TALKS ABOUT JELLY ROLL
by WILLIAM RUSSELL
When Myra Menville asked me to write a long-promised article for the 30th Anniversary Issue I resorted to my belief that the best and certainly the most informative and authoritive writing on New Orleans music has been done by the musicians themselves. So why not transcribe one of the many interviews available. After the death of Roy Carew (Jelly Roll’s last publisher) a few years ago I acquired his extensive collection of Morton manuscripts, letters, and other materials and decided to try to complete the book he had planned on Jelly Roll. As part of the research for this far from completed book over sixty interviews with musicians, associates, and family were taped.
In January 1970 the well known New Orleans clarinetist Albert Nicholas (1900-1973) returned from Europe to visit relatives in New Orleans. On January 8th he talked for almost two hours about his association with Jelly Roll. It was unnecessary to ask a lot of questions, simply, “Tell us about Jelly Roll.” Nicholas’ memory of forty to fifty years past events and conversations was exceptional and he had remarkable talent for exactly reproducing the voices of his New Orleans friends. To hear the tape is like attending a dramatic performance in which the characters spring to life as Nicholas recreates Jelly’s authoritive manner or Zutty’s very slow drawl. So there is considerable loss in the printed word, but there should still be enough of interest here to hold the attention of lovers of New Orleans music.
Ever since I was a kid coming up in New Orleans I had heard of Jelly Roll and what a great pianist he was. They called him “Windin’ Boy” then. I didn’t meet Jelly Roll Morton until 1922 when I went to Chicago to take Johnny Dodds’ place with King Oliver’s band for several months. Jelly was living in Chicago and doing little gigs with small groups. I admired him as a person — a great man like that — and he was happy to meet a kid from New Orleans you know. Now! didn’t play with him in 1922 but went back to New Orleans after a little tour. Then in December, 1924 Oliver sent for Barney, Luis Russell, Barbarin and me. The Chicago union musicians were jealous because Joe always sent to New Orleans for musicians. So we acted like we came on our own and gigged around with a few local musicians awhile before we joined Oliver. One night Jelly said — and I’ll never forget this — he says, “Hey, I’ve got a gig for you boys, Paul and you and Barney.” And I think he had Mitch and somebody else and himself. Anyhow it was a Saturday night in a big hall and it was the first time I played with Jelly. This man was so inspiring and it was a happy affair, well accepted by the public. The gig lasted until around 1:30 and when he got through playing I remember Jelly called me and said, “All right Albert, let me pay you off,” and Jelly went into his pocket and took out a roll of bills and started peeling off fives until begot $50, which he handed me. I said, “Thank you.” Now I’d never played a $50 gig before. It was my first big money. Coming from New Orleans where the little gigs paid three or four dollars a night it was a big deal. So when this cat gave me this $50 I’m thinking it was to split up. So! put it in my pocket and before I opened my mouth he said, “Hey Barney,” and he paid him, and then he called Paul. So we got our heads together and I whispered, “How much did you get?” Barney said, “I got 50.” I said, “Me too.” Jelly was looking at us and said, “I know what you all are talkin’ about. l know you never made that much money in your life before.” That was Jelly. Oh what a character. “You see, if you all’d be playing with me you’d be making money.” He was very braggadocious, and humorous.
Here is another incident with Jelly. When the Luis Russell band was playing in the Saratoga Club in New York Jelly came to New York and we had a break for about a week. We were working at that time 52 weeks a year, booked solid. When we’d finish at the Saratoga we’d go to Roseland Ballroom for two months, then go on tour, Loew’s State Theatres, for about two months, then come back to the Saratoga. So when we were off this week Jelly booked a little tour in Pennsylvania using Luis Russell’s band. Now, when he came to hire the band, this is funny. Luis Russell had a good band, with Red Allen, Pops Foster, Higginbotham, on trombone, Paul Barbarin, Bill Johnson, on guitar. So Jelly said, “Say Russell, I want to use your band to make a little tour. Now I’ll tell you what, I’m going to pay you to stay home.” That was Jelly. We all laughed. “I’m going to pay you to stay home. I don’t need you, and another thing, you’ve got a good band but you don’t know what to do with it.” Aw Man! Jelly didn’t tell anybody about money, how much it paid or anything like that.
