3 Compelling Stories from They All Played Ragtime

Reading Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis’ seminal work They All Played Ragtime (1950) was a transformative experience. Each page was packed with information, but presented as compelling stories, a page-turner. As the first full-length book chronicling the birth and development of ragtime, Blesh and Janis piece together the fascinating, sometimes tragic, stories of the pioneers who created and championed the music.

My fascination with ragtime is fairly new and there is still so much of it that I need to hear, read, and experience. Here are three moments from They All Play Ragtime that have really resonated with me.

The strenuous life of John Stark

John Stillwell Stark is best known as the primary publisher of Scott Joplin’s music. However, he has a fascinating story of his own. Stark was born into a large family, the 11th of 12 children, his youngest sibling and mother dying in childbirth. He was raised by an older sibling. Stark had several ventures before becoming a music publisher – serving in the Union army, farming, selling ice cream, and selling Jesse French cabinet organs with the help of his Conestoga wagon. Tired from his labor-intensive occupations, Stark moved to Sedalia, Missouri and opened a music store. He went on to coin the term “classical ragtime,” the sub-genre of the music exemplified by Scott Joplin. Stark championed music by composers across gender and race, even in the face of the booming Tin Pan Alley publishing industry that emerged toward the end of his career.

The Ragtime School of Axel W. Christensen

Pianist Axel W. Christensen created a network of nearly 100 music schools across the United States that specialized in teaching ragtime piano technique. He also published numerous popular method books that were used at his schools and beyond. At the peak of his business, Christensen had about 200,000 students enrolled in his ragtime schools across the nation. While Christensen’s entrepreneurship was impressive, some felt that his methodology oversimplified ragtime and promoted a level of mediocrity. Regardless, Christensen’s schools and books were responsible for engaging countless new fans of the music.

James P. Johnson on bebop

In an interview for They All Played Ragtime, stride pianist James P. Johnson shared his thoughts about the musical trends contemporary with the book (late 1940s, 1950):

Why do these composers, and the beboppers, too, try to get away from melody? It shows a weakness. No melody is in them and they know it.

They All Played Ragtime, p. 205

The so-called “beboppers” such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie introduced a new fiery technique and complex harmonic language to jazz that has irreversibly influenced how jazz is created and taught today. The faster tempo of the music challenged dancers (though it could be done) and the melodies jam-packed with rapid notes and angular leaps challenged vocalists and lyricists (though this could also be done). Perhaps these are the words of a man who was disgruntled by what the young people were doing with music, but I personally think there is more to it. His words made me think, what would jazz sound like today if bebop never came into being? We will never know for sure, but perhaps this could be an interesting idea to explore in a future post…

While these are a handful of the stories that have stayed with me, there are many others I could share. I highly recommend that anyone with an interest in ragtime read this book. Much of the information comes directly from the source with contributions being made by James P. Johnson, Joseph Lamb, Eubie Blake, and the families and peers of Scott Joplin, John Stark, Tom Turpin, and many others.

OUT NOW: The Ragtime Project EP and Ebook

I am so excited to release my Ragtime Project EP and Ebook! It has been an intense and challenging process to bring this multi-faceted project to fruition, testing my performing, composing, producing, research, and writing chops to the max.

Thank you so much to everyone who has encouraged and supported me through this process. Special thanks to Henry Godfrey for playing drums, mixing and mastering the audio, and keeping me focused on the end goal.

I have been wanting to share this music and writing with the world for months. I can’t wait to hear what you think!

With gratitude and excitement,
Sam

FRIDAY: The Ragtime Project EP and Book Launch

On Friday, August 7th, I am going to be releasing my Ragtime Project EP on Bandcamp! The recording will consist of three tracks – Rag in Fourths (released as a single last month), Imitation Rag, and a third track loosely inspired by the Ragtime aesthetic.

And if that wasn’t exciting enough, I am going to be self-publishing my first book! The book will contain some of the material from my Ragtime Project blog, plus additional material.

I am so excited to share this project with you. It is undoubtedly the most ambitious feat I’ve taken on as an artist, combining my passions for performance, composition, research, and writing. I hope my music brings joy and my writings spark curiosity during this trying time in our lives.

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.

Stop-time Across American Art Forms

Stop-time, now a commonly used musical device, once sounded like a radical means of ambiguating the pulse of a piece of music. Barry Kernfeld wrote for the Grove Music Dictionary this description of the technique:

 An ensemble or pianist repeats in rhythmic unison a simple one- or two-bar pattern consisting of sharp accents and rests, while the soloist takes command. Metre and tempo remain intact; only the texture of the accompaniment changes.

