Nearly three years ago, New Orleans native son PJ Morton returned home after leaving the city to pursue life elsewhere. He was gone 13 years, during which time the pianist, singer and songwriter flourished into a solo recording artist and, eventually, a member of pop-rock juggernaut Maroon 5.
In 2017, he released Gumbo, the first studio album he’d ever recorded in New Orleans. As its title suggests, it’s a pastiche of what makes PJ, PJ: soulful songwriting, a penchant for the romantic, the search for acceptance and plenty of flavor. The album earned him two GRAMMY nominations and solidified his status as a once-in-a-generation talent: The man can play, sing, write and perform. It’s the New Orleans in him. More specifically, it’s the New Orleans church in him. He’s the child of two lifelong spiritual leaders, both of whom presided over the largest congregation in town at Greater St. Stephen Baptist Church (GSS).
His dad is Bishop Paul S. Morton, who moved to New Orleans from Canada in 1972. “That’s where God told me to come to,” he says. “I believe that’s where my destiny was.” The senior Morton met and fell in love with PJ’s mother, Debra, at GSS, which her grandmother had been involved with since its inception.
“She caught my attention the first time I saw her,” the Bishop recalls. “When I came to Greater St. Stephen, I saw her singing in the pulpit area and I said ‘Who is she?’ I moved so quick. The Lord told me to move to New Orleans and the same voice told me that was going to be my wife. When I told her that, she said ‘Have you lost your mind? I don’t even know you!’ She thought it was some kind of game. It worked out. We’ve been married 41 years.”
Together, the Mortons started a family and PJ was literally raised in their church. From the age of two, Paul Morton, Jr. attended services—sometimes three times a week—and would eventually attend the school on the church property. Like generations of American musicians, church was also his first stage. His father presciently recorded many of PJ’s earliest performances, preserving on film the growth from a toddler playing drums, to a toddler dancing like Michael Jackson, to a child with a guitar, then a keyboard.
“I credit the church for a lot of who I am as a soul artist, as a performer, as a songwriter,” he says. “It prepared me for performing in front of an audience. I had a built-in audience that I played for every week. You knew what worked and what didn’t, because you got an instant reaction. I wrote a lot of my songs in church, on the organ. I think church, especially a church like my dad’s where music is a huge focal point, is the best training ground. You can play a calypso song in church, you can play a reggae gospel song, and you can play a straight-up gospel song. I was prepared for any type of music. And not just music. I was prepared for any type of situation because, when the spirit moves in church, you just go with it. And things can change very quickly.”
Things have changed a lot for PJ since he came home. In September, it was announced Maroon 5 will headline the Superbowl LIII halftime show in 2019. As of the writing of this story, PJ (along with the remaining band members) has the number-one song in the country, the Cardi B-assisted “Girls Like You,” which has more than one billion views on YouTube. And on November 9, he’ll release a solo Christmas album. He’s also in the throes of the most successful chapter of his solo career to date, serving up Gumbo around the world.
Together with his wife Kortni and their three children, PJ sat in the OffBeat offices describing Morton Records, the label he started when he first moved back. Actually, he’s telling me about the sneaker store he was planning to open instead, until he realized things hadn’t really gotten any better for musicians since he’d moved away. He noticed a lack of infrastructure and, instead of looking for someone to fix it, opted to become part of the solution.
“One thing I wanted to make sure I put emphasis on here is making records, songs that aren’t on the radio. There wasn’t really anybody while I was growing up, outside of Allen Toussaint, that I could point to as a songwriter. There were performers everywhere. I could learn how to play a trumpet. I could learn how to play keys. Nobody told me how to write a song and how to publish a song and how to produce a song for someone else. Coming home, that became more important to me than just signing artists,” he says.
Part of his decision to leave for college in Atlanta was the absence of an ecosystem here for musicians looking to do more than learn an instrument. While away, he released three studio albums: Emotions (2005), Walk Alone (2010) and New Orleans (2013). He’d do work in Los Angeles, New York and his college town but New Orleans was rarely on labels’ radar. In Atlanta, a club called Apache offered young talents a place to try things on for size every Wednesday night. It’s where India.Arie got her start and where PJ first saw Janelle Monáe. It also served as an example of something he could bring home one day.
