Listening Log: Week 6

I have deeply missed putting out my weekly Listening Log. October has been an intense month as school and work have ramped up. I also released a new single with Henry Godfrey called Cabin Fever. To make my posts less daunting to write, I decided to trim down my log to three entries rather than five. I’m ready to bring back the Listening Log and look forward to sharing more wonderful music with you.

Ragtime Dance No 1 — Charles Ives

I am fortunate to be taking an incredible class about the music of Charles Ives. I am just beginning to explore his Ragtime Dances and am fascinated by how he honors the aesthetic of the music yet carries it forward in a new direction with rhythm, form, and orchestration.

Sunflower Slow Drag — Scott Joplin & Scott Hayden

This collaboration between two important figures in establishing the classic rag is a delightful piece. I have enjoyed listening to Richard Zimmerman’s solo piano rendition and the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble’s brisker take on the piece.

Charleston Rag — Eubie Blake

Eubie Blake, along with Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Luckey Roberts, pioneered the Eastern take on Ragtime, which evolved into the stride piano style. Preceding his performance of Charleston Rag on the album The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake, he shares that he composed the rag in 1899, the same year that Scott Joplin’s groundbreaking Maple Leaf Rag was published by Stark & Son. Blake also explains how he combined the walking bass line (sometimes referred to as a boogie-woogie bass, but Blake preferred the term walking bass) with ragtime rhythmic ideas.

I was also able to find this incredible live performance of Charleston Rag as played by Blake at the age of 85.

Eubie Blake performs Charleston Rag live in 1972.

What music moved you this week?

Jelly Roll Morton: Bridging Ragtime and Jazz Traditions

Ragtime and Jazz are two musical traditions that are closely related, yet distinctively unique. In a previous blogpost, I wrote about the defining features of these two styles pertaining specifically to the piano. Now I would like to explore the works of a specific artist who was crucial to bridging these traditions – Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, better known by the crude moniker “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941).

Morton claimed that he invented Jazz, a bold statement. Nonetheless, Morton was active as a pianist and composer during the shift between Ragtime and Jazz. Morton’s influence on American music was well-documented in his 1938 interview series with Alan Lomax.

Using Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, Morton demonstrated the difference between a Ragtime and Jazz interpretation of the piece.

Morton performing Maple Leaf Rag in a Ragtime and Jazz style in his 1938 interview with Alan Lomax

In his critical book Early Jazz (1968), Gunther Schuller singles out this particular recording as a prime example of the evolution of swing feel. Schuller purports that the key to Morton’s “smoothing out” of the “rhythmic tightness” found in Ragtime is due to the improvisation in his right hand (Schuller p. 144). “By means of his improvisational methods, Morton was able to horizontalize the music, as it were, and to suppress the vertical, harmonic emphasis of ragtime and other musical forms” (Schuller p. 144).

In other words, Morton’s rhythmic language was less predictable and contained more forward momentum than Ragtime. The side-by-side comparison Morton offered makes the difference strikingly clear.

I agree with Schuller’s observations, but I also need to add that there is more in the music than can be expressed in mere words. We are fortunate to have this recorded history of a primary innovative source demonstrating the nuances of the music he grew up around and went on to advance irrevocably.

Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

5 Scott Joplin Piano Pieces to Know

This blog post is part of my Ragtime Project, which encompasses an upcoming EP of Ragtime-inspired music, blog posts about the history of the music, and a forthcoming self-published collection of essay about what in this music and its history resonates with me as a performer and composer.

Content warning: racist drawing accompanying 5th (last) piece discussed
What is a content warning?

1. Maple Leaf Rag (1899)

Maple Leaf Rag, as played by Scott Joplin on a piano roll

Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag (1899) was the first piece of written music to sell 1 million copies. It also set the standard for the Ragtime sub-genre “Classical Ragtime,” a phrase coined by one of Joplin’s primary music publishers, John Stark. Countless imitation and inspiration pieces followed. A notable one is Jelly Roll Morton’s Maple Leaf Stomp (1938), an adaptation of the rag into the stomp style.

It took years for Joplin to convince a publisher to take on his masterpiece. The financial success of Maple Leaf Rag enabled Stark to relocate his publishing business from Sedalia, MO to St. Louis, MO to New York, NY. While Joplin also benefited from the success of Maple Leaf Rag, he was only granted a 2% royalty for each copy sold.

Maple Leaf Stomp, as played by Jelly Roll Morton

Joplin’s own Gladiolus Rag (1907) was heavily inspired by Maple Leaf Rag. Some consider it to be even more refined than the original.

Gladiolus Rag, as played by Joshua Rifkin in his album Scott Joplin Piano Rags (1970). This album was among the catalysts for the ragtime revival of the 1970s and was nominated for a Grammy award.

2. Great Crush Collision (1896)

A piano roll performance of Great Crush Collision

This piece was written to commemorate the train crash in “Crush, TX.” The train crash was a marketing scheme for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company. They built a fake town and named Crush after the railway agent William Crush who planned the event. Crush found two trains that were going to be retired and commissioned them to crash into each other, head-on. About 40,000 people showed up for the spectacle, including Scott Joplin. Two people died and many were injured, but spectators still rushed toward the collision to find a piece of the exploded trains as a souvenir.

More on the Crush Collision.

3. Bethena – A Concert Waltz (1905)

Bethena, as played by Joshua Rifkin in his album Scott Joplin Piano Rags (1970).

While rags are generally in a duple meter, there are ample rag waltzes in the literature. Bethena is said to be among Scott Joplin’s most masterful rag waltzes.

Bethena, as played by the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble under the direction of Gunther Schuller.

4. Solace (1909)

Solace, from the Motion Picture soundtrack of Sting (1973), which played a role in the 1970s ragtime revival.

Subtitled “A Mexican Serenade,” this is the only known Scott Joplin piece to utilize tango elements. Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) took this idea further, coining the phrase “Spanish Tinge.”

5. Original Rags (1899)

Original Rags on a pianola

This is the first Scott Joplin rag ever published. The original credits on the sheet music cover read “Picked By Scott Joplin” and “Arranged By Chas. N. Daniels.”

The racist imagery on the cover of Original Rags. From Wikipedia.

The term “picked” implies multiple meanings. This could refer to the phrase “picking the piano,” which was a slang term for Ragtime music. The second meaning could be in reference to rag-picking, or picking trash off the street. This meaning seems more intentional when considering the sheet music cover design, which depicts an elderly Black man picking up trash in front of a dilapidated cabin. The imagery is deeply racist, and unfortunately very commonplace for sheet music published in that era (late 1800s thru mid 1910s).

Ragtime scholar Rudi Blesh suggests that Charles Daniels’ name appears most likely because he was the one who suggested that the rag be published and it is unlikely that he made substantial – or any – musical contributions. This crediting practice may have been common-place as a way to help budding composers break into the industry. Years later, Scott Joplin gave up-and-coming composer Joseph Lamb permission to use his name on Lamb’s first published work, Sensation Rag (1908).

Pianist Cory Hall performs Sensation Rag

Are these the pieces you would include on your list? Let me know in the comments!

Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.