April 5, 1917, Scott Joplin was buried at St. Michael’s Cemetery, East Elmhurst, NY. A 16-year-old girl already occupied the grave, and a 25-year-old man was to join them a few weeks later. Scott Joplin was pretty much forgotten by the public at the time of his death. Most newspapers ignored him. Two African American newspapers—the Indianapolis Freeman and New York Age–printed informed obituaries and several articles; a third, Harlem’s Amsterdam News, had a single, brief notice, describing him as a well-known composer and an old-time entertainer.
However, he was still valued by early jazz musicians, and was praised by such figures as James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, and W. C. Handy. Though his name had faded among the broader public, one composition never went out of style: Maple Leaf Rag (1899). Pianists continued to play it and it was arranged for Dixieland and swing bands. It was played frequently on radio, and as sound movies found their place in the 1930s, Maple Leaf became a staple for barroom scenes.
As some musicians in the 1940s were expanding their vocabulary into a style that that was to be termed bebop, others resurrected forgotten rags as a way of seeking the roots of jazz. A few Joplin rags were included in this latter examination, but Euday Bowman’s 12th Street Rag (1914), as recorded by Pee Wee Hunt’s orchestra, became the biggest ragtime hit of the 1940s. A new public for ragtime—small, but dedicated—was created in the 1940s and continued growing through the next couple of decades; Scott Joplin’s reputation as a central figure grew with it.
A full-fledged Scott Joplin revival began in 1970 with Joshua Rifkin’s best-selling recordings of Joplin rags on the classical Nonesuch label, and was spurred to greater heights with the 1974 movie The Sting. Scott Joplin’s music became an unprecedented phenomenon with innumerable recordings flooding the market, some reaching the tops of the charts, and widespread performances by popular and classical musicians alike. But with virtually every piano student in America playing Joplin rags, especially his 1902 classic The Entertainer, the composer’s grave remained unmarked. Finally, toward the end of 1974, ASCAP placed a small, marker over his grave.
Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s I visited Joplin’s grave on April 1, the anniversary of his death. As the grave is near the road, I played from my car, very loudly, a recording of Maple Leaf Rag. A curious workman in the area came over to inquire what I was doing, and I explained that Joplin wanted Maple Leaf played at his funeral, but that his widow decided ragtime would be inappropriate. I was doing a little toward remedying that decision. The workman listened for a while and commented something like, “That’s terrific music. It might become a hit someday.”
In 2005, I was contacted by St. Michael’s Cemetery: they would like to have a concert to honor Joplin and wondered if I could help to organize it. Of course I agreed and selected a few outstanding pianists for the event: MacArthur Award winner Reginald Robinson; conservatory-trained blues and ragtime pianist Peter Muir (author of the book Long Lost Blues); and Juilliard jazz-studies student and (now) famed jazz pianist Aaron Diehl, who performed Joplin rags as they might have been played by Fats Waller. The free ragtime concert (not exclusively Joplin) was held out-doors, with free barbecue provided by the cemetery (with contributions from local businesses) and excellent beer dispensed by Harlem Brewery, a firm that actively supports jazz performances. Celeste Beatty, the brewery’s president, is a great grand-niece of the celebrated black minstrel Dan McCabe, who had been a friend of Joplin’s. With an audience numbering around 200, the concert was a rousing success, and was concluded with a procession to Joplin’s grave, a walk of about three or four minutes.
The concert attracted so much local attention that the cemetery administration decided to fund Scott Joplin Memorial Concerts as an annual event and allowed me considerable freedom in programming and selecting performers. At first I chose mostly pianists and small groups (such as one led by Terry Waldo). In 2007, adding to a roster of instrumentalists, we had members of the Presbyterian Church of St. Albans, an African-American congregation, perform vocal excerpts from Joplin’s opera Treemonisha.
After a few years, we decided to try a variety of larger ensembles. Rick Benjamin’s Paragon Ragtime Orchestra features pure ragtime, as played during the period; Dan Levinson’s Canary Cottage Dance Orchestra combines ragtime with non-rag songs from the period. Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks Orchestra specializes in 1920s-30s styles, but included rags for our events. We’ve been lucky with the weather for most of our outdoor concerts. On only two occasions did rain move us indoors to the chapel, but the crowd followed us, and the music—without the amplification required outdoors—even sounded better. In most years, I gave pre-concert lectures on Joplin or ragtime, and the post-concert processions to the grave became a popular finale.
For the 2017 concert, we decided to observe the one hundredth anniversary of Joplin’s death by placing an engraved bench by his grave. Engraved on the reverse edge of the bench, facing the grave, is the title “We Will Rest Awhile,” from Joplin’s opera Treemonisha. To fund the bench I requested donations on various facebook sites and with listservs, and ragtime and Joplin enthusiasts exceeded expectations with their generosity. I had bookmarks printed for the event, with a picture of the bench on one side and donors’ names on the reverse.
The bookmarks were printed before the last two donations arrived and I should like to take this opportunity to acknowledge these contributors: Carol & Richard Binkowski, and Bill Schimoler.
The concert was given by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. Pianist Roy Eaton, who has devoted much of the past few decades to performing Joplin (along with Chopin) was scheduled to play Maple Leaf at the gravesite, using a digital keyboard, but was forced to cancel because of illness; Rick Benjamin filled in, doing the honors.
The 2019 concert will be held at 2pm on May 18. (Inclement weather will move the concert to the chapel.) We decided that, instead of the usual ragtime-focused concert, we should try an examination of a music that followed and was inspired by ragtime: hot jazz. Toward this end, I have booked Dalton’s Uptown Ramblers, an outstanding quintet led by pianist Dalton Ridenhour. Ridenhour is familiar to ragtime audiences as he began playing at ragtime festivals before reaching his teen years. That was several decades ago, and he has since developed into one of New York’s top jazz and band pianists. Joining him are a host of equally fine jazz musicians: Jon-Eirk Kellso on trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and vocals; Joe McDonough, trombone; and Bob Sacchi, tuba and bass saxophone. In keeping with the concert theme, my pre-concert talk (1:30 in the chapel) will be on the transition from ragtime to jazz. Those in the New York area should plan on attending the nineteenth annual Scott Joplin Memorial Concert at St. Michael’s; it will be a memorable, foot-tapping event.