“That’s why I started my monthly thing at the Ace Hotel,” he says of his now-bygone Soundbytes residency at Three Keys. “I basically followed that same format that I was used to. CoolNasty made something similar happen at the Jazz Market and that’s vital. And that’s the reason it’s blowing up. It’s packed on Wednesdays, because people need a way to jam and express themselves without it having to be a proper show that they’re booking.”
For PJ, an artist whose story is tied directly to the expression of identity, New Orleans has always been a place for creatives to blossom. There is, though, a noticeable difference from the time he left.
“It’s a little freer now, the way people think. It’s a little more open here now… If you look at James Booker, he was a weirdo. New Orleans has always celebrated that, but being successful at being weird hadn’t been celebrated as much. It was like, ‘Don’t get too big. Be weird, but don’t start having these huge dreams.’ We’ve always embraced the left-of-center, but now it’s okay to be successful.
“I think that’s what’s happening with young black creatives in general. Part of the gift and curse of the internet is you had to start branding yourself. Now, it’s second nature. We weren’t used to posting pictures of ourselves. Now you have all the tools you need to look like a major. They’re empowered. I’m empowered. Being punk rock now is signing the biggest corporate deal with somebody, whereas it was frowned upon before. I think we’ve gotten smarter about how we’re doing it, and there’s ownership involved. So long as it’s on your terms, I celebrate it.”
As the son of a pastor, self-expression as PJ, the person, was something he had to fight for well before he formed his own musical identity. “I remember once, I was listening to a Missy Elliott CD and there was a song with Busta Rhymes on it and he said ‘eff that’ in the intro. You know when you start your car and the first song pops on? My dad took it out and broke it,” he recalls with laughter.
“I just was never straightforward in the sense of my thought pattern and the way I looked at things,” he remembers of his high-school years at St. Augustine. “I always dressed different. I remember during my 8th grade year at St. Aug, I was wearing some Timberlands when everyone else was wearing Polos and G-Nikes. I was going left when other people were going right. If I wasn’t confident, it could’ve broke me.”
Four-letter-words in music and divergent fashion choices would be the least of his troubles. At some point, PJ had to tell his parents that he didn’t want to be a full-blown gospel musician (much less a pastor). He also had to reckon with his own feelings about choosing soul music over the church. “In the very beginning, I hadn’t decided fully that I wasn’t going to be a gospel musician but knew that I wanted to write other kinds of music. There was a little struggle when I decided I didn’t want to make gospel music. I didn’t want to disappoint my family or my church family. It was taught, initially, that I was doing something wrong. But my gut told me different. To fight with that was really an internal struggle.
“All of that built the foundation of who I am. But at the same time, some of the rules and some of the boxes that were made were totally what I didn’t want to be. I’m grateful for my upbringing. I really embrace it now, whereas, at one time, I was probably running away from it. Now, I’m empowered to embrace it.”
In one particular conversation with his pops, PJ was shown an example of the unconditional. “I was in Atlanta at my brother-in-law’s house when I was about 17 and called my dad and was, like, ‘Man, I’m really trying, but this isn’t me. Now, I’m forcing it.’ Immediately, he said ‘Yeah, I know. You gotta be different than I was. You’re gonna touch people, the same amount of people or even more than me, but you’re gonna do it in a different way.’ I think, at that point, he knew his son and knew that it wasn’t rebellion at that point, it was a calling.”
Bishop Morton exudes unfettered fatherly pride when he’s asked about the day he learned his son wouldn’t follow in his footsteps. But he says there was momentary concern. “I wanted him to preach. I mean, he’s Paul Morton, Jr.!” he says with a chuckle. “In the church so many times when we talk about secular music, it’s totally opposite from church music. But he explained to me, ‘Dad, the Bible talks about love. If we can talk about love, why can’t I sing about love?’ He got me. So often we box ourselves in as it relates to not really knowing the whole meaning of love. So I gave him my blessing.”
PJ’s mother, on the other hand, needed less convincing. The free-spirited Debra taught her son about the Beatles and the music of the Sixties and Seventies. “She was always hip,” he tells me. “She was the one that wanted to move to New York City when they first got married. Not that my dad wasn’t cool, but he was always disciplined. My mom’s crazy. She’s the best.”
Since his parents’ blessing, PJ’s career has gifted us collaborations with Busta Rhymes, Lil Wayne (PJ was once signed to Young Money) and his stylistic doppelganger Stevie Wonder. No big deal, right? As if the studio version of Gumbo wasn’t satisfying enough, PJ released a live version earlier this year, Gumbo Unplugged (Live), which included a 22-member orchestra and appearances from BJ The Chicago Kid, Anthony Hamilton, Keyon Harrold and Lecrae. The recording was filmed and, much like his father’s home videos of yesteryear, the footage documents the gifts of a virtuoso.
