THE KING OF RAGTIME
dark-skinned man standing in front of the Strand Theatre
Building shaded his eyes with a hand, and looked up past the
marquee to the gold letters on the third-story windows.
WATERSON, BERLIN, AND SNYDER, MUSIC PUBLISHERS. That wife of
his, she wouldn't let him out of the apartment till she wrote
out the address for him. He told her he was almost ten years in
New York now, he didn't need any numbers on a piece of paper to
find his way to Broadway and Forty-seventh Street, but she wrote
it down anyway, and pushed it into his pocket. Women are like
that. If they don't have a real baby, they find a man to treat
Heat rose from
the pavement, made the building and the people look wavy. Made
everything look wavy. Damn, he didn't like that. He was
nervous enough, just coming down here with his music, which of
course he never would be doing if Martin hadn't convinced him he
should. Question was, could he really trust Martin? Could he
trust anyone anymore, after all he'd been lied to,
ignored, pushed aside, even by people every bit as black as
himself, those fancy Negroes with their three names. Will
Marion Cook. J. Rosamund Johnson. James Reese Europe. None of
them would give him the time of day any more. Lester Walton
once had been partial to him, wrote a bunch of nice words in the
newspaper about his music, but not since Cook, Johnson and
Europe got hold of Walton's ear. Scott Joplin was low-class,
him and his ragtime music. Low-class and old hat. An
embarrassment to the race.
He pulled a
well-used handkerchief from his pocket, mopped water from his
forehead, glanced at the sheaf of papers in his left hand.
Was there anybody he could he trust? Well, sure, his wife.
Lottie was always square at his side. And Nell - of course.
Never mind her father, he could trust Nell with his life. He
sighed. And yeah, he really did think Martin was okay. Nice
kid, wanted to play piano just like Scott Joplin, came up every
week for his lesson. He kept the books at Irving Berlin's, and
he got himself some inside information. Berlin was doing
musical shows now, not just writing popular songs. "Let him see
your music," Martin had said. "What can you lose? I'll go along
with you, and I'll make good and goddamn sure he doesn't steal
anything off you again."
Joplin had his
doubts, but decided to give it a try. With no contacts of his
own any more, little money, and less time, he really didn't have
all that much to lose, did he? But he was not about to take
Martin along with him, no need to do that. Scott Joplin was the
King of Ragtime. Go walking into Irving Berlin's office with a
head had felt pretty good earlier this morning. It wasn't till
he got outside and started off downtown that he commenced
getting nervous and shaky in his mind. All this heat and
humidity, all that noise, gasoline motorcars with their
backfires, all the people, pushing, yelling, waving their arms.
He tried to will calm, blew out a deep breath, then moved, a
little unsteadily, toward the door.
couple, old people, passed by; he heard the woman say, "Just
look at that - drunk on the street, and in broad daylight."
Joplin tried not to react, but in his anger, he caught his foot
on the step, stumbled, finally managed to hold his balance.
Damn! Lottie had fixed him up right to go downtown, shaved him
close, got him into his best dark suit and tie, but as far as
that old woman was concerned, Scott Joplin was just another
drunk nigger. But what was he supposed to tell her? No, he
wasn't drunk, just that his brain didn't work right anymore
because he once upon a time lay down in bed with the wrong
He turned to
go back home, but pulled himself up short. No, that wouldn't
serve. He had to leave Lottie some money. Had to. And
besides. A man sees he's got no future, he wants to leave
something of himself in the world, and what did Scott Joplin
have to leave? No children. No paintings, no books, no
buildings. Nature had filled his head so full of music there
never was a moment's time for anything else, his blessing, his
curse. If all his music disappeared along with him, better his
mother would have gone to the old woman down the road and gotten
something to put up inside her, so next day she'd have passed a
mess of blood, and Scott Joplin never would've seen light of
about, then walked carefully up the steps to the door, pulled it
open and went inside, past the elevator, up the staircase. The
third floor hallway was stifling. He felt dizzy, afraid he
might pass out. Guiding himself with his free hand against the
wall, he made his way down the corridor and into the Waterson,
Berlin, and Snyder Reception Room.
