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Morton, Jelly Roll

Jelly Roll Morton

Pianist, composer, bandleader

A Colorful Character

Pioneered Jazz Style

Eclectic Musical Influences

Recorded Musical Legacy After the Fact

Selected discography

Sources

When one hears of jazz having its roots in New Orleans, some of the first jazz musicians that come to mind are Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. While jazz historian Gunther Schuller considered Armstrong the first great soloist, he called Morton the first great composer in his book Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. In addition to being a composer, Morton was a vocalist, pianist, arranger, and ensemble leader. His contributions to the development of jazz were improvisational as well as compositional and his legacy endures in spite of the fact that he didnt make his first commercial recordings until 1923, twenty years after he first appeared on the New Orleans musical scene.

Much of what we know about Mortons early years is the result of contemporary accounts and Mortons own reminiscences, both of which vary in reliability. In his late-in-life Library of Congress Recordings (1938), he recalled his musical past and recreated many of the styles from the first two decades of the twentieth century. Mortons personality has also tended to obscure his very real contributions to jazz. As Waldo Terry observed in This Is Ragtime, Morton was a complete singing, joke-telling, piano-playing entertainer, but he was also a key figure in the development of jazz music. In The Jazz Tradition, Martin Williams noted the colorful character of Jelly Roll Morton seems to be one of the abiding cliches of jazz history.

A Colorful Character

Morton was at various times in his life a gambler, pool-hall hustler, procurer, nightclub owner, and itinerant piano player. He traveled around the country, and his piano playing was heard all the way from Los Angeles to New York. He was known as a braggart and a liar and claimed to have invented jazz in 1902. Williams confessed that one of the problems biographers face when researching Morton is that he had a large and fragile ego that hardly encourages one to try and understand the man. Summing up Mortons personality in The Real Jazz, Old and New, Stephen Longstreet concluded that he was no easy man to get along with. He knew he was good and his bump of ego was salted with genius. He was a creative jazz man, not just a performer; part naive, part mean.

Morton was known to have arrived on the New Orleans scene around 1902. To understand the context in which Morton worked, it is necessary to learn a little about New Orleans geography. Two sections of the cityone uptown and the other downtownhad been partitioned, so to speak, into areas where all kinds of vice were allowed. Music was played in the bordellos, which

For the Record

Name originally Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe (some sources cite surname as Lemott or La Mothe); born September 20, 1885 (some sources say October 20, 1890), in Gulfport, LA (some sources say New Orleans, LA); died July 10, 1941, in Los Angeles, CA; son of F.P Ed and Louise (Monette) La Menthe.

Pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader credited by many jazz historians as being the father of jazz. Played piano, sang, and led New Orleans-style jazz ensembles from around 1902-1940. Made first commercial recordings in Chicago in 1923.

Awards: Named to the Down Beat Critics Poll Hall of Fame, 1963.

ranged from converted mansions to the lowest cribs, as well as in gambling dens and other types of clubs. Each section had its own style of music, with the uptown style characterized as hot and emotional and largely played by blacks. The downtown section was the legendary Storyville, a bawdy, sinful area nestled in the French Quarter. Storyville was named after New Orleans Alderman Sidney Story, who initiated the city ordinance that set up the two areas where prostitution could be carried on legally. Down in Storyville, there were primarily Creoles playing a more controlled type of music, and this is the area where Morton lived and played.

Pioneered Jazz Style

New Orleans around the turn of the century was bursting with music, and ragtime was the music of the period. In Mortons early New Orleans days, from about 1902 to 1907, contemporary accounts indicate that he was playing something different. According to Schuller, It takes only a few moments of comparative listening to any early ragtime recording to hear the marked difference between Jelly Rolls jazz style and the more rigid, conservative ragtime. He loosened up the rhythmic tightness of ragtime with his left hand, and he made right-hand improvisation the keynote of his piano style. By means of embellishments and improvisations, he gave melodic lines a freer, looser feeling.

Ragtime, within a decade of its emergence around 1899, was overtaken by exploitation, excess, popularization, decadence, and its own implicit limitations, according to Williams. Calling Morton a modernist for the moment he represents, Williams further noted that Morton was part of a movement which saved things from decadence. Ragtime was structurally, rhythmically, and emotionally limited, and Morton seems to have known it.

