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.

"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!'"

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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