Retelling the history of ragtime and Joplin
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Staff Writer
"I had no idea who he was," Norfolk says. The African American ragtime composer and pianist, now considered a legend of American music, was then mostly unknown outside of college music classes. "That was until, like a lot of people, I went to see 'The Sting.' "
The 1973 film about the art of the con gave almost as much exposure to Joplin's jaunty ragtime masterworks as it did the chiseled faces of stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman. After taking in $156 million at the box office, "The Sting" went on to win seven 1974 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Film Score for music arranger Marvin Hamlisch. Riding the crest of a wave of renewed interest in the long-deceased composer, Hamlisch took Joplin's ragtime instrumental "The Entertainer" to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
For Norfolk, discovering Joplin and his music was akin to an artistic revelation. So much so that when the former St. Louis stand-up comedian made a career switch to storytelling in the mid-1980s, he made sure to bring the stories of Joplin's music along with him.
"Rags to Riches: A History of Ragtime in America" a one-man show where Norfolk, assuming the guise of Joplin himself, recounts the stories behind the composer's greatest compositions for the kind of rapt audiences Joplin never had in his lifetime is one of Norfolk's favorite shows in his storytelling repertoire. Norfolk's performance tomorrow evening at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa's Orvis Auditorium will also feature six Joplin compositions performed live by pianist Eric Schank.
"Scott Joplin is the equivalent of a Tchaikovsky, a Brahms, a Beethoven, or a Mozart as far as American music is concerned," says Norfolk, via telephone from his St. Louis home. "He basically laid the foundation for what people consider to be the original form of American music today."
Norfolk, who wrote the "Rags To Riches" narrative in 1988 with a group of writer friends, was also looking to celebrate ragtime's timelessness in his narrative.
"We wanted to commemorate the history of ragtime music and how all of the music we listen to today jazz, rock, reggae, punk, pop, rap is all based in the foundation of syncopated music, which started (with) ragtime," says Norfolk, explaining ragtime's still groundbreaking melding of African-American harmony and rhythm with European classical styles.
Born near Linden, Texas, in 1868, Joplin taught himself using a piano in the white-owned home where his mother worked. He learned opera and other European music styles from a local music teacher who took the eager Joplin under his wing. Joplin began experimenting with ragtime after moving to Missouri in the early 1890s, during the music movement's early years. His most prolific writing period occurred between 1890 and 1911, when he composed more than 60 pieces (including "The Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer") and two operas (the now-lost "A Guest of Honor" and "Treemonisha," awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976).
"He was very serious about his music ... sometimes sullen," says Norfolk, recounting his Joplin research. "He was very driven to propel his music into the white culture as well as the African American culture."
Though his music gained some popular acceptance, Joplin's sizable talent as a composer was never fully recognized during his lifetime. After his grand vision for the opera "Treemonisha" failed to ignite the popular acceptance he longed for in his more serious work, Joplin suffered a nervous breakdown in 1911, writing little else for the remainder of his life. He died in a New York mental institution in 1917 at age 49.
Norfork chose the years between Joplin's Texas youth and a hometown 1904 St. Louis World's Fair performance at his career peak for the "Rags To Riches" narrative arc his goal being to celebrate the composer and his music, rather than to offer a blow-by-blow account of Joplin's often-turbulent life.
"I didn't want to come out and leave a dark cloud over everybody, but to enliven (Joplin's) personality along with his music," says Norfolk. "Joplin's music is lively and upbeat. The show is a very humorous, very lively, very animated tour of American history at the turn of the 20th century as far as (ragtime) music is concerned."