There has never been a musician more “New Orleans” than Jelly Roll Morton.
Many have been more financially successful (Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint) and certainly Louis Armstrong has been a greater overall influence.
But who captures the essence more than Morton? Start with the knickname, “Jelly Roll,” like “jazz,” a euphemism for things sexual. Has a more famous New Orleans neighborhood than Storyville ever existed? Well, Jelly Roll is the greatest musician to have played there regularly (unless you consider Tony Jackson, who never recorded).
The common explanation for the emergence of the new music of jazz was New Orleans’ propitious racial mix of African-Americans, blacks with Caribbean heritage, and Europeans from all parts of the old world. Like many of the early jazzmen Morton was a Creole, a slippery term which I’ll use here to denote a mixture of African and European heritage. The Creole culture was uniquely positioned to absorb the best of black and white America, and Morton was its most eloquent artist.
In addition to the music, Morton was at times a pimp, a boxing promoter, a cardshark, and a nonpareil pool hustler. All time-honored Crescent City occupations, though he didn’t necessarily practice them in his New Orleans youth.
Morton’s biographical info is frustratingly vague. Various birthdates have been posited for his birthdate and even his birthname. For years he was thought to have been born in 1885 as Ferdinand LaMenthe; around 20 years ago the Morton scholar Lawrence Gushee found a baptismal certificate indicating he was born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe on October 20, 1890. At age three Morton’s mother, Louise Monette, married a man named Mouton who later changed his name to Morton, though nobody knows why (Jelly Roll said at one point that in his case it was because he was tired of being called Frenchy).
At a young age Morton played drums and guitar before taking up piano. In 1902 he claimed to have single-handedly invented jazz, quite an accomplishment for a 12-year-old. Morton was a notorious braggart, a trait no doubt exacerbated in part by his uneasy status as a Creole, caught between the white and black worlds. While Morton didn’t invent jazz, he is the primary link between this music and the style that preceded it, ragtime. He borrowed ragtime’s multithematic structure (a form which harkened back as well to earlier brass band music), and loosened it up. Starting with the strict oom-pah left hand of rag, he staggered the beat, or added little contrapuntal octave lines suggestive of the trombone, or threw in tango rhythms, anything to get the music to swing.
Yes, Morton’s music swings, but there is certainly an old-style ragtime-meets-jazz quality to it that is not to everyone’s taste. The great Morton interpreter Butch Thompson told me a story of going to New York to play Morton’s pieces for Luther Henderson, the Broadway producer who wanted to do a show on Morton. According to Butch, he played several pieces, and Henderson didn’t like any of them. The producer ended up using some Morton themes in diluted form, then proceeded to write his own additional music for the show, “Jelly’s Last Jam,” and to assassinate Morton’s character in the process. Can you imagine presenting a musical about Duke Ellington and substituting your own tunes? In response to this insult, the New Orleans Creole Vernel Bagneris created the brilliant “Jelly Roll,” (a two-man show with the gifted Morten Gunnar Larsen on piano) which ran two years Off-Broadway to rave reviews.
It’s a great pity that Morton didn’t record until 1923. There are piano rolls from 1915, though evidently they don’t sound much like the later Morton and their authenticity is in question. It’s possible that Morton was playing what we would define as jazz as early as anyone; that he didn’t record earlier is just one instance in a long career of bad timing. He spent much of the teens out west, jump-starting the Los Angeles Central Avenue jazz scene along with Kid Ory as well as card-sharking his way up the coast to Vancouver and maybe Alaska, the most peripatetic New Orleans musician since Gottschalk.
