Ragtime Town


Chicago is thought a jazz town. Chicago is thought a blues town. When the mood strikes Rolling Stone or Spin, Chicago is even thought a rock n roll town.

Chicago is rarely thought a ragtime town. While jazz, rock, and blues clubs have the ubiquity of convenience stores, the closest thing Chicago has to regular ragtime performance arrives in the speedfreak chimes of an ice cream truck playing Scott Joplin's The Entertainer.

The distinctive boom-chuck, boom-chuck beat and rinky-tink syncopation of ragtime became indelibly embedded on the memory of anyone old enough to remember Redford and Newman in The Sting. Professional saccharinizer Marvin Hamlisch saturated Scott Joplin's The Entertainer and Easy Winners with enough gooey hooey to make 70s audiences believe they were hearing authentic turn-of-the-century music in a film set in the 30s. A revival of sorts occurred, and ragtime was temporarily raised from its faulty placement as a quirky precursor to jazz to a genuine American music splicing European music theory with African syncopation. Since then, a devoted cadre of, embarrassingly mostly white, mavens and devotees have kept the music alive. While the music is still sometimes placed between the spheres of cornball and cheeseball, string bands like Bo Grumpus and the Etc. String Band and local pianist Reginald R. Robinson, present the music with an ear for its classical, populist, and historical roots.

Chicago has a long and honorable ragtime lineage. With such a Grandma's attic of ragtime lore then, it was appropriate that local cartoonist Chris Ware—already known for his melding of the old with the new—would visit that attic and present what he and his contributors found in a recent issue of his self-published journal the Ragtime Ephemeralist. Better known as the creator of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon) and his current Rusty Brown strip (running weekly in the Chicago Reader), Ware's extracurricular activities consist largely of a longtime love of ragtime. Seeing a gap in ragtime scholarship—brought on by a benign myopia tattooing the Art Nouveau form as strictly happy-go-lucky piano music—Ware decided to publish the Ephemeralist.

"Mostly, I wanted to create a dignified and semi-permanent forum for contemporary materials about a music that seems to have been all but dismissed by many serious researchers. I didn't want it to be stodgy, frivolous, or dry, but rich and as warm as possible... It should provide a dense sense of the whole era, not simply a dissected examination of the music apart from it."

That warmth and richness is communicated in the Ephemeralist, designed by Ware in his inimitable melding of vintage and modern design. Even the journal's Web site projects an antique yet non-fusty appearance. But the Ephemeralist isn't mere nostalgia. its three issues also show the repulsive racism of popular ragtime "coon songs" and similar obstacles faced by brilliant black composers like Joplin, James Scott, Will Marion Cook, and others in producing white-pleasing cakewalks and other "darky" tunes. Even under such handicaps, much wonderful music was produced.

Says Ware: "For some reason, the definition of ragtime has been whittled down to something that is only one small aspect of what it actually was to the people who lived through it. The richness of its beginnings, and the offensive...nature of much of its content as a vocal music have been, somewhat understandably, all but ignored—though I don't really see why this should continue. we're a maturing nation that I think can look at its past, however embarrassing and horrifying, and face up to it..."

It was purely happenstance that the latest Ephemeralist developed a Chicago section, but it was also inevitable. Admittedly, the present writer was a contributor, offering a tasteful foray into ragtime's origins as "whorehouse music," featuring the city's most famous 19th century red light districts (residents of Printers Row and Chinatown: you're sitting right in the middle of them).

While much of the history of ragtime took place in our cousin to the west, Missouri, Chicago still throbs with ragtime lore. Popular history cites the 1893 World Columbian Exposition as America's (that is white America's) first introduction to the syncopated strains of the music of Joplin and lesser-known luminaries like Tom Turpin and Louis Chauvin. More accurately, it was our fair city's red light districts—infamously known as the Levees—that attracted Joplin and his cohorts with promises of steady employment in the cathouses and saloons. Thus was ragtime introduced to slumming fair crowds.

Later on, as ragtime's popularity rose, many influential ragtime players and performers moved to Chicago around 1906. Most, like Joplin, Sam Patterson, Johnny Seymour, and Jelly-Roll Morton mentor Tony Jackson were just passing through, performing and selling their music to all interested parties. Several, like Joplin's proteges Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall, took up residence. A few, like ragtime meteorite Louis Chauvin came and expired in the city's fleshpots at a terribly young age. Chicago also hosted numerous ragtime publishers, including William Rossiter, publisher of Jelly-Roll Morton and Tom Turpin, among others, and Axel Christensen, who was first a music teacher who set up shop in the Fine Arts Building, teaching ragtime before being all but rode out on a rail by his classical music-loving fellow tenants

Even with such a history, Chicago presents no monuments to ragtime, save those constructed of bars, notes, and measures. That wasn't enough for Tim Samuelson, another Ephemeralist contributor. Reading the seminal ragtime history They All Played Ragtime by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, Samuelson's interest was piqued by throwaway references to Joplin's brief Chicago stay and ragtime composer Joe Jordan's grandest real estate venture, a building constructed in early Bronzeville.

