Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (October 20, 1890 – July 10, 1941), known professionally as Jelly Roll Morton, was an American ragtime and early jazz pianist, bandleader and composer who started his career in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Widely recognized as a pivotal figure in early jazz, Morton is perhaps most notable as jazz's first arranger, proving that a genre rooted in improvisation could retain its essential spirit and characteristics when notated. His composition "Jelly Roll Blues" was the first published jazz composition, in 1915. Morton is also notable for naming and popularizing the "Spanish tinge" (habanera rhythm and tresillo), and for writing such standards as "Wolverine Blues", "Black Bottom Stomp", and "I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say", the latter a tribute to New Orleans personalities from the turn of the 19th century to 20th century.
Reputed for his arrogance and self-promotion as often as recognized in his day for his musical talents, Morton claimed to have invented jazz outright in 1902 — much to the derision of later musicians and critics. The jazz historian, musician, and composer Gunther Schuller says of Morton's "hyperbolic assertions" that there is "no proof to the contrary" and that Morton's "considerable accomplishments in themselves provide reasonable substantiation". However, the scholar Katy Martin has argued that Morton's bragging was exaggerated by Alan Lomax in the book Mister Jelly Roll, and this portrayal has influenced public opinion and scholarship on Morton since.
Morton was born into a Creole of Color community in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of downtown New Orleans, Louisiana. A baptismal certificate issued in 1894 lists his date of birth as October 20, 1890; however Morton himself and his half-sisters claimed the September 20, 1885, date is correct. His World War I draft registration card showed September 13, 1884 but his California death certificate listed his birth as September 20, 1889. He was born to F. P. Lamothe and Louise Monette (written as Lemott and Monett on his baptismal certificate). Eulaley Haco (Eulalie Hécaud) was the godparent. Eulalie helped him to be christened with the name Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s parents were in a common-law marriage and not legally married. No birth certificate has been found to date. He took the name "Morton" by anglicizing the name of his stepfather, Mouton.
Morton was, along with Tony Jackson, one of the best regarded pianists in the Storyville District early in the 20th century. At the age of fourteen, he began working as a piano player in a brothel (or as it was referred to then, a sporting house.) While working there, he was living with his religious church-going great-grandmother and had her convinced that he worked as a night watchman in a barrel factory.
In that atmosphere, he often sang smutty lyrics and it was at this time that he took the nickname "Jelly Roll", which was black slang for both male and female genitalia.
Morton's grandmother eventually found out that he was playing jazz in a local brothel, and subsequently kicked him out of her house. "When my grandmother found out that I was playing jazz in one of the sporting houses in the District, she told me that I had disgraced the family and forbade me to live at the house… She told me that devil music would surely bring about my downfall, but I just couldn't put it behind me." Tony Jackson, also a pianist at brothels and an accomplished guitar player, was a major influence on his music; according to Morton, Jackson was the only pianist better than himself.
Around 1904, Morton started wandering the American South, working with minstrel shows, gambling and composing. His works "Jelly Roll Blues", "New Orleans Blues", "Frog-I-More Rag", "Animule Dance", and "King Porter Stomp" were composed during this period. He got to Chicago in 1910 and New York City in 1911, where future stride greats James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith caught his act, years before the blues were widely played in the North.
In 1912–1914, he toured with girlfriend Rosa Brown as a vaudeville act before settling in Chicago for three years. By 1914, he had started writing down his compositions, and in 1915 his "Jelly Roll Blues" was arguably the first jazz composition ever published, recording as sheet music the New Orleans traditions that had been jealously guarded by the musicians. In 1917, he followed bandleader William Manuel Johnson and Johnson's sister Anita Gonzalez to California, where Morton's tango "The Crave" made a sensation in Hollywood.
Morton was invited to play a new Vancouver nightclub called The Patricia, on East Hastings Street. Jazz historian Mark Miller described his arrival as "an extended period of itinerancy as a pianist, vaudeville performer, gambler, hustler, and, as legend would have it, pimp".
