A Tribute to Scott Joplin: More Than Just the “King of Ragtime”

I remember hearing ragtime for the first time at age five during my first trip to Disneyland, along Main Street where they pipe in early 20th century music and I have been a fan ever since, particularly of Scott Joplin, the “king of ragtime,” one of the greatest American composers in history.

Scott Joplin (from Wikipedia)

Early Life of Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin was born in either 1867 or 1868 in Texas to Giles, a former slave, and Florence Joplin, who was born a free woman. By the time he was five, Scott Joplin’s family had moved to the Texas side of Texarkana. Both of his parents played music, so it was little wonder the young Joplin showed musical brilliance. He would practice piano at the homes where his mother, who cleaned houses for a living, worked. Joplin’s father knew being a musician would mean a rough life for his son, especially being Black, so he was completely against his musical education while his mother encouraged it. This led to the end of the Joplin’s marriage.

Scott Joplin mural in Texarkana. (From arkansas.com)

There are a lot of holes in Scott Joplin’s life story. However, we know he eventually taught music in Texarkana until the late 1880s when he began traveling as a musician playing in bars and brothels. These were some of the few places where Black musicians could find steady work. He traveled to Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Fair and eventually moved to Sedalia, Missouri in 1894 where he studied at George R. Smith College. Here, he learned to write music and became a piano teacher.

Ragtime: The Rock-n-Roll of Its Time

Ragtime was not invented by Scott Joplin but he did popularize it with his clever and upbeat compositions. Ragtime was born out of African folk music which had syncopated rhythms, that is, music that has unpredictable beats. This was revolutionary at the time. The name “ragtime” is due to the music having “ragged time.” Ragtime as a genre had been around for some time but it didn’t become nationally popular until the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 when it became “main stream.” Young people, especially, loved the music and doing the Cake Walk to ragtime. More traditional audiences believed Ragtime was corrupting the minds and morals of American youth.

“The Cakewalk” (from pages.stolaf.edu: Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music )

Joplin’s Rise to Fame

According to one account, while playing at The Maple Leaf Club a man named John Stark, who was a publisher and owned a music store, approached Joplin to ask if he was interested in selling sheet music of his original compositions. Joplin agreed but only if he received royalties from sales, not a flat-out fee as was the custom at the time. The men agreed at a 1% royalty per sheet music sold, a very smart move by Joplin who insured himself a somewhat steady source of income. His first published piece with Stark, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” sold over one-million copies in 1899 making it one of the first – if not, the first – hit song in American music history.

The First All African-American Opera

Scott Joplin was more than a ragtime musician and composer, and he wanted to prove his talents beyond the genre that made him famous. He apparently wrote a piano concerto, a symphony, an opera called “A Guest of Honor,” and a musical. Sadly, the manuscripts to these works didn’t survive so we will never know the joys of hearing this music. However, his dream project completed in 1911, an opera he called Treemonisha was published, but not with a lot of financial and emotional pain.

(From the Library of Congress)

Treemonisha was seen as controversial at the time for its social message: it was the story of a Black woman who leads her community out of ignorance through knowledge and education. Joplin could not find anyone interested in publishing the work, so he paid for it himself, a very costly endeavor. Further, getting the opera funded proved impossible as it was an expensive undertaking, and there was very little interest in sinking money into an all-Black opera. The most Joplin could manage was a read-through performance in 1915 in Harlem, with Joplin playing the score on the piano: no costumes or sets. The performance did not impress possible financial backers who attended.

Heartbroken, financially ruined, and suffering from syphilis induced dementia, Joplin died on April 1, 1917 at the age of 48. The king of ragtime, one of the greatest American composers to ever live, was buried in an unmarked grave.

Revival

The 1970s saw a ragtime and Joplin revival. Composer and musician Joshua Rifkin recorded and released Scott Joplin Piano Rags in 1970. In 1973 the soundtrack for the movie The Sting featured multiple Joplin compositions. Although the film took place in the late 1930s, not at the height of the genre’s popularity, ragtime was used due to the lightheartedness and humor expressed in the songs. Joplin’s “The Entertainer” hit #3 on the Billboard pop charts in 1974, seventy-two years after it was first written.