He looked right, left, right again. A receptionist's desk sat
between the take-off points of two hallways; two other passages
ran back from the opposite wall. Joplin felt like he was
standing at the hub of a wagon wheel. The wheel started to
spin, sending the composer staggering toward one of the cheap
wooden chairs against the wall opposite the receptionist's
desk, He dropped his manuscript to the floor, fell into the
chair, lowered his head into his hands.
slowed, stopped. Joplin raised his head by degrees. Still no
one in the room, nobody waiting to show a tune to a buyer, or
hoping to bag a tune for a vaudeville act. No receptionist at
the desk. The composer picked up his music, stepped cautiously
across the room, peered down the corridor to the right of the
desk. No luck. He walked a few steps past the desk to check
the second corridor. Again, no one in sight...but then he heard
a loud, phlegmy cough. He gripped his papers, started walking.
The door to
the fourth office on his left sat open. Joplin saw a man
sitting at a desk, his back to the door. The composer paused.
This nervousness was going to be the death of him. Even when he
sat alone at his piano these days, trying to put a tune
together, he felt ants crawling up his legs, butterflies sailing
around inside his stomach. "I'm Scott Joplin," he muttered.
"The King of Ragtime. I don't need to give any apology - least
of all not to him." He stepped into the room, cleared
The white man
at the desk swiveled to face him. Joplin recognized him
instantly. "Good day, Mr. Berlin," the colored man said.
The white man
smiled. "Why, Scott Joplin - how are you? I haven't seen you
1911, Joplin thought. Not since "Alexander's Ragtime Band." He
worked to keep his attention on his business. "Well, I guess
that's so. I know I haven't been by since you moved up to here
from Thirty-eighth Street - when was that again?"
years ago. What brings you down?"
smell of old cigar smoke burned Joplin's eyes. He held out his
offering. The pile of papers shook; he was afraid he might drop
the whole stack onto the floor. "I've got some music I want to
talk to you about."
The white man
stood, pushed a hardbacked wooden chair toward his visitor.
"Sit down, Scott, huh? Take a load off, catch your breath.
You say you want me look at your music?"
nodded. Lottie had warned him. "Take it slow, Scott, nice and
easy. You get to talkin' fast, your tongue gets all tied up in
knots, and even I can't follow you. An' if I can't, Mr.
Berlin sure won't."
Berlin." Joplin could hear the difference, much better now.
Slow and easy. He lowered himself into the seat. "I said I
want to talk to you about some new music I've got. Theater
He saw the
publisher's eyes go glittery as they lit on the pile of paper.
Like a buzzard spotting a chunk of meat in the gutter. The
colored man's hand moved to cover his manuscript, but he told
himself, don't go getting mad now. What's done is done. And
Martin'll be right in the office, he can keep watch. He won't
let Berlin swipe it.
extended a white, well-manicured hand. "You gonna let me see
it, Scott? Or you just want to keep me guessing?"
his music, slow-motion, on the desk. The white man craned his
neck to read; his eyebrows went up. "If, huh? A musical
drama in two acts."
long. Not any longer than Treemonisha." The colored man
jabbed a finger toward the manuscript. Shaking even worse now.
Thinking about Treemonisha right there in front of Irving
Berlin couldn't help but make him nervous. He fought to go on
talking. "Why don't you look at it, Mr. Berlin? See what you
white man leaned back in his chair and took a moment to study
his visitor. "Who did the book?"
"I did. Just
like for Treemonisha. I do my own work, all of it. Only
Scott Joplin can put the right words to Scott Joplin's music."
listen, I got to ask you. How is it you're bringing it here?
Anger hit the
colored man like a wild animal released from a cage to pounce on
his chest. For what felt like an hour, he couldn't get out a
word. Lottie spoke to him in his mind, gentle but firm.
"Scott, now don't you forget, you ain't goin' down to pick no
fight with Mr. Berlin. What you want is to get him to take on
struggled to slow his breathing, finally managed to set a firm
gaze into the white man's eyes. "You know, after you published
'Alexander,' I swore I'd never have anything else to do with
you. But I'm sick, Mr. Berlin, which you probably know
already. I wrote this musical, and I'm working on my
Symphony Number One, and before I go, I want to see them
both on their way. My piano pupil, Martin, he works in your
office, he said I ought to let you take a look at it."
