Ragtime music had a brief but spectacular run of less than 20 years between 1899, with the release of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” and 1917, with Joplin’s sad passing in a mental institution from tertiary syphilis. Part of the reason for ragtime’s demise was the sobering effect of the First World War, which made ragtime seem outdated, coming as it did from a more innocent era. There were brief revivals of ragtime in the 1920s, 1950s and 1970s, but after 1930, it was largely consigned to musical history as a precursor of early jazz.
Ragtime music was basically a solo piano style that maintained a military march-like beat with the left hand, broken up with syncopated melodies played by the right hand. This “ragged” method of playing gave the genre its name. The song structure incorporated four themes played in the order A-A-B-B-A-C-C-D-D, forming a bridge between military marching band music and the syncopated compositions of early jazz pianists Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson.
African and European Origins of Ragtime
Ragtime was based on two musical traditions that had coexisted in the United States since the Civil War. Written compositions, the piano, march beats and chord progressions were contributions from the European tradition and polyrhythms (two or more contrasting rhythms played simultaneously) and syncopation were contributions made from African traditions that had evolved from the days of the slave trade.
Broad Appeal of Ragtime
The appeal of ragtime not only reflected the mix of African-American and European cultures, but also changing attitudes in the United States during the turn of the century. Owning a piano had become a symbol of status and an important form of family entertainment, and most white households had one. Ragtime’s simple march rhythms made lively listening and its complex, ragged syncopation was evocative of the faster pace of a new urban industrial lifestyle.
How Ragtime Spread and Evolved
The popularity of ragtime reached its peak in 1910. It preceded the beginning of commercial radio broadcasting (1920) by 10 years, yet it flourished throughout the country. Ragtime’s most important and prolific composers were Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb and James Scott, and their music spread from coast to coast through the publishing and distribution of thousands of copies of sheet music. After Joplin’s death, ragtime evolved into the stride style, a driving music that was popular during the 1920s. One branch of this new style became a bridge into swing music, and the other into early jazz.
Early jazz was a widespread development that took place simultaneously in many parts of the country over a long period of time. It not only incorporated the syncopated beat of ragtime, but earlier field hollers and spirituals, the driving marches of brass bands, and instrumental horn-based blues. As the popularity of classic ragtime faded, its African influence became stronger, with added blues tones and more complex rhythms. Both ragtime and early jazz contained the elements of polyrhythms, syncopation and collective improvisation, in which musicians break away from the central theme. However, both forms lacked the element that defines the genre of jazz as we know it today -- solo improvisation.