Scott Joplin

Active - 1973 - 1973  |   Born - Nov 24, 1868   |   Died - Apr 1, 1917   |   Genres - Comedy, Comedy Drama, Crime, Music, Drama

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Biography by "Blue" Gene Tyranny

This American composer of splendidly lyrical, rhythmic, and melodious ragtime pieces, marches, waltzes, and stage works has finally gained recognition since the early '70s for his unique synthesis of popular and classical concert musics.

Not much is known of Joplin's early musical influences other than the musical abilities of his father and mother, and that he received some training from local piano teachers. In the early 1880s, young Joplin organized a vocal group that toured the Western and Midwestern states. At the age of 16 or 17, he went to St. Louis and played wherever he could, including cathouses and bars. He organized a band for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and met Otis Saunders there who urged him to notate his pieces. Joplin left for Sedalia, MO, where he enrolled at the George R. Smith College for Negroes to study formal aspects of music. Joplin's fame was made with the publication of the Maple Leaf Rag in 1899. Joplin became pianist and director for the opera company run by publisher John Stark in St. Louis. Around 1907, Joplin moved to New York City and set up his own publishing company.

Joplin authored 38 rags several of which he orchestrated, six highly rhythmic marches, five waltzes, ten songs, a dance with choreography entitled The Ragtime Dance (1906), the musical comedy If, and two operas both containing ragtime and African-American folk music styles: A Guest of Honor (1903) written in St. Louis, possibly presented by Stark's opera company (and, tragically, lost while on its way to the copyright office), and the brilliant Treemonisha (1911) which was re-orchestrated by Gunther Schuller and finally premiered in 1972.

The struggles, joys, and loves in Joplin's life are movingly depicted in Jeremy Paul Kagan's Scott Joplin (1977) starring Billy Dee Williams in the title role. The soundtrack contains quotes from many of Joplin's works used to underscore a wide range of emotions. There is also an original song by Harold Johnson entitled Hangover Blues.

The Joplin revival was considerably aided by the popularity of George Roy Hill's The Sting (1973) set in 1930s Chicago and employing five of Joplin's rags orchestrated and arranged ("adapted") by Marvin Hamlisch: The Entertainer (1902) used as the theme song, The Easy Winners (1901), Gladiolus Rag (1907), Pine Apple Rag (1908), The Ragtime Dance, and Solace (1909). The ragtime music is employed for its energetic qualities but mostly to supply a humorous aspect to the action. Jeremy Paul Kagan's The Sting 2 (1983) employs the same strategy as it mixes Joplin's music with an original score by Lalo Schifrin.

Joplin pieces are also used to create "old timey" atmospheres in the 1912 segment of Hood Ornament (1979) which uses Scott Joplin's New Rag (1912), which was a popular hit at the time, and in the documentary Oz: The American Fairyland (1997), the story of writer and filmmaker L. Frank Baum who created the Oz series of books and early cinema versions of the Oz stories, which uses The Entertainer.