The white man
scratched at his head. "That's Martin Niederhoffer? Our
"The same. I
can never remember that last name, but he's the one. Why don't
you call him in here? Ask him if I'm not telling you the
man's face split into a huge smile; he waved the idea away. "No
need for that, Scott. I believe you. Anyway, it's half-past
twelve. Martin's out to lunch right now."
"He said he
was going to keep a good eye on my music for me. That boy is a
fine piano student, Mr. Berlin. And he knows every note of
A lie, and it
threw Joplin off track. For the better part of a year now, he'd
kept all his music locked in his piano room, and when he went in
to compose, he even locked the door behind him. No one was ever
going to steal another piece of music from Scott Joplin, then
use it to make his own career. "Alexander's Ragtime Band!"
Those three words never failed to set his mind into a whirl. He
jumped from his chair, arms waving. "Six years it's been now, I
left my opera with you, Treemonisha, and you gave it
back, told me you couldn't use it. But you kept a part
of the "Real Slow Drag" tune, and it earned you a fortune. I
tell you, Mr. Berlin, that's not going to happen again. Not
The white man
pushed back in his chair to keep clear of the flailing arms.
"You steal one
note out of If, just one single note, and I'll take you
to court, you hear?" The furious colored man pounded a fist on
his manuscript, once, twice; a letter opener jumped off the desk
and clattered to the floor. "My play is going to be a landmark
in musical theater - it'll make anything by Cole or Johnson or
Cook seem tawdry and cheap. I want to see it on stage
He was out of
breath, been talking so fast, all out of control. He wondered
vaguely whether the white man had understood what he was
saying. "Slow down," he heard Lottie croon. "Slow and easy,
now, Scott." But words kept pouring out of his mouth, loud,
insistent, rude. "Mr. Berlin, I'm telling you, you steal any
of this, and we won't need a court hearing...because I
swear I will kill you."
The white man
raised a hand. Joplin ducked away, but as he straightened back
up, his head whacked against the edge of the open door. He
staggered, then settled to his knees. He felt blood pour down
his face from his forehead, saw it splatter onto his white
shirt, coat and trousers. He had to do something. But what?
He saw the
white man jump to his feet, and take a handkerchief from his
pocket. "Come on, Scott." The publisher pressed the cloth to
the composer's wound, pulled him up, guided him back to his
chair. "Scott, take it easy, now, huh? Quit worrying. I ain't
gonna steal your music."
As if in a dream, the colored man saw a
second white man come at a run into the room. "What the hell's
going on here," the newcomer shouted.
Joplin saw the
first white man wave the other one quiet. "Scott Joplin's got a
new musical drama he wants us to have a look at. He, uh,
tripped and hit his head on the door there."
followed the publisher's finger, saw the blood splattered on the
door, splashed on the floor. The second white man whistled.
"He'll be all
right." The voice seemed to come from a great distance. "We're
going to give your work every consideration, Scott, don't you
worry." The colored man saw the white man smile at the
newcomer, who replied with a grin.
Pennsylvania Railroad, like any rail company those days, was run
by pious men who believed the last should be first, so they put
the colored cars in their trains in front of the white cars.
That way, the colored passengers were privileged to receive the
lion's share of soot that blew back from the smoke stack of the
steam engine. Even in the third colored car, a fine layer of
black dust nearly obscured the curlicue pattern on the
threadbare carpeting. The horsehair stuffing in the seat
cushions had long since deteriorated into powder, such that
passengers sat on petrified lumps that assaulted their
hindquarters with every bump of the train on the tracks. The
dingy, worn seat covers were pocked by cigar and cigarette
burns; many armrests were gone. The railroad company used the
condition of the colored cars as evidence of how reasonable
their policy was. Why, if they let those people just sit
anywhere, the whole damn train would look like that, and then
how many decent people would want to take a train trip?
in that third colored car, a man in his mid-thirties, with a
thin, stylish mustache and a forehead extending all the way to
the crown of his head, sat hunched over lined music paper. He
hummed short passages, changed a note here, a chord there.
Occasionally, he smiled, or said, "Yeah, that's right."
stretched and gave a tug at the starched collar on his brand-new
white Arrow shirt, a man who'd been sitting across the aisle got
up, stepped over, and started eyeballing his music. The bald
man put down his pencil and looked up. Young guy, not even
twenty, nice-looking kid except for a three-inch raised scar
along his left cheek, and a nose that had been broken and not
set back nearly straight. Skin like coffee with a good shot of
cream, big brown eyes, ivory-white teeth set just so. Dark hair
rippled over the top of his head, parted cleanly in the middle.
