From Fad to Rag.
One of the many great contributions of black music is the creation of the treasure that is Ragtime. Ragtime, because of its ambiguity and meshing of styles, can sometimes be hard to define, but it is a mixture of the early styles of jazz and classical music. It’s musicians and composers each set different boundaries for this style of music, giving it a variety of different sounds. There is, however, one definition that its musicians can agree on.
- “Ragtime — A genre of musical composition for the piano, generally in duple meter and containing a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass. A ragtime composition is usually composed three or four contrasting sections or strains, each one being 16 or 32 measures in length.”
These sounds also find commonality in the fact that this music is often described as being upbeat and cheerful. One key element in Ragtime music is its syncopated, “ragged” rhythm, or the “misplaced” beat. This irregular placement of the beat from its assumed course of meter is what gave ragtime its excitement.
Although this genre of music grew to become wildly popular, it wasn’t always met with open arms. It was seen as an American fad and made a social (racial) mockery out of with Coon Songs and Cake walks. Old composers of the classical era did not understand the syncopation and complexities of the rhythms, as it was an artform that could not be taught. Instead, composers had to have an “ear” for the sound, appealing to a younger generation of musicians. According to the Library of Congress, at the 1901 convention of the American Federation of Musicians in Denver, “Resolutions were adopted characterizing ‘ragtime’ as ‘unmusical rot.’ Members were encouraged to ‘make every effort to suppress and [to] discourage the playing and the publishing of such musical trash.”
People became more attracted to watered down, more subtle forms of the genre because of its marketability, notably by Tin Pan Alley in the 1920’s. During this time, ragtime was everywhere. There were arrangements for it in orchestras and wind bands, theaters, sheet music, and publishing houses turned out piano rags and ragtime songs at an extreme rate.
The most famous authors of this genre include Scott Joplin, James Scott, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Eubie Blake. Their sound and the music of ragtime set the precedent for what Jass music would become. Hear the sounds of their ragtime signatures below: