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  • a.k.a.: The King of Ragtime
  • American
  • 1867 (?) - 1st April 1917
  • Ragtime composer and performer
  • You may know him for two compositions: The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag

We cannot be certain when Scott Joplin was born, but our best information seems to suggest either 1867 or 1868 in Texas.

Scott Joplin was born as the son of a slave into a society that had just been freed from slavery. The America he grew up in offered few choices for a black man, and even though black musicians were often seen in entertainment venues, they were not regarded as serious composers.

Scott Joplin showed musical talent at an early age, encouraged by a musical family. By 1894 Scott Joplin had settled in Sedalia, Missouri, where he taught, organised one of his many bands, played in clubs and had his second ever piece published. This composition, a ragtime entitled Maple Leaf Rag, became a hit in America as well as Europe. This was followed a few years later by The Entertainer, another well known Scott Joplin composition which was made famous in more recent times by its use in the the film The Sting. A record was released in the UK with a song called Treat Me Gently on the B side which seemed to be incidental music from The Sting. In fact this was part of a slow march that Scott Joplin had written entitled Solace.

With his newfound popularity, Scott Joplin started to travel and began focusing more on his ambition to be regarded as a serious composer. As a consequence he wrote a “serious” opera, Treemonisha, , the first ever grand opera to be composed by an African-American. On its premier it was badly received, probably being ahead of its time.

By the time of his death on the 1st of April 1917, Scott Joplin's music had sadly faded from popularity, but was to have a revival 50 years later. Its popularity is undiminished to this day.

Even though there are other ragtime composers, Joplin can easily be regarded as the King of Ragtime, having done more than anyone else to popularise this musical genre. The term rag-time was probably born out of the fact that the music had “ragged time”, i.e. the right hand used many syncopated rhythms.

Many scholars argue whether Scott Joplin is a “serious” composer or represents jazz, but this debate totally misses the point. Some people point to the fact that ragtimes have no improvisation, are completely written out and often follow the form of European marching band music. But on the other hand the rhythms of ragtime are very much inspired by the African continent, relying heavily on syncopation and the melodies certainly have little in common with European classical music. So like jazz, ragtime is the result of the meeting of European harmony, form and instruments with African rhythm, melody and sensibility.

All in all Scott Joplin produced some 60 compositions - a life's work for any inspiring pianist to learn.

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