Illustration by Edward Kinsella III
When Joplin first traveled to St. Louis in 1885, at age 17, ragtime was so new, composers and publishers were still arguing about how to mark syncopation on sheet music. Joplin grew up in Texarkana, Texas, teaching himself songs on a rickety square grand piano; at 11, he met German-born music teacher Julius Weiss, who, awed by Joplin’s talent, accepted him as a student at no charge. Weiss trained him to read music and exposed him to polkas, old-world folk, and classical music, in addition to the work songs, gospel hymns, spirituals, and dance music that Joplin grew up with. Though rags are what he’s known for, Joplin wanted to compose lyric operas. He wrote two: Treemonisha and A Guest of Honor, about Booker T. Washington’s 1901 visit to President Theodore Roosevelt’s White House, now lost. In 1914, dying of syphilis, Joplin wrote the melancholic “Magnetic Rag,” which attempted to combine classical and ragtime. Though jazz ultimately broke with ragtime and went in a contrary direction—improvisation—music critics cite that “Chopin-esque rag” as a hint of where it might’ve gone, had Joplin lived longer.
Louis "Bird Face" Chauvin
If Joplin was the sober, introverted idealist, Chauvin was a rowdy Taoist, playing for the fun of it and for the money. He loved nice suits, whiskey, ladies, and in his last years, opium. He was rumored to be as good, or maybe even better than Joplin; he’d warm up at the keys with a John Philip Sousa march, then let loose with rich, complex composition without a name, playing it off the top of his head. The next day, he’d do the same thing, never bothering to name that one, either. “Chauv was so far ahead with his modern stuff, he would be up-to-date now,” remembered his best friend, Sam Patterson, in the 1950 book They All Played Ragtime. Chauvin moved to Chicago, and he died at 27 a few years later; his cause of death is listed as multiple sclerosis, but it was probably syphilis or sickle-cell anemia, compounded by his lifestyle. Though he died with only three publications and no recordings, other musicians eagerly served as witnesses to the pianist’s great talent.
Thomas Million Turpin
The first African-American composer to publish a rag (“The Harlem Rag”), Turpin was undeniably good. Maybe he wasn’t a Joplin or Chauvin, but he was one of the best players for sure. It was his role as saloon owner, though, that earned him the nickname “Father of St. Louis Ragtime.” As the stoic, heavy-pawed, piano-thumping proprietor of the Rosebud Café at 2220 Market (where he kept his piano up on blocks—otherwise, at more than 350 pounds, he couldn’t reach over his belly to the keys), Turpin created an incubator and laboratory for ragtime’s best players, both locals and travelers, whose musical showdowns were known as “cutting contests.” Ragtime in St. Louis hit its high pitch in 1904 during the World’s Fair; by the late teens, Turpin had turned to more fashionable music, booking vaudeville shows for his brother Charles’ Booker T. Washington Theater and opening what would become the Jazzland Café.
John Stillwell Stark
Publishing the “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899 made Sedalia music-store proprietor John Stark—and the song’s composer, Scott Joplin—famous when it became the first piece of sheet music to sell a million copies. It also brought both men to St. Louis, then a hotbed for ragtime, in 1900. Stark’s and Joplin’s careers intertwined for the rest of their lives, in ways good and bad. Joplin was distraught at Stark’s delay in publishing A Guest of Honor after the touring production was robbed in Pittsburgh in 1903; the company’s effects were taken, and the only score to the opera disappeared forever. The two reconciled in New York in 1907, and Stark continued to publish Joplin’s works, including “Heliotrope Bouquet,” a collaboration with Louis Chauvin.
Ragtime went out of fashion in the 20th century’s late teens, but another local entertainment district—Gaslight Square—revived it in the ’50s and ’60s. Trebor Tichenor, pianist for the St. Louis Ragtimers, took part in its resurrection at the piano keyboard, wearing a bowler hat, vest, and sleeve garters. Though his virtuoso playing at clubs like Bustles and Bows (on an open piano, so audiences could watch the hammers thwacking the strings) definitely turned a new generation on to ragtime, Tichenor’s kept the music alive in other ways. He’s composed dozens of original rags, including “Pierce City Rag” (1961) and “Hickory Smoked Rag” (1974); amassed an archive of ragtime sheet music and piano rolls; written scholarly essays; played on more than 20 recordings; taught classes at Washington University; and organized dozens of ragtime festivals. He’s also known as the foremost expert on “folk ragtime” (also known as “country” or “prairie” ragtime), a bluesier strain than Joplin’s “classic” ragtime. And his band, the St. Louis Ragtimers, which recently celebrated its 50th birthday, is still
Mississippi River Ragtime
Ragtime was the incidental music of Chestnut Valley, which stood roughly where Scottrade Center is now. It was an entertainment district filled with gambling dens, saloons, and brothels where the river men from the levees and steamboats would come to spend their money; mythology says it was so wild, the police were afraid to go there. (It was the site of the murder that inspired “Frankie and Johnny”—though not “Stagger Lee.” Lee shot Billy Lyons in a nearby neighborhood, Deep Morgan). Tom Turpin played his first St. Louis gigs at Madam Babe Connors’ “bawdy house,” The Castle, at 210 Sixth, then opened his own saloon on Targee Street. The Rosebud Café—and its cousin, the Hurrah Sporting Club, where an inner sanctum of ragtime players would gather for “cutting contests”—opened a few years later. Though these were both Turpin’s joints, the St. Louis area had were plenty of others, including The Spanish Café and the Magic Horseshoe. This is where Blind Boone fled when the Missouri School for the Blind changed its curriculum, and the piano lessons he’d been taking were swapped out for what was thought to be a more practical pursuit—broom-making.
President, Friends of Scott Joplin
1. Scott Joplin
The “King of Ragtime Writers” lived here from 1901 to 1907, and the first of his three residences here is now the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site. He wrote some of his best-known works here, including “The Entertainer” and “The Cascades” (written for the World’s Fair), as well as his first opera, A Guest of Honor.
2. Tom Turpin
His establishments nurtured a generation of African-American performers. His brother, Charles, was St. Louis’ first African-American alderman.
3. Louis Chauvin
The “Paderewski of Ragtime,” Chauvin was widely regarded as the best ragtime pianist in the city, perhaps in the country. Very little survives of his work, as he could not write music, and he seemed uninterested in preserving his art.
4. Trebor Tichenor
He’s a living, breathing encyclopedia of ragtime and a treasured local institution in his own right. His home on the city’s South Side has long been a haven for ragtime enthusiasts from around the world.
5. Richard Egan
Egan’s another contemporary composer and performer who draws deeply on folk elements in his Missouri-inspired compositions.