Morton moved back to Chicago in 1923 to claim authorship of his recently-published rag "The Wolverines", which had become a hit as "Wolverine Blues" in the Windy City. There he released the first of his commercial recordings, first as piano rolls, then on record, both as a piano soloist and with various jazz bands.
In 1926, Morton succeeded in getting a contract to make recordings for the largest and most prestigious company in the United States, Victor. 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, George Mitchell, Johnny St. Cyr, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, and Andrew Hilaire. Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers were one of the first acts booked on tours by MCA.
New York City
In November 1928, Morton married showgirl Mabel Bertrand in Gary, Indiana, and moved to New York City, where he continued to record for Victor. His piano solos and trio recordings are well regarded, but his band recordings suffer in comparison with the Chicago sides where Morton could draw on many great New Orleans musicians for sidemen. Although he did record with such great musicians as clarinetists Omer Simeon, George Baquet, Albert Nicholas, Wilton Crawley, Barney Bigard, Lorenzo Tio and Artie Shaw, trumpeters Bubber Miley, Johnny Dunn and Henry "Red" Allen, saxophonists Sidney Bechet, Paul Barnes and Bud Freeman, bassist Pops Foster, and drummers Paul Barbarin, Cozy Cole and Zutty Singleton, Morton generally had trouble finding musicians who wanted to play his style of jazz, and his New York sessions failed to produce a hit.
With the Great Depression and the near collapse of the phonograph record industry, Morton's recording contract was not renewed by Victor for 1931. Morton continued playing less prosperously in New York, briefly had a radio show in 1934, then was reduced to touring in the band of a traveling burlesque act while his compositions were recorded by Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman and others, though he received no royalties from these recordings.
In 1935, Morton moved to Washington, D.C., to become the manager/piano player of a bar called, at various times, the "Music Box", "Blue Moon Inn", and "Jungle Inn" in the African American neighborhood of Shaw. (The building that hosted the nightclub still stands, at 1211 U Street NW.) Morton was also the master of ceremonies, bouncer, and bartender of the club. He was only in Washington for a few years; the club owner allowed all her friends free admission and drinks, which prevented Morton from making the business a success. Morton was stabbed by one of the owner's friends in 1938, suffering wounds to the head and chest. After this incident his wife Mabel demanded that they leave Washington.
During Morton's brief residency at the Music Box, folklorist Alan Lomax heard Morton playing piano in the bar. In May 1938, Lomax invited Morton to record music and interviews 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 record more than eight hours of Morton talking and playing piano, in addition to longer interviews during which Lomax took notes but did not record. Despite the low fidelity of these non-commercial recordings, their musical and historical importance attracted jazz fans, and they have helped to ensure Morton's place in jazz history.
Lomax was very interested in Morton's Storyville days and some of the off-color songs played in Storyville. Morton was reluctant to recount and record these, but eventually obliged Lomax. Morton's "Jelly Roll" nickname is a sexual reference as many of his lyrics from his Storyville days were vulgar. Some of the Library of Congress recordings were unreleased until near the end of the 20th century due to their nature.
Morton was aware that if he had been born in 1890, he would have been slightly too young to make a good case for himself as the actual inventor of jazz, and so may have presented himself as being five years older than he actually was, and his statement that Buddy Bolden played ragtime but not jazz is not accepted by consensus of Bolden's other New Orleans contemporaries. It is possible, however, that the contradictions stem from different definitions for the terms ragtime and jazz. These interviews, released in different 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.
The same year, Morton was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
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. A nearby whites-only hospital refused to treat him, and he had to be transported to a lower-quality hospital further away. When he was in the hospital the doctors left ice on his wounds for several hours before attending to his eventually fatal injury. His recovery from his wounds was incomplete, and thereafter he was often ill and easily became short of breath. Morton made a new series of commercial recordings in New York, several recounting tunes from his early years that he had been talking about in his Library of Congress interviews.