Grove Music Dictionary

Stop-time became a prominent musical device around the turn of the 20th century and was important to the rhythmic vitality of Ragtime. Some of the first examples of this in written music are in Scott Joplin’s rags such as The Ragtime Dance (1906) and Stop-time Rag (1910). In these pieces, Joplin discontinued the steady, predictable left hand patterns, leaving the melody line exposed. Joplin did compose an accompaniment for the melody, not to be played by the left hand as expected, but rather by the feet. In the sheet music, Joplin indicated intricate feet tapping patterns with the word “stamp” and a line pointing to the melody note with which the stamp was supposed to co-occur.

Stop-time Rag, as performed by Joshua Rifkin

Reaching beyond the musical world, stop-time became a prominent feature of the emerging popular dance at the time, tap dance. Like Ragtime, tap dance originated from global traditions that converged in the United States. The Irish Jig and the African American Juba derived from the African djouba or gioube coalesced on plantations in the 1700s. [1] But, it was around the turn of the 20th century when tap dance underwent its most significant transformation. {2] It absorbed the highly syncopated rhythmic vocabulary of Ragtime, including stop-time figures, and evolved into the sub-genre jazz tap. Or, perhaps rather than tap dance taking from Ragtime the relationship between these two art forms was more of a cross-pollination. This bond between American music and dance is something I want to explore further in the future.

Around the same time as Joplin’s stop-time pieces were published, another important innovation in music was under way – the invention of the drum set. Prior to this consequential development, the various instruments that comprise a drum set were each played by individual musicians. Percussionists in theater orchestras and dance bands realized that they could position their drums in such a way that they would only need one performer. [3] In order to play more drums at once, drummers created pedals to allow one foot to depress a lever that sent a beater toward the bass drum’s batter head. [4] In 1909, William F. Ludwig patented a design for a bass drum pedal with a cymbal striker. [5] Is it possible that the drum set’s evolution, particularly the use of foot pedals, be informed by Joplin’s foot-stamping stop-time technique? Or, perhaps, were the foot pedals merely employed to allow a single musician to play more percussion instruments simultaneously, with no regard for Joplin’s innovations? I have yet to be able to answer these questions.

Examples of Stop-time in the First Half of the 20th Century

Here are a few examples of how stop-time was utilized in music following the Ragtime Era.

Louis Armstrong, Potato Head Blues (1927)

There are numerous solo breaks where the accompaniment stops, but the most brilliant example is Louis Armstrong’s solo starting at 1:50.

Benny Goodman, Sugar Foot Stomp (1937)

In Benny Goodman’s rendition of Sugar Foot Stomp, there is a great example of stop-time during the trumpet solo starting at 1:10.

Ralph Brown, Ornithology (1946)

Throughout this dazzling take on Ornithology, Ralph Brown takes incredible breaks when the time “stops,” the first one being at 0:21. At 1:16, Brown trades fours with the band (i.e. the band plays for four measures, followed by Brown soloing without accompaniment for the next four measures).


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.

Waltz into the Week with Scott Joplin

Ragtime music is often associated with duple meter pieces played at a march-like tempo. However, Ragtime repertoire is rich with beautiful waltzes. Look no further than the “King of Ragtime” Scott Joplin to hear some of the finest waltzes of the era. Here are a few of my favorites. For each waltz, I have included a solo piano performance as well as an arrangement for a larger ensemble.

Harmony Club Waltz (1896)

This is one of Joplin’s first published works. It begins with a brief introduction in 4/4 time, but quickly transitions into a waltz (3/4 time).

William Albright’s rendition of Harmony Club Waltz
J.S. Ritter’s arrangement of Harmony Club Waltz for flute and piano

Bethena – A Concert Waltz (1905)

This sentimental waltz was composed about a year after Joplin’s second wife passed away from pneumonia only ten weeks into their marriage. Some considered one of Joplin’s finest waltz.

Bethena as recorded by Joshua Rifkin on his first Scott Joplin Piano Rags album, which was an important catalyst for the Ragtime Revival of the 1970s.
Gunther Schuller’s arrangement of Bethenam as played by The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble

Pleasant Moments (1909)

While this waltz is overshadowed by Joplin’s masterworks such as Bethena and Maple Leaf Rag, Pleasant Moments still offers a “bright and festive” listening experience that is pure Joplin.

Pleasant Moments as performed by pianist Cory Hall
The Southland Stingers’ rendition of Pleasant Moments

Sources

Bethena – Wikipedia
Joplin’s ‘Bethena’ Sounds As New As It Is Old – NPR
Scott Joplin : Bethena, A Concert Waltz – mfiles
Pleasant Moments Ragtime Waltz, for piano – allmusic.com


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.

