Tom Turpin was arguably the first major African American composer and performer of rags. Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1871, he began his musical career in the early 1890s, performing at some of the most renowned sporting houses in St. Louis and would soon publish his first piece as a composer in 1897: Harlem Rag. During his time in St. Louis, Turpin honored his family’s legacy of saloon-keeping when he opened his business Turpin’s Saloon and later Rosebud Bar, which became the “birthplace” for countless ragtime pianists and performers.

Rosebud Bar: Creative spheres and good beer

The Rosebud Bar contained various rooms, serving a myriad of purposes: gambling rooms, dining rooms, barrooms, and hotel rooms.

With an upright piano placed on wooden blocks, Turpin played into the night, enchanting all those present and inspiring other black pianists such as Arthur Marshall, Scott Hayden, Joe Jordan, and Louis Chauvin—later known as the “King of Ragtime Players”— to compose. In addition to such entertainment, Tom Turpin hosted piano contests as an opportunity for young musicians to display their skills and gain visibility amongst audiences.

Turpin: A Performer-Composer

Tom Turpin’s music distinguishes itself within ragtime due to its improvisatory style. Turpin pulled from his experience as a performer when composing by implementing spontaneity and excitement through intentional repetition of strains, which increase in complexity throughout the song.

A Ragtime Nightmare – Tom Turpin

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