The Sting soundtrack (from calendar.songfacts.com)

In 1972, sixty-one years after Joplin’s death, Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra joined forces for the first full staging of Treemonisha. This truly American opera is a magnificent musical blending of spirituals, folk, and ragtime. For his contributions to American music, Joplin posthumously received the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. His unmarked grave was finally given a marker in 1974.

The pre-performance of Treemonisha in Atlanta, 1972 (from syncopatedtimes.com)

If you haven’t taken the time to truly listen to Scott Joplin’s music, play it and let your ears capture all the wonderful dancing notes as they take you through a captivating musical journey. Scott Joplin was an American genius, one who should be celebrated, studied, and listened to year-round.

(Below you can see a clip of the Houston Grand Opera’s staging of Treemonisha. This is the final number, “A Slow Rag.” One can hear the clear sounds of Americana in this piece. A full performance is available on YouTube. Keep scrolling for a bonus video.)

Villa Finale’s collection contains several mechanized musical instruments, a couple of them contain rolls featuring ragtime. This is Villa Finale’s reproducing piano playing “Egyptian Rag” by Percy Wenrich, 1910.)

American Jazz Museum: Conserving Jazz Music’s Cultural Legacy by Doug Daye

Doug is back to give us his impression of another great museum in the United States: The American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. Enjoy taking this short trip with us!

Doug Daye

The weather remains on the slightly cooler side, so what better way to enjoy going out for a stroll to take in the colorful, falling leaves, while listening to Billie Holiday sing jazz classic “Autumn In New York.” Of course, in San Antonio, the trees stay green year-round so it may be hard to take pleasure in the season but, hey, it’s fun to dream! Learn more about jazz artists like Billie Holiday at the American Jazz Museum!

In 1997, the American Jazz Museum officially opened in Kansas City, MO, in the historic district of 18th and Vine, which had been revitalized due to efforts by the community and city investments. The museum’s opening served as a momentous occasion in Kansas City’s history by helping to build on the heritage of the 18th and Vine District, which historically was a thriving community built by African Americans in the midst of segregation. Its grand opening ceremony featured many notable artists including Al Jarreau, Dianne Reeves, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte and more! It is the only museum that is dedicated to preserving the legacy and achievements of jazz music and works to educate the public on its significance.

From the American Jazz Museum webpage.

Museum Highlights

The museum offers many captivating exhibits and online activities as well! There is so much to see and do!!

Main Jazz Exhibit – Explore displays featuring many jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker, while looking at the vibrant neon signs that make it seem like you’re strolling around the city at night!

Louis Armstrong (from Legacy.com)

Jazz In Film: John H. Baker Jazz Film Collection – Learn about jazz music’s influence in the film and TV industry by exploring early jazz artists that made significant achievements in the industry.

The Blue Room Jazz Club – Named after the historic 1930s street club, this serves as a venue for well-known and local artists while showcasing displays of the great jazz artists of the past and present!

American Jazz Museum interior (from news.visitkc.com)

Take the virtual tour and learn more about the American Jazz Museum here: https://americanjazzmuseum.org/ajmathome

Be sure to also check out the museum’s selected playlists on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/user/5vq93agtrg8h0va9nme1zyj8g

Also check out more information about the American Jazz Museum and other historical sites on the National Trust website! https://savingplaces.org/distinctive-destinations/american-jazz-museum#.X2DmKozYoWU

Happy New Year! Villa Finale announces upcoming programs for 2015

Although the first month of the new year is nearly ending, it’s never too late to wish you all a happy 2015!  Since this is the our first blog post of the year, I would like to take some time to tell everyone a little bit about our programs in February, beginning with our signature Music for Your Eyes tour on Thursday, February 5th!