But the suit of clothes on that boy - where on earth did
he get those duds? Yellow and black checked jacket over a black
vest and a bright pink silk shirt. Black patent leather shoes
with pearl buttons. Just a kid puttin' on the style, thinks he
looks like the last word, but what he looked like to the older
man was a pimp who couldn't keep clear of fists and knives. The
boy fiddled absently with his trousers, pulled at his vest,
straightened his tie. "You write music, huh?"
St. Lou to New
York could be a damn long train ride, the bald man thought, but
nasty just wasn't his style. He half-turned in his seat.
"Yeah, I write. Play piano, too." He extended a hand. "My
name's Eubie - Eubie Blake. Pleased to meet you."
The young man
answered with a handshake too energetic by a country mile, then
slid past Blake to settle into the inside seat, and turned to
face the older man. "I be Dubie. Dubie Harris."
out loud. "Dubie and Eubie? You pullin' my leg?"
The boy shook
his head. "No stuff. It's short for DuBois, my gramma was
Creole. An' Mr. Blake, I done heard of you. 'Chevy Chase'?
'Baltimore Todolo?' Those ain't no easy pieces. He glanced at
Blake's hands. 'Less, maybe, a man got fingers long as yours."
not to smile. "You a musician, Dubie? Takin' yourself off to
the Big City?"
extravagantly, opened his eyes wide as nature would allow. "Betcha
sweet patootie, Mr. Blake. St. Louie ain't near big enough to
hold me. I play clarinet and horn, and of course, pianna."
Dubie pointed toward the overhead storage across the aisle.
"Got my instruments up there. Going to get me a spot in Mr. Jim
Europe's band, learn me all of his tricks, and in a couple a
years, gonna have my own band, just see if I don't. I write,
too - but I ain't no dummy, gonna let some two-bit publisher in
St. Lou or Chi or Kay Cee jew me. I'm gonna take my music
straight on over to Tin Pan Alley."
music publisher is a Jew, Blake thought. He couldn't decide
whether this kid had moxie to burn, or if he was just plain
foolish. "New York can be a tough place, boy. I hope you got
yourself somewhere good to stay."
"Oh yeah, you
bet. My uncle and auntie got plenty room. They went up to
Harlem a few years back, buyed themselves a nice house on West
131st Street, and put in a grocery on the ground
floor. They live in the upstairs. I'm gonna stay with them,
'least till I get my own place."
"Naw. I tell
'em don't bother. I know how to get myself around a city."
gonna get some lessons in a hurry, Blake thought. For sure he
had a little money in his pocket, a plum ripe for picking. But
that's how you learn. Blake hoped the boy was a quick learner.
"Been playin' in St. Lou?"
You know Sedalia?"
his head. "I grew up in Baltimore, and I've pretty much lived
east my whole life. I was just out to St. Lou a couple of days,
business, and that's the closest to Sedalia I ever got. I hear
it was a damn good music town, say twenty years ago, then all
the joints got closed up a little after the eighteens went
away. Where ever you been playing in Sedalia?"
"Well...actually I was at the George R. Smith College, studyin'
music." His speech moved up-tempo. "But I played in every
place I could, dances and balls, concerts in the park, marching
bands - "
mind me saying, boy, music school and marching bands ain't
likely gonna get you too far in Harlem."
Dubie moved in his seat like his pants had
suddenly gotten too tight. "Well..."
time, Blake thought.
got some places where a colored man can play, for sure on a
Saturday night. They's bars, a couple houses...sometimes they
get a professor in from Kay Cee or St. Louie, maybe somebody
come up from N'Orleans. And I always listen hard. 'Course the
college don't want us doing that stuff, they ever found out,
they'd'a expelled me right that minute. But they can't keep
watch on everybody, every night, can they?" Dubie's face
relaxed into a full smile.
My, my, Blake
thought, what fine and gorgeous teeth. Flash them pearls like
that, this kid could get trampled to death by women.
