Original Release: 1995
Label: Premier Recordings, Inc.
Scott Joplin was born in Texarkana, Texas on November 24, 1868. His father Giles, had been a slave, his mother Florence, freeborn. He showed musical talent at an early age, and learned to play the piano, guitar, cornet, and other instruments. A local German music teacher, whose name has not come down to use, gave him fre music instruction in classical traditions. By 1882, after the death of his mother, he had left home. In those post-reconstruction years, blacks were neither slaves nor truly free. To challenge the status quo was suicidal. It would have been inconceivable for Joplin to have gained entree into classical musical circles which his talents merited. The only professional opportunities open to him were that of piano- and cornet-player in "houses of ill repute," a polite Victorian term that covered a multitude of sins.
In his travels across Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri, Joplin became immersed in a rich and fascinating underworld musical culture, an amalgam of Afro-American and white American popular music. Ragtime and modern jazz and rock all evolved largely from these roots. This music, basically improvised, blended African rhythms with European harmonies and other classical Western musical elements. It featured an expressive use of syncopation remiscent of European music of the fourteenth-century Ars Nova and fifteenth-century Renaissance. Some of its important elements were French. We may theorize that the practice of "swing," still an integral feature of jazz, stemmed from the older French Baroque practice of notes inegales (the performance of notes paired unequally, in long-short trochaic patterns), brought over in its presumably original folk incarnation by the Arcadians, or Cajuns, as they became known. Ragtime emerged as a stylized, somewhat domesticated dialect of this underworld music. Its emergence in more-or-less "high society" followed that age-old practice of assimilating exotic cultural elements of the despised underclasses into upper- and middle-class circles. (This practice has given us virtually all our dances, from the sarabande and minuet through the waltz, and all the way up to disco).
By 1893, Joplin had established roots in Sedalia, Missouri, where he started his own band, and later his own vocal group, the Texas Medley Quartette, with his brothers Robert and Will. With these groups, Joplin toured widely, although he continued to play in the red-light district. Against all odds, he managed to establish a place for himself in "respectable" society, both black and white. Eventually he gravitated to New York, where he married twice, the second time happily.
Unfortunately, the white establishment that embraced Joplin's music as casual entertainment allowed its racial prejudices to interfere with its full appreciation of Joplin's artistry. Joplin's ambitions and abilities were far more than those of a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith, although his pianistic abilities were not of the highest order. He was primarily a composer and a very thoughtful, introspective, and romantic one at that, who may have wanted to create a new classical style incorporating ragtime elements. With this in mind, Joplin composed two operas, neither of which met with success in his day. His untimely death in New York of syphilis on April 1, 1917 was almost inevitable, given the constraints and pressures of an era which compelled him to straddle not only the sharp boundary between black and white, but also a multiplicity of cultural milieux within each of these societies. He lies buried in Astoria, Queens, in the City of New York.
Joplin's music reveals the complex, multi-dimensional personality of its creator. Therein lies its greatness. Superficially, it is commercial popular music composed by a black to appeal to a largely white audience, in an era when racial stratification was even more entrenched than it is today. But it is far more than that. For one thing, Joplin showed himself a master of forms other than the rag. Consider the waltzes on this recording. In BETHENA we see the old-fashioned waltz idio yielding to the loscivious new Afro-American style, as, a century before, the once lascivious minuet had yielded to the then lascivious waltz. Another waltz, the AUGUSTAN CLUB, reveals a subtle air of melancholy in its Trio section, reminiscent of the Jewish jazz called Klezmer. THE ROSEBUD MARCH, though a musically slight piece by comparison to come of the other recorded here, evokes a brass band with cornet solo. THE WALL STREET RAG has a descriptive program: "Panic in Wall Street, Brokers feeling melancholy./Good times coming./Good times have come./Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares." Though it is difficult for a modern listener to read this program without a sense of unease, there can be no such reservations about the music itself: it is one of Joplin's finest creations; it transcends time and place.
A word about the arrangements themselves. Joplin himself arranged many of his piano works for performance by his own instrumental combos. THE TRIO BELL'ARTE'S members have merely followed an age-old practice, familiar to them from their work with the older classical repertoire, in which they are steeped and which constitutes the native idiom of this ensemble. The moving force behind these arrangements is ELAINE COMPARONE, whose interest in ragtime dates back many years. Ms. Comparone made most of these arrangements herself, with the occasional advice of her two TRIO BELL'ARTE colleagues. MARSHA HELLER brought to bear on these performances not only her knowledge of classical European music but also a personal familiarity with American popular music from Joplin's time to the present. DANIEL WAITZMAN'S contribution has been to relate the performance techniques with eighteenth-century styles which seemed implicit in Joplin's music. Like JOplin himself, the trio's endeavors represent an amalgam of two disparate traditions, related possibly and only distantly by the "French Connection," but indisputably and intimately by their common humanity. No claim to "authenticity," whatever that means, is made -- merely an attempt to let Joplin's music speak to and through the performers and to entertain.