An overlapping movement in American popular music in the first decade of the century was the blues craze, announced by the publication of W.C. Handys songs, St. Louis Blues and Beale Street Blues. As a composer, Morton considered ragtime and blues not just musical styles, but specific musical forms. Ragtime was a multi-thematic structure, while the blues was a single-theme form with a predetermined chord progression. According to Schuller and other writers, Morton distinguished between ragtime, blues, and jazz before leaving New Orleans in 1907.

Schuller is one writer who appears willing to accept, at least in part, Mortons claim to have invented jazz, noting the variety of sources Morton used in his music: ragtime, opera, and French and Spanish popular songs and dances. To these musical materials, Schuller concluded, Morton applied a smoother, more swinging syncopation and a greater degree of improvisational license. Schuller also credited Morton with blending the more technically controlled playing of Downtown with the hot, unabashedly emotional playing of Uptown. He characterized Mortons improvisational style as one based on themes or melodies, rather than improvisations over a chord structure, as in later jazz. Finally, Schuller pointed out that Morton took the vertical harmonic emphasis of ragtime and turned it into a horizontal music with a rhythmic forward momentum without which, either in Mortons or subsequent players terms, there could be no jazz.

Eclectic Musical Influences

Mortons innovations as a piano player, and later as an ensemble leader, reflect his compositional genius. By means of melodic improvisation, Morton would give songs variations over chorus-like patterns, combining several strains into larger complete ideas. In addition to ragtime, with its multi-thematic structure, blues influenced Mortons style of play and composition. It was likely the blues, being essentially improvised, that allowed Morton the improvisational freedom and emotional expressiveness that one side of his nature demanded, according to Schuller.

He also absorbed Italian and French opera, as did other trained Creole musicians of the day. His solo and ensemble playing has been praised by critics for his use of countermelodies, in ensemble to accompany soloists and in his orchestral-like compositions played on solo piano. It was likely his opera influences that gave him an appreciation of unity of form and allowed him to introduce countermelodies and embellish his melodies by repetition. Schuller believes that through his exposure to opera, Morton learned to value the sense of enrichment and complexity contributed by such counterlines.

Morton may have also invented the jazz break, typically two bars of improvisation inserted into a composition. Again quoting Schuller, Morton was certainly the first jazz musician to insist upon inclusion of particular compositional details [such as riffs and breaks] in an otherwise improvised performance. He constantly sought variety and contrast in his formal compositions. When the composition did not already contain sufficient formal contrast, Schuller continued, Morton would intersperse blues choruses at just the proper moments.

Recorded Musical Legacy After the Fact

Ironically, when Morton hit his peak in the Red Hot Peppers ensemble recordings of 1926-28, his particular mixture of ragtime and blues and his strong sense of form in his compositions had become old-fashioned. According to Schuller, Morton was an anachronistic figure in mid-career. By the late 1920s popular music had strongly influenced jazz, and Louis Armstrongs innovations had left the New Orleans tradition of collective improvisation way behind. Nevertheless, Schuller stated, that the most perfect examples of this kind of improvised-ensemble organization were produced by Jelly Roll and his Red Hot Peppers, where contrasting individual lines attain a degree of complexity and unity that jazz had not experienced before.

It is Williamss belief that Mortons Red Hot Peppers recordings, done in Chicago and New York, form the basis of his musical reputation. The recording sessions were successful for several reasons. For one, they were carefully rehearsed. Morton wrote out or dictated the arrangements, and he discussed with the players where the solos and breaks should occur. The sessions combined improvisation and pre-arranged compositions in a perfect example of the New Orleans style of collective improvisation. Some of the best cuts from these sessions, according to Schuller, are Black Bottom Stomp, Smoke House Blues, Dead Man Blues, Grandpas Spells, and Original Jelly Roll Blues. Later sessions, often with other musicians, would not be as memorable.

The musical record left by Jelly Roll Morton is incomplete, leaving out as it does the first 20 years of his career. However, all is not lost, and through Jelly Rolls genius he was able to recreate the piano styles of Storyville in the first decade of the twentieth century. Listening to his solo piano on songs like Sporting House Rag and Naked Dance from the 1939 sessions for General (later released as New Orleans Memories), one understands and hears that Mortons piano playing was characterized by rhythmic variety, shifted accents, delays and anticipations, and melodic embellishments, all leading to a sense of fantastic and frenzied variation. His most successful solo and ensemble recordings reveal his vision of jazz as requiring contrast and variety at all levels.

