Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jelly Roll Morton: The "Inventor" of Jazz

Jelly Roll Morton is among the most important figures in the history of American popular music. He was a pianist, composer, and bandleader and one of the first musicians to play jazz music. Morton was a tireless self-promoter who actually claimed to have “invented” jazz and carried business cards that made such a claim. Of course, no individual can take credit for having invented jazz, but we do know that Morton was the first person to write it down. He was also one of the prominent musicians who bridged the gap between the ragtime music that preceded jazz and the music that jazz would become.

Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1890. Morton was a Creole who was of mixed African and Spanish heritage. Creole musicians were among the finest of the musicians in New Orleans due to the classical training that many received.

Morton began his professional career as a teenager in the notorious red light district of Storyville, in New Orleans. He told his grandmother with whom he lived, that he was working as a night watchman when he was really working as a piano player in Storyville clubs. When his grandmother discovered the truth, Morton was ejected from his home, and he began his career in earnest at age 17, traveling around the country while working as an itinerant pianist, gambler, pimp, and door to door salesman.

Morton made his first recordings, “Mr. Jelly Lord” and “Clarinet Marmalade,” with a white jazz band, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, in 1923. Later that year, after moving to Chicago, he made his first solo recordings for the Gennett label, recording very influential piano solo sides such as “Wolverine Blues” and “Tom Cat Blues.”

Morton would achieve the height of his success as the leader of the legendary recording band, The Red Hot Peppers, which recorded with Morton for the Victor label from 1926-1927. The band consisted of many ex-members of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. The Red Hot Peppers were: Johnny St. Cyr on banjo; Omer Simeon on clarinet; Kid Ory on trombone; Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Barney Bigard on clarinet George Mitchell on cornet; and Baby Dodds on drums.

Morton and the Peppers recorded some of the most original and inspired numbers in the history of jazz including, “The Chant,” “Dead Man Blues,” “Dr. Jazz,” “Smoke House Blues,” “Sidewalk Blues,” and “Black Bottom Stomp”. All these selections were performed in the New Orleans style with numerous influences brought in from various sources.

On these sides, the band displayed the improvisational flair of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, and it swung even harder. The Red Hot Pepper recordings would become some of the best-selling recordings of the day, and Morton achieved a level of financial success that allowed him to have a diamond stud fixed in his teeth. Unfortunately, Morton’s good times did not last for long as his style of jazz soon fell out of fashion.

The Great Depression and the advent of swing music had a devastating effect on Morton, and he was forced to hock his diamond and resorted to playing piano in a lowbrow bar in Washington, D.C. In 1938, Alan Lomax recorded a series of interviews and performances of Morton for the Library of Congress. Morton’s health was declining fast, and he died in 1941. Morton had blamed his declining health on a voodoo curse.

 Morton’s greatest recordings are the sides he recorded with the Red Hot Peppers, and these are available in various compilations, as is the rest of his work. The best of these compilations is probably “The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial: His Complete Victor Recordings” (1990) “The Complete Library of Congress Recordings” (2005) is also available and it serves as a fabulous document of early jazz lore.