PJ MORTON: FRIDAY, MAY 5—CONGO SQUARE STAGE, 3:30 P.M.
MAROON 5: SATURDAY, APRIL 29—ACURA STAGE, 5:15 P.M.
New Orleans native PJ Morton never thought he’d live in his hometown again. For years, Morton—the soul-pop singer, songwriter and producer who’s been a keyboardist with pop-rock band Maroon 5 since 2010—was doing great in Los Angeles.
“I was one of the guys who never planned on moving back home,” Morton said in advance of his two appearances at Jazz Fest. He’ll perform with Maroon 5, one of this year’s headliners, on April 29. He’ll be back at Jazz Fest for a solo show on May 5.
“I wasn’t a traditional jazz musician,” he explained. “I wasn’t a rapper. So, when I started to come into my own as a musician, I wanted to get away. I wanted to stay away.”
Morton, the son of award-winning gospel artist Bishop Paul S. Morton, also knew he didn’t want to take his father’s place as leader of the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church.
Morton’s early steps away from New Orleans took him to Morehouse College in Atlanta. While he was still at Morehouse, Morton’s chances of success in Los Angeles, the city he moved to after college, were buoyed by his Grammy-winning collaboration with India.Arie for her 2002 album, Voyage to India.
Although Morton did leave New Orleans, he nevertheless proudly carried his hometown with him.
“You get cool points when you’re from New Orleans,” he said. “If you’re in music, you get extra cool points—because to be great in New Orleans, you’ve got to be ten times ahead of musicians elsewhere in the country.”
Successful though Morton was away from home, a visit to New Orleans with Maroon 5 for a performance at the 2013 Jazz Fest stirred his interest in returning.
“That was the first seed planted in me about considering moving home,” he said. “Being in New Orleans with Maroon 5 then was kind of surreal. I was home, but I was also there with these guys I’d toured the world with. It made me look at the city differently.”
In the succeeding months, near the end of his Los Angeles years, the desire to go home intensified. “I was growing uninspired in L.A.,” he said. “I was searching for something. A lot of times, when you’re searching for things, you need to go back to where you started.”
In retrospect, Morton has no regrets about his Los Angeles or Atlanta years. “All the moves I made kept me pushing forward,” he said. “When I went to school in Atlanta and met Jermaine Dupri and India.Arie, when I got my first Grammy, it was always forward. Moving to L.A. pushed me even further.
“Of course, linking up with Maroon 5 was bigger than anything else I had done to that point. I’m happy I did those moves, that I explored things and stayed open. Now I’m bringing all that back to New Orleans. I didn’t know that was the plan, but now it all makes sense.”
Morton wants to apply his knowledge and experience to building the music business infrastructure in New Orleans. For decades, after all, the city’s remarkable musical talent has never been accompanied by a music business community that rivaled Nashville, Los Angeles or, in the glory days of Motown Records, Detroit.
“We focus on our past, what made New Orleans New Orleans,” Morton said. “But we overlook the innovation that created jazz. We put all these genres together in a gumbo to create jazz. Now we’ve got to keep innovating. So that’s my job, to hold our past sacredly, but also to take that Buddy Bolden spirit and keep innovating.”
Morton formed a production company and record label even before he became a New Orleans resident again.
“But my vision didn’t fully come into play until after I moved home,” he said. “I want Morton Records to be the Motown of New Orleans. We’ll focus on local talent, but the vision is to export. It’s not about keeping our New Orleans charm to ourselves. It’s about getting these acts out to the world.”
Meanwhile, as Morton finds and signs artists, he released his latest solo album in April. Gumbo is the first album he’s recorded in New Orleans. The title is both a nod to his hometown and the topics in his lyrics.
“I usually focus on love and relationships,” he said. “But this time I want to reflect the times. There’s a lot going on in the world—racial tension and a lot of division in general.”
Gumbo track “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” is about staying optimistic, no matter what discouraging turns life takes. “Claustrophobic” encourages listeners to stay creative and true to themselves.
“I’m touching on a lot of different things,” Morton said. “And that’s a gumbo thing.”