Selected discography

Single releases; as unaccompanied soloist

King Porter Stomp/Wolverine Blues, Gennett, 1923.

Perfect Rag/New Orleans Joys (New Orleans Blues), Gennett, 1923.

Grandpas Spells/Kansas City Stomp, Gennett, 1923.

The Pearls, Gennett, 1923.

Bucktown Blues/Tom Cat Blues, Gennett, 1924.

Jelly Roll Blues/Big Fat Ham, Gennett, 1924.

Shreveport Stomp/Stratford Hunch, Gennett, 1924.

Mamanita/35th Street Blues, Paramount, 1924.

London Blues (Shoe Shiners Drag), Rialto, 1924.

Mr. Jelly Lord, Vocal Style Song Roll (piano roll), 1924.

Dead Man Blues, QRS (piano roll), 1926.

Fat Meat and Greens/Sweetheart O Mine, Vocalion, 1926.

King Porter Stomp/The Pearls, Vocalion, 1926.

Seattle Hunch/Freakish, Victor, 1929.

Pep/Fat Frances, Victor, 1929.

Winin Boy Blues/Honky Tonk Music, Jazzman, 1937.

Finger Buster/Creepy Feeling, Jazzman, 1937.

Original Rags/Mamies Blues, General, 1939.

The Naked Dance/Michigan Water Blues, General, 1939.

The Crave/Buddy Boldens Blues, General, 1939.

Mister Joe/Winin Boy Blues, General, 1939.

King Porter Stomp/Dont You Leave Me Here, General, 1939.

Single releases; as leader of the Jelly Roll Morton Stomp Kings

Muddy Water Blues/Big Fat Ham, Paramount, 1923.

Someday Sweetheart/London Blues, OK, 1923.

Mr. Jelly Lord/Steady Roll, Paramount, 1923.

Tom Cat Blues/King Porter Stomp, Autograph, 1924.

High Society/Fish Tail Blues, Autograph, 1924.

Tiger Rag/Weary Blues, Autograph, 1924.

Single releases; as leader of the Red Hot Peppers (unless otherwise noted)

Black Bottom Stomp/The Chant, Victor, 1926.

Smoke House Blues/Steamboat Stomp, Victor, 1926.

Sidewalk Blues/Dead Man Blues, Victor, 1926.

Someday Sweetheart/Original Jelly Roll Blues, Victor, 1927.

Doctor Jazz, Victor, 1927.

Grandpas Spells/Cannon Ball Blues, Victor, 1927.

Billy Goat Stomp/Hyena Stomp, Victor, 1927.

Jungle Blues, Victor, 1927.

The Pearls/Beale Street Blues, Victor, 1927.

Georgia Swing/Mournful Serenade, Victor, 1928.

Kansas City Stomps/Boogaboo, Victor, 1928.

Shoe Shiners Rag, Victor, 1928

Red Hot Pepper/Deep Creek Blues, Victor, 1929.

Burning The Iceberg/Tank Town Bump, Victor, 1929.

New Orleans Bump (Moravia Blues)/Pretty Lil, Victor, 1929.

Courthouse Bump/Sweet Anita Mine, Victor, 1929.

Try Me Out/Down My Way, Victor, 1929.

Mint Julep/Low Gravy, Victor, 1930.

Sweet Peter/Jersey Joe, Victor, 1930.

Mississippi Mud/Primrose Stomp, Victor, 1930.

Im Looking For A Little Bluebird/Mushmouth Shuffle, Victor, 1930.

Thatll Never Do/Fickle Fay Creep, Victor, 1930.

If Someone Would Only Love Me/Oil Well, Victor, 1930.

Each Day/Strokin Away, Victor, 1930.

Little Lawrence/Harmony Blues, Victor, 1930.

Fussy Mabel/Pontchartrain Blues, Victor, 1930.

Crazy Chords/Gambling Jack, Victor, 1930.

Load Of Coal, Victor, 1930.

Blue Blood Blues, Victor, 1930.

Single releases; with his trio

Wolverine Blues/Mr. Jelly Lord, Victor, 1927.

Shreveport, Victor, 1928.

Single releases; as Jelly Roll Morton and His Orchestra

Didnt He Ramble/Winin Boy Blues, Bluebird, 1939.

High Society/I Though I Heard Buddy Bolden Say, Bluebird, 1939.

Climax Rag/West End Blues, Bluebird, 1939.

Dont You Leave Me Here/Ballin The Jack, Bluebird, 1939.

