Scott Joplin was born on November 24, 1868 into a musical African-American family of railway laborers in Texarkana, Arkansas. Studious and ambitious, he received most of his music education from Julius Weiss, a German-born American Jewish music professor who immigrated to Texas in the late 1860s and was employed as music tutor to a prominent local business family. Impressed by Joplin’s talent, and realizing his family’s dire straits, Weiss taught him from ages 11 to 16, pro bono. Weiss introduced him to folk and classical music, including opera, and helped his mother acquire a used piano. According to Weiss’ wife, Lottie, Joplin never forgot Weiss. In his later years, after achieving fame as a composer, Joplin sent his former teacher “…gifts of money when he was old and ill.”
While in Texarkana, Texas, Joplin formed a vocal quartet and taught mandolin and guitar. During the late 1880s he left his job as a railroad laborer and travelled the American South as an itinerant musician. He soon discovered that there were few opportunities for black pianists. Churches and brothels were among the few options for steady work.
He journeyed to Chicago for the World’s Fair of 1893, which played a major part in making ragtime a national craze.
Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri, in 1894 and earned a living there as a piano teacher. Two businessmen from New York published Joplin’s first two works, the songs “Please Say You Will”, and “A Picture of her Face” in 1895. On a visit to Temple, Texas in 1896, three of his pieces were published, including the “Great Crush Collision March”, which commemorated a planned train crash on the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad on September 15 that he may have witnessed. The March was described as an “early essay in ragtime.”
Publication of his “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899 made him well-known. This piece had a enormous influence on writers of ragtime, a unique style marked by syncopation. It also brought Joplin a steady income for life, though he did not reach this level of success again and frequently had financial problems.
In 1901 Joplin moved to St. Louis, where he continued to compose and regularly performed. He created an opera company of 30 people and produced his first opera, A Guest of Honor, for a national tour. It is not known how many productions were staged, or if this was an all-black production. During the tour, either in Springfield, Illinois, or Pittsburg, Kansas, someone associated with the company stole the box office receipts. Joplin could not meet the company’s payroll or pay for its lodgings at a boarding house.
In 1907, Joplin moved to New York City to find a producer for a new opera. His second opera, Treemonisha, was never fully staged during his lifetime. In 1911, unable to find a publisher, Joplin undertook the financial burden of publishing Treemonisha himself in piano-vocal format. In 1915, as a last-ditch effort to see it performed, he invited a small audience to hear it at a rehearsal hall in Harlem. Poorly staged and with only Joplin on piano as accompaniment, it was a dismal failure to a public expecting the grand opera popular at that time. The audience, including potential backers, walked out. Afterward, Joplin suffered a breakdown. He was bankrupt, discouraged, and exhausted. Treemonisha went unnoticed and unreviewed.
By 1916, Joplin was suffering from syphilis. In January 1917, he was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital, a mental institution. He died there on April 1 of syphilitic dementia at the age of 48 and was buried in a pauper’s grave that remained unmarked for 57 years.
Joplin’s death marked the end of ragtime per se; over the next several years, it evolved with other styles into jazz and swing.
Joplin first entered my notice when The Sting came out. The movie starred Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and featured Joplin’s rag, “The Entertainer.” His grave at Saint Michaels Cemetery in East Elmhurst was finally given a marker in 1974, the year The Sting won the Oscar for Best Picture.
In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American music.
Scott Joplin earned the title of the King of Ragtime. During his brief career, he wrote over 100 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas.
Information for this article came from Wikipedia.