Brun Campbell: Joplin’s Disciple

Brun Campbell
Joplin's Disciple

Ragtime was music composed for solo piano, but it took as its inspiration marches and other European musical forms such as the polka. It also derived from dance music of the 1890s, such as the cakewalk (so named because the best dancers would win a cake — go figure) and owed its structure and “oom-pah” bass figures to European music like the mazurka and polka. Ragtime later influenced the development of the stride and boogie piano styles, but ragtime itself was not yet jazz. It didn’t really swing and there wasn’t a lot of room for improvisation, since the composition was primarily intended to be played as notated by the composer. Even though the first instrumental ragtime, “Mississippi Rag” wasn’t published until 1897, the music developed well before that. Many black performers were earning good livings playing ragtime music in bars and on vaudeville stages where they received tips for their playing. Once the music became popular, music publishers became interested in it, but many of the leading players didn’t bother publishing their compositions because they didn’t need the money, so great were their tips.

The best-known composer of ragtime music was Scott Joplin. Joplin was born in Linden, Texas on November 24, 1868, but his family moved to Texarkana when he was around seven years old. By his teens he was working as a pianist, traveling and playing in saloons and brothels across the Midwest, settling in St. Louis around 1890. He was already playing and composing ragtime, and three years later he relocated to Sedalia, Missouri. There he worked at the Maple Leaf Club, where he composed one of his best-known compositions, “Maple Leaf Rag”, which was published in 1899. Over the next 15 years, he composed more than 60 rags and various other pieces. Brun Campbell was born in Washington, Kansas in 1884 and was playing piano professionally by the age of 14. After being asked to try out a new musical manuscript that turned out to be Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” he decided to go to Sedalia to meet Joplin. He studied with Joplin and the Turpin brothers as well as meeting ragtime composers Louis Chauvin, Scott Hayden, and James Scott.

Paul Affeldt, publisher of Jazz Report magazine found Campbell working as a barber in Venice, California. Affeldt would sit in the shop for hours listening to Campbell’s stories about the time he’d spent with Joplin as well as of hearing performers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters firsthand. Campbell was the real deal — a ragtime pianist who had actually been there when the music was being played in sporting houses across the country. Very few other ragtime pianists of the era had recorded, and among them only Campbell had ever studied with Joplin. Affeldt recorded the masters on this CD for release on his Euphonic Sounds record label, and they have recently been acquired and released by Chicago’s legendary Delmark records.

Listeners used to the more mannered ragtime recordings of later interpreters will probably be surprised by the looseness of Campbell’s style as he works through a series of traditional tunes as well as his own compositions, of which there are many, such as “Essay in Ragtime”, “Salome’s Slow Drag”, and “Lulu White”. Also of great interest is the opportunity to compare Campbell’s rendition of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” with a piano roll by Joplin himself. Both are slower than the interpretations one often hears today. Campbell’s rendition at first sounds a bit stiff and mannered, until one hears the piano roll version that, though smoother and less percussive, still manages to sound very much like a composed piece of music without the bouncing energy Campbell brings to the song.

The liner notes quote Campbell’s biography in which he states: “None of the original pianists played ragtime the way it was written. They played their own style. Some played march time, fast time, slow time and some played ragtime blues style but none of them lost the melody, and if you knew the player and heard him a block away you could name him by his ragtime style.” Joplin’s Disciple is a very enjoyable disc of piano ragtime, but even more important as a historic document that allows us to glimpse a style of music that is little understood today, but which influenced nearly all the popular piano styles that would come after.