By Robert S. Greene
I like to think of him in his blackest moment, sitting at the piano stool of the little Washington, D.C. cafe on “U” street, in the late thirties, thinking whatever fallen gods think. He still wasn’t very old, but the way jazzmen go, he was an old man. And perhaps the cruelest thing about it was that he had such a good memory. He made a trip to the halls of the Library of Congress every afternoon, but now he was playing for ghosts. And it was all there, like they say it is before you go down the third time.
There were and are better pianists than Jelly Roll. But there has never been a better piano player. Perhaps the answer is that he always meant every note he played, and he meant them with the fresh originality of a child, who finds new excitement in old tunes, and for greater excitement, writes new ones. I can’t imagine Jelly just filling in a set to pass the time away, looking at his watch the way they do today, to see what time he was off. For he was always “on”, whether at the piano or away from it, and his fabled claim that he invented jazz is not just a fable. He invented it every time he played, regenerating that first wonderful moment that comes to all jazzmen when they are young and blow a hot chorus for the first time. He was blessed and cursed that it was the only kind of chorus he ever knew.
And when there was no more audience, except maybe a couple of people in the Jungle Inn who came to hear him — when the Congress sessions in the afternoon were finally over, when the testament was finally made — the stabbing — the shadow hovering over him, there was not much left. Not even ghosts to hear him play.
What happens to gods when there are no worshipers left? They die — not of broken hearts, but because the full heart bursts. I don’t think he’d ever been to the Coast. And maybe he couldn’t die where people knew him. Jelly Roll was a god, and gods don’t die. At least no one should see them. Better away from home.
And so, as if equiping (equipping) his own funeral entourage, he chained his two cars together, the Lincoln and the Cadillac, and set out to cross a continent, alone to California. If this is the stuff of Paul Bunyan, was it not also Jelly Roll? And it is fitting that he got there — a man on his final journey, a beat up man in a beat up car, arriving from across the continent. But was not the man Jelly Roll, and was not the car a Cadillac? The memories of the road strained eyes and the cheap hamburger joints and worse motels were gone. Maybe he had arrived, for a new life, as his folks had arrived “from the shores of France” so long ago. Maybe there was an audience!
How did he sound then? He always sounded good, because he wouldn’t give up on his style, which he knew was right, no matter what the new boys were doing.
For one, he played with two hands. If that sounds like a platitude, listen to some of the modern pianists. He played with two hands, and he made them count.
For another, he knew what he wanted to do with his two hands. They were not for ornamentation — they were for piano playing. And there had to be a melody. Once that’s understood the rest Of Jelly’s style follows naturally. The melody played upstairs where it ought to be, but around that melody he brought the full remembered richness of the New Orleans jazz band. Let the first and fifth fingers carry the octave — the horn part — the lead. Around it, still in the right hand, punch the clarinet filling in the daylight with trills and figures and embelishments (embellishments). And now, in the left hand, fill out the front line, letting the octave sequences and bass figures carry the trombone, beating against the melody, establishing the chord line, playing a driving counterpoint to the trumpet-clarinet right hand. And behind all this the rhythm — solid chords laid down the way the drum and banjo ought to lay them down — deserting the lower middle register to fill in the tuba parts in the bass notes, and blending both hands into the full ensemble of a New Orleans band.
And there were the solos, those second and fourth choruses, where one part will rip out out of the whole, break into the clear, while beneath it the rest of the piano plays a driving background to itself.
And to all of this Jelly now added the full accomplishment of the true jazz band — the riffs against the melody, the breaks sunk out by one of the solo instruments, the stop choruses, the accent choruses. And when he had finished, when he had played the tune, it stood in the full richness of the New Orleans tradition.
This was Jelly’s secret, if he had a secret. It was an open secret — anyone who heard a good New Orleans band and a ragging piano could have put the two together. But it waited for a young boy named Ferd Morton to come along — no one played like him before and no one really does now. You can practically hear him say it. And he’s right. Somehow, it’s good that he knew.
Especially now, in these last days in California, scurrying around, trying to get established, trying to get a band together. The moment he believed could never come had finally come. And the myth of immortality and everlasting hope slowly dissolved away. The worshipers had gone. The world had turned. There was no audience. It was California, 1941. The memories had been conjured up for the last time.
He died in a hospital, but he died alone. Perhaps it is the way gods have to die. For otherwise they would be giving up what silently they knew all along — that they are not really gods after all — they are only men, and this dying hurts.
Some night, when the stars are clear, and a rickety jazz band is playing, listen hard. And if you hear a whacky piano full of chords and a little love, stomping on an uptown rag, stop for a moment and think of him. For a part of what you’re listening to is Jelly. There’s no kid playing real jazz today that doesn’t have some of it in him now. Jelly could have played the chorus better — he’d tell you that himself if he could — but just the same, he’ll be mighty pleased. And then, when the ball is over, go down and shoot some pool.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Bob Greene is a real New Yorker. Born September 4th, 1922 in New York City, has lived there practically all his life. His first affection for jazz began in the 30’s when he was on vacation during the summer. At the resort was a band — and the drum which was used had an electric light in it that flicked on and off — with a brilliant sunset painted on the bass. He began playing piano in the late 30’s. His affection for Jess Stacy stimulated his playing at that time, and still does. He thought “BIX” was practically God!
Played on and off, and then attended Columbia University. While there, he got a staff job writing at C.B.S. Left Columbia, and attended Harvard, where he obtained a “half-master” in American Literature. Decided it was too tame, and headed back to the Big Apple. Went to work as a Staff Writer for the American Broadcasting Company, where he wrote the script for a music show, but “jammed” with a band before he went on the air. In the group were Bobby Hackett, Vernon Brown, Adrian Rollini, George Wettling, and some others. Began wondering what he was doing writing this stuff when he wanted to play all along!
Also learned a lot from Baby Dodds in New York, and met Conrad Janis at Nola Studios. Played with this band for about a year. Worked feverishly on a book called “Television Writing,” which was published by Harper’s. Thru this book, he obtained a job at Columbia University teaching radio and TV writing, which he still does. His book has become the nationally recognized “bible” of authority on the subject.
Found time to make a “Blue Note” date with Sidney DeParis, Omer Simeon, Jimmy Archey et als. Also, another fine recording for “Circle” with the Conrad Janis band. Both are excellent efforts.
“Discovered” Jelly Roll Morton in the late 40’s, and was bowled over by his style. Has never ceased to study Morton since that day, and his style is strictly Jelly’s own, having mastered the quality and methods of this master — without actually copying note for note as do most Jelly’s disciples. Has a fine library of his records, and a suitable collection of books on the subject.
Has written a fine piece on “BIX”, and has many articles to his credit on other jazz subjects. Is currently writing scripts for N.B.C., the latest in blank verse.
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The above article was published in The Second Line magazine, dated March—April 1955, Vol. 6, Nos. 3 & 4, pages 1 and 3—4.
Special thanks to Don Marquis, Bob Greene and Sonny McGown.