Ragtime and Stride – Two American Piano Styles

Ragtime and Stride are two styles of American piano playing that are closely related and often mistaken for one another. Both styles are virtuosic with an active, steady bass line with a syncopated melodic line in the right hand. The styles developed over a short period of time, first Ragtime and then Stride.

Here’s a breakdown of some features that set these two styles of playing apart.

Repertoire

Ragtime repertoire consisted primarily of “rags,” a compositional form and style inspired by marches. These pieces of music were typically written down and played as the sheet music dictated. Most rags were composed in duple meter (2/4 or 2/2), though there are a fair selection of waltzes (3/4) in the repertoire. They often consist of four strains, melodic ideas typically 16 measures each that are organized in the following form:

||: A :|| ||: B :|| A ||: C :|| ||: D :||

A common formal variation is to include a final playing of the “A” strain at the end of the piece. Rags often start with a short introduction before the first playing of the “A” strain. Other modifications to the form are possible, even prevalent.

Stride repertoire was more open-ended. It included songs from the Great American Songbook as well as original compositions. Tin Pan Alley songs were typically published in the form of a very generic piano arrangement. This gave stride pianists room to add their own personalities into these songs rather than being beholden to the sheet music.

Improvisation

Ragtime music did not involve improvisation. It stayed true to the written music. Sometimes, performers would repeat sections of pieces more times than indicated to add length to the pieces, particularly during social functions.

Stride allowed for more embellishments and improvisation as part of the performance of pieces. This component was critical to moving forward from Ragtime into the Jazz tradition.

Origin

Ragtime originated in the southern and midwestern United States in the 1890s. Missouri was a central hub for the music, perhaps in part because legendary Ragtime composer and pianist Scott Joplin made Sedalia, MO his home for much of his life.

Stride originated in Harlem, New York City around 1920. James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie “The Lion” Smith were the three pianists credited with being innovators and masters of Stride piano. These artists were aware of Ragtime and drew from its rich tradition in their own music.

Recorded History

Ragtime waxed and waned in popularity before recorded music was commonplace. The music was primarily preserved in the sheet music published during the time. Toward the end of the Ragtime Era, player pianos came into prominence and some Ragtime performances were preserved as piano rolls. Once music recording technologies advanced, some of the surviving pianists of the Ragtime Era, such as Eubie Blake and Joseph Lamb, recorded their works.

Stride developed alongside early recording technology. This is a true gift because we, a century later, can hear how Stride was played at the time of its creation by the artists who created it.

I hope this explanation helps bring clarity to how Ragtime and Stride are distinctive approaches to pianistic performance and composition in the United States.

Sources

About Stride Piano
Harlem Stride Piano
History of Ragtime
Stride Piano: Bottom-End Jazz
Stride Piano


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.

Women in Ragtime

Content warning: sexism, racism, racist drawing (covered)
What is a content warning?


Much like the retelling of many aspects of history, the lives and contributions of women are not equally discussed and celebrated as those of their male counterparts. Fortunately, several scholars have been keen on preserving and investigating the stories of female composers of the Ragtime era. It is important to note that there is an enormous disparity in whose history is able to be recovered; White middle-to-upper-class women are far more likely to have a paper trail to follow than Black women of the 1890s to 1910s.

Women had diverse career paths as musicians and composers during the Ragtime Era. Some were prolific composers while others may have only published a couple pieces. [1] Often, women’s careers were stifled after marriage. There are exceptions such as Fleta Jan Brown Spencer, who teamed up with her husband Herbert Spencer to pen several hit songs (straying from the Ragtime idiom) including Pansies Mean Thoughts and Thoughts Mean You (1908) and Prairie Flower (1910). [2]

Brown and Spencer’s Pansies Mean Thoughts and Thoughts Mean You (1908)

One tactic female composers used in order to have their sheet music published was to write under a pseudonym or solely a first initial preceding their last name. While this may have helped sell their music during their lifetimes, it added layers of complexity to tracing back the identities and histories of these women. For instance, Fannie B. Woods’ composition Sweetness (1912) was thought to be written by male composer Charles L. Johnson until 2005. A 1960s home recording of Woods playing her composition, among other evidence, has surfaced to confirm that she was indeed a real person and composer.

Fannie B. Woods’ Sweetness (1912)

Even more severe, it was thought that pianist and composer Mary Celina Mamie Desdundes Dugue was an imaginary figure when she was in fact a real person who was highly influential in the New Orleans music scene. In a 1938 interview with scholar Alan Lomax, Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, better known as “Jelly Roll” Morton recounted his memory of Mamie Desdunes.

