Monday, July 15, 2019

The Museum of Uncommon Composers #2 - Scott Joplin - The Other America - Beginning

The Entertainer (stop right before the last note of the A melody)

You know how it goes. Even the people who have no idea about Scott Joplin's other music know this one. Some of you might have heard the astonishingly idiomatic sounding dixieland arrangement by Gunther Schuller?

But have you heard this colossal, Lisztian, jazz cover from the late great Henry Butler?

And have you heard my personal favorite, this version by Jacob Koller, one of the most promising young musicians of our time?

More than anything else, this is the extraordinary quality of American music - its endless, infinite adaptability. An adaptability we have only begun to explore. Every great song written in this country has a seemingly infinite capacity for covers, adaptations that can utterly transform the simple foundation of popular music into cathedrals of complexity.


I propose that like a lot of 19th century light music, only perhaps more so, Joplin's piano rag had two uses. One was the extraverted, rambunctious use within the smoke-filled tavern and burlesque house and brothel, where it was meant as a lubricant social and otherwise to keep the good times rolling, perhaps the way a piano bar still does today, where it was played at extremely peppy tempos (to use slang of Joplin's own time), probably subject among pianists to all sorts of virtuoso tricks and ornamentations and even improvisations, in other words - 'Jazzed up,' in manners that depart so enormously from the score in exactly the way that jazz pianists eventually did within the standards of the real book. or perhaps some by other composers too, or The other was the introverted, private use, where amateur musicians could learn the music at a slow speed in their parlor, and savor the aching harmonic poignancy.

The Bible says that a properly allotted lifespan is three-score and ten, and that strikes me as likely. So allow me to modestly submit that it usually takes roughly 70 years or so for a cultural artifact to lose the proper context of living memory so that we might begin to appreciate the thing in itself for what it is and perceive what value it might retain when removed from its original use. It was 1973, roughly 70 years after Joplin came to mass attention, that the movie The Sting was released - a movie about tavern card sharks taking place at the turn of the century which featured Joplin's music accompanying the action all throughout, sometimes in Dixieland orchestrations by Gunther Schuller and Marvin Hamlisch. Three years later, Joshua Rifkin released his revolutionary set of Joplin rags on the piano, which made a new case for Joplin's music as concert music as fit for piano recitals as Chopin or Schubert, and in that same year, Gunther Schuller's performing edition of Joplin's only remaining opera, Tremonisha, for which Joplin got a well-deserved posthumous Pulitzer Prize.


Even if the rhythm is strict, Joplin's music is the ebb and flow of life, the happiness and the sadness, laughter and tears, intermingled together. How many other artists managed this? In most of Shakespeare's plays and characters he could only do it by compartmentalizing them into tragic and comic - occasionally you get a comic figure like Falstaff or Rosalind who manages both. Perhaps it's easier in music: Mozart obviously did it, perhaps a few other composers did it like Schumann and Dvorak and Janacek, certainly Louis Armstrong and The Beatles from more popular genres. But in literature, all I can think of is Chekhov and Dickens, probably Cervantes and Montaigne, perhaps Mark Twain or George Eliot, or maybe Saul Bellow and VS Naipaul from our century, but even among novelists, where you'd think the tragicomic is the main vein, it's tough to think of writers who genuinely make you laugh at the same time as they move you. It's almost easier in the movies when you get it from Jean Renoir and Ozu, Spielberg and Woody Allen, Chaplin, in our era and country you might consider that we get it from Spike Lee and Sophia Coppola, Richard Linklater and Alexander Payne. In TV you definitely get it from The Simpsons and Cheers, perhaps from The (American) Office or My So Called Life, and if you can stomach it these days, you can certainly get it from Louie. But no matter how you square it, look at this honor roll of a list. No matter what the era, this is some of the very greatest creators in the history of art, and this is exactly the mighty sort of company Scott Joplin should take his place within.


Maple Leaf Rag
The Entertainer
The Easy Winners
Euphonic Sounds
Weeping Willow
Country Club - Ragtime Two Step
Solace - A Mexican Serenade
Pine Apple Rag

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