Single releases; with the Morton Sextet

Why/Get The Bucket, General, 1940.

If You Knew/Shake It, General, 1940.

Single releases; with the Jelly Roll Morton Seven

Sweet Substitute/Panama, General, 1940.

Good Old New York/Big Lip Blues, General, 1940.

Mamas Got A Baby/My Home Is In A Southern Town, General, 1940.

Dirty, Dirty, Dirty/Swinging The Elks, General, 1940.

LPs

Stomps and Joys, RCA Victor.

Hot Jazz, Hokum and Hilarity, RCA Victor.

The King of New Orleans Jazz, RCA Victor.

Jelly Roll Morton Classic Piano Solos, Riverside.

The Incomparable Jelly Roll Morton, Riverside.

Ferd Jelly Roll Morton (contains 19 of the 1923-24 piano solos), Fountain.

Piano Rolls, Biograph.

Jelly Roll Morton (recorded from 1924 piano rolls), Everest.

New Orleans Memories, Atlantic.

The Library of Congress Recordings, Volumes 1-12, Circle, 1948; reissued, Riverside, 1957.

New Orleans Memories Plus Two (contains piano solos and vocals from 1939), Commodore, 1979.

N.O.R.K., New Orleans Rhythm Kings with Jelly Roll Morton, Riverside.

The Pearls (contains 1926-28 Red Hot Peppers and trio sides), Bluebird, 1988.

And His Red Hot Peppers, Volumes 1-8, RCA Victor (France).

Morton Sixes and Sevens (contains last commercial recordings from 1940), Fontana.

1923/1924 (contains the 1923-24 piano solos), Milestone, 1992.

Sources

Books

Delauney, Charles, New Hot Discography: The Standard Directory of Recorded Jazz, Criterion, 1948.

Lomax, Alan, Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1950; reprinted by Grove Press, 1956; 2nd edition, University of California Press, 1973.

Longstreet, Stephen, The Real Jazz, Old and New, Louisiana State University Press, 1956.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, edited by Barry Kemfeld, Macmillan, 1988.

Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, Oxford University Press, 1968.

Waldo, Terry, This Is Ragtime, Hawthorn Books, 1976.

Williams, Martin, The Jazz Tradition, Oxford University Press, 1970; new and revised edition, 1983.

Other

Liner notes from New Orleans Memories Plus Two, Commodore, 1979.

David Bianco

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Morton, Jelly Roll

Jelly Roll Morton

American musician Jelly Roll Morton (1885–1941) was America's first great jazz composer and one of the foremost contributors to American music. A pioneering jazz musician and leader as well, Morton claimed to have invented the term jazz and the musical style itself at the height of the Swing Era in 1902 while he performed in New Orleans. Morton was also an influential composer; his works were widely recorded, reaching a vast audience.

Although an important and respected innovator in the transitional period from early to orchestral jazz, Morton had a predilection for embellishing the truth about himself. Because of this, the validity of his claim that he invented the term "jazz" is uncertain. With a penchant for the ostentatious, Morton was known for his colorful clothing and the diamond in his front tooth. Morton's vast output of work was recorded in 1938 at the Library of Congress during a series of several interviews. The resulting eight hours have been called by the Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, "perhaps the most important oral history of jazz ever issued."

Much of the information about Morton's early life is uncertain, due in no small measure to his tendency to invent facts about himself. He was born Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe, on either September 20, 1885, or October 20, 1890, and probably in Gulfport, Louisiana, or Gulfport, Mississippi. Morton's creole father, E.P. Le Menthe (or LaMothe), was a carpenter. La Menthe was also a classically-schooled trombonist and took young Morton to the French Opera House in New Orleans. But La Menthe abandoned the family when Morton was very young. After Morton's mother married Willie Morton, the boy lived in Biloxi and Meridian, Mississippi, and then in New Orleans, mostly under the care of his aunt and godmother, Eulalie—or "Lallie"—Echo.

