Ragtime : A Re-evaluation
by David A. Jasen
So much has been written on jazz during the past thirty years that more people than ever are confused. All terminology becomes meaningless as the basic function of communication is lost. The question of just what jazz is, has confounded most critics and writers on the subject. The impossible claims made on behalf of jazz have been responsible for the contradictory misinformation around the world.
Unlike ragtime, jazz is not a form of music. Jazz is defined not by what is played but by how it is played. Jazz music is that which is played by a jazz musician. It only exists by virtue of the musician or group of musicians creating it. The main elements contain either solo or collective improvisation on a theme to make variations combining a manner of phrasing which expresses individuality through timing. The piece can be any kind of tune or in any style. Rags, marches, dances, classical compositions, popular tunes — all can be and are played by jazz bands and soloists. Since jazz is not a form but an interpretation based on some type of form, this accounts for the endless different sounds of jazz, whether it be Muskrat Ramble or Groovin’ High. It is nonsense to say that these tunes played by jazzmen bear any resemblance to each other. When played by jazz musicians, these tunes become jazz. When they are played as written, they are no longer jazz but straight compositions.
During the past seventeen years I have had many occasions to marvel at and use the excellently researched book, ‘They All Played Ragtime’. And just as frequently it has troubled me that while all of the material is there, the conclusions drawn are illogical and erroneous. It is in an effort to help clarify this situation that I hope to briefly show what ragtime is and how it has developed.
Ragtime is brimful of exuberant energy, an extraordinarily gay, zesty music which is distinguished from all other kinds of music by its use of an extended melodic line of syncopations harmonized with a regularly metered bass. It is the truly American music, originating in large part with banjo duets in the days of the minstrel show. The folk music of the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys formed the basis of ragtime upon which were gathered hymns, marches, dances and popular tunes from the latter part of the 19th century. In the beginning, ragtime compositions consisted of the stringing together of assorted themes. These tunes were played and sung by wandering musicians who drifted from town to riverboat, from saloons to sporting houses. These musicians shared the wealth of musical ideas, as personal styles were conceived, added to and then changed again as they travelled on their journeys. The first type of ragtime, then, utilized the simple syncopations coming from the songs and dances of the working people in the rural midwest and south. The purest of the folk-rag composers was Charles Hunter of Tennessee. We find that the next type of ragtime, classic ragtime, is aptly named, as the man responsible for its structure was classically trained. Scott Joplin was a musician typical of his time in his wanderings, but far from typical in his use of all of the musical resources available, in addition to his own ability to solidify this material. He created a recognizable form of music toward the end of the 1890s, integrating three or four inter-related themes. The first successful rag, Maple Leaf Rag, written by Joplin in 1899, sold by the millions in sheet music, and was popularly recorded on piano rolls, cylinders and phonograph discs. Throughout his lengthy career, Joplin’s compositions might vary in complexity but they never strayed too far from his folk origin. His most complex rags, along with those of his followers’, James Scott and Joseph Lamb, elevated classic ragtime into the highest realm of the art form.
Early in this century, Joplin moved to St. Louis when his publisher, John Stark, set up his business there. St. Louis became the focal point of early ragtime and Tom Turpin, owner of the Rosebud Cafe, became its champion and leader. Here, all travelling musicians gathered to exchange their ideas. The most talented of the composers of the classic style were either associates or disciples of Joplin. Among them were Arthur Marshall, Otis Saunders, Scott Hayden, Brun Campbell, James Scott and Louis Chauvin.
In the early part of the second decade, as ragtime became popular, the professional tunesmiths in Tin Pan Alley turned their creative minds to infusing their coon songs, cakewalks and ballads with this delightfully lilting music. As a result, many simple but effective rags were written while Joplin, Scott and Lamb were advancing to more intricate heights. Among those who were born in the midwest but earned their living in the heart of Tin Pan Alley were Percy Wenrich and George Botsford. It is interesting to note that Joseph Lamb, one of the ‘big three’ of the classic style, whose musical background consisted of learning Joplin’s rags from the sheet music, never heard any of the folk tunes of the midwest, for Lamb was a native of Montclair, New Jersey from birth. When he arrived on the New York scene, he established a friendship with Joplin during ragtime’s peak and worked under Joplin’s guidance to expand its complexities.
