Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


MORTON, Jelly Roll

(b Ferdinand Joseph Lemott, 20 September 1890, New Orleans LA; d 10 July 1941, Los Angeles CA) Pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader; the first great composer in jazz. Details of his birth began to come to light in 1986, researched by Lawrence Gushee and published by Laurie Wright in Storyville magazine: a baptismal certificate was found for which earlier scholars had looked in the wrong parish, perhaps purposely misled by the family. In addition, Morton wrote the above date on an application for a Mexican visa in October 1921. But he had also given his year of birth as 1885, making himself older perhaps to give more weight to his claim to have invented jazz: he was one of the most flamboyant characters in the history of the music. Lemott is the name on the baptismal certificate; his father's (free Creole) family's name seems to have been Lamothe; he adapted his stepfather's surname of Mouton; much of his ancestry was Haitian. He heard Buddy Bolden and Freddie Keppard, began playing piano in brothels and was kicked out of his godmother's house sometime in 1905-7, acquiring an immediate taste for the money and for show business: soon experienced in black vaudeville, 'He thought he was a funny man, and my God, he was as funny as a sick baby. He never made nobody laugh' (Benjamin F. 'Reb' Spikes, 1888-1982, was interviewed many times including for Rutgers Institute of Jazz in 1980 by Patricia Willard, quoted by Wright). Morton was apparently at various times a pimp, gambler and pool shark, but always had his greatest success in music. He gigged in New Orleans and other Louisiana/Mississippi towns, made it to NYC by 1911 but worked in Texas '12-14, Chicago '14-17, on the West Coast '17-22, then back to Chicago: he made his first recordings '23-4 with small groups including the New Orleans Rhythm Kings; two duets with King Oliver '24 were failures (they were unsuited to each other) but may have inspired a later duet by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines (who were not). Nineteen piano solos made in Richmond, Indiana for Gennett '23-4 are invaluable, all his own compositions, including several with his 'Spanish tinge', a habañera beat that became a permanent part of the jazz repertoire. (The CD Ferd 'Jelly Roll' Morton, released in 1995 on the tiny Retrieval label in Holland, had 24 solos '23-6, superbly transferred by John R. T. Davies.)
Two sides for Gennett made early in 1926 by 'Jelly-Roll Morton's Incomparables' were by a trio, the only ones by a touring group as opposed to studio pick-up bands; four more solos were made for Vocalion in February 1926, then about 89 sides (including alternative takes) by 'Jelly-Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers' for Victor between September 1926 and October 1930 made him famous for ever. Sides made in Chicago '26-7 included 'Dead Man Blues', 'Sidewalk Blues', 'Hyena Stomp' with comedy (bad jokes, klaxons, etc) but the rest were mostly pure music. Others in NYC (or Camden NJ) included trio sides with Barney Bigard and Zutty Singleton (and six more piano solos); one of the most successful dates, the first NYC session in June '28, included the trio 'Shreveport Stomp' with Tommy Benford and Omer Simeon; the beautiful quartet 'Mournful Serenade' (paying tribute to Oliver's 'Chimes Blues') added Julius 'Geechie' Fields (b c.1903, Georgia) on trombone. Septet sides added Ward Pinkett, trumpet (b 29 April 1906, Newport News VA; d 15 March 1937, NYC), Bill Benford on tuba and Lee Blair on banjo, including the fine 'Georgia Stomp', 'Boogaloo' and others. In the studio Morton's genius arranged tunes, decided voicings and harmonies etc to make classically beautiful recordings of the genre; thus his composing, arranging and leading from the piano were all of a piece, like that of Duke Ellington. Simeon remembered that Morton would pay the musicians to rehearse before the sessions, almost unheard of then, a measure of his seriousness and integrity; he knew that he was both conceiving jazz compositions and showing that the jazz ensemble could be dominated by a composer, just as Louis Armstrong was dominating it as a soloist. Ironically, Ellington despised Morton for his bragging and vulgarity; but despite social handicaps Morton, like Ellington, knew his own worth and had an innate dignity which could not be taken away. All the Red Hot Peppers recordings including alternative takes have been issued on a five-CD set on Bluebird, single-CD compilations on many labels.
Unfortunately for Morton, he was doing all this when he was already pushing middle age and as his essentially New Orleans style was increasingly heard as old-fashioned. As with King Oliver, the move to NYC was the beginning of his decline; the Great Depression wrecked the record business anyway and except for an obscure 1934 session with Wingy Manone, Morton made no commercial recordings for nearly eight years. But in May-July 1938 he was running an upstairs café in Washington DC, and Alan Lomax recorded him talking, singing and playing the piano for the Library of Congress, capturing priceless reminiscences about early jazz and New Orleans, as well as his music. Most of the LoC recordings had been issued on at least eight LPs on Circle, Riverside and Classic Jazz Master labels, but the transfer had never been done well; abridgements were available on Affinity and Rounder CDs, and finally Rounder came out with the complete LoC sessions on seven CDs in 2005, plus another CD of interviews by Lomax with people who knew Morton. The recordings as issued were sonically inferior to Rounder's own earlier abridgement: the masters provided by the LoC engineers had too much processing applied to them by the label, removing some of the atmosphere, and furthermore the packaging was absurd, a large, mostly empty box supposed to resemble a piano. Nevertheless the recordings were listenable, complete and with pitch correction for the first time. The box won two Grammys in 2006, for Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes (a very good booklet by John Szwed).

Morton scuffled without much reward and lost money in an ill-fated cosmetics company; Victor recorded him again in 1939 (on Bluebird) with a band including Singleton, Sidney De Paris, Albert Nicholas on clarinet and others including Sidney Bechet on some tracks, 'Winin' Boy Blues' and 'I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say' also with Morton vocals. Recordings for General that year (later on Commodore) included a band with Red Allen, Nicholas, Singleton and Wellman Braud, and ten gorgeous piano solos (plus alternative takes) including 'King Porter Stomp' (first recorded in 1923 in Richmond, later by the Peppers; a hit throughout the Swing Era by Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman), 'The Naked Dance', several vocals including 'Winin' Boy' and 'Mamie's Blues'. Morton's claim to have invented jazz was almost justified: he was one of those who began as a ragtime pianist and turned it into something else; 'King Porter Stomp' has the structure of a classic rag, and his solo recording of Scott Joplin's 'Original Rags' in 1939 compared to any straight performance from Joplin's sheet music is an object lesson in the difference. He had gone to the West Coast to seek his fortune, and he died just as a revival of  the New Orleans style was gathering steam: if he had lived a little longer he would have been a bigger star than ever. Lomax's book Mr Jelly Roll (1950) was a fictional ‘autobiography’ (included in the Rounder box); Laurie Wright's bio-discography Mr Jelly Lord (1980) was a more valuable document. Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West by Phil Pastras (2001) was a meticulously researched delight.

Some people disliked Morton for his showmanship and boosterism, irrationally ignoring his very real contributions. For a good story anout that, see Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, a radio show where he was a guest.