So we went on this tour and the first night was in Wilkes Barre, Pa. Jelly had been there several times with different musicians everytime. He didn’t have a regular band. We ar rived that afternoon and the ballroom was in a park and in those days the people stood outside by the window to hear what happened before they paid their admission to come in to the dance. When we arrived that afternoon the organizer of this place happened to see us but Jelly said quietly, “You boys keep your mouth shut. Don’t tell him who you are, what band you are. This is my band.” I said, “Yeah.” So everybody kept cool, and no one knew us because there were no radios at that time. So Jelly said, “Well, I got a band tonight. I guess we’ll have a line outside.” The man said, “Aw Jelly, aw come on man, if we get 150 people we’ll be happy.” “150! How many people does this hall hold?” The man said, “Aw Jelly, now stop it man. This hall holds four to five hundred people.” Jelly said, “We’re goin’ to pack it up. We’re goin’ to call the police to keep the people in line.” The man said, “Aw Jelly, stop it man.” Jelly said, “No, no, you watch. You’re going to have to call the police to keep the people in line. I’ve got a band. I’m bringin’ a band in here.” “You said that last time Jelly.”
Well anyhow, that night around 8 o’clock we had to hit. We had rehearsed well in New York, playing Jelly’s arrangements and we had some of our original arrangements from Luis Russell’s band. And sure enough, they have about 100 people outside the hall and nobody came in. We got on the stand and we bust down and we hit, and the people said, “Wait a minute, what’s this?” And they started comin’ in — comin’ in, and in about ten minutes all that outside bunch was in. They called up their friends, “Come on here man, things are happening tonight.” And I remember well, around 10 o’clock — intermission — people were coming in droves and the place was full, as Jelly predicted. Jelly was so proud. And people were saying, “Man you fellows can play. Where you from?” “Oh we play with Jelly Roll Morton, we’re from New York.” “Man, what a band.” I’m sure they never knew it was a band already organized.
Well at the end of the night the man was very, very happy. We had over 400 people and were to play two nights in this place. Jelly said, “You see what I told you, but tomorrow night there’s going to be a line out there. So you gotta get the cops to keep everybody straight.” The man said, “Well Jelly, if I get just half as many people tomorrow night I’ll be very happy.” Jelly said, “Just wait man.”
The next night when we came at 8 o’clock the hall was half full before we hit. “You see.” When we got through playing around 10 o’clock for our intermission you couldn’t get in, and they had a line outside and the police were there telling people, “You can’t go in, no more.” Jelly says, “You see what I told you man, you see, I’m Jelly Roll Morton!” And it was really a miracle. Everybody was happy and the man said, “Well Jelly, how soon can you come back?” Jelly said, “I can’t man, I’m booked up for this year; maybe next year.”
And dog-gone it, news travels you know. When we hit the other towns they had the news that Jelly Roll was coming in with a band this year. Those Pennsylvania towns were only about 50 miles apart. When we’d arrive everybody was meeting us and they’d fill the joint up — success — and that happened on the whole tour.
At that time we didn’t get paid after every night. Jelly kept the bread for us until the end of the week. You know he was a wonderful man. So when we finished the tour and came back to New York on our chartered bus Jelly paid us and everybody was amazed at the salary he paid us and we were all happy. He gave Luis Russell a share. “This is for you stayin’ home,” and he said, “I’d like to use the band again, later on,” but we were booked solid.
Then Jelly would take other local musicians from New York and try to get them together, but he was never too successful because he didn’t get what he wanted. You know there were guys who didn’t want to rehearse and things of that sort. He would say, “I can record everyday if I had my band.” He wanted New Orleans musicians that could play the music he wanted to hear.
