The life of the New Orleans piano “professor” who grew up playing in whorehouses and clip joints has long been the stuff of legend in both jazz and blues music. It’s been noted with regularity in recent years that the whole story about jazz music starting in New Orleans and moving up the Mississippi River to Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago before fanning out to New York is not really accurate. When musicians such as Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington began to speak of their influences they cited a crop of names that were unknown to those who had become familiar with the stock story of jazz. The reason that their influences, who came primarily from the Northeast part of the country, were largely unknown is because very few of them had been recorded. Many musicians who decided to remain in New Orleans after the Diaspora that occurred starting around 1917 also went unrecorded. The reason that the most known musicians got recorded was that they moved on to Chicago where the recording was being done at the time. One of the most flamboyant and well known of the New Orleans pianists was Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton. Morton ended up in Chicago in the 1920s and recorded his famous Hot Peppers sessions there. These recordings solidified Morton’s reputation as one of jazz music’s first composers and an astute arranger as well. The arrangements are often thought to be the best recorded representation of New Orleans jazz, but there is little doubt that they are vastly different than the music being played in New Orleans prior to 1920 by the King Oliver and Freddie Keppard bands. They made Morton a star, and he decided to head to New York, the new center of the jazz universe, in 1928.
He got a job at the Rose Danceland, a small club, leading the house band. Over the next few years he recorded sides for Victor until they dropped him in 1930, played in pick-up groups, and eventually ended up at the Red Apple Club, a squalid bar at 7th Avenue and 135th Street. By 1934, Jelly was “seedy and disillusioned” according to an unimpressed John Hammond, who saw him there. Morton was seen as a throwback to another era, and an unsavory one at that. No one would book him and no record companies wanted to record him. Yet he knew that his music was being played everywhere. Benny Goodman recorded a version of “King Porter Stomp” that was an immense hit, and Fletcher Henderson had also had success with the tune a couple of years earlier.
The East Coast sprouted its own keyboard elite, the famous Harlem stride pianists whose reputations depended largely on their showmanship and ability to flaunt their virtuosity for its own sake. James P. Johnson, Willie The Lion Smith, Fats Waller, and others incorporated European influences into their playing as well as jazz, blues, and ragtime. They were not under the spell of New Orleans and they weren’t so impressed by the city’s number one hotshot, Jelly Roll Morton. Morton came across as abrasive and, in many respects, hokey to the piano giants of the Big Apple. As the 1930s moved along and Morton began to complain, quite rightfully, that he had been robbed by an unscrupulous music publisher and discriminated against by the very organization that was set up to be sure artists were paid royalties, these musicians discounted his complaints as just another boast from a loudmouth carny.
In 1935 Morton left New York for Washington, D.C. with the intention of working as a boxing promoter. He represented a fighter known as K.O. Clark, who was featherweight and bantamweight champion of the state of Florida. He also managed a fighter who had reportedly been a sparring partner of Joe Louis, Lou “Tiger” Flowers. Morton seemed fully prepared to make a go of the fight promotion game, and he may well have been able to do so. After all, he’d spent most of the time from 1902 to 1917 traveling the country as a jack-of-all-trades, working as a vaudeville performer, pool player, cardsharp, and club owner. He and a character known as Jack the Bear had traveled the south selling a tuberculosis remedy that consisted of Coca-Cola spiked with salt. Things didn’t work out in the world of boxing, though, because the boxers “wouldn’t keep training and drank all the time.” So much for the fight game.
Stuck in D.C., Jelly worked at a joint called the Jungle Inn (sometimes the Music Box). It was a small club that Jelly tried to promote and manage, though the owner, a woman by the name of Cordelia Rice Lyle, had little interest in making it more than a hangout for her friends, one of whom managed to stab Jelly during an altercation. It was while he was at the Jungle Inn that Jelly was discovered by Alan Lomax, who recorded his oral history for the Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Song. In addition, Jelly managed to get into a sparring match with a group of young musicians in which he scored at least a TKO. Pianist Billy Taylor and some friends heard that Jelly Roll Morton was appearing in the sleazy club in D.C. Only seventeen, Taylor and his friends, who studied Bartok and Hindemith and who considered the beginning of jazz history to coincide with the arrival of musicians like Art Tatum and Lester Young, decided to go hear Morton “and have a few laughs.”
And then Jelly came on. He looked shockingly sick and feeble-old and a little mad. But he wore his old, southern-gentleman’s suit with dignity, and when he smiled the diamond in his tooth still glittered hard. He played a new piece of his called “Sweet Substitute” and then . . . he looked straight over at our booth . . .
Then Jelly spoke only to us: ‘You punks can’t play this.’
I forget the tune. What I do remember is a big, full, two-handed piano player-a ragtimer modified and relaxed by way of New Orleans and very swinging . . .
Ours was a very quiet booth for the next three hours.
Morton returned to New York in 1939, where he suffered a heart attack. He left for California in 1940 and died there in 1941.
Though he was one of jazz music’s finest pianists and composers, Morton came along right as jazz was first being mined from ragtime and blues, and he certainly had plenty of experience playing blues in clubs and sporting houses around New Orleans. On the Library of Congress Recordings, he performs a variety of blues, including “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”, “Original Jelly Roll Blues”, and two numbers with pornographic lyrics, “Winin’ Boy Blues” and “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor.” Even on these blues, though, Morton’s piano style had a finesse that was missing from the barrelhouse sounds of the pianists who presaged New Orleans R&B. His right hand was extremely fast and he could provide a great deal of embellishment to the melody. He could play a boogie or stride style in the left hand, but tended to break up the left hand style in order to add to the chordal work the right hand was engaged in. His piano playing is really that of an arranger; it is clear that he is hearing an entire group playing the songs as he pounds the keys. As a Creole, Morton had exposure to a wide variety of music and could, of course, read music as well, something that most black musicians in New Orleans at that time could not do. Furthermore, he was a gifted improviser, while most of the blues-oriented pianists did not improvise to any great extent.
Considering his influence on later musicians in jazz and blues, Morton’s recorded oeuvre is rather small. He recorded some sides for Paramount in about 1923, the same year he recorded with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana. He also recorded many of his most well known compositions as piano solos for Gennett, and these are worth seeking out as they provide ample evidence of his pianistic talents. For anyone not familiar with Morton’s music, the first stop is his Red Hot Peppers Sessions recorded in Chicago for RCA Victor. An excellent release entitled Birth of the Hot has been released on RCA and features all the Red Hot Pepper recordings, including alternate takes. The sound quality has been cleaned up and is excellent. Better yet is the British label JSP’s five-disc set Jelly Roll Morton: 1926-1930. This features all of his Victor recordings, including some piano solo sides and work with a variety of small groups as well as the Red Hot Peppers. For those who want to hear what Morton sounded like in his last years, Last Sessions: The Complete General Recordings offers sessions from 1939 and 1940. The solo piano sides from this recording are magnificent and demonstrate that Morton’s talents at the keyboard were not in any way diminished. He also sings a good bit, and his vocal talents, kept under wraps for many years, are impressive. The dozen or so band sides, however, are not Jelly at his best and don’t compare at all favorably to the Red Hot Peppers sessions. Finally, there are the four volumes of the Library of Congress recordings done by Alan Lomax available on Rounder Records. Morton offers a lot of history on these discs as well as playing a selection of blues, jazz, ragtime, stomps, marches, and other musical forms from pre-jazz New Orleans. Be warned, though: some of these songs have completely obscene lyrics.