Shortly before his death in 1917, Scott Joplin predicted that he would become a fixture of the American music scene. A colleague later remember he said“When I’ve been dead for 25 years, people will start to recognize me.”
His entire work “Treemonisha” – one of the earliest operas by a black American composer – proved elusive during his final decade, when he lived in New York. The fame he enjoyed, as the king of ragtime, stems from his earlier piano works written in Missouri, such as “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer”.
Even now, there are many different Joplins. The soundtrack for “The Sting,” the 1973 film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, using Joplin tunes for their evocative of the easygoing yet daring Americana. In contrast, when contemporary composer-performers like Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton explain Joplin, their liberal performances aim to put him in dialogue with the next wave of pioneering experiments. Although “Treemonisha” has been recorded many times, in orchestras can contain a big theater or an intimate theaterIt is not a staple of the repertoire.
So even though Joplin is a confirmed fixture, the public’s appreciation of his accomplishments remains fuzzy. During a recent winter walk through Harlem, pianist Lara Downes said that was the inspiration for her latest album, “Contemplation: Scott Joplin Revisited.” One goal, she said, was “to put together a comprehensive portrait of this truly elusive musician.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Joplin is famous for playing the piano during a performance, along with singers, of the song “Treemonisha” at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater – the present site of the Metropolitan AME Cathedral. Your album will open with your own arrangement of the prelude to Act III and end with a glimpse of the final figure, “A Real Slow Drag.” Why frame the album this way?
“Treemonisha” has so many things! It was basically the end of his life, after it was done. It was a sad end to this incredible arc of vision and ambition. But it was also a tipping point for the beginning of his life, because that’s where the seed was planted.
Especially that little prelude. The way it sits on the piano – it’s totally 19th century. There are only occasional hints that anything else is going on. I want that to be the starting point. I’ve never been able to hear rags without musical seeds in them. I think it’s easy to ignore. But once you have that track in your ear, you can’t listen to the rest without knowing it.
Talking about Joplin’s early works, the song “A Picture of Her Face” is a highlight of the album. It has been recorded as a solo piano before, but you did the first recording of the full version, with vocals. How did you come to choose Will Liverman baritone?
I think this was when he was still on “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Met, last fall. We were texting about something else, and I said, “I’m going to go into the studio to record some Joplin.” He said, “Dude, I love Joplin.” By hooking brackets and crooks, we found a date.
In this arrangement by Jeremy Siskind, Liverman has an exposed high note here, and space for a blues track there. That’s not all of the first spots you find online, right?
Yes. The question is, What do you do? Someone like Will, who has class and emotion in his own art, opera, R&B, content – and has a really wide lens on what all that must be like. – i just want him to process it through that blender. I don’t mean something cute, like, “Let’s renovate this now, make it modern.” Is not. Just: “Look at it over now.”
Given your interest in little-known Joplin, why record some big hits?
At one point, I wondered if the most disturbing thing to do was not write “The Entertainer”!
That material has never faded from view – just as some of Harlem’s landmarks, like the Apollo, exist, while the Lincoln Theater does not. Perhaps the creation of this captivating mandolin and piano combination by “The Entertainer” starring Joe Brent made it impossible to ignore.
I’m staring at the front cover of the track: “Dedicated to James Brown and His Mandolin Club.” And the opening part, the whole structure, only asks to be broken down into two-bar tennis balls. That’s fun to put together.
We just passed an address where your father lives on 127th Street – as well as St Philip’s Episcopal Church nearby, which is your father’s church. You mentioned that his death from cancer, when you were still young, affected your efforts. Recorded music by composers Black on your Rising Sun label. How so?
Because I know all too well how lost history is. Because my father’s history was lost. I have this really sad little photo gallery; I have an address on 127. And I have that church. In fact, my mother has some notes with that address; the fact that someone found it [the composer] Florence Price’s papers – all very flimsy.
When I work with Joplin’s music or with all these other composers – people with a history of being lost to papers being thrown away, or without a loved one to know there’s something worth keeping – it’s deeply personal.
Throughout the new album, you let the melody breathe in a way that we can’t hear in more mechanically repeated Joplin performances. Is this a fix – a way to give Joplin something he couldn’t get in his day? Specifically a solo concert from a classical pianist, full stop.
The world he sends his music out into is pretty tightly regulated. What he knew from the start was that he couldn’t be you. He can’t be a black classical pianist. Accomplished. So then he began to innovate; he is making a living. He is walking on the road. What music will he play? It’s time. But then he makes it better. He makes it the best. He became the king of it! And while he’s the king of it, he’s always been planning this whole opera.
I guess the answer to your question about the album is, yes, it gives him freedom. It allows him to approach someone who is coming to it with this perspective: “Whatever you have, I’ll take it. I’ll filter it through what I know for now. “What I know now comes after him. He didn’t hear what William Grant Still would do, what Ellington would do. He heard nothing about it. But I have.
Now that we’re strolling past Joplin’s last New York address, it’s the right time to mention that. Stephen Buck’s arrangement of “Magnetic Rag”, which Joplin self-published in 1914, hit a great point. Your performance with the band feels natural – especially on the strings – but it’s all pretty closely connected to the original material.
Playing ragtime on the piano is hard. So this is also an opportunity to pull all the things that are inherently challenging about piano art into a bigger picture. Did Joplin like the idea? “I don’t have to attach everything to the piano, just because I want to sell the sheet music.”
I’m going to put some of these arrangements into the orchestra. I’m doing something with Detroit in a few weeks. And then with the Boston Pops and the Philadelphia Orchestra, on the way.
I don’t want to neglect your solo play! In particular, I enjoyed your role in “The Chisy”. Its small chroma flare can sometimes be pleasing to the ear. You’ve brought its weirdness and tenderness together.
Thank you. I really wanted to free him from the two categories that people were trying to fit him in: “the king of ragtime” or “the greatest classical composer you’ve never heard of”. I would like to make it clear that I consider him an American innovator and cross-pollinator, and the central truth in his music is that everything exists together and is always available for search.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/24/arts/music/lara-downes-scott-joplin-piano.html A pianist writes about her Harlem history, and that of Scott Joplin