belief: that all could enjoy music, for it was universal. He also realized that he needed to promote his own music to be successful.  Thus, Johnson became the first American bandmaster to systematically publicize in advance “through newspapers and handbills not only his own band but each composition and composer to be presented in the program as well.”  The thousands of concertgoers who decided to attend his “Musical Soirees” provide evidence of the immense success of his promotions. On December 24, 1838, an advertisement in the Public Ledger stated that a concert by Francis Johnson would be held in the Philadelphia Museum “…on the plan of those held at Musard’s celebrated rooms at Paris…” The ad goes on to state that with the variety of music being offered, and the low admission fee, thousands would be able to assemble nightly and enjoy the intellectual source of amusement. Thus, in this ad Johnson made sure to emphasize his purpose in throwing these promenade concerts, which was to make it affordable and enjoyable for all.

These promotions worked tremendously well for him; the Museum was often obliged to close its doors to crowds of people long before the performances began. In addition, Johnson maintained a wide variety in his programs, rarely carrying one song over to the next night.

Johnson died in 1844 after a sustained illness at the age of 52, but the steps he made in a series of firsts – the first African American to have his works published as sheet music – the first to give public concerts – the first to present concerts abroad – and more – paved the way for those to come. And one of the most important pieces in his career was promoting music as something that could be enjoyed by everyone. As we’ll soon explore in further detail, this became one of jazz’s main attractions.

Note: I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the racial tension that Johnson had to endure during his musical career. But historical works show that it was less of an issue than one might presume: “…with but few unpleasantly memorable exceptions, [Johnson] seemed to have lived and worked relatively free of the racial problems building in the world around him.” He tended to stray away from the social activist and abolitionist movements in Philadelphia. Instead he focused on his music and frequently traveled to New York to perform in front of large crowds.  Thus, as Johnson put his music above all else, we might also try to do so here.



Griscom, Richard. “Francis Johnson: Philadelphia Bandmaster and Composer.”University of Pennsylvania Almanac 58.22 (2012): n. pag. University of Pennsylvania Almanac. Web. 9 May 2013.

Jones, Charles K.. Francis Johnson (1792-1844): chronicle of a black musician in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2006. Print.

Southern, Eileen. The music of black Americans: a history. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1997. Print.