An affable man with the personality of a favorite uncle, Samuelson is better known for his former work with the Chicago Historical Society, and current position as the Cultural Historian at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. A writer of several books on Chicago architecture and one on the Popeil Brothers titled But Wait! There's More!: The Irresistible Appeal and Spiel of Ronco and Popeil, Samuelson is a lover of ragtime too. It's a liking he's had since early summers spent listening to his grandparents' stack of 78s by early ragtime performers like banjoist Vess Ossman and singers Arthur Collins, Ada Jones, and Billy Murray. Born in Rogers Park, Samuelson's ragtime devotion dovetailed nicely with his Chicago architectural obsession, particularly in Joe Jordan.

Cincinatti-born in 1882, Joe Jordan made a teenage foray to St. Louis, absorbing the burgeoning ragtime scene of the late 1800s. Something of a prodigy, Jordan moved to Chicago in 1904, affiliating himself with his friend Robert T. Motts, owner and operator of the highly influential Pekin Theater on 2700 S. State Street, the first of many African-American managed theaters to appear in America. Jordan often headlined at the Pekin, doing everything from composing to conducting to performing. Composing was the most lucrative of the three activites. He composed rags such as the Pekin Rag (in honor of his employer) and That Teasin' Rag, but was best known for his more commercial works. According to show business legend, Jordan's song Lovie Joe—written with influential African-American composer Will Marion Cook—launched the career of Ziegfield Follies girl Fanny Brice (who is better known today as the subject of Barbra Streisand's biopic Funny Girl). Never sitting still, Jordan also formed the Pekin music publishing company. Lovie Joe and other compositions provided steady cash flow for Jordan, allowing him to explore other business ventures.

We're not sure why Jordan decided to build the Jordan building, but it's likely the bustling post-war economy of 1916, combined with his, as Blesh and Janis described him, "hyperactive" nature, inspired him. Built in 1917 at the corner of State and 36th, Jordan's building was set where newspapers of the day called "the heart of colored Chicago." Even before it was built, the Jordan Building was seen as a triumph for Chicago's African-American community, displaying their growing economic power.

Not so different from other office buildings of its day, the Jordan building had its charms, rendered in light brown brick and decorated in knockoff Louis Sullivan terracotta ornamentation. A plaque bearing the legend "J JORDAN BUILDING," and an elaborate lyre design on top, gave hint to the building's melodic origins. Occupied primarily by professionals and tenants, it's interesting to note that Jordan never had an office or lived in the Jordan Building himself.

Jordan wasn't the owner for very long. The life of a musician was constantly mobile, and an offer soon came to direct the New York Syncopated Orchestra. Jordan worked in both cities for a time, but eventually moved to the Big Apple. Jordan sold the building to one Louis B. Schmidt, and continued to perform, conduct, record, and grow more involved in the next musical craze, jazz. After a long, full life, Jordan settled in Tacoma, WA. Returning to the real estate field there, Jordan was also an accommodating source of ragtime history for researchers until his death in 1971.

The Jordan Building's constitution was less hardy than its namesake. The Depression toppled white and black-owned businesses alike, and the potential black economic powerhouse that was 35th and State came to be known as Bronzeville's skid row. Samuelson first visited the building in the early 70s, when it was already showing the effects of years of neglect. When he joined the Commission on Chicago Landmarks in 1983, saving the Jordan Building was Samuelson's first proposal. Despite active campaigning, Samuelson stirred up little interest, though then-Alderman Bobby Rush arranged for a 10-foot fence to be constructed around the site to prevent further vandalism. It didn't help, as the fence was stolen a week later.

Come 1985, the building was unoccupied, attracting a healthy crop of vandals and vagrants. Samuelson continued to make his pitch while neighborhood activist Harold Lucas arranged a musical protest, where picketers would circle the building singing "Lovie Joe" and Jordan's other ditties. But preservation was not to be. Jericho's, or rather Jordan's, walls tumbled down the morning of April 25, 1986. The Jordan Building imploded then tumbled to pieces across State Street. Levelled almost immediately, the spot is currently a parking lot for Chicago Police Headquarters.