"And I tell
you the truth, Mr. Blake. Nobody - I mean nobody - could
get 'em up and hollerin' like me when I start in to blow. Sure,
we learned all them dead European composers, but that didn't do
me no harm. After classes I'd go take a walk out in the trees
where nobody's gonna hear, and I practiced my Schubert and my
Mozart, they be my warmup. Then I played that New Orleans music
I learned from the professors. Sometimes I played till I seed
blood on the reed."
Dubie might just jump up, grab his saxophone out of the overhead
storage, and start playing, right there in the train car. The
kid's eyes widened, shone. "Day I finished school, I say to
myself, now it's New York for me, that's the onliest place to
be. I blowed for near-on two months, any place they pay money,
any music they wanted. And I saved every penny, bought me a
good suit and shoes, and a ticket for the train." Dubie pointed
at a slip of paper peeking out from his shirt pocket, behind his
vest. "See there - that be my ticket to tomorrow. Gonna take
me to a chair in Mr. Europe's Society Orchestra."
Blake said. "You're gonna walk right in and say, 'Mr. Europe,
here I am. Make space.'"
behind his vest, came out with a limp piece of paper, which he
unfolded and passed to Blake, who read silently, James Reese
Europe. Superior colored musicians. 67-69 West 131st Street,
New York. Telephone 7930 Harlem.
"See? You see
now?" Dubie could barely contain himself. "Mr. Europe ain't
only got just one Society Orchestra, he got a barn full
of them. Send one out here, one there, go to all sorts of fancy
dances, white, black, whatever. That man need a passel of
care not to say anything that might let the cat out about how
tight he was with James Reese Europe. Then, there'd have to be
an introduction, and Blake had long ago learned the folly of
giving a man a reference based on what he tells you he can do.
she be the one tell me about Mr. Europe, and you know who she
get it from? Mr. Scott Joplin's missus, no other. Joplins live
right nearby, and Miz Joplin sometimes buy groceries at my uncle
and auntie's. You ever meet Scott Joplin?"
Blake took a
deep breath. "Oh, I heard Joplin play a couple times."
Dubie's eyes were like lanterns. "You ever
hear him play 'Maple Leaf?' People in Sedalia, they still say
hearing Scott Joplin play 'Maple Leaf Rag' was like hearing
Gabriel blow his horn on the Judgement Day."
"Some men get
to be more in remembrance than they ever was in life," Blake
said. "Fact is, there was lots better players than Scott
Joplin, but never a composer could touch him. Scott Joplin is
the King of Ragtime. He says it himself, and it's truth."
a look like a six-year-old whose mother had just walked out of
the kitchen and left cookies on the table to cool. "But all the
newspapers say Mr. Irving Berlin be the King of Ragtime."
The boy burst
into hilarious laughter, but stopped on a dime at the sight of
Blake's face. "I'll tell you, and I'll tell you true," Blake
said. "No one ever lived on this earth, had ragtime in his soul
like Scott Joplin. There were plenty of rags before 'Maple
Leaf,' but it was 'Maple Leaf' and Scott Joplin, put ragtime on
crossed Blake's mind; he stopped, considered, then decided to
come out with it. "All right, here's something for you. If you
want to take your tunes to the very top, go see Irving Berlin.
I used to play at the Boathouse in Atlantic City, and Mr. Berlin
would stop by, Lord, those pointy bright-yellow shoes he always
had on." Blake shook his head. "He'd holler, "Play my song for
me, Eubie, you know which one. So I'd play 'Alexander's Ragtime
Band' for him. That man can't even play piano himself, and his
music ain't in any way ragtime, but oh my, how he does know just
exactly what people want. Give him a few years, and mark my
word, he's gonna be the biggest composer and publisher in
the whole country, never mind just in New York. You want me to
write down his address for you?"
open-mouthed, and, for once, silent, nodded.
Blake pulled a
blank music sheet from his pile, picked up his pencil, and
wrote, in heavy block capitals, WATERSON, BERLIN, AND SNYDER.
STRAND THEATRE BUILDING, BROADWAY AND 47th STREET.
Then he gave the paper to Dubie, who smiled, folded it, stuck it
into his shirt pocket along with James Reese Europe's address.
