BY TRAVS.D. | For Black History Month, we present you with weekly slices of the Tenderloin, the now-defunct New York City neighborhood that at its furthest extent ran between 24th and 62nd Streets between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, thus overlapping with modern Chelsea. The Tenderloin was so-named by a local police captain who relished the nabe for its savory graft. In its heyday of the 1880s through the early 1910s, it was a nightlife mecca full of saloons, dance halls, gambling dens, and bordellos. Prior to the Jazz Age and the northward migration to Harlem and San Juan Hill (where Lincoln Center is now), it was also where much of NYC’s African American population resided. This month, we will celebrate several black showbiz heroes and pioneers who lived there.
Scott Joplin (1868-1917), the Father of Ragtime, lived in the Tenderloin for around five years. Considered a bit of a child prodigy, young Joplin received a good amount of musical training growing up in his native Texarkana, Texas. In the early 1880s, at the age of about 14, he began to travel the southern states as an itinerant musician, working black vaudeville houses, minstrel shows, saloons and bawdy houses, where his style of syncopating the rhythms of the popular music of the day excited patrons. He was present at the seminal World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (aka the first Chicago World’s Fair), which is where he formed his first band. By 1897, ragtime was a national craze.
Ever ambitious, Joplin wrote dozens of rags, some famous in his own day, many more famous in ours. He moved to New York in 1907 and settled in a brownstone converted to a rooming house called the Roseline, located at 128 West 29th Street, close to Tin Pan Alley, New York’s popular music publishing district spanning the block of West 28th Street, from Broadway to the Avenue of the Americas. While living at the Roseline, he composed several more rags (Rose Leaf Rag and Fig Leaf Rag among them) as well as his 1911 opera Tremonisha, for which he tried to secure financial backing. By 1912, he had moved north to 252 West 47th Street to Hell’s Kitchen, also a popular neighborhood for African Americans.
Joplin died of syphilis (then sadly common among showfolk) on April 1, 1917. He was not yet 50 years old. Joplin was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, an injustice that was not rectified until after the massive Joplin revival that occurred in the wake of the success of the 1973 film The Sting, which used much of Joplin’s music. He received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
Many thanks to Cher Carden for her assistance with this article.
For more on black artists in American show business, check out nearly 500 posts on Travalanche: https://travsd.wordpress.com/category/ethnicities-identities-representations/african-american-interest/.
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