Joplin, Jazz & Joy

Pianist Marcus Roberts interprets the music of Scott Joplin

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At the end of the 19th century, Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" fueled a national craze for ragtime music. The sheet music for "Maple Leaf" sold 75,000 copies its first year in 1899 and went on to become the first piece of sheet music ever to sell more than 1 million copies.

One hundred years later, the ragtime king's music is still being celebrated. Jazz musician Marcus Roberts brings to life eight of Joplin's ragtime tunes - and makes them swing - with his latest, "The Joy of Joplin" (Sony Classical). Roberts also added eight pieces of his own that blend Joplin's ragtime style with 20th-century blues and swing.

"Joplin's influence on American music is a lot more than we realize," says Roberts during a telephone interview. "People have heard ragtime and Joplin and probably didn't even know that's what they were listening to. That's how natural his influence has been."

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Best known for his association with Wynton Marsalis's group from 1985 to '91, Roberts studied music at Florida State University in the early 1980s and began experimenting with ragtime and stride piano (when the left hand alternates between a strong bass note and middle-range chords). Given Roberts's background, it seemed a natural leap to record Joplin's music. "His music is very flexible and so are his themes," says Roberts. "But I experiment and determine what I can get away with without destroying the structure of what is initially there."

"The Joy of Joplin" is a swingin' CD with an air of familiarity. Even if you're not a ragtime afficionado, you'll instantly recognize songs like "The Entertainer" and "The Maple Leaf Rag." "My goal was to demonstrate the influence of Joplin's music on modern jazz style ... and to bring a new perspective to his classic ragtime songs," says Roberts.

Ragtime, popular in the United States during the first two decades of the 20th century, was originally written for and performed on the piano. It differed from jazz, its descendant, in that it was written-down, fully noted music that allowed almost no improvisation.

"Ironically," Roberts writes in the CD liner notes, "many of the jazz musicians of Joplin's era, who were influenced by his compositional techniques, refused to comply." Roberts illustrates this controversy in two original compositions: "Play What's Written" and "Play What You Hear."

"Yet, without such controversial musical decisions," says Roberts, "jazz music simply wouldn't exist."

After the ragtime craze faded, it came back into vogue in the 1970s with the Oscar-winning 1973 film "The Sting," ("The Entertainer" became a hit 70 years after it was published). Scored entirely with Joplin rags and waltzes, it attracted a new generation of fans. Ragtime may have faded in popularity two decades later, but Roberts hopes this recording "will bring more people into jazz without feeling that this is over their heads - because it's not."

Pianist Roberts also wrote and performed the score for the coming PBS documentary (airing Feb. 1-3) "I'll Make Me a World," a six-hour special celebrating 100 years in African-American arts.

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