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Ragtime and the birth of Jazz

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It is the early 1900’s in downtown New Orleans. The smell of Gumbo and Jambalaya comes from every part of the city. And the Music! Ahh, those sweet melodies, men playing ragtime on the streets, whistling to any pretty gal walking by. Scott Joplin is playing his newest song, “Maple Leaf Rag,” on his piano. Though he doesn’t know it, he is helping to create the world in which Louis Armstrong sings and plays his trumpet some twenty years later.

Many people have heard of great names in Jazz like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, but just a little further back in history lies these musicians’ source of inspiration. It is a little genre called Ragtime.

Everyone listened to Ragtime. Everyone. The piano compositions were beautifully constructed, producing a mesmerizing sound. There was nothing quite like it during its peak from 1897-1918. Other than the hymns and spiritual songs sung by slaves during the 1800’s, this was the first time African Americans had produced a sound of their own.

Ragtime music is made for piano, and it requires a skilled pianist because of the fast nature of the songs. These upbeat tunes were catchy and easy on the ears.

Everyone knows that Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll, and Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, but not many know that, decades earlier, Joplin was the King of Ragtime. Look up “Maple Leaf Rag” and you will hear a familiar tune used in older cartoons. Look up “The Entertainer” and you may recognize that tune from the ice cream truck you ran after as a kid. Joplin’s compositions made ragtime mainstream and everyone knew about his music.

Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers had a direct effect on the emergence of Jazz in the 1920’s. People began to play trumpets, saxophones, trombones and other instruments to accompany the piano. Ragtime is a big part of African-American history, but unfortunately underrepresented in the public sphere.

The fact is, however, that this was the first time that African Americans were making high-quality mainstream music. If it was not for Scott Joplin and ragtime, today’s music industry would be significantly different. True, Ragtime eventually faded to make room for Jazz, but its influence will never die.

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