A Pianist Strolls Her Harlem History, and Scott Joplin’s

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Not long before his death in 1917, Scott Joplin predicted that he would become a fixture of the American musical canon. A colleague later recalled him saying, “When I’m dead 25 years, people are going to begin to recognize me.”

A full production of his “Treemonisha” — one of the first operas by a Black American composer — had proved elusive during his final decade, when he lived in New York. The reputation he did live to experience, as the so-called king of ragtime, was rooted in his earlier piano works written in Missouri, like “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.”

Even now, there are many different Joplins. The soundtrack for “The Sting,” the 1973 film featuring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, uses Joplin tunes for their evocation of easygoing yet audacious Americana. By contrast, when contemporary composer-performers like Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton interpret Joplin, their liberty-taking renditions are intended to place him in dialogue with subsequent waves of avant-garde experimentation. While “Treemonisha” has been recorded multiple times, in orchestrations that can accommodate a grand opera house or an intimate theater, it is far from a staple of the repertoire.

So although Joplin is an established fixture, public appreciation of his accomplishments remains fuzzy, unsteady. On a recent, wintry walk through Harlem, the pianist Lara Downes said that was what inspired her latest album, “Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered.” One goal, she said, was to “put together a somewhat comprehensive portrait of this musician who is really hard to pin down.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Joplin is reputed to have played piano for a run-through, with singers, of “Treemonisha” at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater — the present-day site of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church. Your album opens with your own arrangement of the prelude to Act III, and ends with a glimpse of the final number, “A Real Slow Drag.” Why frame the album this way?

“Treemonisha” is full of so many things! It’s the end of his life, essentially, after it was done. It was a sad end to this incredible arc of vision and ambition. But it’s also a throughline to the beginning of his life, because that’s where the seed gets planted.

Especially that little prelude snippet. The way it sits on the piano — it’s thoroughly 19th century. Just occasionally there are hints that anything else is going on. I wanted that to be the starting point. I’ve never been able to hear the rags without that musical seed in them. I think it’s easy to overlook. But once you have that music in your ear, you cannot listen to the rest without knowing it.

Speaking of Joplin’s earliest works, the song “A Picture of Her Face” is a highlight on the album. It’s been recorded as a piano solo before, but you’ve made the premiere recording of the full version, with vocals. How did you come to choose the baritone Will Liverman?

I think this was when he was still in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Met, last fall. We were texting about something else, and I said, “I’m going into the studio to record some Joplin.” He said, “Man, I love Joplin.” By hook and crook we found a date.

In this arrangement by Jeremy Siskind, Liverman has an exposed high note here, and space for a bluesy slide there. That’s not all in the first score you found online, correct?

Yes. There is the question of, What do you do? A person like Will, who has equal footing and feeling in art song, opera, R&B, his own stuff — and has a really wide lens on what all of those things should be — I just wanted him to process it through that blender. I don’t mean something cute, like, “Reinvent this for now, make it modern.” No. Just: “Look at it through now.”

Given your interest in the less-known Joplin, why record some of the big hits?

At one point, I wondered if the most subversive thing to do would be not to record “The Entertainer”!

That material has never faded from view — just like some Harlem landmarks, like the Apollo, survive, while the Lincoln Theater does not. Maybe creating this charming, ricocheting mandolin-and-piano arrangement of “The Entertainer” with Joe Brent made it impossible to ignore.

I was staring at the front cover of the sheet music: “Dedicated to James Brown and his Mandolin Club.” And that opening, the whole structure, is just asking to be broken up into two-bar tennis balls. That was so fun to put together.

We just passed by an address where your father lived on 127th Street — as well as St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, around the corner, which was your father’s church. You mentioned that his death from cancer, while you were still young, has influenced your efforts to record music by Black composers on your label Rising Sun. How so?

Because I know so well how history gets lost. Because my dad’s history is lost. I have this really sad little collection of photos; I have an address on 127th. And I have that church. The fact that my mom had some notes with that address; the fact that somebody found [the composer] Florence Price’s papers — it’s all so tenuous.

When I’m working with Joplin’s music, or with all these other composers — whose histories get lost because papers get thrown away, or there aren’t relatives to know there is something worth holding on to — that’s deeply personal.

Across the new album, you let melodies breathe in a way we don’t hear in more mechanically syncopated Joplin performances. Is this a corrective — a way to to give Joplin something that he couldn’t have received in his time? Specifically, a recital concert from a classical pianist, full stop.

The world that he was sending the music out into was pretty prescribed. What he knew at the beginning was that he couldn’t be me. He couldn’t be a Black classical pianist. Done. So then he starts innovating; he’s making a living. He’s just on the road. What’s the music he’s going to play? It’s ragtime. But then he makes it better. He makes it the best. He becomes the king of it! And while he’s being the king of it, he’s all the time planning this whole opera thing.

I guess the answer to your question about the album is, yes, it’s giving him that freedom. It’s giving him access to someone who’s coming at it with this perspective: “Whatever you’ve got, I’ll take it. I’ll filter it through what I know now.” What I know now came after him. He didn’t hear what William Grant Still was going to do, what Ellington was going to do. He heard none of it. But I have.

Now that we’re walking by Joplin’s last address in New York, it’s a good time to mention that Stephen Buck’s arrangement of “Magnetic Rag,” which Joplin self-published in 1914, hits a nice sweet spot. Your performance with the band has a spontaneous feel — particularly in the strings — but it’s all quite rigorously connected to the original material.

Playing ragtime on the piano is hard. So this was also a chance to just pull all that stuff that is a pianistic challenge into a bigger picture. Wouldn’t Joplin have loved that idea? “I don’t have to stick everything into the piano, just because I want to sell the sheet music.”

I’m going to take some of these arrangements to orchestras. I’m doing a few with Detroit in a couple weeks. And then with the Boston Pops and the Philadelphia Orchestra, down the road.

I don’t want to neglect your solo playing! I’ve been enjoying your take on “The Chrysanthemum,” in particular. Its small bursts of chromaticism can sometimes sound jokey. You’ve brought its strangeness and its tenderness together.

Thank you. I really want to liberate him from the two categories where people have tried to fit him: “king of ragtime” or “greatest classical composer you’ve never heard of.” I want to be super clear that I see him as an American innovator and cross-pollinator, and that the central truth in his music is that everything exists together and is there for the finding.


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