Jazz - Then and Now (Chapter 6)

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Chapter 6

Ragtime is a term which originated from the black culture. During the days of ministrelsy, the minstrels would sing spirituals and work songs unlike the form the music was written in. They added embellishments here and there around the melody in a fanciful and lively manner, and called it "ragging."

From this ragging style of performance, came syncopation in its early stages. From syncopation came ragtime, which eventually opened the way for jazz.

The ragtime era from 1896 to 1917, was a welcome relief from the long depression that began in 1893 and continued for four years. The mood of ragtime was cheerful and exhilarating. The popularity of the music contributed to its longevity, and it was popular because it was a happy, joyful music. It continued on for the next twenty years.

Ragtime also had its origins in slavery. It was not until Scott Joplin, introduced it in modern form in the 1890s, however, that it became popular with American audiences. Almost immediately, it was heard everywhere. Be it a band concert, a picnic, an outing, a dance, a parade, a rally or a boat cruise, brass bands were constantly playing ragtime music with its syncopated rhythms.

"What is ragtime music?" very simply put, it is a syncopated melody played against a strict rhythm accompaniment. With the combining of these two rhythmic factors, a ragtime character is created. Syncopation is defined as the placing of strong accents where normally the weak or after-beats would be.

Ragtime's rapid success and popularity were helped by the national distribution of printed sheet music, which was primarily written for piano. Black piano players traveling throughout the south and mid-west played ragtime in saloons, dance halls and bordellos. Later, due to public interest, music publishers printed special arrangements for both dance bands and marching bands. In addition, piano rolls of ragtime music were recorded for home player-pianos.

A ragtime composition takes on the same form as that of a march. It usually starts out with a four bar introduction and is followed with four themes. The trio, as in the march, is introduced with either a two or four bar modulation leading into the sub-dominant key. Like the march, ragtime is mainly written in 2/4 or 4/4 time. 2/4 time has two beats to a bar and 4/4 time has four beats to the bar. Then around the early part of the 1900s, waltz music in ragtime was written in 3/4 time.

Billy Kersands was the most popular minstrel star and the highest paid black entertainer of the era, earning as much as one hundred dollars a week---a lot of money in the 1870s and 1880s. Kersands was a comedian who enjoyed entertaining the public. But his real forte was dancing. He was credited as being the first dancer to introduce the "soft-shoe" dance, and the "buck and wing." He was also instrumental in introducing the African-American "clog-dance." Then came his development of the "cake-walk," followed by the "turkey-trot," the "bunny-hop," the "camel-walk" and the "kangaroo dip."

The cake-walk got its name at plantation parties where slaves entertained. At the end of the evening, the best slave dancer would be awarded a cake to take back to his quarters. His high-stepping walk around the stage (which was a comical imitation of a white southern woman) at the conclusion of the performance, came to be known as the cake-walk.

Ragtime did not originate in New Orleans. It was first heard in the mid-west, in places like Sedalia, Missouri, where black composer-pianist Scott Joplin settled down after moving from his home state of Texas. Kansas City and St. Louis music lovers also heard ragtime before it got to New Orleans.

Blacks were not the only ones to write ragtime music, however. On the contrary, there were white composers and performers such as Joseph Lamb and William H. Krell as well as talented black composers such as Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton who made their contribution to ragtime music.

Scott Joplin though, was considered to be the most advanced and the best of the composers. He received his music training from a German teacher, who gave him an extensive classical background, and taught him how to use dynamics, phrasing, musical forms and styles.

Other ragtime composers who wrote popular compositions were James Scott, Louis Chauvin, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Eubie Blake, Tom Turpin, Artie Mathews, Dan Emmett, Lucky Roberts, James P. Johnson, Stephen Foster, Mae Aufderheide and Irene M. Giblin.

Some of the more popular ragtime songs were, "Twelfth Street Rag." "Maple Leaf Rag," "That's A Plenty" and "Mississippi Rag." Buddy Bolden, the "King" of the cornet players was considered to have the best brass ragtime band.

The success of ragtime was beyond comprehension. Syncopation and ragtime was heard by everyone, everywhere. John Philip Sousa, the "March King," included many ragtime pieces in his repertoire on his concert tours throughout Europe. Debussy wrote "Golliwogg's Cake-Walk," Stravinsky composed the "Piano Rag" and "Ragtime, Jean Wiener wrote the "Syncopated Sonata," and Milhaud composed "Rag Caprices." Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is usually played for the cake-walk. Syncopated music was also written by Arthur Honegger and Alfredo Casella.

During the lean years of the ragtime era in New Orleans, most of the black pianists and composers couldn't find legitimate places to work, the reason being that the black musicians were not educated or schooled in music. They couldn't read nusic as it was written. The Creoles, or lighter-skinned Negroes (Mulattoes) on the other hand were educated and capable of reading music, which was a requirement for the better paying jobs in the better places.

