Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Don't Jazz Me, Man. It's Ragtime

       I've been delighted at how many people have told me they've enjoyed my three ragtime-based historical mysteries. But churlish as it may be, my stomach tightens when I hear, "I really liked your jazz series."
       Let's clear up a couple of points.
       First, the books comprise a trilogy, not a series. In three parts, they cover the story of popular ragtime music in America, from its birth in 1899, to its death in 1916, to the early stages of its revival in 1951.
       More important, it's ragtime, not jazz. As conceived by Scott Joplin and his publisher, John Stark, popular ragtime, a blend of the syncopated melodies of early Black Americans and the classic regular double beat of the European march, was intended to be a form of classical music, no different from a Schubert song or a waltz by Brahms, and so, was to be played strictly according to the score.  
       Joplin and Stark's caution, "Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast" became famous, but not everyone agreed. One (possibly apocryphal) story has Charles L. Johnson, a fine composer of midwestern folk ragtime, a more rollicking form, putting Allegro Vivace on a composition, then telling John Stark at a party, "You know what that means? It's Latin for 'Stick it in your ear.'"
       Nor did the hot piano players from the saloons, barrelhouses, and brothels take heed. They competed to see who could play ragtime fastest and with the most impressive embellishments, and gradually, the music evolved into an improvisational form which was first called jass.
       John Stark, no surprise, hated jazz. Not long before the publisher's death in 1927, Paul Whiteman, the self-titled King of Jazz, came to St. Louis with his orchestra to play a concert, and dropped by to issue Stark a personal invitation. But no amount of persuasion succeeded in convincing the old man to come.
       So let's give proper consideration to one of our very greatest American composers, and the publisher without whom we might well never have heard this lovely music. Nothing wrong with jazz, folks, but this is ragtime.


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