There were several beautiful incidents I had through the years, such as recording with Jelly. He was wonderful to record with — wonderful and full of humor. If you didn’t know Jelly at first you’d probably think he was an arrogant person, because — “I’m Jelly Roll Morton” — one of those kind of things, you know, but when you knew Jelly you loved him. You loved this man because — well one thing about Jelly, he wasn’t a hypocrite. He was outspoken. If you play, you’re playing; if you don’t, you don’t play a damn thing. That’s the type of leader these guys couldn’t take, because he’d tell you.
“Jelly, why haven’t you got a band?” “There ain’t nobody around here that can play nothin’.”
For our recording sessions sometimes we’d rehearse before, but usually we’d rehearse in the studio. I remember when we made the General session (Jan. 4, 1940) with Red Allen, Braud, Zutty, and some musicians from New York. We didn’t know what we were going to make. Jelly told us, “We’re recording tomorrow; we got to be there in the studio for 2 o’clock, so let’s try to get there around 1:30”. He didn’t mention what music they were going to play or a rehearsal. We all arrived on time and Jelly was at the piano writing scores. So Red Allen, to start Jelly off you know, Red says, “Well Jelly, we’re here today to put you on the map man.” “Boy, whatcha mean?” Red says, “Well you’re married and nobody knows you now,” and things of that sort, just kiddin’ him along. Jelly says, “Well we’ll see about that.”
Jelly Roll Morton’s Blue Bird Recording Session, September 14, 1939.
L to R : Sidney Bechet, Sidney de Paris, Zutty Singleton, Albert Nicholas, Jelly Roll, Happy Cauldwell.
At an interview in England Red Allen told how he came in the studio that day and began kidding Jelly with such remarks as, “Well Jelly, you got a good bunch with you today. We’re going to put you on the map and make you famous.” Jelly didn’t say much in reply but when the time came to play a blues Jelly said to Red, “You’ve been talking so big today we’re going to name this number after you — The Big Lip Blues.”
So Red says, “What are we going to play?” Jelly says, “Well just wait a minute, you’ll get your part. Just wait a minute.” When he got through making their little arrangements he handed each one his part. No name, no title, and he says, “Let’s run this down and see how it is, and get a balance.” And he played this beautiful number, and he says, “Now Nick, you take this in here, and this in there, and this is together.” We ran it down — a beautiful tune — no name yet. So the man, he said, “We’re ready to make a take.” He got a balance OK and we hit the thing and went on through it, one take — perfect.
The man said, “Jelly, you want to make another one?” Jelly said, “Why? Why make another one?” That’s after he’d heard it. “Let that one go. What do you want? Mistakes? You want us to make mistakes and that’s the one you gonna put out. I know you fellows. No, this is it,” and he laughed. “Oh Jelly, what’s the name of this?” “Sweet Substitute.” A beautiful tune.
Our next number went the same way. We hadn’t known what we were going to do. We ran over the notes — take. We got through in an hour and forty-five minutes — finished. There was one where Zutty took a solo on drums. I think it was “Good Old New York”. Zutty had been making a little noise and they put Zutty in the background. The engineer said, “Zutty, get a little farther back,” and that kinda hurt Zutty’s pride to be put in back, you know. We started to run over “Old New York” to see what the music was. We just got the arrangement and Zutty was hittin’ hard and loud, and Jelly said, “Oop!” He stopped the band. He said, “Zutty!” “Yeah, Face.” “Can you hear me?” Zutty says, “Well, a little, you know I’m a little far back.” “Well no, it’s not where you’re sittin’. It’s just because you’re playin’ too damn loud. Now listen, play with us. That’s why I got you here. I knew you could play. Let’s play it right, and if you don’t want to play I’ll get on the telephone and get somebody that will play.” You see Jelly was outspoken, and he demanded respect. When we hit the number again Zutty played so soft you couldn’t hear him — still stubborn. Jelly stopped again, and he laughed. “Man come on now, let’s get together here fellow. Now let me hear you. Now, you want to play? I’m gonna give you a solo.” After so many choruses, and this and that, he said, “You’ve got a chorus in there.” And that made Zutty kind of happy and he got to swinging. And that’s just what I mean, you play, or you don’t play.
