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Black classical musicians have been composing substantial music for centuries. This February, we shined the spotlight on a score… one every weekday… of great composers with roots in Africa.We met Le Mozart Noir… the man who not only was a world-famous swordsman, but an acknowledged master of the violin bow and the composing quill, playing duets with Queen Marie Antoinette. We visited a city of Creole musical dynasties, when New Orleans was home to the finest orchestras in the new world. We rediscovered a woman tirelessly composing in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, many of whose works were likewise rediscovered: in a dilapidated downstate summer house, leading to a worldwide wave of interest in her music. And we heard a sinfonietta by a 2oth century New York composer… who himself was named after an Afro-English composer whose interest in American music made him a 19th century fan favorite in the U.S.Looking for the music? TSPR Music Director Ken Zahnle shares all the compositions he featured on Ovation on a Spotify playlist.

Scott Joplin


The once and future King… of Ragtime.

Scott Joplin grew up in a family of railway workers in Texarkana. He learned music from a German Jewish immigrant while starting a vocal quartet and teaching mandolin and guitar. Quitting the railroad, he became an itinerant musician playing red light districts throughout the South, until he took a band to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Joplin, playing cornet and leading his arrangements of cakewalks, found they were very popular with the Midway crowds.

The next year Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri, playing at black social clubs and teaching (many of those students becoming the next generation of rag composers) until 1899, when his "Maple Leaf Rag" was published. "Maple Leaf" was not only one of the most influential of rags, it also gave Joplin steady royalty income for the rest of his life, and earned him the nickname "King of Ragtime." He next moved to St. Louis, composing and publishing, as well as presenting his first opera, A Guest of Honor, now lost.

Seeking greener pastures, Joplin moved on to New York City to find a producer for a new opera featuring a new kind of hero: a black woman educator. But Treemonisha, lacking backers, was never fully staged in his lifetime. In 1917 he was admitted to an asylum with dementia and died three months later.

After the first World War Joplin’s classically-tinged ragtime would disappear, evolving into several styles of jazz. But over a half century later the King of Ragtime would return in a big way.

Musicologists in the early 1970’s rediscovered Joplin’s works. Treemonisha was finally produced, and a surprise hit recording of his rags led to their prominent use in the Academy Award–winning score to the 1973 movie The Sting, which led to the two-step “The Entertainer” becoming a top ten pop hit. To complete his re-coronation, in 1976 Joplin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for contributions to American music.

Scott Joplin… Classically Black.

Ken is Music Director for Tri States Public Radio, overseeing all music programming, hosting the morning classical music program “Ovation,” and engineering recorded performances for TSPR. Ken is from Highland Park, IL, and has degrees in music and broadcasting from Western Illinois University. Ken says listening to fine arts radio and old school classical stations from Chicago in his teenage years, coupled with a few months on a glorified tin-can telephone of a radio station in an on-campus residence hall, led to his career in radio. Ken is no stranger to radio, having worked as a student staff announcer at WIUM, news director at WKAI/WLRB/WLMD in Macomb, and Program Director at Tri States Audio Information Services. When Ken is not busy with radio and music programming he enjoys helping Macomb High’s Marching Band, playing jazz, and watching his three sons discover the big, wide world.