Ragtime has the honor of being called the very first truly American musical genre and emerged in the 1890s by Ernest Hogan who traveled in minstrel shows as a dancer, musician and comedian. He was the first to add African polyrhythms to the popular march music that was popularized by John Philip Sousa. In 1895 Hogan released many published songs that he actually named ragtime. Perhaps forgotten in history due to the unsavory racial stereotypes that he used in his works and biggest hit “All Coons Look Alike To Me,” he nonetheless opened the doors to other artists who would evolve the syncopation in ragtime to the myriad forms of jazz that would emerge in the 20th century.
Although Hogan invented it, it was SCOTT JOPLIN who is indubitably the most widely known and crowned king of the ragtime sound and managed to write 44 original rags from 1899 to 1917 in his short life (born 1868 died 1917). JOPLIN hit the big time with one of his early pieces the “Maple Leaf Rag” which is perhaps the most popular rag in all of music history. JOPLIN didn’t just merely copy the form but earned his place in history by refining and elevating the style above the early forms that were associated with the vulgar and unsavory elements in the world of entertainment of the day. JOPLIN achieved this by his exposure to European polkas, 19th century European romanticism as well as the African-American styles ranging from work songs and gospels to spirituals and dances.
Out of the many compilations out that don the SCOTT JOPLIN moniker, most if not all are interpretations of his music by other artists with those by Joshua Rifkin perhaps being the most popular and widely available. On this compilation titled ELITE SYNCOPATIONS - CLASSIC RAGTIME FROM RARE PIANO ROLLS released on the Biograph label on vinyl in 1974 and then released in 1987 on CD with a different track order and four extra songs, we get one of the few releases where JOPLIN actually plays his own music, well at least on the three opening tracks “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Ole Miss Rag (written by W.C.Handy)” and “Magnetic Rag.” Unfortunately there is a huge gap because many of JOPLIN’s rags were not originally issued on piano rolls which was the storage medium of the day used to operate a player piano.
Unfortunately only about six of the original piano rolls from JOPLIN’s times survive and as a result the remaining rolls featured on this release were produced by the serious collector Hal Boulware all the way back in the 1960s who painstakingly reproduced the scores faithfully to original print with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed for authenticity’s sake. That is the purpose of this compilation - to faithfully restore the lost gaps in JOPLIN’s history and present them as originally intended. ELITE SYNCOPATIONS will not sound much different than any other compilation released by other musicians playing, but if one listens attentively there are subtle differences just as one would here in any piece of music interpreted by different performers. The main difference here is the inclusion of actually pieces by JOPLIN as well as the desire to be as faithful to the original written scores as possible. This is a perfect beginner’s album as well as one of the serious collector despite not being a fully comprehensive release of all 44 songs.
Personally i like this album as much as any JOPLIN release. It neither exceeds nor detracts from the many compilations released over the years. It simply clears the cobwebs out of the vaults and introduces the listener to some of the lesser known tracks of JOPLIN’s career. I am a fan of ragtime, but i have to admit that listening to an hour of it shows the limitations of its style and the inevitable need for its evolution into stride piano and beyond in the greater jazz world. Nevertheless a pretty good album that celebrates the very first American musical genre that took the world by storm at the dawn of the 20th century.