Ragtime played in New Orleans differed considerably from Missouri ragtime. Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton exemplify the former. These two men were heavily influenced by the French, Spanish, English and African music which came to that cosmopolitan seaport city.
The second generation of ragmen who followed the Joplin clan were midwesterners who not only had better musical education but had the time to assimilate the original rag concept and to bring it in line with the more advanced ideas of their time. These men — Artie Matthews, Joe Jordan, J. Russel Robinson, Paul Pratt, Henry Lodge, Charley Thompson and Robert Hampton — developed a new sound for ragtime. It was more sophisticated than Joplin’s but it was a sort of in-between music — between early Missouri ragtime and the more eastern playing of those in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.
Eastern ragtime at the turn of the century owed nothing to the folk tunes west of the Appalachians. Here was a music developed from church spirituals and from big city vaudeville. The creators of stride, as this exciting music was called, were Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Fats Waller. Stride ragtime was essentially different from the classic ragtime of St. Louis. Joplin, Scott and Lamb conceived their rags melodically and the emphasis was on the melodic line. The stride ragtime emphasized the strong rhythms, letting the left hand carry the music. The logical bridge between Missouri ragtime and New York Stride was Jelly Roll’s New Orleans ragtime which, while stressing melody, used a more harmonically and rhythmical bass line. The stomps of Jelly Roll became the shouts of James P. Johnson.
Just before other forms of music caught the popular fancy, a different breed of composer-pianist gave ragtime its last twist. Mike Bernard was the first followed by Willie Eckstein, Zez Confrey, Roy Bargy and Victor Arden to create what became known as novelty piano solos. These were the blending of ragtime with the tricks of the player piano riffs, to show off the techniques of the virtuoso.
Here then are the seven types of ragtime: Folk, Classic, Tin Pan Alley, Advanced Classic, New Orleans, Stride and Novelty.
The most frequently quoted canard is that ragtime is piano music and jazz is music for the band. This, as we can see, is patently not true. Ragtime, in fact, was played by both pianists and bands from its beginning. The legend on the cover of Mississippi Rag, acknowledged to be the first rag published, reads: ‘The First Rag-Time Two-Step Ever Written and First Played by Krell’s Orchestra, Chicago.’ John Philip Sousa, Charles Prince and Arthur Pryor made phonograph recordings of cakewalks and rags, including them in their repertory when they went on their European tours, thus spreading the music far and wide.
Dance music, from the Cakewalk to the Cha-Cha, has always been the deciding factor in determining the direction and vitality of jazz. During the unsuccessful bop period when dance was absent, so was the enthusiasm — both of the music and for the music. The Cakewalk became a jazz dance, as it depended on each couple’s gifts for improvising steps, struts and kicks to fit the ragtime syncopation. The early bands who played jazz took the popular dance music of the day as their sources.
That ragtime is meant to be jazzed up or improvised upon is borne out by several things. In the first instance, any musical composition written has the limitation of its being represented visually. Since music is an aural sensation, no one can possibly know how the composer really meant the piece to sound unless he played it or caused it to be played himself. Musical annotation is a very restricted convention and can only indicate superficial guides to the player. In the second place, the cutting contests — from St. Louis to Harlem — have served as reminders that all musicians were keen improvisers and those who were outstanding are clearly remembered by those musicians still alive. A significant example illustrating this point is one made by Sam Patterson as reported in ‘They All Played Ragtime’, concerning the legendary young pianist-composer Louis Chauvin:
“When he would first sit down he always played the same Sousa march to limber up his fingers, but it was his own arrangement with double-time contrary motion in octaves, like trombones and trumpets all up and down the keyboard. . . . Turpin was great, but Chauvin could do things that Turpin couldn’t touch. He had speed fingering and he tossed off octaves overhand. But when I think of him, it’s the music I remember, and not the skill.”
The good jazz musician is one who is not only technically proficient on his instrument, but one who can successfully and tastefully improvise within the boundaries of whatever happens to be the form of the composition. The best contemporary players of piano ragtime do not consider themselves ragtime pianists. They are (Don Ewell and Ralph Sutton) really excellent jazz pianists. Among the more creative musicians playing ragtime today are Wally Rose, Bob Darch, Neville Dickie, Bob Greene and Charlie Rasch.
The above article was published in the Jazz Journal magazine, dated April 1968, Vol. 21, No. 4, pages 22—23.