Scott Joplin's ragtime gets its dues finally. 1973's The Sting took it global, but there's more to ragtime music than that film's Keystone Kops crazy-chase soundtrack One album was all it took to herald a revival. In 1970, the year of Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water and The Beatles' Let It Be, a record of arcane late 19th-century American piano music, released on a label that was otherwise building its reputation as a chronicler of the hardcore American avant-garde, began to sell in implausible quantities. Audiences ordinarily enamoured of piano miniatures by Chopin, Brahms and Liszt were suddenly taking pleasure in the compositions of Scott Joplin, the Texas-born "King of Ragtime" whose über-catchy 1899 Maple Leaf Rag brought him immediate popularity, but who died in 1917 with two typically embarrassing composerly problems hanging over him: syphilis and a terminally unproduced opera, Treemonisha, which would only be recognised as a masterwork long after his death.
Joshua Rifkin, an up-and-coming pianist in 1970, had ragtime brought to his attention by the composer William Bolcom and the evangelising jazz writer Rudi Blesh. Rifkin persuaded the New York-based Nonesuch label to act on his hunch that the trickster melodies and brain-worm syncopations characteristic of ragtime pieces – decked out with such whimsical titles as The Entertainer, Heliotrope Bouquet and Swipesy – would appeal directly to the hearts and minds of classical piano buffs. But neither pianist nor record label could have foreseen the itchy enthusiasm for this once popular but long-since forgotten music that would mushroom across the United States and beyond.
In terms of time and historical distance, if not exactly musical content, an equivalent discovery today would see the mainstream media suddenly fixate on bebop; The One Show's Gyles Brandreth recalled from catching up with authentic jam-making in Dorset to discuss the intricacies of period Charlie Parker records. That's the force with which ragtime percolated deep inside American culture. Woody Allen gave his 1973 film Sleeper a ragtime soundtrack. EL Doctorow called his latest novel Ragtime. Film director George Roy Hall underscored his wisecracking card-hustler movie The Sting with Joplin rags.
Pre-Spotify – and pre-Simon Cowell – wildcard albums had leeway to punch above their market weight; Scott Joplin could and did chart alongside The Beatles. But if Rifkin brought ragtime to hundreds of thousands of people, the Oscar-wining The Sting catapulted the music into the mainstream. With visionary prescience in 1915, Joplin proclaimed "50 years after I'm dead my music will be appreciated." He was only out by a few years, but ragtime's complete identification in the popular imagination with The Sting became difficult. Here was ragtime dressed in fancy instrumentations, dolled up to the orchestral nines by film composer Marvin Hamlisch; rags no longer smiling innocently, but lent an insincere Hollywood grin.
Joplin's mantra would never waver: appreciation of his sleights-of-hand – notes never quite falling into the patterns you expect – relied on savouring each moment. By rushing his tempos, he said in his School of Ragtime primer, "very often good players lose the effect entirely." But the high-energy hokum of The Sting recast ragtime as Keystone Kops crazy-chase music by default, an unhappy paradox given that George Roy Hall was introduced to rags via Rifkin's recordings – interpretations rooted in his insistence on treating Joplin with the same faithful respect afforded to a Chopin Mazurka or a Brahms Waltz.
"Rag" as in "tease", so ragtime is literally "tease time". Hearing Joplin's signature composition "The Entertainer" today is like the warm glow of a comedian's dependable catchphrase; it's always nice to hear it nice. Other Joplin compositions, though, reveal their tease only gradually. My own fascination with Heliotrope Bouquet has at times bordered on obsession. My musician's brain that can fully rationalise Joplin's harmonic moving parts, but that nuts-and-bolts analysis actually tells you little about its true emotional sting. Balanced flawlessly in an emotional fault line between forlorn melancholy and aching wistfulness, this piece wears smiles you only see once they have already begun to fade. This is Peggy Lee's tart Is That All There Is? decades before the event. Or music that mirrors Schubert's trademark harmonic polysemousness – and all neatly contained within a four-minute structure.
The letter of a Joplin score must be obeyed. Rifkin's intuition has long since been vindicated, although questions remain about where ragtime stands historically in relation to jazz. The scholar Terry Waldoargued, in his superb 1976 book This Is Ragtime, that the music presented a sonic metaphor for the day-to-day experience of early 20th-century Black America, the melodic liberation of the right-hand endeavouring to undermine the left-hand's slavish regularity. And although jazz musicians of a certain mindset would eagerly adapt ragtime to their own improvisational ends – Sidney Bechet's 1932 Maple Leaf Rag is a true jazz masterpiece – my own hunch is that Joplin's music was anyway inherently improvisational.
Rags had the same identikit structure. Looped 16-bar phrases always gravitated back towards the home key, but merry-legged melodic lines took sharp, unforeseen corners, drunk on their own invention; Joplin was improvising on the page. But modern jazzmen were surely too darn cool to acknowledge these frivolous compositional follies? Well, actually no. Thelonious Monk shamelessly mined ragtime and stride piano, reshaping its raw energies. And John Coltrane's compressed, sped-up saxophone lines – his so-called "sheets of sound" – built on Monk's palette of gestures. And Coltrane's example would galvanise Steve Reich and Jimi Hendrix – and The Doors and Evan Parker – and about every emerging jazz and rock musician of the 1960s and 70s – into action, fuelling revolutions to come...