Scott Joplin, considered “the King of Ragtime,” was bom in Texarcana, Texas where he taught himself to play piano in the houses where his mother worked as a maid. News of his talent spread through the city and soon a German music teacher picked Joplin up as a student and taught him the formalities of music.
When Joplin’s mother died, he began to travel as a musician, taking note of emerg¬ ing musical styles and finding a particular interest in the syncopated rhythms of rag¬ time. Based on old slave tunes, ragtime combined their soulful melodies with var¬ ied rhythm patterns, producing a fast, even sound that became the basis of a new dance craze. “Ragging the melody,” which began on New Orleans river boats, swept through urban dance halls, and when Scott Joplin played it, ragtime became the signature of a generation.
Joplin moved to St. Louis in 1895 and began playing his brand of ragtime at Hon¬ est John Turpin’s Silver Dollar Saloon. He then moved to Sedalia, where he took class¬ es in music theory from George R. Smith College. At night, he practiced his own style at the Maple Leaf Club. He then began to publish his music.
In 1899, Joplin’s “Oriental Rags” was published, but his next piece, the famous “Maple Leaf Rag” was rejected by two pub¬ lishers before music dealer John Stark printed it — and watched it sell more than one million copies. The most popular piece of sheet music in publication at the time, the “Maple Leaf Rag” made ragtime an interna¬ tional sensation.
As ragtime’s popularity soared, and Joplin’s simpler rags became popular, he became entranced with a new form. Inter¬ ested in achieving the musical excellence of European classics, Joplin followed his pas¬ sion for artistic complexity and began writ¬ ing opera. His first, The Guest of Honor,
was not well received. Joplin began work on the next, a folk opera in honor of his mother. Treemonisha was such a complex and unique piece of music that Joplin could not find a producer. Deciding to risk every¬ thing, he produced the piece himself with complete faith. He then watched it close almost immediately.
Joplin’s audience, unimpressed and disappointed, rejected his opera at the same time that his ragtime was being replaced by a new form called jazz.Joplin never recovered from the disap¬ pointment of Treemonisha’s failure.
Com¬ mitted to Manhattan State Hospital in 1916, Joplin died that spring without realizing that his music would be revived in the last half of the 20th century. “The Entertainer” became the chosen theme song for the Academy Award-winning movie The Sting, and his beloved opera, Treemonisha, was finally produced on Broadway in the 1970s, where it delighted contemporary audiences. Joplin remains forever and always “the King of Ragtime.”