“King of Ragtime” Scott Joplin Lived in Harlem

Add another historic figure to the numerous cultural icons to have lived near St. Nicholas Park in Harlem. At 163 West 131st street as the address Joplin lived in last as one of the world’s most famous composer’s “King of Ragtime” composer Scott Joplin once lived. Joplin, born in 1868, was living in Missouri in the 1890s while composing and touring as a musician. According to “King of Ragtime — Scott Joplin and His Era” (Oxford, 1994) by Edward A. Berlin, he copyrighted his “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899. It was famous enough for the John Wanamaker department store to include it in a 1904 ad for piano rolls in The New York Times. Joplin arrived in New York in 1907 and is first listed in the city directory of 1910. He lived in an old brownstone converted to a rooming house at 128 West 29th Street, a building that is no longer standing. That address was in the heart of the music publishing district; the term Tin Pan Alley refers to the block of 28th Street from Broadway to the Avenue of the Americas. In the 1910 census he gave “composer” and “musician” as his occupation, but most of his fellow tenants had service jobs, like houseman and porter. According to the Berlin book, Joplin gained friends and some prominence in New York, and while here he wrote pieces like “Rose Leaf Rag” and “Fig Leaf Rag.” But his real goal was to find a backer for “Treemonisha,” the opera that he envisioned as an elaborate stage production with some ragtime music. He was never successful, but Mr. Berlin says that the 29th Street house is the address used by Joplin when he applied for a copyright for “Treemonisha” in 1911. Later directory listings are spotty, but from 1912 to 1915 Joplin lived in a small apartment house that still stands at 252 West 47th. It was at that address that he formed the Scott Joplin Music Publishing Company with Lottie Stokes, his common-law wife. In the same year he advertised in The Indianapolis Freeman, offering six piano pieces by mail for $1. For much of his time in New York, Joplin lived in straitened circumstances. The 1916 directory shows him as “music teacher” at another small apartment house, also still standing, at 133 West 138th Street. The 1917 directory lists him at an old row house still standing at 160 West 133rd. Mr. Berlin says this was probably Joplin’s studio, because he was actually living with Ms. Stokes in the boarding house she ran in the old brownstone at 163 West 131st Street. That was his address when he died of syphilis on April 1, 1917, at age 49.

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