Learned Several Instruments at Early Age

Morton's Aunt Lallie took him everywhere, including saloons and even jail. But it was in jail, when he heard the inmates singing, that Morton found his first musical inspiration. His first musical instrument, though made of a tin pan and two chair legs, sounded to him like a symphony. Soon Morton learned to play other, more traditional instruments. By age five he could play the harmonica and at age six he had mastered the Jews' harp. Morton was an accomplished guitarist by age seven. He studied the guitar and was soon playing in street bands. He then learned the trombone, which he played in the houses of the red light district in New Orleans known as Storyville. By the time he was a teenager, he also played the piano, which he learned after hearing a concert at the opera house. His aunt sent him to study for a time with a black university professor of music. Morton's mother died when he was 14 or 15, but his aunt was by far the greatest influence in his life. A firm believer in voodoo, his aunt kept glasses of water around the house from which Morton believed he heard voices echoing in the night. Morton also heard chains rattling and the sewing machine running. He would forever be influenced by voodoo and always kept holy water near his bed.

Morton began to earn money—$20 in tips on his first night—as a pianist and gambler in the red light district of New Orleans. Morton's family had great respect for opera, but any other type of music was considered inappropriate, so when his aunt found out where the money for Morton's new clothes was coming from, she threw him out of the house so he would not corrupt his younger sisters.

Discovered Jazz

In 1902, Morton met famous ragtime pianist and composer Tony Jackson. Morton began meeting with Jackson and other musicians in back rooms after all the nightclubs closed, playing until the afternoon. Morton claimed that jazz was born there and that the word was his invention. About this time, he wrote "New Orleans Blues" and "King Porter Stomp," among other early tunes.

When he left his aunt's house, Morton also left New Orleans, never to return. He wandered the country, spending time in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Chicago in 1904, and in Mobile, Alabama, in 1905. He found work as a musician, a pool shark, and a gambler. Morton even worked as a vaudeville comedian in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1908, and three years later he toured with McCabe's Minstrel Troubadours in St. Louis and Kansas City.

In 1911, Morton arrived in New York City sporting a diamond in his front tooth. It was there that he first played "Jelly Roll Blues," which was published for orchestra in Chicago in 1915, making it perhaps the first jazz orchestration ever published. Several more Morton orchestrations would follow.

Success in the 1920s

The 1920s were Morton's most productive years. He was offered a job in Los Angeles in 1917, where he worked as a bandleader and in other entertainment areas. He also traveled a great deal, performing anywhere from Alaska to Tijuana, Mexico. While in Los Angeles, he began a relationship with Anita Johnson (or Gonzales), a girlfriend from New Orleans. Johnson had owned a saloon in Las Vegas but moved to Los Angeles and bought a small hotel. Morton often referred to her as his wife, although there is no record of their marriage. Johnson was musically inclined herself, and she wrote the lyrics for Morton's "Dead Man Blues." Johnson had a good singing voice, as well, but Morton never allowed her to perform. She also traveled with him when he went on tour, mainly because Morton was intensely jealous of her and did not want her out of his sight.

By this time, Morton owned several small businesses. He was making money and establishing a name for himself. Morton was not above being ostentatious and boastful. He sometimes showed friends a trunk full of money, and his diamond-studded apparel and teeth were well known. Yet, there was no denying his distinctive personality. He was part showman and part sideshow barker. In an age when musicians all wore tuxedos, Morton preferred white trousers and shoes, a wine-colored jacket, and diamonds on his tie and his socks. But he was a dedicated composer, often waking up at night to scribble ideas and later demanding that the band musicians followed his compositions to the note.

In 1922 or 1923, Morton left Johnson and Los Angeles, returning to Chicago. For the next five years, he was the staff arranger for the Melrose Publishing House. A great number of his compositions were recorded during this period, including influential pieces on the Gennett label. He recorded "London Blues," "Grandpa's Spell," and "The Pearls." He also spent some time with a group of white musicians known as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Morton was one of the first blacks to play in a mixed band.

Morton reached the height of his popularity between 1926 and 1930. He formed a band called the Red Hot Peppers and produced several classic recordings for the Victor label, both in Chicago and New York. The classics "Kansas City Stomp," "Sidewalk Blues," "The Chant Mournful Serenade," and "Ponchatrain Blues" were released during this period. Morton's Chicago recordings also featured some of the best sidemen from New Orleans, such as Kid Ory on the trombone and Baby Dodds on the drums. He also found time to tour with W.C. Handy and played piano with Henry Crowder's band.

While at the Plantation Club in Chicago in 1927, Morton first met Mabel Bertrand, a creole dancer who had been raised in a convent after her parents died and who had entertained in Europe. They were married in 1928 and traveled together in Morton's Lincoln, while the rest of the band rode in a colorful bus proclaiming, "Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers." In 1928, Morton spent two months at Harlem's Rose Danceland in New York City. The following year he led an all-girl revue in Chicago, and in 1931 he was back in Harlem with his own ensemble. He became the house pianist in Harlem's Red Apple Club in 1934.

