Jelly Roll Morton

Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton (September 20, 1890 - July 10, 1941) was a virtuoso pianist, a bandleader, and a composer who some call the first true composer of Jazz music. Morton was a colorful character who liked to generate publicity for himself by bragging. His business card referred to him as the "Creator of Jazz and Swing".


Morton's life

Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe was born in the Creole of Color community in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of downtown New Orleans, Louisiana. He took the name "Morton" by Anglicizing the name of his step-father, Mouton.

He was (along with Tony Jackson) one of the best regarded pianists in the Storyville District early in the 20th century. Among other occupations, he was also at one time a pimp.

After leaving New Orleans, Morton traveled widely in North America, spending several years in California before moving to Chicago in 1923, where he released the first of his commercial recordings, both as a piano soloist and with various jazz bands.

In 1926 Morton succeeded in getting a contract to make recordings for the USA's largest and most prestigious company, Victor. This gave him a chance to bring a well rehearsed band to play his arrangements in Victor's Chicago recording studios. These recordings by Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers are regarded as classics of 1920s jazz. The Red Hot Peppers featured such other New Orleans jazz luminaries as Kid Ory, Omer Simeon, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, and Baby Dodds.

Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers were one of the first acts booked on tours by MCA.

Morton moved to New York City in 1928, where he continued to record for Victor. His piano solos and trio recordings are well regarded, but his band recordings suffer in comparison with the Chicago sides where Morton could draw on many great New Orleans musicians for sidemen. In New York, Morton had trouble finding musicians who wanted to play his style of jazz.

With the Great Depression and the near collapse of the phonograph record industry, Morton's recording contract was not renewed by Victor for 1931. Morton continued playing less prosperously in New York, briefly had a radio show in 1934, then was reduced to touring in the band of a traveling burlesque act. He wound up in Washington D.C., where folklorist Alan Lomax first heard Morton playing solo piano in a dive in an African American neighborhood. (Morton was also the master of ceremonies, manager, and bartender of the place he played.)

The Library of Congress Interviews

In May, 1938, Alan Lomax began recording interviews with Morton for the Library of Congress. The sessions, originally intended as a short interview with musical examples for use by music researchers in the Library of Congress, soon expanded to record more than eight hours of Morton talking and playing piano, in addition to longer interviews which Lomax took notes on but did not record. Despite the low fidelity of these non-commercial recordings, their musical and historical importance attracted jazz fans, and portions have repeatedly been issued commercially. These interviews helped assure Morton's place in jazz history.

Lomax was very interested in Morton's Storyville days and some of the off-color songs played in Storyville. Morton was reluctant to recount and record these, but eventually obliged Lomax. Morton's "Jelly Roll" nickname is a sexual reference and many of his lyrics from his Storyville days were vulgar. Some of the Library of Congress recordings were unreleased until near the end of the 20th century due to their nature.

Morton was aware that having been born in 1890, he was slightly too young to make a good case for himself as the actual inventor of jazz, and so presented himself as five years older. Research has shown that Morton placed the dates of some early incidents of his life (and probably the dates when he first composed his early tunes) a few years too early, and his statement that Buddy Bolden played ragtime but not jazz is contradicted by other New Orleans contemporaries. Most of the rest of Morton's reminiscences, however, have proved to be reliable.

Morton's Later Years

During the period when he was recording his interviews, Morton was seriously injured by knife wounds when a fight broke out at the Washington D.C. dive he was playing in. His recovery from his wounds was incomplete, and thereafter he was often ill and easily became short of breath.

Morton made a new series of commercial recordings in New York, several recounting tunes from his early years that he had been talking about in his Library of Congress Interviews.

He then moved to Los Angeles, California with a series of manuscripts of new tunes and arrangements, planning to form a new band and restart his career. However he took seriously ill shortly after his arrival and died on July 10, 1941.

Morton's Legacy

Morton wrote more than one thousand songs, including "Wolverine Blues", "The Pearls", "Mama Nita", "Froggie More", "Black Bottom Stomp", "London Blues", "Sweet Substitute", "Creepy Feeling", "Good Old New York", "Sidewalk Blues", "Tank Town Bump", "Kansas City Stop", "Freakish", "Shake It", "Burnin' The Iceberg", "Ganjam", "Pacific Rag", "My Home Is In A Southern Town", "Turtle Twist", "Why?", "New Orleans Bump", "Fickle Fay Creep", "Stratford Hunch", "Shreveport Stomp", "Milneberg Joys", "Red Hot Pepper", "Jungle Blues", "Mint Julep", "Pontchartrain", "Pep", "Someday Sweetheart", "The Finger Buster", "The Crave", and "Grandpa's Spells". Several of his compositions were musical tributes to himself, including "Winin' Boy", "The Original Jelly-Roll Blues" and "Mister Jelly Lord". In the Big Band era, his "King Porter Stomp" which Morton had written decades earlier, was a big hit for Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman, and became a standard covered by most other swing bands of that time. Morton also claimed to have written some tunes that were copyrighted by others, including "Alabama Bound" and "Tiger Rag".

Two Broadway shows have featured his music, Jelly Roll and Jelly's Last Jam. The first draws heavily on Morton's own words and stories from the Library of Congress interviews. The later show has created considerable controversy with its very fictionalized and unsympathetic portrayal of Morton, and has been sued by Morton's family.

Further Reading

  • Mister Jelly Roll by Alan Lomax (1950, 1973, 2001 U. of California Press, ISBN 0-520-22530-9). For decades the only important book on Morton, contains a biography based on Morton's Library of Congress interviews interspersed with interviews with other contemporary musicians. The 2001 edition adds an afterword by Lawrence Gushee focussing largely on Morton's ancestry and other historical questions not fully explored by Lomax.
  • Mr. Jelly Lord by Laurie Wright (1980 Storyville Publications). Mostly a detailed discography, focusing on Morton's recordings.
  • Oh Mister Jelly! A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook by William Russell (1999 Jazz Media ApS, Copenhagen). Jazz historian William Russell spent over 40 years compiling this book, containing interviews with musicans, relatives, and others who knew and worked with Morton, in addition to Morton's own writings and letters. A compendium of source material, with no attempt to weave it into a single narrative.
  • Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West by Phil Pastras (2001 University of California Press) Focuses on Morton's previously largely neglected years in California and his relationship with Anita Gonzales
  • Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton by Howard Reich & William Gaines, Da Capo Press, 2003. Well organized and articulate biography marred by numerous factual errors. Makes a strong case that Morton was correct when he claimed that he had been cheated out of over a million dollars due him in royalties for his compositions.

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