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 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 Warealready known for his melding of the old with the
newwould 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 scholarshipbrought on by
a benign myopia tattooing the Art Nouveau form as strictly happy-go-lucky
piano musicWare 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 ignoredthough
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
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
districtsinfamously known as the Leveesthat 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
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 Joewritten with influential
African-American composer Will Marion Cooklaunched 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
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
"In terms of his name being a commodity that was a sure sales
mechanismthat 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 labelknown 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 buildingat
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 likeyou wouldn't
walk out with a smile on your face," said Samuelson.
Originally published in the Chicago
®2003 Dan Kelly
Contact Mr. Kelly