The Depression Took Its Toll

By this time, the Depression was taking its toll on the recording industry. Big bands with such colorful figures as Louis Armstrong were coming into fashion, and Morton did not adapt to this new style. Due to his failure to adapt, Morton's success and prestige were dwindling. His fall in popularity as a bandleader had also nearly collapsed his financial empire when he moved to Washington, D.C. in 1935 for a long engagement at a the Jungle Club.

One night at the club in 1939, Morton admonished and then slapped a rowdy club patron. The man attacked Morton with a knife, slicing Morton in the head and chest. He never fully recovered from the incident, which only aggravated other existing health problems. In order to survive, Morton began accepting small weekly checks from Catholic Charities.

For a short time in 1938, Morton established a music publishing company in New York. With his recordings, he took advantage of public interest once again focused on the New Orleans jazz style. But his health was failing. Morton returned to Los Angeles in 1940, leaving his wife behind, although he kept in touch with her. While in Los Angeles, he renewed his relationship with Anita Johnson. Hoping that the California climate would restore his health, Morton formed a new band. Before long, his failing strength made it impossible to work.

In May of 1941, Morton checked into Los Angeles County General Hospital. On June 10, at the age of fifty, Morton died in Johnson's arms. The cause of death was heart failure resulting from chronic high blood pressure. A high mass was sung for Jelly Roll Morton in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. His pallbearers included Kid Ory and other members of his band. Morton's will did not mention his wife. Whatever he had of value, including royalties, was bequeathed to Anita Johnson.

Morton's Legacy

George C. Wolfe's 1992 Broadway musical, Jelly's Last Jam, was loosely based on Morton's life. Recognized as the first great composer of jazz, he was an excellent pianist and an intelligent innovator who changed the early ragtime style into a new form. Morton's early works have become collector's items. Perhaps no jazz musician from the early days is now so completely recorded on disc. Morton's great legacy is found in the eight hours of recordings and interviews collected together by Alan Lomax in 1938 and released to the public ten years later.

Books

Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography, Norton, 1982.

Online

"A History of Jazz Before 1930," The Hot Jazz Archive,www.redhotjazz.com.

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Morton, Jelly Roll

Jelly Roll Morton, 1890–1941, American jazz musician, composer, and band leader, originally named Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, b. Gulfport, La. He began studying piano as a child and in his youth was a pianist in the colorful Storyville district of New Orleans. Later he played with Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, and other noted jazz musicians, and in the late 1920s made a series of highly praised recordings at the head of the Red Hot Peppers band. His popularity severely declined in the 1930s. Although Morton is regarded by many as the greatest New Orleans pianist and the first great jazz composer, his egocentricity, moodiness, and quarrelsome disposition led many musicians and critics to disparage him. His compositions and arrangements, many of which reflect his Creole background, include Dead Man Blues,Jelly Roll Blues,King Porter Stomp,Black Bottom Stomp,Mama Nita,Mamie's Blues (or 219 Blues), Moi pas l'aimez ça,The Pearls,Sidewalk Blues, and Wolverine Blues. The publication of his collected scores in 1982 helped to spark a Morton revival in the United States.

See biography by A. Lomax (1950).

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Morton, ‘Jelly Roll’

Morton, ‘Jelly Roll’ (1885–1941) US jazz pianist, bandleader and composer, b. Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe. Morton played in the brothels of Storyville in New Orleans, before making some of the first jazz recordings (1923). Morton and his band, the Red Hot Peppers, combined blues, ragtime, and ‘stomp’ music on classics such as “Wolverine Blues” (1923).

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Morton, Jelly Roll 1885(?)–1941

Jelly Roll Morton 1885(?)1941

Jazz composer, musician

Learned Several Instruments at Early Age

Discovered Jazz

Success in the 1920s

Depression Took Its Toil

Mortons Legacy

Sources

Musical pioneer Jelly Roll Morton was Americas first great jazz composer. Although an important and respected innovator in the transitional period from early to orchestral jazz, Morton had a predilection for embellishing the truth about himself. Because of this, the validity of his claim that he invented the term jazz is uncertain. With a penchant for the ostentatious, Morton was known for his colorful clothing and the diamond in his front tooth. Mortons vast output of work was recorded in 1938 at the Library of Congress during a series of several interviews. The resulting eight hours have been called by the Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, perhaps the most important oral history of jazz ever issued.

