Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton (October 20, 1890 - July 10, 1941) was an American virtuoso jazz pianist, bandleader, and songwriter whom many consider the first true composer of jazz music.
A light-skinned Creole, Morton grew up in a respectable family where he was exposed to opera and a rudimentary musical education. He learned a number of instruments, but got his professional start by slipping away to the bordellos of the New Orleans' Storyville District, where he has known as a top young pianist and colorful character. When he family learned of his work, he was kicked out of the house.
Choosing a life in the fledgling new music and its licentious ethos, Morton then moved to Los Angeles, and in later years to Chicago, New York City, and Washington DC. In Chicago, a recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1926 helped assure his success, and he created many classic early jazz records with his Red Hot Peppers band.
Morton frequently claimed to be the "inventor" of both jazz music and the term itself. While an exaggeration, he was clearly one of the great innovators of early jazz, whose method of improvisation within rehearsed group arrangements became the established approach to jazz. He left behind many original compositions as well a legacy of creative genius that influenced many later jazz players and band leaders. His 1915 "Jelly Roll Blues" was perhaps the first jazz orchestration ever published.
Morton's career suffered as the recording industry declined with the Great Depression. Rediscovered playing piano in a Washington DC bar by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1938, Morton made a series of seminal musical-narrative recordings for the Library of Congress that document the emergence of jazz and Morton's formative role in the first decade of the twentieth century. These interviews and his body of original compositions and recordings have secured his place in jazz history.
Morton was born as Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe into a Creole community in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of Downtown New Orleans in October, 1890. His parents were Edward J. Lamothe and Louise Monette (written as Lemott and Monett on his baptismal certificate). Ferdinand's parents were in a common-law relationship of husband and wife but not legally married. No birth certificate has been found to date. He took the name "Morton" by Anglicizing the name of his step-father, whose name was Mouton.
Like many other musicians of the time, at the age of 14, he began working as a piano player in a local house of prostitution. While working there, he was living with his religious, church-going great-grandmother and had convinced her that he worked in a barrel factory. One day his great-grandmother saw him wearing a very expensive finely tailored suit. When she found out how he was able to afford it, he was kicked out of her house.
Morton soon became one of the best-regarded pianists in the New Orleans' Storyville District early in the twentieth century. Ragtime pianist Tony Jackson was reportedly a major influence on his music, and Morton himself proved to be a critical link between ragtime and jazz. According to Morton, Jackson was the only pianist he know of who was better than Morton himself.
After being disowned by his great-grandmother, Morton went to Biloxi, where he took a job playing piano in a brothel and reportedly began to carry a pistol. Reflecting on the venues he played in or frequented in New Orleans, he later told Alan Lomax, "Very often you could hear of killings on top of killings… Many, many a time myself I went on Saturdays and Sundays… and see 8 and 10 men was killed over Saturday night."
Morton later moved on to Mississippi, where he incarcerated for robbery (a charge for which he was apparently innocent) before ended up back in New Orleans, performing and beginning to write music, a skill that he had learned largely because of his Creole heritage. Morton next traveled to Chicago, Houston, and finally to California before returning for a last time to New Orleans. Morton then traveled across the South, absorbing the distinctive musical characteristics of the regions he encountered. Importantly, during his travels in the southwest, he absorbed elements of Mexican and Hispanic culture and later told Alan Lomax that it was impossible to play jazz without a Latin "tinge."
Morton continued travel, played in minstrel shows, arriving back in Los Angeles in 1917, where he reportedly acquired the large diamond he embedded in his front tooth.
Touring and RecordingMorton (second from right) in Los Angeles c. 1918
Morton moved to Chicago in 1923. There, he released the first of his commercial recordings, both as a piano soloist and with various jazz bands.
In 1926, Morton succeeded in getting a contract to make recordings for America's largest and most prestigious company, the Victor Talking Machine Company. This gave him a chance to bring a well-rehearsed band to play his arrangements in Victor's Chicago recording studios. These recordings by Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers are regarded as classics of 1920s jazz. The Red Hot Peppers featured such other New Orleans jazz luminaries as Kid Ory, Omer Simeon, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, and Baby Dodds. The band was one of the first acts booked on tours by MCA.
Morton moved to New York City in 1928, where he continued to record for Victor. His piano solos and trio recordings from this period are well regarded by critics, but his band recordings suffer in comparison with the Chicago sides where Morton could draw on many great New Orleans musicians for sidemen. In New York, Morton had trouble finding musicians who wanted to play his style of jazz.
With the Great Depression and the near collapse of the phonograph-record industry, Morton's recording contract was not renewed by Victor for 1931. He continued playing less prosperously in New York and briefly had a radio show in 1934. He was then reduced to touring in the band of a traveling burlesque act. Morton wound up in Washington D.C., where folklorist Alan Lomax first heard him playing solo piano in a dive bar in an African American neighborhood. Morton was also the master of ceremonies, manager, and bartender in the place he played.
The Library of Congress interviewsMorton in the 1920s
In May 1938, Lomax began recording interviews with Morton for the Library of Congress. The sessions, originally intended as a short interview with musical examples for use by music researchers in the Library of Congress, soon expanded to more than eight hours of Morton talking and playing piano, in addition to longer unrecorded interviews during which Lomax took notes. Despite the low fidelity of these non-commercial recordings, their musical and historical importance attracted jazz fans, and portions have repeatedly been issued commercially. These interviews helped assure Morton's place in jazz history.