Jelly Roll cut about 250 tracks. The 1923 piano solos on Gennett are classics, though it can be a tough listening experience for modern ears not accustomed to the low-fi sound. The essential, more accessible Morton starts in 1926-28 with his Red Hot Peppers sessions on Victor. These are the tracks that have earned Morton the title of the First Great Jazz Composer: “Black Bottom Stomp,” “Dead Man Blues,” “Grandpa’s Spells,” “The Pearls,” “Wolverine Blues,” “Mr.Jelly Lord,” “Kansas City Stomps” and others. In addition to Morton’s melodic gift, his attention to details like timbre, dynamics, and the balance between ensemble and solo improvisation make these recordings (and covers of tunes like “The Chant” and “Smoke House Blues”) something classic jazz lovers will never tire of hearing. Check them out on the RCA/Bluebird release, The Pearls.
By 1928 Morton had moved to New York, where the more propulsive rhythms of men like Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington (Danny Barker described their bands as “machines”) made Morton’s more laid-back New Orleans approach passé. In addition, the Depression devastated Jelly Roll; he recorded only once between 1931-38, as a sideman (along with Artie Shaw) for Wingy Manone.
Fortunately there was an Indian summer of sorts. In 1938, Morton hooked up with the musicologist Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress for eight hours of piano-playing, singing and reminiscing (and guitar-playing on “Li’l Liza Jane”!) for what is probably the single most important document on classic New Orleans jazz ever recorded. Morton’s pianism is spectacular, mesmerizing, lyrical, intoxicating. The left hand lays down the aforementioned mix of oompah, blues and tango, the right hand is both beautifully melodic and texturally diverse. And it all swings, in a way I can only call Mortonesque. Rounder has issued this landmark music, with most of the commentary unfortunately excised, on four CDs.
A final essential group of recordings from 1939 has been reissued on Jelly Roll Morton-Last Sessions, on Commodore. Morton sings and plays with utmost poignancy on tributes to New Orleanians of his youth (“Mamie Desdumes’ Blues,” “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”). And the piano solos may be the greatest he ever recorded (“King Porter Stomp,” the “latin tinge” masterpiece “The Crave”). As much as I love James Booker, Dr. John, Professor Longhair and all the rest, there’s nothing in their recorded works that surpasses these tracks.
Morton died two years later in 1941 at age 50. Had he lived a few years longer he would have reveled in the New Orleans Revival along with Bunk Johnson and George Lewis. While it’s too late for Jelly, at least modern listeners can wallow in his peculiar genius. Almost everything he recorded is easy to find, and pianists as varied as Marcus Roberts and David Thomas Roberts keep his music alive. In 1982 the Smithsonian Institution Press issued a 500-page book of piano music transcriptions by the Morton scholar James Dapogny which at the time was the most thorough devoted to any jazz artist. And last year the Smithsonian issued three Red Hot Peppers’ numbers (transcribed in part by the New Orleans performer/historian Don Vappie) as the first in a series of editions celebrating Morton, Armstrong and Ellington. Vappie also the force behind the premiere performance in 1999 of some odd but fascinating big band Morton pieces (“Ganjam,” “We Are Elks”), that shows what Morton could have done with larger forces had the opportunity presented itself.
Finally, for the truly obsessed, there’s “Oh, Mister Jelly,” a 720-page $125 “Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook” compiled over many years by the composer/scholar William Russell that’s as close to a biography of Morton (though not in traditional biography form) as we’re likely to have for a while.
Jelly Roll Morton: Kansas City Stomp: Volume 1 (Rounder)
Jelly Roll Morton: Anamule Dance: Volume 2 (Rounder)
Jelly Roll Morton: The Pearls: Volume 3 (Rounder)
Jelly Roll Morton: Winin’ Boy Blues: Volume 4 (Rounder)
Jelly Roll Morton Centennial (Bluebird)
The Pearls (RCA/Bluebird)
Robert Parker’s Jazz Classics: Jelly Roll Morton: The Chicago Years (1926-28) (Louisiana Red Hot Records)
Jelly Roll Morton – Last Sessions (Commodore)
Oh, Mister Jelly: Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook by William Russell
Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jell Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” by Alan Lomax (June 1993, 391 pages)