Much of the information about Mortons early life is uncertain, due in no small measure to his tendency to invent facts about himself. One of his inventions was his nickname, which is a slang reference to sexual intercourse. He was born Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe, on either September 20, 1885, or October 20, 1890, and probably in Gulfport, Mississippi. Mortons creole father, E.P. Le Menthe (or LaMothe), was a carpenter. La Menthe was also a classically-schooled trombonist and took young Morton to the French Opera House in New Orleans. But La Menthe abandoned the family when Morton was very young. Afer Mortons mother married Willie Morton, the boy spent several years in Biloxi and Meridian, Mississippi, and then in New Orleans, mostly under the care of his aunt and godmother, Eulalieor LallieEcho.

Learned Several Instruments at Early Age

Mortons Aunt Lallie took him everywhere, including saloons and even jail. But it was in jail, when he heard the inmates singing, that Morton found his first musical inspiration. His first musical instrument, though made of a tin pan and two chair legs, sounded to him like a symphony. Soon Morton learned to play other, more traditional instruments. By age five he could play the harmonica and at age six he had mastered the jews-harp. Morton was an accomplished guitarist by age seven. He studied the guitar with a Spaniard and was soon playing in street bands. He then learned the trombone, which he played in the houses of the red light district in New Orleans known as Storyville. By the time he was a teenager, he also played the piano, which he learned after hearing a concert at the opera house.

At a Glance

Born Ferdinand Joseph La Men the on September 20, 1885 or October 20, 1890, in Guifport, MS; died on June 11, 1941, in Los Angeles CA.

Career: First composition, Jelly Roll Blues 1915; King Porter Stomp, 1916; Melrose Publishing House, staff arranger, 1923-28; recorded on Victor label; formed Red Hot Peppers, 1926-30; 8 hours of his music recorded for Library of Congress, 1938.

His aunt sent him to study for a time with a black university professor of music named Nickerson.

Mortons mother died when he was 14 or 15, but his aunt was by far the greatest influence in his life. A firm believer in voodoo, his aunt kept glasses of water around the house from which Morton believed he heard voices echoing in the night. Morton also heard chains rattling and the sewing machine running. He would forever be influenced by voodoo and always kept holy water near his bed.

Morton began to earn money$20 in tips on his first nightas a pianist and gambler in the red light district of New Orleans. Mortons family had great respect for opera, but any other type of music was considered inappropriate, so when his aunt found out where the money for Mortons new clothes was coming from, she threw him out of the house so he would not corrupt his younger sisters.

Discovered Jazz

In 1902, Morton met famous ragtime pianist and composer Tony Jackson. Morton began meeting with Jackson and other musicians in back rooms after all the nightclubs closed, playing until the afternoon. Morton claimed that jazz was born there, and that the word was his invention. About this time, he wrote New Orleans Blues and King Porter Stomp, among other early tunes.

When he left his aunts house, Morton also left New Orleans, never to return. He wandered the country, spending time in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Chicago in 1904, and in Mobile, Alabama in 1905. He found work as a musician, a pool shark, and a gambler. Morton even worked as a vaudeville comedian in Memphis, Tennessee in 1908, and three years later he toured with McCabes Minstrel Troubadours in St. Louis and Kansas City.

In 1911, Morton arrived in New York City sporting a diamond in his front tooth. It was there that he first played Jelly Roll Blues, which was published for orchestra in Chicago in 1915, making it perhaps the first jazz orchestration ever published. Several more Morton orchestrations would follow.

Success in the 1920s

The 1920s were Mortons most productive years. He was offered a job in Los Angeles in 1917, where he worked as a bandleader and in other entertainment areas. He also traveled a great deal, performing anywhere from Alaska to Tijuana, Mexico. While in Los Angeles, he began a relationship with Anita Johnson (or Gonzales), a girlfriend from New Orleans. Johnson had owned a saloon in Las Vegas but moved to Los Angeles and bought a small hotel. Morton often referred to her as his wife, although there is no record of their marriage. Johnson was musically inclined herself, and she wrote the lyrics for Mortons Dead Man Blues. Johnson had a good singing voice, as well, but Morton never allowed her to perform. She also traveled with him when he went on tour, mainly because Morton was intensely jealous of her and did not want her out of his sight.

