Mention ragtime music and usually Scott Joplin is the first composer to come to mind. However, equally popular in the first two decades of the last century was James Scott. He developed his own distinctive style while he lived in Carthage.
James Sylvester Scott was born in Neosho in 1885. His parents, James and Molly Scott, had been slaves who moved to Southwest Missouri from North Carolina in 1878. They lived in Neosho for 21 years, moved briefly to Ottawa, Kansas, and then moved back to Neosho in 1901.
Scott was the second of six children. His mother passed along her interest in music to all her children and taught them to play piano by ear. She worked as a maid, and Scott was allowed to practice on the pianos in her clients’ homes. He took some music lessons from John Coleman, a black saloon pianist and music teacher in Neosho. The lessons focused on combining formal technique and the popular practice that would become ragtime. Scott was said to have had perfect pitch and could “hear full chords and repeat them at will.”
When the family moved to Kansas, they purchased a reed pump organ he used to work up his first composition. Later, his father found a used upright piano for the family that James took advantage of.
Move to Carthage
Southwest Missouri had multiple entertainment venues available for musicians — some reputable and others less so. Even though segregation was the law and social custom, black entertainers often served separate segregated audiences in churches, theaters, schools, public parks and amusement parks.
Pianists such as John “Blind” Boone made appearances in Carthage and Joplin. He had a concert at the First Christian Church in Joplin in 1903. Boone performed classical as well as folk music with blends of his own making. It was in this atmosphere that Scott began working on his own compositions while working as a shoe shiner and porter in a Carthage barbershop.
He had gained local recognition for his musical talent to the point that he was scheduled to perform for the Lincoln School graduation in 1903, but he did not attend because his employer wouldn’t give him the time off.
Scott received a break when Charles Dumars, an alderman, director of the Carthage Light Guard Band and owner of Dumars Music, arranged for publication of Scott’s tune “A Summer Breeze” in 1903. A Carthage paper reported an advance order for 1,000 copies was placed by a Philadelphia company. The next year, Dumars hired Scott to work around the store as a “song plugger” and to demonstrate pianos. Dumars had a storage room for pianos that Scott used to practice, compose and give public performances. When a sale was made, Scott was sent along to show off the piano to the new owners.
In 1904, a unique opportunity took place when Boone was in Carthage for the meeting of the Missouri State Negro Improvement Association. Boone stopped by Dumars Music to see Scott. Scott played some of his compositions for Boone, and inspiration hit. He turned on a gramophone with a Sousa band piece. Scott improvised a piano accompaniment to it.
“Boone was delighted and before the selection ended said that he had to get his own hand in. He went to the piano and, placing his hand on the treble, made his nimble fingers fly over the keys in such a manner as to produce an accompaniment to the whole business, which sounded like a piccolo. It seemed as if the whole orchestra was there and the audience was bewildered.” Scott was labeled “our local Mozart.”
Scott made a good decision choosing to use the Stark Music Co. in St. Louis as his publisher, but Scott remained an independent composer. This allowed him to compose his music without publisher restrictions. He submitted scores, and Stark added titles and covers. Usually the covers had photos of attractive women or landscapes. One exception was Scott’s most popular rag named the “Frog Legs Rag” from 1906, which displayed a pair of frogs on a lily pad. Stark published 29 of Scott’s 38 compositions from 1906 to 1922.
Scott formed a choir and band in Carthage for local events. His skills earned him the title “Professor.” As the Republican Party was known as the party of Lincoln, Scott’s band performed for Republican candidates in 1906. Even though his personality was quiet and introverted, according to relatives, he loved to talk music and compositions, or tease his friends. He was active in local musical productions. “Professor James Scott” performed concerts to raise money for the A.M.E. church in Joplin, the Globe reported in 1913. He did the same for churches in Neosho and Carthage.
Scott’s compositions reflected his own skills and a combination of classical and folk styles. While lively and popular, it smoothed over the more raucous styles of saloons and dance halls for middle-class listeners. He worked at Lakeside Park as part of a trio and then as piano accompanist for silent films. He composed the ballad “Take Me Out to Lakeside” in 1914 with lyrics written by Ida Miller, whose husband owned cabins near the park.
He lived in Carthage until 1920, when he and his wife moved to Kansas City. He worked in a theater as a pianist for movies and vaudeville companies. With the advent of talkies in the 1930s, theater musicians fell on hard times. His wife, Nora, died in 1930. His work dwindled to dances and music lessons. While he still composed music, he could not find a publisher. He died in 1938 of kidney failure.
Scott’s music was a blend of classical and African-American folk music that became what one writer described as “a musically challenging form of black popular music.” It was a bridge connecting 19th-century piano forms, black popular music and ragtime leading the way to jazz.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to email@example.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.