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Scott, James Sylvester

Scott, James Sylvester

February 12, 1885
August 30, 1938

The ragtime composer James Scott was born in Neosho, Missouri. As a child, he taught himself to play piano. After his family moved to Carthage, Missouri, around the turn of the twentieth century, Scott worked as a shoeshine boy. He also began to play music professionally, often performing on piano and steam calliope at local fairs and amusement parks. From 1902 to 1914 he worked as a window washer and picture framer, as well as a clerk and song plugger at Dumar's Music Store. It was during this time that he also began composing and publishing ragtime songs. Among his earliest successes were "A Summer Breeze" (1903) and "The Fascinator" (1903). In 1906 he visited Scott Joplin (18681917) in St. Louis, and though the two never worked together, Joplin did introduce Scott to John Stark, who became Scott's publisher and gave titles to most of Scott's compositions.

In his prime Scott was considered one of the "big three" of ragtime (along with Scott Joplin and the white composer Joseph Lamb). Scott's compositions, with their manic leaps, buoyant rhythms and rich, moody tonalities, helped define the classic ragtime sound. His most important ragtime compositions from this time include "Frog Legs Rag" (1906), "Great Scott Rag" (1909), "The Ragtime Betty" (1909), "Sunburst Rag" (1909), "Grace and Beauty" (1909), and "Hilarity Rag" (1910). Although Scott made no piano rolls, there is evidence to suggest that, in addition to writing many of the classics of ragtime, he was a fine pianist as well.

In 1914 Scott moved to Kansas City, Kansas, where he taught, arranged, and worked as piano accompanist at the Paramount, Eblon, and Lincoln Theaters. He continued to compose as well, publishing "Climax Rag" (1914), "Evergreen Rag" (1915), "Prosperity Rag" (1916), "Paramount Rag" (1916), "Peace and Plenty Rag" (1919), and "Modesty Rag" (1920). He also wrote waltzes, including "Suffragette" (1914) and "Springtime of Love" (1919).

In the 1920s and 1930s, Scott led a band in Kansas City, but he never regained his previous success and popularity. During his last years Scott lived in relative anonymity. The rise of jazz eclipsed the popularity of ragtime, and the introduction of sound into movies prevented him from earning a living as an accompanist to silent films. Scott suffered from dropsy and died of kidney failure in 1938. His grave in Kansas City was unmarked until 1981, when a resurgence of interest in his music, and of ragtime in general, led to the establishment of a fund to purchase a headstone for the grave.

See also Jazz; Joplin, Scott; Ragtime


DeVeaux, Scott, and William H. Kenney. The Music of James Scott. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Haase, John Edward, ed. Ragtime: Its History, Composers, and Music. New York: Schirmer Books, 1985.

jonathan gill (1996)

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