Therefore, the only available spots for blacks to play their music were the bordellos. Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake and many more got their start playing in such houses.

A large portion of blacks and musicians were poor, illiterate and many of them had some type of venereal disease. The black musician loved his music so much, that he often played in lesser known bordellos without pay.

Playing in brothels, the American musicians spoke of their music as "whorehouse" music. But whatever they called it, it was enjoyable to the madam of the house, the working ladies and the visitors that made regular appearances at these houses. Many times, the male visitor would request a certain song and give the piano player a generous tip. When the working ladies requested a song, they usually gave the pianist sex as their token of appreciation.

Scott Joplin (1868-1917) was born in East Texas and grew up in a musical family. Scott loved music, and began playing the piano at an early age. His goal was to learn all he could about music theory, arranging and classical piano-playing techniques.

Scott played the piano wherever and whenever he could. In his teen years, Tom Turpin, a night club owner in St. Louis, offered Scott a good salary to play in Tom's Rosebud Cafe, an offer Joplin happily accepted for two reasons, first, to gain additional experience in playing in a better club, where a higher class of people would attend, and second, while in St. Louis, he could get advanced music training in classical music as well as the contemporary music style of the day.

Competition was fierce. St. Louis was inundated with black musicians looking for work in saloons, night-clubs, dance halls, theaters,-, and sporting houses. Joplin also played at Tom Turpin's Silver Dollar Saloon. After a short stay in St. Louis, Scott moved on to Sedalia, Missouri, and found work in the Maple Leaf Saloon. He wrote a ragtime composition, and named it "Maple Leaf Rag." The song was a rapid success, selling close to a million copies. This gave Joplin financial stability and allowed him to quit playing the piano in saloons and concentrate on teaching and composing.

In 1909, he moved to New York City. He is credited with writing a number of "rag" pieces, among them, "The Entertainer," "Peacherine Rag," "Non Pareil," "Cascades," "Sunflower" and the "Treemonisha" opera.

In 1911, Joplin desperately tried to get his opera performed but he was unable to find a professional company to produce it. His determination to see his opera on stage, wore down his resistance and his health began to deteriorate. In 1905, he rented a theater in the Harlem section of New York and produced the opera on his own without scenery, costumes or, an orchestra. The attempt was a complete failure, which Caused Joplin to have a physical and mental breakdown. He took to drinking and participating in reckless sexual activities. In 1916, he was committed to a mental hospital and in 1917 he died from a severe case of syphilis.

Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton (1885-1941) was born in New Orleans. Jelly Roll Morton not only was a great pianist, but also an outstanding composer. Some of his compositions were "King Porter Stomp'" "Wolverine Blues," "Milenburg Joys," "Wild Man Blues" and "Georgia Swing, Chicago Breakdown."

Morton enjoyed the excitement of his lifestyle. He was known to be a gambler and a pimp. Being a young handsome man, and a talented musician, he had a number of women admirers whom he would use both as friends and sexual partners for a price. Morton liked to travel. In 1907, he left New Orleans and traveled throughout most of the United States. He stayed long enough in some states to play piano in saloons or anywhere else to raise enough money to go on the road again.

In 1911, he was in New York where he wrote his "Jelly Roll Blues." In 1912, he traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma and in that same year lived in St. Louis, Missouri. Morton was a gifted arranger and orchestrator, and in 1915 his band arrangement of "Jelly Roll Blues" was published in Chicago by the Melrose Brothers Music Company.

Jelly Roll Morton was a stubborn, arrogant bragger and a prejudiced individual. He made it very obvious that he disliked Negroes and their type of music. Morton did not consider himself to be a Negro. He was a descendent of Spanish and French parents, and being born in New Orleans made him a Creole. Morton made it known to all that he was a Creole and was proud of it. His real name was Ferdinand Joseph LaMenthe.

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was born in Washington, D.C. He was an American composer and band director who wrote some of the world's best known marches including "The Stars And Stripes Forever," "Sempre Fidelis," and the "Washington Post March." He was given the undisputed title the 'March King."

On his world-wide concert tours, Sousa introduced many band arrangements of ragtime music to his audiences. The leading ragtime composers, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, Joseph F. Lamb and others, used the march form for their ragtime composition, and Sousa included their music in his programs.

Abe Holzmann, a German-born composer, wrote three ragtime cake-walks. "Bunch 0' Blackberries," "Smoky Mokes" and "Hunky Dory" became popular hits. They were performed by John Philip Sousa's Concert Band.

In the mid 1960s, ragtime was given a new life. Many American composers, such as William Bolcom, William Albright and Joshua Riflin, began writing new ragtime compositions. Eventually, ragtime found its place in the concert halls and in film scores as background music. In 1973, the motion picture "The Sting," which used the music of Scott Joplin as background, received the academy award as the best picture of the year.

Ragtime, with its clear fusion of European and African musical features, will always remain a happy, cheerful, exhilarating music that will remain alive in the hearts of all who have come in contact with it.

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