JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


Explain a little bit about ragtime.

Ragtime is the first black music that dominates American popular culture in the same way that jazz did about 20 years later. It really is starting around 1897, 1898, and it's a generic term like hip-hop, and like any generic term it soaks up all kinds of musical activity, and actually not just music – for dance and fashion and things of that sort.

We tend to think of it as piano music but it really was music that was heard on the stage; it was also music that people competed for in dance contests. All of these things came together with ragtime. Uh, it clearly – the term ragtime means "ragged time," or you know, time that's been jumbled up, so it's the first point that that kind of rhythmic contrast came to the, you know, the white American audience's attention. And it had the same kind of range through folk music, pop music, and art music as jazz did.

The thing that makes ragtime interesting for us is that it was primarily conveyed through sheet music. This is prerecording, so the only way that you could convey what you were doing aside from the room where you happened to be in – you had to actually find a way of writing it on a piece of paper so that somebody later on could buy sheet music, put it on their piano, and figure out a way to reproduce what you were doing. And as soon as recording came in, in a sense, a lot of the things associated with ragtime moved on to the next big popular music genre, which was around 1917 or so. So [that,] in a sense, the difference I think has more to do with technology than with musical style. There's a way in which people say ragtime has a more even kind of rhythmic flow and jazz is a little more swingy, you know the kind of stuff [Deveaux demonstrates on the piano] . . . as opposed to [Deveaux demonstrates on the piano] . . . a slight different kind of emphasis, [so] that we think of the latter as being jazzy, but to me these are subtle distinctions. It's really technology that counts.