Lomax was very interested in Morton's Storyville days and some of the off-color songs he played there. Morton was reluctant to recount and record these, but eventually obliged Lomax. Morton's nickname of "Jelly Roll" is a sexual reference and many of his lyrics from his Storyville days were shockingly vulgar by the standards of polite society of the late 1930s. Some of the Library of Congress recordings remained unreleased until near the end of the twentieth century due to their suggestive nature.
Morton claimed to have been the inventor of jazz. However, he was aware that, having been born in 1890, he was slightly too young to make a good case for himself in this role. He therefore presented himself as five years older. Research has shown that Morton placed the dates of some early incidents of his life, and probably the dates when he first composed his early tunes, a few years too early. Most of the rest of Morton's reminiscences, however, have proved to be reliable.
The Lomax interviews, released in various forms over the years, were released on an eight-CD boxed set in 2005, The Complete Library of Congress Recordings. This collection won two Grammy Awards.
During the period when he was recording his interviews, Morton was seriously injured by knife wounds when a fight broke out at the Washington, D.C. establishment where he was playing. There was a whites-only hospital close enough to heal him, but he had to be transported to a further and poorer hospital due to the fact that he could not pass for Caucasian. When he was in the hospital, the doctors left ice on his wounds for several hours before attending to his injury.
His recovery from his wounds was incomplete, and thereafter he was often ill and easily became short of breath. However, Morton was able to make a new series of commercial recordings in New York, several recapitulating tunes from his early years that he had discussed in his Library of Congress Interviews.
Morton then moved to Los Angeles, California with a series of manuscripts of new tunes and arrangements, planning to form a new band and restart his career. However, he fell seriously ill shortly after his arrival and died on July 10, 1941, aged 50, after an 11-day stay in Los Angeles County General Hospital.
Style and influence
Morton was a key figure in the birth and development of jazz because he had so many talents: pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader. Jazz historian Orrin Keepnews has referred to him as “one of the handful of Atlases upon whose shoulders rests the entire structure of our music.”
Morton's unique, innovative style combined varying musical strands of blues, stomps, and ragtime, plus French and Spanish influences into jazz at its most formative stage. Morton helped define the colorful, vibrant jazz idiom in the Storyville district of New Orleans, which in turn spread widely through the genres of ragtime and Dixieland. In Chicago, Morton's Red Hot Peppers combined New Orleans-style ensemble performances with spirited solo work, which became emblematic of the the Chicago jazz scene in the 1920s. He also shows a direct influence on later pianists such as Earl Hines and Art Tatum.
Several of Morton's compositions were musical tributes to himself, including "Whinin' Boy," "The Original Jelly-Roll Blues," and "Mister Jelly Lord." In the Big Band era, his "King Porter Stomp," which Morton had written decades earlier, was a big hit for Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman, and became a standard covered by most other swing bands of that time. Morton also claimed to have written some tunes that were copyrighted by others, including "Alabama Bound" and "Tiger Rag."
Morton also wrote dozens of other songs. Among the better known are "Wolverine Blues," "Black Bottom Stomp," "Sidewalk Blues," "Jungle Blues," "Mint Julep," "Tank Town Bump," "Kansas City Stop," "Freakish," "Shake It," "Doctor Jazz Stomp," "Burnin' The Iceberg," "Ganjam," "Pacific Rag," "The Pearls," "Mama Nita," "Froggie More," "London Blues," "Sweet Substitute," "Creepy Feeling," "Good Old New York," "My Home Is In a Southern Town," "Turtle Twist," "Why?," "New Orleans Bump," "Fickle Fay Creep," "Cracker Man," "Stratford Hunch," "Shreveport Stomp," "Milneberg Joys," "Red Hot Pepper," "Pontchartrain," "Pep," "Someday Sweetheart," "The Finger Buster," "The Crave," and "Grandpa's Spells."
While Morton was helping to shape the newborn jazz scene with his Red Hot Peppers, Louis Armstrong was emerging as the preeminent jazz soloist with his Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions in Chicago. Together, they gave birth to the Jazz Age and the Swing Era, which has benefited American musical history and the nation's culture to this day.
In the words of music historian David McGee, “What Elvis Presley's Sun recordings are to rock and roll, the Red Hot Peppers' canon is to jazz.” Morton's lively stomps, compelling blues, and high-spirited ragtime pieces, originally performed in the mid 1920s, have proven among his most memorable work. From Morton came a lineage of great, jazz pianist-bandleaders, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Thelonius Monk. His inimitable personal style, according to the liner notes of a 1953 reissue, was “just about the most flamboyant, colorful, and exasperating personality imaginable.” Such a description invites comparison to the ebullient starts of rock and roll, rap, and hip-hop stars of today.
Two Broadway shows have featured his music, Jelly Roll and Jelly's Last Jam. The first draws heavily on Morton's own words and stories from the Library of Congress interviews. The latter created considerable controversy with its fictionalized and sometimes unsympathetic portrayal of Morton but was nominated for numerous Tony Awards for its artistic merit. Gregory Hines won the 1992 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his work in the title role for Jelly's Last Jam.
In 2000, Morton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under Early Influence, and in 2005 Morton was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
- Lomax, Alan. Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and "Inventor of Jazz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. ISBN 0-520-22530-9
- Pastras, Phil. Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0520236875
- Reich, Howard, and Gaines, William. Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0306812095
- Wright, Laurie. Mr. Jelly Lord. Chigwell, England: Storyville Publications, 1980. ISBN 978-0902391017
All links retrieved May 2, 2018.
- Ferd 'Jelly Roll' Morton www.doctorjazz.co.uk
- Jelly Roll Morton on RedHotJazz.com redhotjazz.com