“I tell people, ‘I know he’s my son. But he’s a genius,’” Bishop Morton says. “The way he puts it together, the way he plays, the way he sings, the way he writes music. For it to be all wrapped up in one person is amazing.”
Watching PJ perform is, indeed, epic. His talent isn’t relegated only to the buttery tone of his voice or the way he tickles the keys; the true magic lies in his ability to flood the room with whatever it was he was feeling when he wrote the song he’s performing. When you watch PJ play music, you’re watching him write in his journal.
“That’s why I got into music, to express myself as purely as possible,” he says. When I ask him if he’s ever afraid of losing his means of emotional conveyance to the clutches of superstardom, he says yes. “My biggest fear is somebody taking control of that and trying to muzzle it or change it. For that reason, I’ve turned down many situations.”
Even within the context of Maroon 5, his individuality has been celebrated. “I never felt like I couldn’t be myself. They found me as a solo artist, so that was already understood. I mean, I’ve opened up tours as PJ Morton and closed as Maroon 5. That’s what I mean about not selling out. I’m down with this, as long as I can be PJ.”
Looking forward, PJ is continuing his work at the helm of Morton Records. His most recent signee is a producer/songwriter, a choice reflecting his desire to make New Orleans a breeding ground for future Allen Toussaints. He’s also breaking ground on work to preserve the legacy of another New Orleans luminary: Buddy Bolden, a man whose legacy is undisputed, despite there existing not a single recording of his music and only one photograph of his person.
After Hurricane Katrina, the Mortons returned to Greater St. Stephen Baptist Church at the corner of South Liberty and First Streets. They wanted to expand by purchasing the property directly around the main church building and, in so doing, unknowingly bought the house Buddy and his family lived in on the 2300 block of First Street. Like most things about Buddy Bolden, the details are murky. What does seem to be proven is his longtime address. In his 1978 book In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz, Donald M. Marquis says the Boldens lived at 2309 First Street from 1887 to 1905, citing Soards’ New Orleans City Directory.
Despite its historic nature, one would never know that the trumpeter and man credited with popularizing jazz music ever stepped foot on that block. In a city which profits from its “Birthplace of Jazz” moniker, Buddy Bolden’s house sits dilapidated and boarded up. It’s an eyesore, really. There has been acrimonious debate about who’s responsible for preserving the house for years. Preservation societies, city bureaucracies and private citizens have all contributed their vociferous opinions about just what ought to happen with the place. This past August, New Orleans City Councilman Jay H. Banks put the responsibility of preserving the house to the Mortons, saying “We [the City] do not have the legal authority” to force the owners to do any kind of historic preservation on private property.
“When I first came into ownership of the property, the houses surrounding it were fixed up,” Bishop Morton recalls when he’s asked about when he found out about owning Buddy’s house. “When we first were interested in expanding our property we wanted to tear the house down, but the city told us we couldn’t because it was a historic house, and we had no problem with that.” In fact, he says Greater St. Stephen is committed to providing financial help to make sure the house is preserved.
PJ Morton has stepped in as the face of the renovation and preservation project for the Bolden house. Like Buddy did with his turn-of-the-century band, PJ has taken the lead on turning the tide of New Orleans music history. He would have done it sooner, but, well, nobody told him.
“I was probably there three times a week my entire childhood and all that time, I had no idea that this house was ten steps away. No idea. And neither did they, by the way,” he says of his family. The Mortons began noticing people lining up, making pilgrimages from around the world to see Bolden’s former home. As more attention became focused on the location, so did the pressure placed on PJ’s family. He says he’s only known his family owned the house for a little over a year. “My friend Todd took me to dinner and was like, ‘Hey man, you know your parents own Buddy Bolden’s house?’ To be honest, I wasn’t even fully hip on Buddy Bolden. I had to catch up. This was, like, a year and a half ago. I go and look him up and I’m like, ‘What? First of all, no, they can’t knock it down and, two, I wanna take this on.’”