IMG_5081Now in its fourth year, this specialized tour has been one of our most popular programs.  Not only do guests have an opportunity to see the home in the evening (the tour begins at 6:30pm), they are hosted by two of our paid staff who engage the audience about music, art, humorous anecdotes and so much more.  The staff provides demonstrations of the music machines in the house – not performed during our regular guided tours – ending the tour with a sit-down performance by our 1921 Bechstein-Welte reproducing piano located in the home’s Napoleon Parlors.  If you haven’t taken this tour, it is definitely a must!  (The program is repeated several times throughout the year.)

drawing 2Our first family oriented program will be on Saturday, February 7th, Drawing on Experience: For the Love of Art.  The Drawing on Experience program began in England as a way for educators in museums, galleries, science centers and teachers to provide a framework for using drawing as a medium for learning from collections and exhibitions — Villa Finale’s curator, Meg Nowack, brought a version of the program here to Villa Finale to share with children and their parents.  The children and parents will get a brief tour of the home after which they will select an object to draw together inside the house!  This is a great bonding experience for kids and parents or even grandparents!

DSC3043copy2webcopy5Finally, we get in a “loving mood” on Friday, February 13th with “Isn’t It Romantic?” at Villa Finale featuring the vocal talents of Ken Slavin.  The intimate concert of popular love songs made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter, to name a few, will take place inside Villa Finale’s Napoleon Parlors.  Mr. Slavin will be accompanied on our 1921 Bechstein-Welte by pianist, Barry Brick.  Guests on this special evening will enjoy appropriate refreshments – we can’t forget the champagne –  prior to the concert and at intermission.  Treat your sweetheart, family member, best friend or treat yourself — many of us are just romantic at heart!  For more information about Ken Slavin, click here.

There is much more to come at Villa Finale, including our popular programs for French Cultures Month in March.  More information about the programs mentioned above is located at the end of this post.  Thank you for your support, and stay tuned for more exciting programs and events in 2015!  (Please call Villa Finale Visitor Services for more information or for admissions at 210-223-9800.  Admissions must be paid in advance.  No refunds or exchanges.  Space is limited for these programs.)

Music for Your Eyes tour – 2/5/15 (6:30pm – 7:30pm)
$20.00 general admission; $15.00 members / students

Drawing on Experience: For the Love of Art – 2/7/15 (10:00am – 11:30am)
$5.00 for one child & parent, $2.50 each additional child, general admission
$4.00 for one child & parent, $2.00 each additional child, members

“Isn’t It Romantic?” at Villa Finale featuring the vocal talents of Ken Slavin – 2/13/15 (6:30pm – 8:00pm; gate opens at 6:00pm)
$27.50 general admission
$25.00 members / students

You can always visit our wesbite www.VillaFinale.org for more information.

Music for Your Eyes

At the moment, the very interesting Violano-Virtuoso in Villa Finale’s collection is more a feast for your eyes rather than your ears.  The double violins and up-right piano all need tuning-however-even played untuned, it still conjures up images of dancing in a saloon in the mid-20th century. 

Mr. Mathis has two mechanical musical instruments, one is the Violano, the other a  Bechstein-Welte reproducing piano (not to be confused with a player piano, which is much less accurate).

This Violano-Virtuoso was one of a couple of thousand produced in the early 20th century for saloons and bars all over the United States and Europe.  They acted as Juke Boxes did in the ’50s, you inserted a nickle and it would belt out a catchy tune.  It was invented by a man by the name of H.K. Sandell, and manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago; the patent date on Villa Finale’s is June 4th 1912.  There are only a few hundred left, and only one man who fixes them properly-Robert Skinner from New Orleans.   Mr. Skinner was here last year to fix the mechanics of the Violano and will be back before Villa Finale opens to tune it.  The story of our Violano is quite neat:

Otto and Emma Koehler ran what is now known as the Pearl Brewery from 1902 through Prohibition.  The brewery stables went through several transformations, even housing an exact replica of Judge Roy Bean’s saloon.  I can only think that this is where this Violano may have come from.  As the story goes, the Violano was offered to Mr. Mathis  by a Koehler family member, who called him up and asked if he would like “this old music box?”, to which Mathis replied an enthusiastic “yes!”.  I think when he did that, he was unaware of two things:  the size of the “music box” and that his friend expected payment.   No matter, Mr. Mathis acquired it and it still plays boldly from the back of the main hall of the house, where it can be heard in every room.  Villa Finale has about 75 of the changable rolls with around eight songs each, but the one of waltzes is one that Mr. Mathis preferred.