Fifty years after The Sting, it takes a special kind of musician to breathe new life into “The Entertainer” or “Solace”—those Scott Joplin masterpieces that briefly captivated the world before their ubiquity and kitschy associations with ice cream trucks and pizza parlors led some in the ragtime community to quip “Oh Sting! Where is thy death?” At ragtime and jazz festivals, pianists often shy away from these warhorses; everyone in the audience already knows them note-for-note, and with so many superb performances and recordings through the years, playing them yet again often seems unnecessary.
But at the 2023 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, a young performer making his festival debut unassumingly took the stage under the main tent and held the audience spellbound as he played these and other Joplin standards in startling, fresh arrangements brimming with creativity, virtuosity, and plenty of surprises. The assembled Joplin die-hards had never heard anything quite like it, and by the end of the week, 23-year-old Royce Martin was the talk of the town.
Of course, Royce didn’t spring up ex nihilo. For the past few years, he has been making musical waves—and friends—in his native St. Louis. From humble beginnings as a self-taught musician to docent at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site to studies at the famed Berklee College of Music and now a budding career as a Hollywood film composer, Royce’s remarkable journey as a musician has given him a unique perspective on ragtime and helped him to cultivate a highly personal style that draws on classical, gospel, jazz, pop, and hip-hop. To the purist, these may seem strange bedfellows, but in his approach to Joplin, Royce blends these influences skillfully into what he calls “rag-bop”—a refreshing, vital form of expression that respects ragtime’s lush melodies and march heritage while exploring the rich harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of bebop and beyond.
Ten years ago, Royce was a 14-year-old with little musical experience browsing YouTube when a video about Beethoven appeared in his recommendations. Royce clicked on it and found himself fascinated by the music as well as the story of the “mad genius” who composed it. The “Moonlight” Sonata led to the Fifth Symphony which led to the Ninth Symphony. Soon, it wasn’t enough to just listen; Royce had to participate. He borrowed a small electric keyboard from his older sister, and with the help of some YouTube tutorials, he began teaching himself to pick out the more memorable melodies from Beethoven’s works. “I would sit on the couch with the keyboard in my lap,” Royce says, “and pause YouTube videos to figure out what they were doing.”
Afraid that friends might ridicule his efforts, Royce initially kept his nascent musical skills to himself. From the music of Beethoven, Royce soon discovered Liszt, Chopin, Brahms, and their contemporaries and became enamored of the Romantics’ broad, sweeping melodies. Ragtime entered the picture when, in ninth grade, he heard another student, Francisco Mayo, playing “Maple Leaf Rag.” “That run [at the end of the A-section] sounded like a beat drop—it was so cool,” Royce recalls. “That sent me on the hunt for more Scott Joplin and I learned that he spent time in St. Louis and that there was a ragtime scene in St. Louis. That’s when I got interested in ragtime as a cultural phenomenon.”
After school Royce would visit the school library and print out musical scores to take home and study (“to find out if the notes I was learning by ear were correct”), and as he became comfortable with the elements of music theory, it wasn’t long before he began composing some pieces of his own.
In 2016, he began formal piano lessons with Amy Seibert at the St. Louis nonprofit Pianos for People. Only a month later, he entered—and won—a Teen Talent competition at St. Louis’s massive Fox Theater. “When I heard 4,200 people screaming and cheering at me,” he says, “I thought that maybe this is something I could do long term. That’s when I made up my mind that college could look like music for me.”
But choosing the right college proved challenging; as he sought to merge his interests in classical and romantic music with contemporary popular music, Royce found that he was “too contemporary for the classical schools and too classical for the contemporary schools” and “too jazzy for the contemporary and classical schools but not jazzy enough for the real jazz schools.”
Doubling down on the classical repertoire (Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata, Chopin’s “Ocean” Étude, Op. 25 No. 12, and some Liszt), Royce auditioned and applied to a number of music schools and ultimately landed a spot at Berklee College of Music in Boston, his tuition supported by a number of sponsors from St. Louis, including Mary Strauss.
Royce says: “I wanted to play classical, I wanted to play jazz, I wanted to play contemporary music—I didn’t want to settle on just one, and Berklee seemed the best option where I didn’t have to do that. I could play all those styles. And ragtime seemed the best medium to do it. It’s right there chronologically between classical music and jazz music. Sometimes I’ll go out and just start playing some impressionistic stuff on ‘The Entertainer’ and then come back and play stride piano at the end. Ragtime has everything I need to play all the things I like.”
As high school drew to a close in 2018, Royce sought a summer job that would make use of his skills as a pianist. A visit to the Scott Joplin House’s Ragtime Rendezvous brought him in contact with the late Bryan Cather, who was impressed and referred him to the Joplin House administrator, Almetta Jordan, who hired Royce to play seasonally in the House. “I wasn’t there to give tours,” Royce says, “I was the piano player at the end of the tour. People would see the apartment upstairs and then come to the music room where I would play Joplin’s music for them and answer any questions that they had.” That fall, Royce set off for Berklee in Boston, but he returned to St. Louis every summer through 2022 to play piano and meet with visitors at the Scott Joplin House.
