Jelly Roll MortonJul 25th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1890-1941 Jelly Roll Morton brewed a gumbo of musical styles including New Orleans traditional, ragtime, blues, minstrel shows, hymns, spirituals, and classical genres to help create jazz. He was a prolific composer and one of the first to capitalize on the growing market for sheet music, and to master the art of creating music for recordings.
Started in Storyville
Morton was born Ferdinand LaMothe to a Creole family in New Orleans in 1890. His father was an amateur trombone player who abandoned the family, whereupon his mother remarried. As Creoles, combining elements of European and African American culture, the family was well educated in the arts. Morton showed an early interest in music and played several instruments before beginning piano lessons.
By 1902, he was performing at the bordellos of the Storyville district, perfecting his ability to play in any style. From French Quadrilles and other dance forms, to ragtime and light opera, he was already developing a broad repertoire while also carrying a pistol and learning to drink whiskey. Morton’s mother died when he was 14 years old. He took the name of his stepfather, Mouton, which became anglicized to Morton, and went to live with his strict great-grandmother. When she discovered his occupation, she disowned him. Morton went to Biloxi where his godmother lived and resumed work there.
Biloxi proved to be the first stop on what would become a 15-year odyssey throughout the south and beyond, hustling, card-sharping, and pool-sharking, gathering musical ideas, playing piano, and soon composing. “New Orleans Blues” and “Jelly Roll Blues” were written in about 1905, “King Porter Stomp” in 1906, and “Georgia Swing” in 1907. An uneventful stay in Chicago led to Houston and then California and Tijuana, where he absorbed Latino idioms. Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and even New York were part of his itinerary. In 1917, Morton set up shop in Los Angeles, running hotels and nightclubs with a woman named Anita Gonzalez. By some accounts, she bought him the diamond stud he sported in one of his front teeth, one of several Morton wore. He combined self-confidence with flair and braggadocio, a dandy whose business cards read “Creator of Jazz and Swing.”
In a sense, Morton was right; as one writer said, “He’d been ahead of his time for a long time before times caught up to him.” Arriving in Chicago in 1922, Morton found a fast-growing sheet music publishing business eager for new compositions, and a new recording industry selling “race music” to African American audiences. He convinced Walter Melrose of Melrose Publishing to take him on after demonstrating his encyclopedic knowledge of music on the piano and an inventory of hundreds of songs. Melrose in turn arranged for the Victor Recording Company to record Morton’s tunes.
Within two years, Melrose had become a major publisher largely due to Morton’s popularity, during which time his recorded output was prolific. Morton recorded solo piano, duets with King Oliver, a trio with a clarinet, and with a white group called the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. But his greatest success would be for Victor in 1926-1927 with the aptly named Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers. Formed largely of transplanted New Orleans jazz men who grasped the fundamentals of Morton’s music, the group achieved brilliance with a new style developed by Morton. He composed tunes for the three-minute length of a 78 rpm side, rehearsed the band in the composed ensemble sections, and then added solo improvisation to the mix. It was the beginning of the big band jazz sound, which Duke Ellington and others were developing at roughly the same time. The initial Victor session included “Black Bottom Stomp,” “The Chant,” and “Smokehouse Blues.” One week later, “Dead Man’s Blues,” “Steamboat Stomp,” and “Sidewalk Blues” were added, with subsequent sessions in 1926 and 1927.
That year, Morton met a dancer, Mabel Bertrand, who became his common-law wife. She moved with him to New York City in 1928 where he recorded over 50 songs for Victor over the next three years with a reformulated Red Hot Peppers. But the New York band was not quite up to standard, and circumstances were changing. Duke Ellington and others were dominant, with shifting audience tastes and styles. The Great Depression hurt the recording industry. Morton’s fortunes declined; he learned that Melrose had cheated him out of royalties. When Victor failed to renew his contract in 1930, he was soon impoverished and invisible, and in 1935, moved to Washington, D.C. Ironically, Morton’s music was still played; Benny Goodman enjoyed a huge hit with his “King Porter Stomp,” credited with launching the swing era. Morton wound up at a seedy D.C. club where he played piano and tended bar. He was found in 1938 by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax who recorded eight hours of Morton’s oral history and piano for the Library of Congress.
A reinvigorated Morton returned to New York in 1939, intent on recapturing his earnings and reputation, but he failed in both quests. Morton was perceived as a throwback to an outmoded style and the salacious origins of jazz. Even his nickname Jelly Roll had such connotations. Sadly, a New Orleans revival was getting underway that would have opened opportunities, but in 1939, he had what was probably a heart attack with arteriosclerosis. Embittered, Morton recorded several final sides in late 1939 and early 1940. That year, he went to Los Angeles, hoping to start a new band, but became too sick to play. He died in 1941.
Morton’s work was posthumously featured in two Broadway shows and many of his songs remain classics today. His role in developing jazz cannot be overestimated. The Library of Congress recordings reveal the authenticity of many of his claims, the virtuosity of his playing technique, and the technical depth and seemingly limitless span of his musicological knowledge. That he was able to synthesize such experience into a form that continues to live, grow, and inspire is his greatest legacy.