Not long before his death in 1917, Scott Joplin predicted that he would become a fixture in the American musical canon. A colleague later recalled saying, “When I’m 25 years dead, people will start to recognize me.”
A full production of his “Treemonisha” – one of the first operas by a black American composer – had proved elusive during his last decade, when he lived in New York. His reputation as the so-called king of ragtime was rooted in his earlier Missouri piano works, 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, uses Joplin tunes to evoke easy yet bold Americana. By contrast, when contemporary composer-performers like Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton interpret Joplin, their custodial renditions aim to bring him into dialogue with subsequent waves of avant-garde experimentation. Although “Treemonisha” has been recorded several times, in orchestrations fit for a grand opera house or an intimate theater, it is far from a staple of the repertoire.
So while Joplin is well established, public appreciation for his achievements remains vague, unsteady. On a recent wintery stroll through Harlem, pianist Lara Downes said this was the inspiration for her latest album, “Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered.” One goal, she said, was to put together “a somewhat comprehensive portrait of this musician who is really hard to pin down.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Joplin is known to have played the piano during a walk-through, with singers, of “Treemonisha” at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater – the current location of the Metropolitan AME Church. Your album begins with your own arrangement from the prelude to Act III and ends with a glimpse of the final track, “A Real Slow Drag.” Why frame the album this way?
“Treemonisha” is packed with so many things! It’s the end of its life, essentially, after it’s done. It was a sad end to this incredible arc of vision and ambition. But it is also a passage to the beginning of his life, because that is where the seed is planted.
Especially that little prelude fragment. The way it sits on the piano – it’s 19th century through and through. Only occasionally are there hints that something else is going on. I wanted that to be the starting point. I never got to hear the rags without that musical seed in it. I think it’s easily overlooked. But once you have that music in your ear, you can’t listen to the rest without knowing it.
Speaking of Joplin’s earliest works, the song “A Picture of Her Face” is a highlight on the album. It was previously recorded as a piano solo, but you made the premiere recording of the full version, with vocals. How did you come to choose the baritone Will Liverman?
I think this was when he was in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Met last fall. We were texting about something else and I said, “I’m going into the studio to record some Joplin.” He said, “Man, I love Joplin.” With snags we found a date.
In this arrangement by Jeremy Siskind, Liverman has a visible high note here and room for a bluesy slide there. That’s not all in the first score you found online, is it?
Yes. The question is: what are you doing? Someone like Will, who’s on par with and sense of art song, opera, R&B, his own stuff – and has a really broad lens for what all those things should be – I just wanted him to put it through that blender. processing. I don’t mean something cute, like, “Reinvent this for now, make it modern.” New. Just, “Look at it now.”
Given your interest in the lesser-known Joplin, why record some of the big hits?
At one point I wondered if it wouldn’t be the most subversive thing to record “The Entertainer”!
That material has never faded from view—just as some Harlem landmarks, like the Apollo, survive, while the Lincoln Theater doesn’t. Perhaps creating this charming, ricocheting mandolin-and-piano arrangement of “The Entertainer” with Joe Brent made it impossible to ignore.
I stared at the front of the sheet music: “Dedicated to James Brown and his Mandolin Club.” And that opening, the whole structure, just begs to be broken up into two-bar tennis balls. That was so much fun to be with.
We just passed an address where your father lived on 127th Street – as well as St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, around the corner, which was your father’s church. You said that his death from cancer while you were still young, your efforts to record music by black composers on your Rising Sun label. How so?
Because I know so well how history is lost. Because my father’s history is lost. I have a very sad little collection of photos; I have an address on 127th. And I have that church. The fact that my mother had some notes with that address; the fact that someone has found [the composer] Florence Price’s papers – it’s all so vague.
When I work with Joplin’s music, or with all those other composers – whose histories are lost because papers are thrown away, or if there are no relatives to know that there is something worth holding on to – then that very personal.
The new album lets you breathe melodies in a way we don’t hear in more mechanically syncopated Joplin renditions. Is this a correction – a way to give Joplin something he couldn’t have gotten in his time? Specifically, a recital concert by a classical pianist, period.
The world he sent the music into was quite prescriptive. What he knew in the beginning was that he couldn’t be me. He couldn’t be a black classical pianist. Done. So then he starts to innovate; he earns a living. He’s just on his way. What is the music he will be playing? It’s rag time. But then he makes it better. He makes the most of it. He will be the king of it! And while he’s in charge of it, he’s all the time planning this whole opera thing.
I think the answer to your question about the album is, yes, it gives him that freedom. It gives him access to someone who comes up with this perspective, ‘Whatever you have, I’ll take it. I filter it through what I know now.” What I know now came after him. He didn’t hear what William Grant Still was going to do, what Ellington was going to do. He heard nothing of it. But I have.
As we walk past Joplin’s latest New York address, it’s a good time to mention it Stephen Buck’s arrangement of “Magnetic Rag,” which Joplin self-published in 1914 hits a pretty sweet spot. Your performance with the band has a spontaneous feel – especially in the strings – but it’s all pretty rigorously tied to the original material.
Playing ragtime on the piano is difficult. So this was also an opportunity to just pull all those things that are a pianistic challenge into a bigger picture. Wouldn’t Joplin have loved that idea? “I don’t have to put everything into the piano just because I want to sell the sheet music.”
I’m going to bring some of these arrangements to orchestras. I’m doing a few with Detroit in a few weeks. And then with the Boston Pops and the Philadelphia Orchestra, down the road.
I don’t want to neglect your solo playing! I enjoyed your take on ‘The Chrysanthemum’ in particular. The little bursts of chromaticism can sometimes sound funny. You have brought together his strangeness and tenderness.
Thank you. I really want to rid him of the two categories people have tried to fit him into: “king of ragtime” or “greatest classical composer you’ve never heard of.” I want to be very clear that I see him as an American innovator and cross-pollinator, and that the central truth in his music is that everything exists together and is there for finding.