HOUSE KEYS

The ragtime music made famous by St. Louisan Scott Joplin is appreciated more now than it ever was in the entertainer's lifetime

The eight members of the Budapest Ragtime Band pose for their first Kodak moment since they flew into St. Louis from Hungary the night before. Their hosts, Jack LeBeau and Don Spiegel of the St. Louis Jazz Club — an organization that's been holding jam sessions and programs in Swansea, Ill., for some 40 years — have planned a basic St. Louis tour: the Arch, the old and new cathedrals, Laclede's Landing, Union Station and so forth.

The first stop, though, is the one musical component to the tour: the Scott Joplin House on Delmar Boulevard. The house's plain wooden sign serves as backdrop for a shot of the musicians standing in Nike-swoosh T-shirts and Adidas sports shorts, emblems of the internationalization of culture — as are Joplin, ragtime and its close descendent, jazz.

The nature of Eastern Europe's affinity for jazz music during the reign of communism has been described numerous times — a music that provided a vibrant contrast to the gray strictures of state-mandated conformity. Ragtime music, particularly, was immensely popular because it sounded a truth about modern life rather than a prescription for modern life. On the piano, the left hand beats a steady bass line — like the precise stroking of a machine — as the right hand counters, responds, approaches, flies from the beat with a lively, human melody. Ragtime is, arguably, the first American music, and, for further argument, the first modern music — its syncopated rhythms coming out of a newly liberated consciousness (Joplin was of the first generation of African-Americans born after slavery). Ragtime's ability to awaken and stimulate that consciousness has made it an embraceable and romantic art form, and one fascistic governments would prefer to suppress.

Jan Hamilton Douglas, cultural-resources preservationist of the Scott Joplin House
Jennifer Silverberg
Jan Hamilton Douglas, cultural-resources preservationist of the Scott Joplin House

A man arrives to open up the Joplin house on a Saturday morning, distinctive with a white beard and bald head, wearing a Scott Joplin T-shirt and piano-key suspenders. LeBeau, of the Jazz Club, says they've especially requested Jan Hamilton Douglas as their guide this morning.

The first thing that stands out about Douglas, as he begins the tour, is his soft, melodic voice, a voice designed for instruction, that coaxes attention with its gentle lilt. The next thing that is apparent is his detailed and passionate knowledge of his subject. Joplin is discussed as an old, beloved and mourned acquaintance. How much the Hungarians are picking up is uncertain as Douglas relates stories of Joplin's first wife, Belle, and her hatred of music; Joplin's brief prosperity; and Joplin's tragic end, spending his entire fortune in the pursuit of producing his opera Treemonisha. "Most people weren't prepared to believe that niggers knew what an opera was," Hamilton explains. "Joplin clearly was thinking bigger than the cultural opportunities he was offered." When Joplin died on April Fool's Day 1917, he was 49. He was buried outside New York City in a pauper's grave alongside the homeless, the grave unmarked until 1974.

Whether the Hungarian musicians understand the narrative, the emotional attachment Douglas feels to Joplin is palpable. As he discusses his plans for a "ragtime garden" for Joplin, with plants from ragtime songs with botanical names ("Maple Leaf Rag," "The Chrysanthemum"), he adds that it is his desire to "bring Joplin home to rest under a blanket of maple leaves." Douglas pauses for a moment, caught up in the sentiment, before he sits at a grand piano and plays three ragtime pieces. The craftsmanship and the depth of feeling Douglas brings to the compositions need no translation, and the musicians respond exuberantly.

Douglas leaves the completion of the tour to another member of the staff; the walk up the stairs to the rooms where Joplin and Belle lived is too much for his ailing back. He also has a quarrel with the re-creation of the upstairs rooms — too ornate. "It's how a successful black musician would have lived," he says. He's examined the 1900 census and found that "this was the most populated ward in St. Louis. People who lived on this block were almost to a person working at the lowest rungs of the financial ladder" — almost all black, he adds, some Irish. "None of that speaks to the lifestyle we see upstairs."

A man this involved with his subject deserves a second visit. On a weekday afternoon, he's concluding another tour, playing the ragtime selections with the combination of vigor and subtlety that the music demands. Afterward he excuses himself for a smoke outside — the last pack, he says. He's picking up the patch on the way home; doesn't want to say how long he's lived with the habit.

One of the popularizers of ragtime music, Jo Ann Castle of The Lawrence Welk Show, is mentioned, and Douglas winces. "She has the meanest mouth in ragtime," he exclaims, and derides her and her ilk for playing a simplistic version of a complex musical form, "the Shakey's Pizza Parlor stuff" that he admits he once played himself before he became enlightened.

That moment came when he was a piano-performance major at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He was what is now called a "nontraditional" student, in his late 20s amid teenagers and those just turning 20 and 21. He looks back at the time with a devilish chuckle: "Sloth is one of the deadly sins, but this kind of good time is going to cost a lot.

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