William Christopher Handy was born on November 16, 1873 in a log cabin built by his grandfather in Florence, Alabama. Because his father believed musical instruments were tools of the devil, he purchased his first guitar without his parents’ permission, that he secretly saved for by picking berries and nuts and making lye soap. Upon seeing the guitar his father ordered him to return it, but also arranged short-lived organ lessons, moving on to learn to play the cornet. Secretly he joined a local band, purchased a cornet from a fellow band member and spent every free minute practicing it.
After working for a time on a “shovel brigade” at the McNabb furnace, in 1892 Handy travelled to Birmingham, Alabama, passed a teaching exam and began teaching. Finding the compensation too little, he quit, got a job in a pipe plant, put together a small string orchestra and taught musicians how to read music. He later organized the Lauzetta Quartet, ventured to St. Louis, Missouri and founding working conditions deplorable, so they disbanded.
Handy would go on to Evansville, Indiana, play the cornet in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, join a successful band that performed throughout the neighboring cities and states and worked as a first tenor vocalist in a minstrel show, a band director, choral director, cornetist and trumpeter.
At the age of 23, he was the bandmaster of Mahara’s Colored Minstrels and over a three-year tour, they toured to Chicago, throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Cuba and Alabama at the end. Weary of life on the road, he and his wife, Elizabeth, settled in his nearby hometown of Florence and he became a faculty member at Alabama and Mechanical University from 1900 to 1902.
W.C. traveled throughout Mississippi, listening to various styles of black popular music, and with his remarkable memory would recall and transcribe the music later. He rejoined the Mahara Minstrels, toured the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, and became the director of a black band in Clarksdale, Mississippi. By 1909 he and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where the publication of his Memphis Blues sheet music introduced his style of 12-bar blues, credited as the inspiration for the foxtrot dance step. By the time he was 40, he had established his musical style, his popularity had greatly increased, he was a prolific composer and a successfully profitable music publisher.
He founded the Handy Record Company, gained widespread popularity with the Bessie Smith recording of his Saint Louis Blues with Louis Armstrong, published several books including an autobiography and went blind after a fall from a subway platform. He later suffered a stroke and on March 28, 1958, W. C. Handy, The Father of the Blues, passed away from bronchial pneumonia at Sydenham Hospital in New York City.
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Scott Joplin was November 24, 1867 or 1868 in Northeast Texas into a musical family of railway laborers and developed his musical knowledge with the help of local teachers. Growing up in Texarkana, he formed a vocal quartet, and taught mandolin and guitar. During the late 1880s he left his job as a laborer with the railroad, and travelled around the Southern states as an itinerant musician.
By 1893 he was in Chicago, Illinois for the World’s Fair and played a major part in making ragtime a national craze by 1897. Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri in 1894, earned a living as a piano teacher and taught future ragtime composers Arthur Marshall, Scott Hayden and Brun Campbell. He began publishing music in 1895, and publication of his “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899 brought him fame. This piece had a profound influence on subsequent writers of ragtime and brought the composer a steady income for life. Though he never reached this level of success again, he would frequently have financial problems, causing him to lose a be forever lost, the score to his first opera A Guest of Honor for non-payment of bills.
Joplin moved to St. Louis in 1901, continued composing and publishing music, and regularly performed in the St. Louis community. In 1907, a move to New York City had him searching for a producer for a new opera, Treemonisha, which, went beyond the limitations of his then famous music and was not well received when partially staged in 1915.
In 1916 he descended into dementia as a result of syphilis. He was admitted to a mental institution in January 1917, and died there three months later on April 1st at the age of 49. Scott Joplin death is widely considered to mark the end of ragtime as a mainstream music format, and in the next several years it evolved with other styles into stride, jazz and eventually big band swing. His music was rediscovered and returned to popularity in the early 1970s with the release of a million-selling album recorded by Joshua Rifkin. Several of his compositions including The Entertainer were featured in the Academy Award winning 1973 movie The Sting, and his opera Treemonisha was finally produced in full to wide acclaim in 1972. In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize. During his lifetime her composed 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet and two operas.
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