Scott Joplin

Many myths have grown up about Scott Joplin’s early life; however, his impact on American jazz music was singular and rooted. Joplin was born in Texarkana, Arkansas around 1868 to a musical family of railroad workers. Joplin’s mother was adamant about her son’s music education, which played a role in his parents’ divorce. He practiced piano seriously and studied music with the Texas-via-Germany transplant Julius Weiss. Joplin studied with Weiss until he was sixteen and then left Texarkana to become a roaming musician. In the 1880s he found work in various southern cities’ red-light districts and by 1893 had formed his own band in Chicago. Playing ragtime in venues that lined the 1893 World’s Fair, Joplin found that his music was popular with musicians and visitors alike. He toured with various outfits and began publishing compositions until making a permanent residence in Missouri in 1904. While the specifics are unknown, Joplin published his most famous work, “Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1899, the same year he married the sister-in-law of his partner Scott Hayden. In 1903 his first opera, A Guest of Honor, had a national tour with a company created by the composer. The following year he remarried but his wife soon died and he relocated to New York in 1907 to focus on his second opera, Treemonisha. Lacking a backer, in 1915 Joplin premiered the piece himself with a meager production that was criticized as a failure. In 1914 Joplin published his last piece, “Magnetic Rag,” through his own company and, due to tertiary syphilis, was admitted to an institution in 1917. He died in April of that year and with him took the country’s fondness for ragtime music, which began to develop into the big band and swing musical idioms of mid-century America.