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Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

May 29, 2017

Scott Joplin is buried at St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst, Queens.  The grave was initially unmarked, and she shares it with several unknown African Americans. ASCAP put the plaque there after interest in Joplin’s music was revived by The Sting‘s release in 1974.


Each year the cemetery has a memorial concert in May (why May rather than April I don’t know), and since this is the 100th anniversary of his passing, the May 27, 2017 concert was performed by The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra conducted by Rick Benjamin, considered the foremost Scott Joplin orchestra in the world.  Benjamin created the new orchestration of Joplin’s opera, Treemonisha, which asserts to be more historically authentic than the more familiar Gunther Schuller orchestration that has been in use since its premiere in the 1972.

Joplin biographer Edward A. Berlin said at intermission that the African-American paper The Indianapolis Freeman reported that Joplin had a grand funeral procession with names of his most famous works on each carriage, and that he died because of his inability to get Treemonisha staged, when in reality, he died of syphilis.

The small orchestra consists of Arthur Moeller, Melissa Tong, Colin Brookes, Lisa Caravan, and Troy Rinker on strings, Leslie Cullen on flue and piccolo, Vasko Dukovsko on clarinets, Paul Murphy and Mike Blutman on cornets, Mike Boschen on trombone, and Mike Dobson on drums and mallets.

The concert consisted of ten pieces by Scott Joplin, John Philip Sousa’s “The Thunderer,” a major influence on Joplin, and several works by Joplin’s contemporaries: C. Luckyth Roberts (1887-1968), J. Turner Layton (1894-1978), Will H. Dixon (1979-1917), Henry Fillmore (1881-1956), and two settings of spirituals by Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960). Composer Q. Roscoe Snowden (c. 1880-?)’s work made it to the program was was replaced at Dobson’s request with Joplin’s “Elite Variations.” Layton’s “Pork and Beans Rag,” were were told, was describned as “A song without a melody” by Prince Albert when he visited the U.S. in 1913 when it was new.

Also on the program was a medley of 1890s pop songs to which the audience was invited to sing along.  Many of the tunes were familiar from silent film scores, especially for Buster Keaton films, but the only song where I heard a significant number of people singing was Henry Dacre’s “Daisy Bell” (1892), which everybody knows from 2001: A Space Odyssey and umpteen other places.

It’s unusual to hear Joplin’s music performed by a full orchestra, and “The Entertainer” featured Dukovsko’s clarinet playing. Benjamin’s comment implied a lot of people who know Dukovsko were in the audience.   The entire orchestra stomped at the appropriate points in “The Rag-Time Dance.” “Pleasant Moments,” a rag waltz, seems to be the biggest influence on Randy Newman’s career. Most rags are written in 2 2 or 2 4.

To further commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Joplin’s passing, a memorial bench was installed and dedicated after the concert.

Seen from the road:


This is the view from the grave:


“We Will Rest a While” was performed next to a bower near to the bench by an all-white barbershop quartet (the opera calls for an all-black cast, which it had in the 1972 production that is available on video and in live full staging I saw at York College in 2007).

Lottie Joplin rejected her husband’s wish that “Maple Leaf Rag” be played at the funeral, considering the music too inappropriate (I wondered if these sorts of conflicts had anything to do with him contracting syphilis).  Rick Benjamin rectified this, but when the available chair couldn’t be matched to the keyboard stand, and he apparently didn’t want to stand and do it prog-rock style,

it was agreed that he should perform it from the bench:


If Lotte didn’t think it was funerary enough, the sheet music bumped one of the buttons on the keyboard to put in in harpsichord mode, but Benjamin kept playing unfazed to the end of the piece (though it was eventually switched back to piano voice), bringing the afternoon to its grand finale.

I’m happy I saw the announcement posted at St. Michael’s Church, where Unity of New York currently rents its office and classroom spaces.  My only complaints were that there wasn’t enough seating (many people brought lawn chairs, but in my situation, where would I have kept them).  Without the seating, I missed entirely the dance group waltzing to “Pleasant Moments” until it was pointed out after the piece was over.  There was also free food and soda, but I got only soda.  I saw veggie burgers being cooked before I got into line, but all they had left were hot dogs by the time I made it through, so I passed.  I wasn’t hungry, anyway, so I didn’t mind too much, since there was interesting conversation in the line from people familiar with Joplin’s work and how previous concerts had gone, although I no longer recall the details.

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