“Jelly Roll” Morton talks about Mamie Desdunes with Alan Lomax and demonstrates Mamie’s Blues, also known as 219 Blues

Note: In the recording, Mortan says, “she hardly could play anything else more.” On the surface level, this could be construed as a sexist remark, that Mortan doubted Desdunes’ abilities. However, this comment was likely in reference to the fact that Desdunes had an injury resulting in the need to amputate two fingers on her right hand [3], limiting her ability to play larger chords, which is reflected in the way Mortan performs in the recording.

Perhaps Mamie Desdunes’ near erasure from history is an example of the disparity between Black and White women musicians of the Ragtime Era. White women from middle-to-upper class families were more likely to have access to a piano and private lessons, as playing the piano was seen as a social skill. [4] It was also common for White women to hold jobs as pianists at stores for the entertainment of shoppers and also to promote the sales of sheet music and pianos. [5] It is important to remember that during this time period there was no television, radio, or recorded music other than piano rolls toward the end of the era.

Women were the subjects of a substantial amount of sheet music cover artwork, but the way White and Black women were portrayed were worlds apart. White women were typically portrayed as being sophisticated, well-dressed, and adhering to Eurocentric standards of beauty while Black women were regularly depicted as caricatures, unkempt, and with exaggerated features. Sometimes these images would be accompanied by racist language whether that was in the title or subtitle of the piece, lyrics, or other text elements. There are also instances of derogatory images of non-Black women of color such as Native Americans fronting sheet music of the period. Compare the way women are depicted in these two examples – The Thriller (1909) and Gladiolus Rag (1907).

The Thriller (1909), composed by May Frances Aufderheide

Scan of original sheet music available on the Library of Congress website

Gladiolus Rag (1907), composed by Scott Joplin

The practice of using women, especially women complying with Eurocentric beauty standards, to market music is a practice that extends far beyond the Ragtime era and continues to this day. Lara Pellegrinelli’s JazzTimes article entitled The Women Jacketed By Records discusses this history in detail.

It is clear that women contributed to Ragtime music in a variety of ways as composers, lyricists, and performers. In the lay discourse on Ragtime music, women are largely overshadowed by the “big three” composers – Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb. It is time for the female pioneers of this art form to be given their due recognition, along with an acknowledgement of the intersectional disadvantages imposed on women of color.

Learn More About Women in Ragtime

These are the works of scholars who have done extensive research to uncover the histories of women musicians in the Ragtime era.

Websites not available: Nan Bostick, Dr. Nora Hulse, Richard Zimmerman


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.

A Week of Ragtime

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.


Leading up to the release of my latest single, Rag in Fourths, I shared an important piece of Ragtime music each day on social media. This is a compilation of these posts.

June 26thMaple Leaf Rag

June 27thSensations

June 28thTreemonisha

June 29thFrog Legs Rag

June 30thThe Cascades

July 1stThat Epidemic Rag

July 2ndMaple Leaf Rag (as played by Sidney Bechet)

July 3rdRag in Fourths


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.

July 2020 Newsletter

Dear friends,

I hope you are all having a fabulous start to July!

It continues to be an uncertain time for many, including those of us in the music industry. I’m working hard to find ways to stay creative, explore my interests, and have fun.

I’m releasing my single Rag in Fourths TODAY! It is available on my Bandcamp store and 100% of the proceeds will be going to the Sphinx Organization.

The sheet music for Rag in Fourths is also available for purchase.

Rag in Fourths is part of my Ragtime Project – an exploration of the artists, culture, and trends of American music in the 1890s-1910s. The project is multi-dimensional including an EP, an ebook, blog posts, and sheet music.

More great news: My debut EP The New Groove is available for streaming on most major platforms! Please give it a listen and share it with your friends.

The EP is still available for purchase on Bandcamp.

While there is a lot of uncertainty in the world, I have found a silver lining during this time. It has been a luxury to be able to put so much time into my art, whether that has been through practicing, composing, recording, reading, listening, or blogging.

Thank you for joining me on this journey! I am so fortunate to have such a supportive community around my music and me.

Take care,
Sam


Featured Sounds

Virtual performance with EIKO + ERIKO

Sheet Music For Sale

Original compositions and arrangements for a variety of ensembles available on Noteflight Marketplace and Sheet Music Plus!


Latest From the Blog
Sneak peeks for future posts available on Patreon 

  • That Epidemic Rag – A coronavirus theme song from the Ragtime Era … [Read More
     
  • The New Groove: Now Available for Streaming – Celebrate my birthday by streaming The New Groove! Out on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, and more … [Read More]
     
  • The Ragtime Revival of the 1970s – Learn about the figures who defined the Ragtime Revival of the 1970s – Eubie Blake, Joshua Rifkin, Gunther Schuller, and more …. [Read More]