Scott Joplin was an African American composer born during the Post-Reconstruction era. We know that he died on April 1, 1917, but information related to his birth is less precise. Historians estimate it was sometime in 1867 or 1868, and based on US census data, we know his family was in Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border, in 1880.
Both of Joplin’s parents played musical instruments and sought opportunities for their son to study with the local piano tutors who were accustomed to teaching only white children. Julius Weiss, a music professor who’d immigrated from Germany, taught young Scott throughout his teenage years.
In addition to piano, Joplin also played the cornet, mandolin, and was a noted singer. His early performances were with traveling brass ensembles and vocal groups. But composition was his main focus, and Joplin became arguably the most famous creator of Ragtime music, earning the name, “The King of Ragtime.”
Ragtime is a uniquely American genre of music that combines the tonality of European classical music with the syncopation of African rhythms. It was developed at the turn of the twentieth century in African American communities of the midwest, and is most often applied to the piano by assigning a bass-chord pattern on alternating beats to the left hand that accompanies a syncopated or “ragged-time” melody line in the right.
Ragtime is regularly referred to as Jazz music’s predecessor, but the case can certainly be made for Ragtime as a genre of its own, demonstrated first during its popular revival in the 1940s. For the 1973 Academy Award-winning film, “The Sting,” composer Marvin Hamlisch scored several of Joplin’s rags—including, “The Entertainer”—bringing Ragtime back into the spotlight, further establishing the genre, as Joplin himself had written in 1908, to be “an invention that is here to stay.”