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

"I took a class that was a guaranteed easy A," he recalls. Evolutions of Jazz was one of the most popular courses on campus in the late '60s, because the instructor, who grew up in Cairo, Ill., would bring in local musicians to demonstrate and perform. His teacher took Douglas aside one day and said, ""I saw your name on the class list' — he knew I'd taken it for an easy A — "I have people demonstrate styles, but no one to play Joplin. Would you learn some?' I said, "Sure. Who's that?'" Douglas remembers the professor appraising him knowingly: ""Looks like you'll earn that A after all.'"

This was before The Sting, with Joplin's "The Entertainer" becoming a surprise Top 10 hit from the soundtrack, and before E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime became a bestseller, so Douglas' first problem was finding sheet music to play. A trip to St. Louis proved fruitless. When a friend needed a ride to Chicago, Douglas agreed to drive him and on the way took a quick tour of the Loop. He stopped at the Carl Fisher Store, asked for Joplin and was handed 56 Ragtime Jazz Classics. There were pieces by Joplin in it, which sufficed for the young man in a hurry. As Douglas rushed out of the store, he remembers "a little voice telling me something," but he chose to ignore it.

Toward the end of the weekend, as he was packing up the car, he finally recognized what that voice was saying: "I thought it was probably a good idea to look at the music, better than just sight-reading in front of the class the next day. The first piece I looked at was "Maple Leaf Rag,' and I thought, "Not tomorrow!'"

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

He eventually picked out the piece he felt would be "the least bloody." He rises and plays the familiar opening to "The Entertainer." He says, "I got through the first phrase before I busted my knuckles."

Since that moment, "From the day I was able to stagger through a piece, I have found people who have thought the music just wonderful." Encouraged by his faculty advisor, Douglas played three ragtime pieces — along with works by Schubert, Debussy and Chopin — for his senior recital, which was "the first academic concert in which Joplin was played."

Douglas began being invited to Joplin and ragtime festivals in Toronto, St. Louis and Sedalia, Mo. In Sedalia he met the legendary Eubie Blake, who shared a disturbing reminiscence of an enfeebled Joplin in New York City. "We were sitting in the green room," Douglas recalls. "Eubie was a wonderful man, very generous of knowledge and memory. Somebody asked, "Did you ever meet Scott Joplin?' He said, "I was a kid, should have been in knee pants. I was in a joint in New York. The door opened and in came a guy, the doggies was on him so bad he could hardly walk.'" Douglas says Blake remembered the musicians in the club cruelly calling out to "the great Scott Joplin." Eventually, "They browbeat Joplin to the point he felt compelled to play, but his tremors were so bad, by the time he got through the introduction he collapsed." Douglas remembers Blake's silence after telling the story. "It was clear from Eubie's expression it was painful for him."

Before mass-market recordings, "Maple Leaf Rag" was the first million seller in sheet music, and by 1899 Joplin had amassed what would be a millionaire's fortune today, but his phenomenal success is forever shadowed by his ultimate tragedy and by the injustices he suffered because of the color of his skin. Whatever belated appreciation Joplin receives, it still arrives somewhat distorted. Adjacent to the Scott Joplin House, for example, the New Rosebud Cafe is more than a year past its completion date and still unfinished. When it is finally completed, it will be used for special events, programs, meetings and special exhibitions surrounding ragtime and Joplin's life and times. It takes its name from the original Rosebud Cafe — run by brothers Tom and Charlie Turpin, two of the most prominent black citizens of St. Louis — which was "the Vatican and the Wailing Wall of ragtime," says Douglas. "It was universally known that if you got hired at the Rosebud, you were confirmed."

Douglas tells a story about Joplin and the 1904 World's Fair that relates to the status of the New Rosebud. Joplin was commissioned to write a composition specifically for the Fair. The result was "The Cascades," which Joplin completed before the official opening date of the Fair — 1903, not 1904, to commemorate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition. With the Fair opening a year late, Joplin performed the piece in St. Louis. The Fair commissioners claimed Joplin had broken the exclusivity of his contract and struck him from the Fair's official roster.

Then, as now, Joplin was on time, as the rest of the world fell behind.

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