Jelly Roll Morton: Jazz King of New Orleans

Jelly Roll Morton
Jazz King of New Orleans

Jelly Roll Morton’s reputation as jazz music’s first real composer and arranger rests on a small number of sides he recorded in Chicago with a group called the Red Hot Peppers. For many years these recordings remained unavailable, and so the case for Morton was either overstated or understated by people who had, in many cases, never heard them. Even when they were reissued sound quality was a major issue. The recordings that exist of early jazz groups such as Morton, Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and others are often impossible for modern listeners to appreciate due to considerable surface noise and the limitations of the recording studios of the time. To make matters worse, once record companies started cleaning these recordings up, often using their own proprietary technology, the result could be dull and lifeless, rendering the music listenable from a purely acoustic standpoint but devoid of any balance and scarcely representative of the music originally recorded. This is especially problematic given the fact that Morton was well aware of the possibilities of the new electrical recording technique that allowed instruments such as the bass and guitar to be heard.

The sound quality on Jelly Roll Morton: Jazz King of New Orleans (or King of New Orleans Jazz, as it says on the disc itself) is just plain bad. The recordings seem to have come directly off the source recordings with little effort made to clean them up at all. This is curious since a single disc covering the Red Hot Peppers sessions, Birth of the Hot was released some time ago by RCA under the Bluebird label and sounds quite excellent. A back to back listen to “Jungle Blues”, for example, reveals a nearly unlistenable version on Jazz King of New Orleans, while the cleaner version on Birth of the Hot reveals much more of the arrangement’s intricacies without the annoying surface noise. Why release the poor sounding versions when the work of cleaning them up has already been done? One can only wonder. It is especially troubling since the collection was compiled and annotated by Larry Gushee, a renowned Morton expert. Blame must be laid squarely at the feet of reissue producer Ben Young and Andreas K. Meyer, who transferred and mastered all but two tracks. Interestingly, Orrin Keepnews, who certainly knows what sounds good, produced the Birth of the Hot reissue.

Indeed, it hardly seems worth going on to discuss the music at all as that might be seen as an endorsement of this product, which is the last thing I want. Since a collection of music such as this one can only be intended for people who aren’t all that familiar with Morton’s work it is unfortunate that they will be greeted with shrill, difficult to listen to recordings of some of the best early jazz arrangements recorded. Morton utilized many interesting techniques, like the clarinet trio on “Sidewalk Blues” and “Dead Man’s Blues” (which is inexcusably absent here) and had a group made up primarily of New Orleans musicians who had migrated to Chicago. They could read music, but they could also improvise in the collective style that originated in New Orleans, a rare combination. The group was well rehearsed and Morton knew what he wanted on each tune down to the last detail. The Red Hot Peppers sessions stand, along with work by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, Charlie Parker’s Dial recordings, both of Miles Davis’ legendary quintets, the John Coltrane Quartet, and the Bill Evans Trio, as some of the finest jazz performances ever recorded.

Jazz King of New Orleans also includes some of the recordings Morton made in New York from 1928 to 1930 with musicians who were younger and most of whom were not from New Orleans. There are plenty of good tunes (“Shreveport”, “Red Hot Pepper”) and the arrangements are, for the most part, well done, but they are not quite as vibrant as the work he had done in Chicago. The groups were larger and more modern, consisting of multiple saxophones, which Morton didn’t handle quite as well as the five or six piece groups. The sound is a little better on some of these selections, but still not very good. The last track, the famous “Winin’ Boy Blues” is from 1939. Victor had stopped recording Morton after 1930, but by 1939 the New Orleans revival was starting to pick up steam, and Morton was brought back in for a series of recordings with musicians who included Sidney Bechet, another legendary New Orleans musician.

This is fantastic music, but if you are at all serious about hearing it, check out the Birth of the Hot CD, or if you’re really serious, check out the Jelly Roll Morton: 1926-1930 box set from England’s JSP label. It consists of five CDs for under 30 dollars, and the sound quality is excellent. Leave Jazz King of New Orleans to rot in the record bins.