The Jordan Building was not completely obliterated, however. A visit to the Art Institute's architectural fragments gallery presents one of the original terracotta lyres in its permanent collection. On a backhanded positive note, the Jordan's immolation called more attention to the Bronzeville area, kindling efforts to preserve other African American-built edifices like Anthony Overton's Overton Hygienic Building and Chicago Bee Building, and the Eighth Regiment Armory. Appropriately, the armory was the location of the first National Guard regiment commanded entirely by blacks, and which fostered a band that specialized in both military marches and ragtime.

Scott Joplin's home is another, sadder story.

Joplin's presence in Chicago is as ethereal as the strains of his rags. Evidence rises to the light of the diligent researcher, however.

While indeed as talented, if not more so, than Jordan, Scott Joplin lived in meaner circumstances in the few brief months he lived here. Itinerant to his last breath, Joplin moved to Chicago in 1905, briefly taking up residence with his protege Arthur Marshall and Marshall's wife at 2900 State Street before moving to 2840 Armour Avenue (now Federal). Samuelson can't place Joplin's exact length of stay, but he was here long enough to appear in the 1906 Chicago city directory.

Joplin's digs were decidedly unplush. While no photographs exist of Joplin's temporary home, city plans and contemporary photos of nearby homes illustrate the circumstances of his stay. As he did during most of his wandering life, Joplin stayed in a rooming house, likely a two-story wooden cottage built in the 1870s for recently arrived white immigrant families on the south side. Familiarly, as blacks moved in whites moved out, and the homes were bought up by off-site speculators and divided into multiple units to squeeze out every possible drop of rent. What made the land and homes undesirable for upper income family was their proximity to two railroad lines. In a distinct pattern, according to Samuelson, blacks lived along the railroad tracks, creating, demographically, what came to be known as the "Black Belt."

Says Samuelson, "The reality of Chicago in 1906 is that there were a limited number of areas for African Americans to live."

Joplin's home was a rattletrap two-flat on the verge of shackdom. If Joplin's home had survived to the present day, it could very well have been restored as a cute and snuggly little cottage, but in Joplin's day the accommodations were mostly unpleasant. The neighborhood was in decline, and passing trains belched out dust-tinged steam while causing the nearby homes to tremble in time with their hard-charging wheels. It is doubtful Joplin had a piano, or much privacy, causing Samuelson to question how much composing Joplin did there.

Circumstances allowed close proximity to the Pekin Theater and ragtime supporter Philip Gomb, who ran a saloon nearby, but during this period Joplin had few pieces published, none reaching the genius of his greatest rags. A recent divorce soured him on his musical career, and while Joplin was still, technically, a household name as the composer of the infectious and frequently plagiarized, Maple Leaf Rag, a name in the vilified musical field of ragtime wasn't worth much more then as now. Being black, of course, only compounded his troubles.

"In terms of his name being a commodity that was a sure sales mechanism—that was only to a limited circle." says Samuelson.

In interviews with Blesh and Janis, Arthur Marshall recalled Joplin coming to Chicago to parley with publishers. Stark, his original publisher in Sedalia, was essentially an indie label—known for quality but not huge sales. Joplin may have come to speak to Will Rossiter, among others.

Whatever occurred during that time period, Joplin did not remain a Chicagoan. He left somewhere in the summer of 1906, showing up in the St. Louis City Directory the next May.

Comparing and contrasting the two buildings is an exercise offering differing levels of tragedy. Jordan's building, while important in Chicago African-American history, is not a lost jewel in the league of, say, Louis Sullivan's Stock Exchange. The greatest tragedy lay in its destruction shortly before efforts could be made to save it. Its death, however, has the bittersweetness of most martyrdoms, dying so that other buildings could live

Joplin's house, which was levelled in civic improvement efforts in 1940, is less easily eulogized. Important in the sense of Samuelson's article title of "Scott Joplin Slept Here," only the most ardent ragtime afficianado could pretend to feel his aura in such a place. I asked Samuelson whether, if it were possible, preserving Joplin's house would have been a worthy endeavor.

"It would be interesting to preserve it, but in what context would you be able to preserve something like that?" Samuelson paused. "It would be interesting to tell the story of that point in Joplin's life, that somebody who is so widely recognized as an important musical figure was, through social and economic circumstances, reduced to living in a really terrible place."

Samuelson presents the dilemma of the historical preservationist: proper presentation versus complete restoration. The question is moot with the building's nonexistence, but it's an interesting quandary. Would Joplin's home have been better left in its ramshackle condition, or would a gingerbread house paint job better preserve the building—at the sacrifice of obfuscating the truth of Joplin's living conditions? And who, besides, ahem, ragtime geeks, would come to hear the story?

"It's not a real happy story. If you recreated how Joplin lived in that building and what the neighborhood was like—you wouldn't walk out with a smile on your face," said Samuelson.

Originally published in the Chicago Journal .
®2003 Dan Kelly
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