Sometimes called the Little Professor, James Scott is one of the seminal figures in the history of ragtime, bringing to his piano works a virtuosity that influenced many jazz performers. Although his music never reached the kind of audience Scott Joplin's did and was largely ignored in the decades after his death, Scott has since taken his rightful place in the history of American music.
The child of former slaves, Scott learned the rudiments of piano by listening to his mother play and subsequently took lessons from John Coleman, who quickly recognized the young man's talents (and perfect pitch). After a couple of years playing in saloons and at dances, he started working at the Dumars Music Company in 1902, eventually becoming a clerk and song demonstrator. Scott's earliest known compositions, The Fascinator and A Summer Breeze were published by Dumars in 1903. In 1906, Scott traveled to St. Louis and met Scott Joplin, who in turn introduced Scott to publisher John Stark. Later that year, Stark published what became Scott's best-known work, the Frog Legs Rag, and most of his subsequent music was published by the Stark firm.
Scott concertized extensively through the 1910s while maintaining his ties with Dumars and Stark. By 1920, he was living in Kansas City, KS, where he had set up a teaching studio and become musical director for a group of theaters, playing for silent films and in pit orchestras. His theater work ended around 1930 and although he apparently continued to compose, none of his music was published (his last published work was 1922's Broadway Rag). He continued to lead a dance band until his death in August 1938.
Scott's music received some notice shortly after his death when Jelly Roll Morton recorded his Climax Rag in 1939. But Scott was largely forgotten until the great ragtime revival in the 1970s. His grave, previously unmarked and neglected, was given a headstone in 1981 by a group of dedicated fans. The headstone reads: "The Grace and Beauty of His Music Will Always Live."