Royce Martin • Memories On Morgan Street: Scott Joplin Reimagined

When Royce Martin’s profile ran on our cover in December we received a thank you from an accomplished musician in her 40s, the unspoken implication being thank you for featuring a young Black man. The traditional jazz community has lamented for decades the lack of diversity on stage.

As an illustration, 1984’s Cotton Club movie attempted to recreate the sound of Duke Ellington’s late ’30s Orchestra. Primarily white musicians were used because in 1984, and still today, the musicians most deeply familiar with and studied up on the individual instrumentalists of Duke’s band in that era happen to be white. Francis Ford Coppola threw out the first version of the soundtrack, and the band that made it, because it had sounded too modern, too influenced by music schools. Many on the final soundtrack had studied under musicians of the era in question, including Sidney Bechet, or even played with members of Duke’s band.

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I drop my idea for a Clarence Williams bio-pic out there whenever I can. A musician and a businessman, I think he would resonate. King Oliver sounds like a movie title ready made—and what a story! There are many careers from the era that might inspire a young Black man to turn his musical studies toward the vast ocean of early jazz. I don’t think those stories are being told the right way, or in the right places, and in many cases their art is given academic framing now seventy years overdue for a second look.

In pondering why the Ragtime community has done better at attracting Black fans and musicians than the traditional jazz community I have come to believe one reason might just be Scott Joplin.

The primary composers of classic ragtime were Black, with exceptions. In early jazz, the most idolized early musicians may be Black, with very prominent exceptions, but the compositions played by those artists are mostly not written by those venerated. Be the composer White or Black, their race is likely to be unknown to an average fan, irrelevant even.

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Viewed from a century later, early jazz is about musicianship and recordings, ragtime about compositions. Musicians are not venerated in quite the same way. Musicians are perceived as feral while composers are formal. The Ragtime community picked out choice compositions of the era and stood them rightly alongside classical masterpieces. In so doing they stood up Black men creating art in the half century after Emancipation alongside the European classical masters.

That veneration of proud, sophisticated artists is something that Scott Joplin himself strove to achieve for himself and his people. His opera Treemonisha is a story of education overcoming superstition. Joplin was of a specific intellectual strain in the African American community of the era. That isn’t lost on Royce Martin, a recent Berklee graduate with an unusual amount of exposure to Joplin’s ghost. He wants to tell Joplin’s story, in his words “Not to be magnified as a story of racial disparity, but realized as a testament to the spirit of resilience!”

He knows that story intimately, having worked several years as the house pianist at the Scott Joplin House in St. Louis. Not as the tour guide, but as the man at the piano in the final room of the tour, playing Joplin’s music and answering questions. During Covid he had the place mostly to himself, deep diving into the intricacies of Joplin’s compositions and experimenting with some of the arrangements heard on Memories on Morgan Street, his first album. In one of several dramatic dialogues included on the album he has a conversation with Scott Joplin’s ghost that I can see emerging from that experience alone in rooms where Joplin once lived.

Royce describes a feeling at music school of “responsibility to play ragtime because of the St. Louis connection. In my mind, to abandon ragtime was to abandon my roots.” The younger generation of musicians from St. Louis are uniquely devoted to their local legacy in a way I have simply not noted anywhere else. In our December profile he goes on to say that while at Berklee:

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.

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He believes that ragtime can still be music that “pushes the culture forward,” that can challenge. He introduces new ideas into his playing without exiting the genre, calling some of what he does rag-bop. Having studied Joplin so extensively he saw in the twelve compositions featured on this album much to offer modernity and sought to bring out those possibilities with these very expressive arrangements. His playing is by seamless turns rolling and tumbling and stately—an effect so seemingly effortless that there’s no wonder he was the hit of Scott Joplin fest last summer Some of the titles become phantasmic, true to ragtime’s ability to tell a story in just a few bars. Much thought and attentiveness went into presenting each captivating track.

His style will serve him well scoring for Hollywood. A tidbit not mentioned in our profile is his first entrance into scoring. Martin contributed to the HBO MAX Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion. A show iconic to my teenage years that he, at 24, would have only known as reruns.

While trying to track down that score I discovered a Reddit post with someone asking about it; “the special has a song that I really want to know, starts to play at 02:58, has a piano, is something like a jazz.” Though the post was five months old I left a note directing the inquirer to Royce Martin’s downloadable sheet music for it and his December profile. You never know when a few minutes of music can change a life.

As I alluded to earlier the album includes some extras beyond the twelve Joplin arrangements. The light background music behind these sections became more meaningful to me after hearing his score for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air Reunion.

The album opens with a ten-minute dialogue titled “A Dream Defined,” which tells a story about journalists going to meet Joplin in 1916, by then near his end. After some trouble prompting him to speak Joplin breaks into a monologue beginning with “It’ll do a man no good to permit his grievances to overshadow his opportunities,” a slight paraphrase of a line from Booker T. Washington’s address at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition. I could not identify the rest, but the monologue does represent the impression of Joplin’s thoughts that I have developed from biographies.

After the twelve Joplin titles, there is a three-part follow up with Martin meeting Joplin’s ghost to discuss the origins of “American” music. A rag rap called “Rags to Riches” loosely responds to it, and a minute long fade out referencing the conversation with Joplin’s ghost ends the album.

In listening to these dramatic vignettes, and in reading Royce Martin’s own thoughtful notes, I was repeatedly reminded of some favorite quotes from Albert Murray who says “[jazz]is what is native in America . . . an art form for a pioneer people who require resilience as a prime trait.” And that jazz principles include “flexibility, the art of adapting, and the necessity of continuous creation in a perpetually oppressive and unstable world,” and, as he says elsewhere, “elegance.” Martin clearly understands ragtime on a similar philosophical level.

The album includes two CDs. The second without the spoken vignettes at the beginning and end of the album or the Rag-A-Rap. This is a courtesy to those who may want an instrumental experience, and it shows forethought. Someone who wants to play this album repeatedly is not going to want to listen through the narratives every time and the abbreviated disc gives them a ready way to play just his Joplin interpretations without skipping tracks. I am excited to watch Martin continue to advance the living music of ragtime for years to come.

Memories On Morgan Street: Scott Joplin Reimagined
Royce Martin
Rivermont Records: BSW-2265
rivermontrecords.com

Joe Bebco is the Associate Editor of The Syncopated Times and Webmaster of SyncopatedTimes.com

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