A brief history of Ragtime    


Original cover of sheet music for The Entertainer, with thanks to the New York Public Library which published the complete keyboard works of Joplin in 1971.

Syncopated music (music where the rhythmic emphasis is not on the obvious beats) has developed through many phases during its history. The roots of ragtime are in the black minstrel songs and dances of southern USA in the mid 19th century. We can only speculate as to what it was like prior to 1900 since we have no sheet music or gramophone recordings from that era. The first published sheet music was written by Scott Joplin (1868-1917), pictured above. He made no recordings though he is reputed to have made some piano rolls for reproducing piano. The earliest recordings of ragtime were made by brass bands.

Scott Joplin was an accomplished musician. He composed and published a large number of rags from 1899 to 1913. His earliest success came in 1899 with the Maple Leaf Rag which sold a million copies and was played and recorded by numerous pianists and bands.

Rags had a well defined structure consisting of 4 themes each usually played twice, and the third theme usually in a contrasting key.

Jazz burst on the scene in 1917 with the historic recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

  • Whereas ragtime was piano music, jazz was band music.
  • Whereas ragtime was published as sheet music, jazz was recorded.
  • Whereas ragtime was scored, jazz was improvised.

There was also a difference in the way the music was played. Whereas ragtime was 8 to the bar, jazz was 12 to the bar. Click Details (left) for more on these technical points.

The influence of jazz on piano styles produced a less rigid structure. Often a single theme would be played in a variety of ways and improvised upon. The pioneers were Eubie Blake, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson and Thomas 'Fats' Waller. The classic example of jazz piano is the Carolina Shout recorded by James P. Johnson (pictured below) in 1921. Unlike ragtime, very little jazz piano has been published in sheet music form. Hence the style has to be learnt by listening to the musicians and to their records.

Click left on Downloads for music files and sheet music of three original rags composed in the traditional style by John Reade.

James P. Johnson