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James Scott: Classic Ragtime from Rare Piano Rolls

It is bad enough that the work of our great ragtime composers was treated as a passing fancy during their lifetimes; by now it is apparent that the revival of Joplin et al. during the ’70s was largely just another turn of the same screw. The classical aspects of Joplin’s rags were over-emphasized and such important projects as recording the oeuvres of the other two of ragtime’s “big three,” James Scott and Joe Lamb, wound up in the hands of pianists who sounded as if they had but brief acquaintance with the music. A revival that should have led to Jelly Roll Morton led where all roads lead in America, to Hollywood.

The truth about this music is too important for such trivialization. It is the first body of serious Afro-American composition. Modern jazz composers can learn as much from ragtime as classical composers can from Bach; it can teach serious listeners as much about the real American spirit as Bartok can about the Slavic.

This reissue was, if memory serves, the first record devoted to Scott’s work, and the grace and beauty of ragtime are on display on every track. Not even Joplin was better at combining sophisticated harmony and development with pure Missouri folksong. This is truly great music, and it is painful to realize that all of Scott’s later #work is lost. Ragtime devotees often get a nostalgic buzz from piano rolls, and the best way for others to approach the no-dynamic, no-touch sound is to reflect that classic ragtime was often heard on player pianos if at all. Better a machine than nothing, and so it remains after a hundred years.

Originally Published