On the Blue Bird session (RCA Sept. 14, 1939) Jelly didn’t write out a part for Sidney Bechet. Sidney, you see, didn’t read much, and Jelly, he knew each one. But he’d never write a solo for anyone, because you see, you can’t write a solo for another individual. I’ll tell you what happened, in all those recordings he’d write a skeleton arrangement. He wrote just enough to keep the harmony together and to keep the group tight. Jelly was very clever. He didn’t make it impossible, with all these high falutin’ arrangements and all that jive. He kept it tight, but he left it to individuals — to capture an artists’s work you see, and that was his secret — simplicity — but with Jelly, no bad notes. You couldn’t fool him. I remember one incident when we were recording one day. He had a little skeleton arrangement. We were in the key of D, you know, two sharps, and I was bustin’ down on this F natural because in my mind I figured that was it. We were runnin’ just the notes and I bust down on that F natural just as hard — bam — and just kept on going. Jelly said, “Oops,” and everybody stopped, and Jelly said, “Nick, what note is that in a certain measure?” I said, “F sharp.” He said, “Well, why don’t you hit it?” Oh man, and he just laughed at me. Another thing about it, a lot of cats, they want to argue. But I didn’t alibi, I just said, “Oh excuse me.” Yeah man, and he laughed and from then on I knew it. That’s why we got along. I respected this man because he was a great artist. You couldn’t jive Jelly. He had the insight and he knew what he wanted and he knew what he was listening to. You couldn’t fool Jelly.
Several old Jelly Roll recordings were played for Nicholas. He identified some of the personnels and made a few comments.
It seemed we had more respect for each other. Everybody tried to play together — not like they do now — every man for himself, to show how much he can play . . . I hear that little Jimmie Noone thing. He was my idol, Jimmie . . . That part (in Mushmouth Shuffle) was written out. Jelly wrote out the melody and I swung it my way. The notes were the guide but I changed it around the way I thought I should play it . . .
I’m going to tell you something, I admire these old recordings. They were primitive and it was not easy to make records then with what we had to go through. They couldn’t even record any drums then. It’s easy now. In those days you had to play — no foolin’ around — you played. And these things thrill me a lot, because guys played with more pride. They didn’t come there to make that little buck. They came to sound good, so they could say, “Man, you know I was on that one” — Proud. You know what I mean? It’s a big difference. Now cats come on a session — a couple hundred dollars here, “What time we gonna hit?” “How many more numbers have we gotta cut?” You know it’s a confusion. Nobody gives a damn how each other sounds or nothing man. “When do we finish?” So there’s a big loss — the beauty of it. These cats played it with their heart man; played their little one or two notes, but it’s the way they played it, and I can feel it. I can hear it. I felt Blues. But it’s lost thing now. Today they’re running some beautiful changes — all kinds of fancy chords. But, no Blues. Where are the Blues? Where is the soul — gone — they ain’t never had no soul in the beginning.
Jelly was like a father to me, and I respected Jelly, and I’m telling you the truth, I admired this man. Lot of guys would say, “I won’t play with Jelly, it’s too hard. I won’t take directions from Jelly. Man he bugs you.” Because they couldn’t play nothin’, you see. He was a beautiful guy — beautiful.
The man had a distinct style. He’s a stylist, he’s a creator. When he’d say he created jazz what he meant was he created a style of jazz, and he did. The cats were playing ragtime piano before — dooka dooka dooka dook, but Jelly come — doop, doop, doop, so relaxed. This man never hit a bad note. He never tried to play, he played.
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The above article was published in The Second Line magazine, dated Winter, 1978, Vol. XXX, pages 34—39.
Special thanks to Don Marquis, Millie Gaddini and Neil Aldridge.