Naturally, his decision to take on such a consequential role comes with its fair share of criticism. Almost immediately upon learning of his family’s unwitting ownership of the house, PJ was thrown into a new, sometimes aggressive, world. “People started reaching out to me a week after I found out and started asking me what I was gonna do. I really don’t know how people found out that I’d found out. I think somebody might have called the church and they said ‘PJ is going to be handling it.’ A lot of hatred was coming. A lot of people have expectations when something’s not in their hands. People just don’t know. I am excited about it. I don’t want people to make me less excited about it.”
The GRAMMY-nominated, globetrotting, undisputed prince of contemporary New Orleans soul music is reverential when talking about Buddy. “What gives me chills every time I talk about it is this is supposedly the house where Buddy sat on the stoop because he got kicked out of his house for playing his horn too loud. His friend down the street heard him playing the horn and that started the band they created together that started jazz music. That gives me chills. That stoop is there. It may not have been that exact story, but that stoop is there. This is the stoop that created jazz. It’s oral tradition. King Oliver says that’s the first time he heard Buddy’s horn. Louis says he heard it from King Oliver. That’s why I want to make sure it’s taken care of.”
Sharing stomping grounds and a love for music aren’t the only things tying Buddy and PJ together. As Marquis writes in his book, “Of the early experiences that helped form Bolden’s musical instincts, one of the most obvious influences would have been the Baptist church. The Boldens were Baptist as far back as can be traced… [Buddy] was baptized in the St. John Baptist Church on First Street… As a youngster, he probably suffered any typical child’s impatience with too much confinement in church, but he no doubt joined in the clapping and singing and began to get a feeling for the spirituals and hymns that would remain with him.”
Despite all of the self-actualization PJ holds dear to him as a creative, he is following in his dad’s footsteps. At least, kind of. His dad moved to New Orleans and shepherded the masses by changing the landscape of worship in the city. PJ just so happened to move back home at the time of the Bolden revelation and is now poised to create a new kind of place for worship.
“I want it to be somewhat of a Y.M.C.A. for musicians. I want this to be a clubhouse.
I’m going to call it Buddy’s House,” he says with so much glee in his voice, it’s as palpable as it is when he’s on singing on stage. In his vision, kids who utilize Buddy’s House will have a membership, which comes with perks like studio time. Experts will be flown in from around the world to talk to members about songwriting, publishing, intellectual property, engineering, producing and more. “I think there are enough things in New Orleans that show people about being a musician and playing,” he adds. There will also be a historic component, focusing on the lineage of American music Bolden helped innovate, from jazz, to R&B, to soul, to hip-hop.
“I didn’t grow up in Central City but I was there three times a week throughout childhood and I think the only thing that separates me from a kid growing up in Central City is access,” says PJ. “The next part is fundraising to get it up so the house doesn’t literally fall over. This is not something I need to do on my own. I’m happy to be the leader and the face of it. I have the full vision. But I welcome all help. I know I’m a busy person, and things may not be happening as fast as they’d like. I just want people to know that the vision is clear and the love is there. Let’s just continue to praise the culture.”
Before breaking ground on Buddy’s House, PJ will come back from the Gumbo tour to celebrate the holidays at the House of Blues on November 23, Black Friday. There, he’ll perform material from Christmas with PJ, a holiday album that is the culmination of his spiritual and secular backgrounds. It’s extemporaneous and exploratory, too, much like the performance style he developed in church. There’s a reggae version of “Winter Wonderland.” There’s an original gospel song, a record featuring Yolanda Adams, and an original lullaby written for his daughter, Peyton. The most quintessentially PJ song on it, though, is the bounce version of Donny Hathaway’s 1970 holiday homage, “This Christmas.”
That’s right. We’re twerkin’ for Jesus this year, y’all.
“For every one of the songs, I was thinking how I was going to present them,” says PJ. “On Twitter, maybe two years ago, somebody said ‘When you do a Christmas album, you have to do a bounce version of ‘This Christmas,’’ and it’s stuck with me. When I came back to it, I started to mess around with the bounce beat and it just went perfectly. I went all the way there with the string orchestra and the horns on top of the bounce beat. I don’t think anyone’s gone that far, to have an orchestra over bounce drums. But that’s me, though! That’s the dichotomy of PJ. A brown beat for Jesus’ birthday with a full orchestra on it. Come on!”
That song is just the latest in a long line of examples from PJ’s blueprint to success. “I stuck around long enough for it to change from people not accepting it to people respecting it. I’m starting to see that people really respect that I did it my way.”