The kid's smile grew into a full-faced grin. "I'm sure on my
way, now, Mr. Blake. Not very long, an' you gonna be playin'
my tunes for people."
smiled. "Good luck, boy."
clock. The young couple hurried out of the office, skipped down
the stairs, through the door, and out into the swirling, boiling
mob on the sidewalk. The girl reached for the boy's arm, then
grasped his hand instead. The crowd pressed them together; he
felt the softness of her breast against his elbow. His heart
leaped, and he stopped walking to admire the treasure at his
side. Full lips, neatly painted, flashed him a smile of
expectation. Warmth beamed from wide brown eyes. She was
beet-cheeked, breathing heavily from the heat of the day, and
maybe more. The boy grabbed her by the arms, pulled her to him,
and planted a hard kiss on her mouth.
pulled away. "Martin, not out here on the street, with
everybody watching." But she was still smiling.
then? We have no place we can go."
A fragment of
a tune ran through Martin's mind. 'Oh, tell me how long...do I
have to wait. Why can't I get you now? Why must I hesitate?'
Hesitation Blues was what he had, all right. But the piano tune
reminded him of his appointment; he put his hand to the girl's
back, started steering her along the sidewalk. "Come on, we
don't have much time. I have to be up in Harlem at seven."
Half a block
down, they went into Schneider's Deli. The boy inhaled the
fragrance of corned beef, pastrami, smoked fish. His stomach
growled. He and the girl took a table, ordered. As the waiter
walked away, Martin said, "Your old man's not going to let up an
inch, is he?"
"He says I'm
only seventeen, too young to get married."
"How old is
shrugged. "Who knows? But what difference does it make? If
it's not my father, it's yours. He won't ever think a
stupid little Litvak is good enough for his Austrian
to swallow his anger. His girlfriend was a doll, round and soft
in all the right places. But his father was not impressed.
"Give her ten years, she'll be so fat you won't be able to
shtup her with a putz three feet long." Nothing
Martin could say would make it right with his old man. The
Niederhoffers were Austrian Jews, at the top of the Hebrew
social heap, and for one to marry an Eastern European peasant
was almost as big a shame on the family as marrying a shiksa.
"My father can
think what he wants," Martin said. "But I'm twenty-four years
old, and I'll marry who I want...which is you."
vinegar-faced waiter slid plates in front of them, then moved
off, not a word said. The girl cut a piece of blintz with her
fork; Martin lifted the top piece of rye bread off his corned
beef sandwich, and spread mustard. "Well, we're not going to
wait forever. One of these days, I'll get a car, and we'll go
down to Elkton and get married. Then, it won't matter if your
father says 'Too young,' or if mine says, 'Not good enough.'"
He took a savage bite, as if the sandwich had somehow insulted
color faded. "If we do that, your father might never talk to
Martin muttered around a mouthful of corned beef. "I've heard
more than enough from him for twenty-four years now. What is
he, anyway? A lousy fruit peddler. But he's Austrian, so his
blood is noble. Well, this is America, not Austria, and I'm
going to make my own money. I'm not going to be a bookkeeper
forever. I keep my eyes and ears open, and one of these days,
I'm going to get myself into music publishing for real, maybe
even the theater. Then we can get married whenever we
want, no matter what anybody says."
Birdie put down
her fork. "Martin, dear, you don't have to get so worked up all
the time. You know I'll marry you and no one else. And I don't
care if you're a bookkeeper. We could live on that."
He patted her
hand across the table. "I'm not going make you live in a
cold-water flat, one dirty room, our children hungry all the
time. My mother says, 'Love is like butter, it goes well with
bread,' and I've seen enough to know she's right about that." He
shot a glance at his wrist watch. "I've got to go. Mr. Joplin
gets sore when his pupils don't come on time."
parted in a warm smile. "You really like him, a lot don't you."
"I love him,"
Martin blurted. "And I love his music. I get him to play one of
his rags, then I try to do it exactly the same as he does. Come
on, walk me to the subway." He threw money on the table.
walked around the table, and slipped her hand into Martin's. The
young man thought his chest might burst with love and pride. He'd
get his butter, all right, and bread to go with it. And if his
plan worked the way he figured it would, he might just have them
both before leaves started to fall.
End of Chapter One
This historical mystery from Larry Karp is the second novel in the Ragtime Historical Mystery Trilogy was released by Poisoned
Pen Press on October 1, 2008.