By this time, Morton owned several small businesses. He was making money and establishing a name for himself. Morton was not above being ostentatious and boastful. He sometimes showed friends a trunk full of money, and his diamond-studded apparel and teeth were well known. Yet, there was no denying his distinctive personality. He was part showman and part sideshow barker. In an age when musicians all wore tuxedos, Morton preferred white trousers and shoes, a wine-colored jacket, and diamonds on his tie and his socks. But he was a dedicated composer, often waking up at night to scribble ideas and later demanding that the band musicians followed his compositions to the note.

In 1922 or 1923, Morton left Johnson and Los Angeles, returning to Chicago. For the next five years, he was the staff arranger for the Melrose Publishing House. A great number of his compositions were recorded during this period, including influential pieces on the Gennett label. He recorded London Blues, Grandpas Spell, and The Pearls. He also spent some time with a group of white musicians known as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Morton was one of the first blacks to play in a mixed band.

Morton reached the height of his popularity between 1926 and 1930. He formed a band called the Red Hot Peppers produced several classic recordings for the Victor label, both in Chicago and New York. The classics Kansas City Stomp, Sidewalk Blues, The Chant Mournful Serenade, and Ponchatrain Blues were released during this period. Mortons Chicago recordings also featured some of the best sidemen from New Orleans, such as Kid Ory on the trombone and Baby Dodds on the drums. He also found time to tour with W.C. Handy and played piano with Henry Crow-ders band.

While at the Plantation Club in Chicago in 1927, Morton first met Mabel Bertrand, a creole dancer who had been raised in a convent after her parents died and who had entertained in Europe. They were married in 1928, and traveled together in Mortons Lincoln, while the rest of the band rode in a colorful bus proclaiming, Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers.

Depression Took Its Toil

By this time, the Depression was taking its toll the recording industry. Big bands with such colorful figures as Louis Armstrong were coming into fashion, and Morton did not adapt to this new style. Due to his failure to adapt, Mortons success and prestige were dwindling. His fall in popularity as a bandleader had also nearly collapsed his financial empire when he moved to Washington, D.C. in 1935 for a long engagement at a the Jungle Club.

One night at the club in 1939, Morton admonished and then slapped a rowdy club patron. The man attacked Morton with a knife, slicing Morton in the head and chest. He never fully recovered from the incident, which only aggravated other existing health problems. In order to survive, Morton began accepting small weekly checks from Catholic Charities.

For a short time in 1938, Morton established a music publishing company in New York. With his recordings, he took advantage of public interest once again focused on the New Orleans jazz style. But his health was failing. Morton returned to Los Angeles in 1940, leaving his wife behind, although he kept in touch with her. While in Los Angeles, he renewed his relationship with Anita Johnson. Hoping that the California climate would restore his health, Morton formed a new band. Before long, his failing strength made it impossible to work.

In May of 1941, Morton checked into Los Angeles County General Hospital, On June 10th, at the age of fifty, Morton died in Johnsons arms. The cause of death was heart failure resulting from chronic high blood pressure. Johnson later said that Morton had to die when he did because his Aunt Lallie, a voodoo practitioner, had already died. Since, Johnson said, his aunt had sold Mortons soul to the devil when he was boy, the devil called in his claim after Eulalie Echos death.

A high mass was sung for Jelly Roll Morton in St. Patricks Cathedral in New York City. His pallbearers included Kid Ory and other members of his band. Mortons will did not mention his wife. Whatever he had of value, including royalties, was bequeathed to Anita Johnson.

Mortons Legacy

George C. Wolfes 1992 Broadway musical, Jellys Last Jam, was loosely based on Mortons life. Recognized as the first great composer of jazz, he was an excellent pianist and an intelligent innovator who changed the early ragtime style into a new form. According to the Dictionary of Negro Biography, Morton felt that if music was loud and blatant..and if it was going to lack contrast and variety, it was simply bad music and poor jazz no matter how advanced in style.

Mortons early works have become collectors items. Perhaps no jazz musician from the early days is now so completely recorded on disc. His discography totals 22 pages. Mortons great legacy is found in the eight hours of recordings and interviews collected together by Alan Lomax in 1938 and released to the public ten years later. A hotel owner, a pool shark, and a consummate showman, Morton was an important historical figure in the history of music in America.

Sources

Books

Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Norton, 1982.

Online

http://www.redhotjazz.com

Corinne J. Naden and Jennifer M. York

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