The Historical Influence of Ragtime Jazz

The syncopation and synthesis of African and European classical music gave birth to ragtime jazz, a variety of innovative rhythms that brought about an era of phenomenal music, which is still popular today. This type of jazz enjoyed its most significant fame from 1897 through 1918, influencing some of the best artists over the past century.

Ragtime jazz was born in America’s red-light districts. Cities such as New Orleans and St. Louis were enjoying these rhythms long before they were published into piano sheet music, from march tunes to dance numbers.

In 1893, at the unforgettable Chicago World’s Fair, from May through October, some 27 million visitors enjoyed the sounds of ragtime jazz. It caused curiosity in the world of music and offset a distinctive era in the entertainment business. By 1896, this jazz form was granted its ragtime name. During that year, Ben Harney and H. Krell became jazz sensations. The following year, piano sheet music was in production and released. You may be surprised to know that ragtime pieces were also referred to as “coon songs” due to the popular tune entitled “All Coons Look Alike to Me” composed by Ernest Hogan.

Later in 1899, Scott Joplin, an American pianist and composer, released “Maple Leaf Rag,” which turned out to be one of the most influential pieces of the era. His beloved hit brought a bit of sophistication to the ragged rhythm and became memorable; however, that was not to be his only great contribution to music. The well-known King of Ragtime composed 44 ragtime jazz pieces, 2 operas and 1 ballet. He undeniably had a profound influence on many other jazz writers.

By the 1900s, ragtime was everywhere: in sheet music, phonograph records, piano rolls, theaters and music boxes. When ragtime jazz began to fade in popularity, a performance-oriented style of jazz soon followed.

Styles of Ragtime

During its era, ragtime jazz was associated with many fads in music, including:

  • Cakewalk – Popular up until 1904, this type of music represented the African-American dance contest where the prize was a cake. Most rags up until this point were cakewalks.
  • Characteristic March – A March that incorporated subjects of race regarding the African-American population.
  • Classic Rag – This type of jazz, created by James Scott and Scott Joplin, was described as Missouri-style music.
  • Folk Ragtime – A term for the ragtime music that came from small towns, and typically composed by musicians with no training.
  • Fox Trot – This most famous dance fad began in 1913, using ragtime’s dotted-note rhythm.
  • Novelty Piano – A type of ragtime music played by white composers after World War I.
  • Two-Step – A popular dance until around 1911, using mostly rags.

For over a century, ragtime has remained one of the most memorable and influential types of jazz. It continues to be appreciated by composers and performers, as well as millions of fans.