It was during the spring and summer of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic kept many visitors away from the house, that Royce found himself with many quiet hours to fill, and he began using his time to craft his own arrangements of Scott Joplin’s piano works. “There was so much downtime,” he remembers, “that I would just sit at the piano and play through the book of Joplin’s complete rags. And I found that there were about 12 of his pieces that were more evocative than the rest—that could play a cooler role in modernity than the others.”
Back at Berklee, he continued working on Joplin rags in the practice rooms in his spare time, adding in the “licks” and “tricks” he heard from the more jazz-oriented pianists training around him. “Berklee is a jazz school, there’s a lot of jazz music there, and I felt insecure that I couldn’t play jazz,” Royce says. “I wanted to play bebop, and I wanted to play swing. I wanted to play music that people would like at that school—without having to sacrifice ragtime. I wanted to add tricks to ragtime and make it sound cool because I felt this geographic identity… this responsibility to play ragtime because of the St. Louis connection. In my mind, to abandon ragtime was to abandon my roots.
“My peers [at Berklee] would make the argument that we had to play something that was technically challenging and that pushes the culture forward, but I didn’t think they understood that this music [ragtime] did that at one point and could even do that still if we reimagined it a different way. I started developing all these ideas about upward mobility—not just for African-Americans but also for St. Louis—and I think we need to look no further than this great music that serves as the beginning of American pop music and for which St. Louis was the epicenter.”
Berklee gave Royce the opportunity to explore many modes of music making, and it was especially helpful in cultivating his composition skills. After switching majors from jazz composition to Contemporary Writing and Production, Royce finally settled on a major in film scoring. “I’ve always been interested in storytelling,” Royce says, and with music, “you could take a room with two characters and the music builds a third one. I was fascinated by that.”
A friend who had gone on to a film editing role in Hollywood got wind of Royce’s film scoring ambitions and connected him to others in Hollywood, and a series of fortuitous events led to Royce to compose the soundtrack for the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion special on HBO Max. That and other film scoring projects came in addition to Royce’s regular schoolwork. Soon, Hollywood’s demands for quick work on tight deadlines pushed Royce to his limits. “I spent 16 hours one day just working on a score and then sat down on the end of my bed and cried because it was so much work,” he remembers. While at Berklee, Royce also scored the 2022 Hulu documentary series Mormon No More and the forthcoming Max documentary They Called Him Mostly Harmless.
Today, fresh out of college and contemplating a full-time career in Hollywood, Royce says he wants to combine his dual interests in piano performance and film scoring. His debut piano album, Memories on Morgan Street, features his interpretations of 12 Scott Joplin rags, recorded in the Scott Joplin House in St. Louis, and bookended by mini audio dramas that Royce scripted, scored, and produced.
The opening vignette imagines that interviewers from the Library of Congress are visiting Joplin in his New York apartment in his final days. At one point, one of the interviewers asks Joplin where he is; Joplin, his mind already shrouded in syphilitic darkness, replies “Morgan Street”—the name of his former residence in St. Louis. (Morgan Street was subsequently renamed Delmar Boulevard.) The poignant moment sets the stage for Royce’s piano solos: a dreamy swirl of jazz and classical-inspired reworkings of 12 Joplin piano pieces that never stray too far from Joplin’s melodic genius or their rhythmic ragtime roots.
When it’s all over, Joplin (voiced by Adrian Wiley) returns to address Royce directly from the great beyond, encouraging him to remember his cultural roots while journeying forth into the realm of modern popular music. A closing song, “Rags to Riches,” provides a fascinating and highly entertaining glimpse into what a rap-ragtime-jazz hybrid can sound like.
When reflecting on his unique style, Royce speaks to cultivating his own St. Louis style, though he admits to absorbing the influence of black gospel pianists along with musicians like Cory Henry, Jon Batiste, Art Tatum, and Oscar Peterson. He adds: “I felt there was a void. I want to hear ragtime where the player is still playing a ragtime left hand—like stride—but with modern stuff on top. A lot of players in an attempt to modernize the music end up abandoning the left hand. But I thought it would be cool to have this whole stride thing at the same time as this whole bebop thing. Since I wasn’t hearing that, I decided to figure out my own way of playing where that’s true. I keep my love of this music alive by figuring out where there are artistic voids and then trying to fill them. It’s like an itch I have to scratch.”
Just as he draws inspiration from a rich variety of musical styles, Royce is eager to contribute in multiple musical realms. “I will always carry ragtime with me,” he says, “but I don’t see myself as having a career solely as a ragtime pianist. Like Jon Batiste and other jazz players who came out of New Orleans while keeping a New Orleans feel, I want to do that for St. Louis. I want to continue film scoring. I have a collection of impressionistic compositions I’ve written. I don’t want to limit myself to a single genre, but I want to have my own St. Louis style.”
Good music is timeless, and I believe that there will always be a place for musicians who seek to tread the well-loved path of playing ragtime and early jazz “as it was” in its heyday. In the hands and hearts of talented musicians who have the spark of love and respect for the music’s creators, it will always excite and invigorate new audiences in its original form.
But there is plenty of room under the tent for the visionaries who seek to chart new courses with the music. There is something magical about hearing a well-loved ragtime favorite reinterpreted in a way that rekindles the joy and exhilaration of hearing it for the first time. In his approach to the music, Royce Martin has positioned himself at the fore of a new ragtime vanguard, and I can’t wait to see where he and others take it from here.