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The ragtime idiom, which flourished between the 1890 and 1910, is the only stylistic precursor of jazz for which any tangible evidence survives: unlike the blues, ragtime was pre-composed and could there­fore be circulated in printed form. Ragtime developed gradually from earlier nineteenth-century American music. Several pieces of popular salon music for solo piano by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (i 829-69) were based on Latin American or slave melodies, often sporting picturesque titles such as Bamboula, danse de negres (1849) or Le Banjo .When these ethnic melodies were combined with white dance forms, as in the polka Pasquinade (c. 1860), Gottschalk's music looked directly ahead to the ragtime style. Many published rags were subtitled 'march' or carried the tempo marking 'in slow march time'. Once ragtime became popular, the Sousa Band frequently performed orchestrated versions of piano rags and cake-walks; their European tours from 1900 to 1905 introduced the new style to composers such as Claude Debussy (1862—1918), who later attempted to synthesize ragtime and concert music.

Early ragtime was undoubtedly improvised, but in 1895 songs in ragtime style appeared in print for the first time. The first instrumental rag, Mississippi Rag by William H. Krell, was published in 1897. The first piano rag to be published by a black musician was Tom Turpin's Harlem Rag, issued nearly a year after Krell's piece. Many rags, whether by black or white composers, promoted racial stereotypes of black Americans in their cover artwork and titles. In Sedalia, Joplin played at a gambling den before taking up the post of pianist at the Maple Leaf Club, which gave its name to Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag. By the time of Joplin's death, sales of Maple Leaf Rag had exceeded one million copies.

Joplin's perennially popular piece is typical of the ragtime style as it evolved in the Midwest. In places Joplin's style recalls techniques of nineteenth-century black folk music. Flush from the phenomenal success of Maple Leaf Rag, Stark and Joplin moved east to St Louis and set up the so-called 'Missouri School' of 'classic' ragtime. Stark 's publishing company also promoted the music of two younger talents: the black composer James Scott (1886-1918) and the white composer Joseph Lamb (1887—1962). Lamb's work in particular is marked by a sensitive lyricism, his unusual minor-key Ragtime Nightingale (1915) seeming to echo the piano music of Chopin and Liszt, •which had originally influenced Gottschalk's salon pieces.

Joplin produced a slow but steady stream of high-quality ragtime pieces after 1900, creating about thirty in all. First came a ragtime ballet, The Ragtime Dance, which occupied him between 1899 and 1902. Bitterly disillusioned, Joplin died in 1917 after a nervous breakdown.

Between 1908 and 1920 several distinguished European composers were influenced by ragtime, initially inspired by performances of the touring Sousa Band. In Europe, ragtime was seized upon as a style that owed nothing to the post-Wagnerian idiom of late romantic music against which many composers were then beginning to rebel. The first of these experiments is to be found in the ragtime dance in The Soldier's Tale (1918), which was followed by the solo piano piece Piano-Rag-Music (written for Artur Rubinstein in 1919) and Ragtime for Eleven Instruments (also 1919). In the ragtime era, recording was carried out by the 'acoustic' process. This primitive technology was far from satisfactory, and most pianists preferred to record their interpretations of ragtime pieces by cutting rolls for the highly popular player-pianos (pianolas). In 1908 Joplin published his School of Ragtime, six exercises for piano with a verbal introduction aiming to restore a restrained manner of performance. The ragtime pianist was warned: 'We wish to say here that the "Joplin ragtime" is destroyed by careless or imperfect rendering, and very often good players lose the effect entirely, by playing too fast. Don't play this piece fast. It is never right to play "Ragtime" fast.'

Joplin was fighting a losing battle, for it had become increasingly common for pianists to add their own embellishments to existing rag compositions. I started using the word in 1902 to show people the difference between jazz and ragtime.' When James Scott wrote his pointedly titled Don't Jazz Me Rag — I'm Music in 1921, it was far too late to reverse the trend.

The more exciting, jazzed-up ragtime idiom developed directly into the first recognizable keyboard style in jazz: that of the Harlem 'stride' school, which was nurtured in New York's black enclave. Stride compositions often retained the sectionalized, multi-thematic structure of ragtime as well as its metre. The addition of blue notes, which had slowly begun to appear in some piano rags, imbued the style with a jazzier flavour; the twelve-bar blues progression had also influenced earlier ragtime pieces, and now left its mark on the stride and boogie-woogie piano styles. As in Morton's demonstration of jazzed-up ragtime, far more melodic interest and rhythmic complexity were permitted in the left hand than had been the case in earlier rags. Initially influenced by the ragtime pianist Eubie Blake (1883—1983), whose work typified the more virtuosic Eastern rag style centred on Baltimore, Johnson s end­lessly resourceful exploration of the Harlem idiom is best shown by his effervescent Carolina Shout. Unlike ragtime pieces, Carolina Shout is based on a single chord progression and is therefore closer to later jazz structures. Like Ellington, Waller originally learnt to mimic Johnson's playing by studying the piano roll of Carolina Shout, which he later recorded himself. After Waller, stride textures and rhythmic patterns continued to influence a later generation of jazz pianists, including Art Tatum,Thelonious Monk and Oscar Peterson.

Classic Missouri ragtime has enjoyed two revivals since it was eclipsed by jazz in the 1920.