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Jan Douglas found passion for ragtime early

By his estimation, Jan Douglas has a dream job.

As administrator of the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site in St. Louis, Douglas immerses himself each day in his passion, ragtime music. He talks it, plays it, eats, breathes and dreams it. And — this is the kicker — he gets paid for it.

“My mother always said God smiles on small children and fools,” Douglas said. “And after she'd say that, she'd look at me and say, ‘Now, how old are you?’ “

He was 55 when God smiled on the “fool” and


Scott Joplin House in St. Louis keeps the rhythm alive.

Ragtime’s time was short and sweet.

he landed the job at Joplin House. That was a year and a half ago.

Douglas' love affair with ragtime music dates back to Carbondale and Southern Illinois University more than 25 years ago. That love affair has taken him across the country, performing and lecturing. He's found time to compose his own piano rags and is developing a quasi-theatrical, one-man lecture/show on the ragtime era. Today he continues to promote the music, research and collect obscure works, perform, write and run the Scott Joplin House.

There was a time in Douglas' life, however, where there was no rag-time. He'd never heard of Scott Joplin and had never heard a rag. But there always was music.

He started playing at age 5 while growing up in Taylorville, and he studied voice, too. In the late '40s or early '50s, he was selected to the prestigious Columbus Boys Choir, its first black member. After graduating high school in 1958, he knocked around various music venues and picked up odd jobs.

By the time he arrived at SIU in 1966 he was eight years out of high school but he had built an impressive music portfolio. With his gift for performance and self promotion, he quickly became a fixture on the local music scene. He played a lot of piano in academic circles, and had some public gigs as well. He wasn't too picky. One of his jobs was the one-man house band at Shakey's Pizza, playing old time piano favorites.

“The kindest thing you can say about those years is to say I was a Renaissance man,” he said, laughing. Then he added with a self deprecating wink and a nod, “Those who don't love me call it dilettantism.”

But this was before he got really serious with his work, before ragtime burst into his life. And how that happened is a story he tells with just a slight sense of embarrassment.

While he was an undergraduate student, Douglas signed up for a class called “Evolutions of Jazz.” The professor was a guy named London Branch, a man Douglas considered a friend and one he still honors.

“It was a very popular course,” he recalled, “and I took the class, frankly, because I thought it was going to be an easy A.”

Branch would take his students through the various mutations and innovations in the history of jazz music, and when he talked about a particular style, he would occasionally have a guest musician from the area come in and demonstrate. So when Branch saw Douglas’ name on the class list, he asked him to help with one of the lectures.

Douglas recalled the exchange.

“He said, ‘Would you learn some Joplin and play it for the class?' I said, ‘Sure, who's that?' His response was, ‘So it looks like you're going to learn something in this class after all.’ “

Well, Douglas didn't exactly blow off the assignment. He just didn't concern himself with it.

“You see, he called Joplin the King of Ragtime composers,” he said.

“And I'd grown up playing what we called `ragtime', stuff like ‘Daisy Daisy’ and ‘Down By the Old Mill Stream’ so I thought this should be easy.”

Douglas didn't crack a book until three days before he was scheduled to play for the class. He was in for a rude awakening.

“I thought I'd just run through it a couple of times so I'm not sightreading in front of the class,'' he said. “I opened the book to ‘The Entertainer.’ “

And he just stared at the page. It wasn't anything he'd ever seen before.

“I started to play and I didn't even get through the introduction before my knuckles were all broken,” he said. “Needless to say, I didn't play for his class that semester. But I was hooked.”

And now, from the Joplin House, he hopes to hook others.


Collected written works  |  Gary Marx


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