Sunday, October 2, 2016

Life-Changing Cardboard

“This piece of cardboard changed my life.” That’s how I began my 8th grade jazz history class this week.

Intriguing? “Enticing beginning” is my practice of starting off with something that gets kids' attention, that arouses curiosity, gets the wheels of wonder spinning, pulls them out of “business as usual” into “this is interesting!” The kids had to guess what it was and why it was so important to me.After several amusing answers, someone figured it out it was part of a record cover. (Yes, miraculously, they still know about records!). I then turned the cover over and continued:

“It was Thanksgiving, 1972, at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. My home in New Jersey, 600 miles away and me with no car, was too far for such a short vacation. So I stayed on campus and was invited to a dinner with other homeless students. And somewhere around the cranberry sauce, someone put on a record of a music I had never heard before, but instantly I knew I wanted more of it. The record? The very one lying at my feet.”

They were still with me, 150%. It’s intriguing to young people that their teachers had—and have—actual lives and that the old man in front of the room was once a bright-eyed college student with hair. (In fact, lots of it back in the hippy-era!)  On I went:

So I went to a nearby music store and found a collection of Scott Joplin rags. And here’s the first one I played.”

Off to the piano and there I played The Maple Leaf Rag. Live music. (One kid exclaimed, “”How do you just sit down and play that?!!”)

“Who’s ever heard that piece?” A few hands go up. “Anyone know the name? I’ll give you a hint: It starts with Canada’s emblem.” (A few got it.) “How about this piece? Anyone ever heard that? (More hands and exclamations of delighted recognition. Kids are so excited when they know and recognize things!) The name? You got it. The Entertainer. Anyone ever played it on the piano? (Some) Anyone know what movie this was in? (One person—“The Sting!”)

A mysterious piece of cardboard. An intriguing personal story. A short live concert. A little Quiz Show. The class is involved, excited, alive with interest. Now they look at the piece of paper I hand out asking questions about Scott Joplin and fill in the blanks as I narrate the story of his life. Born three years after slavery ended, formal piano lessons with a German piano teacher, encounter with marching music from Italians, Germans, Czechs, but feeling it all from his African mother’s soul and spirit, infusing that plodding marching bass with upbeats to make it dance, the melodies with syncopations, what the newspapers called “ragging the time” (here I demonstrate on the piano). Some historical context—first time the newly freed African-Americans were allowed to play European instruments—guitars, pianos, trumpets—and how they changed the technique and expression of each instrument with their African sensibility.

Then the fact that all entertainment in that time before radios, records, film, TV was live and self-generated. There were 300 makers of pianos by 1900 and sheet music was the coveted means of millions of piano players to enjoy new songs. So when Scott Joplin published The Maple Leaf Rag in 1899 and it went on to sell over one million copies (at a time when our population was much smaller), it was a sign that the mainstream American culture was hungry for something new, something more American than the imported European culture, something that invited the body, so repressed and tightly wrapped by the age of Queen Victoria, to unwind and move. (Victoria died in 1901 and her party-loving son Edward helped move things toward the freedom of the emerging world of jazz).

Was Scott Joplin invited to play in Carnegie Hall? Being so popular, did he have opportunities to tour in the best musical establishments? Of course not! He was black! And so the ragtime piano players mostly gathered in saloons, bars, juke joints and yes, bordellos, houses of prostitution. They were (I believe) all men and without any dignity granted by the white folks, tried to establish their identity with what they could do. So there was an atmosphere of competition and swagger and each trying to outdo the other.

And here I show a clip from a movie about Scott Joplin that has two pianos back-to-back with two players trying to outplay each other. There is a glass on each piano and if the judge comes and turns it over, it means you’re out! Scott Joplin enters such a concert and of course, wins.

And then on to the bio and filling in the sheet. The meeting with his white manager, John Stark, his attempt to produce his opera, Treemonisha, which never got past a staged rehearsal, his commitment to a mental institution in 1916 (some say because of a broken heart from the failure of his opera, but most now recognize that it was dementia caused by syphilis), his death in 1917.

One year after Joplin’s death, King Oliver moved to Chicago and jazz was on its way to something beyond the published piano rags. Scott Joplin was little known in the ensuing years until Joshua Rifkin’s album released in 1970, Treemonisha’s first performance in 1972 and the movie The Sting in 1973 (with Paul Newman and Robert Redford) which featured much of Joplin’s music in the background.

That was the class. 45 minutes long. Add lecture, note-taking, video clips to the other techniques and you have a model of multi-media teaching that is engaging, effective and inspiring. And ready to lead to the next chapter. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog!

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