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Scott Joplin, the wizard of ragtime

Herb Boyd | 12/5/2013, 2:38 p.m.

At 163 W. 131st St., just west of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, there is a plaque indicating the last residence of the great ragtime pioneer Scott Joplin. He lived there with Lottie Stokes when he died on April 1, 1917.

It may seem strange that someone from Sedalia, Mo., would spend his final days in Harlem, but such a migration and final destination is not that unusual when you consider that such luminaries as A. Philip Randolph, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman and Langston Hughes, who was born in Joplin, Mo., all made their way to and made their mark in Harlem.

Joplin, according to his biographer Edward Berlin, arrived in Harlem in 1907, well in advance of the Harlem Renaissance and four years before Randolph, who arrived in 1911 and began studying at City College. Like most of the African-Americans who came to New York City before Harlem became a haven for them, Joplin worked his way up the island, beginning in Lower Manhattan and then settling in Harlem in 1912. By this time, he had already established his place in the pantheon of American music.

We are more assured where Joplin died than where or when he was born. Somewhere in Texas and somewhere between 1867 and 1868 are the locations often cited and the years most recorded. This uncertain start of life will gather more layers of mystery and myth as his musical prowess and reputation gains wider and wider notoriety.

The first solid geographical sighting of Joplin is in Texarkana, a city that borders Texas and Arkansas. In fact, unlike many of the soldiers stationed at Fort Polk, La., who used to straddle the state line with a bottle of whiskey, knowing that one side was wet and the other side dry because alcohol was prohibited, Joplin’s family lived on both sides of the border.

Joplin’s father was a former slave and his mother a domestic worker in white homes, where reputedly Joplin first got a chance to touch a piano. His nascent talent was soon discovered by a classical pianist who gave him his first music lessons. By his teen years, Joplin’s musical progress was quite impressive, so much so that there are notices—some anecdotal—about his ability as a performer.

After attending Sedalia High School, the ever intrepid Joplin traveled to St. Louis, which at that time was a bustling cauldron of ragtime music. He returned to Sedalia after a short visit there, and then by 1893, he was in Chicago just in time for the World’s Fair. But Joplin was more than a mere visitor. He had his own small band, and with him as leader on the cornet, they performed for listeners outside the fair grounds. Back home, he would continue to front a band and began his ventures in the territory as a wandering troubadour. In 1895, he had wandered as far away as Syracuse, N.Y., where he was a member of the Texas Medley Quartette, a vocal group. It was here that Joplin stood out among the members, impressing several businessmen who put up money to publish two of his compositions—“Please Say You Will” and “A Picture of Her Face,” according to the official Scott Joplin website.