A worsening asthma affliction sent him to a New York hospital for three months at one point and when visiting Los Angeles with a series of manuscripts of new tunes and arrangements, planning to form a new band and restart his career, the ailment took its toll. Morton died on July 10, 1941 after an eleven-day stay in Los Angeles County General Hospital.
According to jazz historian David Gelly, Morton's arrogance and "bumptious" persona alienated so many musicians over the years that no colleagues or admirers attended his funeral. However, a contemporary news account of the funeral in the August 1, 1941 issue of Downbeat states unequivocally that fellow musicians Kid Ory, Mutt Carey, Fred Washington and Ed Garland were among his pall bearers, although the story notes the conspicuous absence of Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford, both of whom were appearing in Los Angeles at the time. (The article is photographically reproduced in John Lomax's biography of Morton, "Mister Jelly Roll" University of California Press, 1950.) Morton is buried in Calvary Cemetery, 4201 Whittier Blvd, Los Angeles, California, Section N, Lot 347, grave #4,in the north west quadrant of the cemetery.
Morton's piano style was formed from early secondary ragtime and "shout", which also evolved separately into the New York school of stride piano. Morton's playing, however, was also close to barrelhouse, which produced boogie woogie.
Morton often played the melody of a tune with his right thumb, while sounding a harmony above these notes with other fingers of the right hand. This added a rustic or "out-of-tune" sound (due to the playing of a diminished 5th above the melody). This may still be recognized as belonging to New Orleans. Morton also walked in major and minor sixths in the bass, instead of tenths or octaves. He played basic swing rhythms in both the left and right hand.
Some of Morton's songs (listed alphabetically):
"Big Foot Ham" (a.k.a. "Ham & Eggs")
"Black Bottom Stomp"
"Burnin' the Iceberg"
"Doctor Jazz Stomp"
"The Dirty Dozen"
"Fickle Fay Creep"
"Good Old New York"
"Kansas City Stomp"
"My Home Is in a Southern Town"
"New Orleans Bump"
"Red Hot Pepper"
"Tank Town Bump"
Several of Morton's compositions were musical tributes to himself, including "Winin' Boy", "The Jelly Roll Blues", subtitled "The Original Jelly-Roll", and "Mr. 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". "Sweet Peter," which Morton recorded in 1926, is the obvious source for the melody of the hit song "All Of Me" ostensibly written by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons in 1931.
Legacy and fictional portrayals
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.
Jelly Roll Morton appears as the piano "professor" in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby, where he is portrayed by actor Antonio Fargas, with piano and vocals played by James Booker.
Jelly Roll Morton's Last Night at the Jungle Inn: An Imaginary Memoir was written by ethnomusicologist and folklorist Samuel Charters in 1984, embellishing Morton's early stories about his life.
Jelly Roll Morton is featured in Alessandro Baricco's book, Novecento. He is the "inventor of jazz" and the protagonist's rival throughout the book. This book was later turned into a movie: Giuseppe Tornatore's The Legend of 1900. His character is played by actor Clarence Williams III. In this movie, he is depicted as an arrogant master in a piano competition against the film's main protagonist. He performed "Big Foot Ham", "The Crave", and "Fingerbreaker", in that order, against the protagonist.
Jelly Roll Morton is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame. In 2008, Jelly Roll Morton was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
The play, Don't You Leave Me Here, by Clare Brown, which premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse on 27 September 2008, deals with Morton's relationship with Tony Jackson. Morton and his godmother, Eulalie, appear as characters in David Fulmer's mystery novel, Chasing the Devil's Tail. His influence continues to this day in the work of Dick Hyman and Reginald Robinson.
1923/24 1923-1924 (Milestone Records)
Red Hot Peppers Session: Birth of the Hot, The Classic Red Hot Peppers Sessions (originally RCA Bluebird recordings) 1926-1927 (Sbme Special Markets)
The Pearls 1926-1939 (Bluebird Records)
Jazz King of New Orleans 1926-1930 (Bluebird Records)
Kansas City Stomp, The Library of Congress Recordings, Vol. 1 1938 (Rounder Records)
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