A Fragment of an Autobiography
by Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly’s life is something that will always be unfinished business with me. When he was here in Washington (1938) he was spending a great deal of time with Lomax at the Library of Congress, giving him a world of information, along with recordings of the old historical numbers. In his state of health, Jelly was rather tired a considerable part of the time; I didn’t want to put him through another interviewing. So, the most I did was to suggest to him one day that he should write up a history of ragtime in the early New Orleans days that he was familiar with, and he agreed that he had thought of it. One day sometime later, he handed me a small sheaf of papers in his handwriting. “Here,” he said, “You can have this.” I took it without more than glancing at it. When I got home and took another look at it I discovered that it was a start at his autobiography. This fragment appeared in the Record Changer, dated March - April 1944.
R. J. Carew, 1944
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My relations were natives of France they were sometimes rich, settled in N.O. shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, more than 125 years ago according to information gathered from family statistics. I scarcely can remember my Great Grandfather, who was considered the largest jeweler in the entire South. His name was Emile Pache [sic] (Pay-shay). Remember my Great-grandmother very well; she lived until I was grown and had travelled quite extensively. She died around 100 years old. She made one trip around the world when I was still young, and came back as I began approaching my teens. Her name, Mimi Pache [sic]. The Paches [sic] bore five children, as far as my memory serves me, one son, Emile, Jr., and four daughters, Laura, Lena, Hortense, Orealia. There were none of the aforementioned who could speak English or American, only French and a little Spanish. Laura married a French settler by the name of Henri Monette, also a native of France; they bore four sons, Henri, Jr., Gus, Neville, Nelusco; three daughters, Louise, Viola, Marguerite. Monette, Sr., was a wholesaler of fine liquors and cordials. Louise was married to F. P. Lamenthe, also native of France and early settler. Louise bore one son, Ferdinand, two daughters, Amide, Mimi. Lamenthe was considered one of the outstanding building contractors and demolishers in the entire South. Most of the aforementioned lived on their estate for many years, at the corner of Frenchman and North Robertson Streets in New Orleans. The Robertson Street block, from Frenchman to Elysian Fields Avenue, was considered the longest block in New Orleans. The entire estate was adjoining the Bartholomew’s estate which faced Elysian Fields. I happened to be Ferdinand, abbreviated Ferd, and that is the exact location where I was born and reared.
I was christened by Paul and Eulalie Echo [sic], who were also early settlers from France. When I was a baby, there seemed to be some exalted idea about me becoming a great man, so I was named after King Ferdinand, but took the wrong step early in life. My godmother, Eulalie, would always take me around, passing me off for her child (I was supposed to be a pretty baby) and one day she loaned me to one of her friends to also make believe. Somehow the woman was arrested and refused to relinquish “her child,” so we both went to jail. It was in jail that my inspiration for music was first noticed. Some of the inmates were singing and I was supposed to have shown great interest, and would smile along with the singing and weep when they would quit, (so) they sang until I fell to sleep in the cell.
We always had musicians in the family, but they played for their own pleasure and would not accept it seriously, and always considered a musician (with the exception of those who would appear at the French Opera House, which was always supported with their patronage) a scalawag, lazy, and trying to duck work. There were always several instruments in the house, including zither, guitar, piano, etc. We always had access to practice at given periods to get our lessons. My first tutoring was on the guitar, my godmother was solely responsible for that, by a Spanish teacher. I don’t remember my tutor’s name, (but) at the age of seven I was considered among the best seniors. I also took piano, but the guitar was my favorite. I later studied music under Prof. Nickersen [sic], Mrs. Moment, at St. Joseph Catholic College. My denomination is Catholic. As a boy I was always obedient to relatives and respected older people, and was bashful and shy.
In my early youth I thought New Orleans was the whole world, in spite of school teaching. (I) had been to Shell Beach, Lake Ponchartrain, Spanish Fort. Milneberg, Algiers. Gretna, all considered New Orleans suburbs. I was convinced this was the whole world, (and that) the names on the map such as New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Hong Kong. etc., were just there to fill the map out, until my great Grandmother took a trip around the world and brought back toys for every one of the kids but me. She told me in French “Never mind, when I go again I’ll bring you something real nice.” I could speak only French at that time. She never did go again, my heart was broken, (and) it was then that I decided that I wanted to work for money, and get the things I wanted, and would not have to ask anyone for anything, — after school I could work. My first job was dishwasher after school, with permission from mother; just to please me she agreed. Salary 75c a week payable monthly $3.00. At the end of the month my boss would not pay me and said I ate enough for my pay. That broke my heart. I know mother gave me the money and said she had collected. I wanted to work at the same job, (but) mother objected. Later I could understand. I was about eleven years of age then. My godmother lived in the uptown section of New Orleans which was known as the Garden District. She would spoil me and would give me little freedom. When school closed she permitted me to go to pick berries at the strawberry farm. I thought I could eat up the whole strawberry farm and ate enough to get sick and returned back home. (It was) about a 45 mile trip, and that was the first time I began to believe that the world was a little larger than New Orleans.
Mother died when I was about fourteen and left my uncle as guardian. I liked him very well, he was my favorite. He was in the barber business, and he gave me a job at a fabulous salary of 25c a week and a suit for New Years. This did not interfere with my music. My assignments were chambermaid, apprentice, shoeshiner, and note messenger to his different girls, plus excuses to his wife. He was punctual with my salary, and (that) with the few pennies I made on shines helped me to help my sisters, for whom I had a fatherly feeling, since I was the oldest. When New Years came I waited for my new suit. Uncle’s wife was very good at sewing, and I believe it was agreed between both uncle and wife to cut down one of uncle’s suits. This was done, and the suit was presented to me, very much to my disapproval. The suit was tried but did not fit; the seat of the pants was much too large and they did not fit me anywhere. Uncle was a fat man weighing about 210 pounds. All the kids had new holiday clothes but me. I was so peeved at my uncle and his wife that I tried to kill their cat, Bricktop.
(Editor’s Note: It appears that when Jelly Roll was about fourteen or fifteen the family fortunes began to worsen. Also, the old folks began to die off, as can be gathered from the following, which follows the experience with Jelly Roll’s barber uncle).
The older generations were passing away and friends were vanishing. The estate was being mortgaged, and Grandfather was losing his liquor business. My favorite horse died (TOM) during a very drastic September electric storm, and things were generally going bad. I had heard of boys lining barrels after school closed, and thought “I may try to take a shot at that,” since none of the boys were known to make less than $2.00 a week, and that was more than I had ever made working. School closed, I went to the Brooklyn Cooperage Company to get a job, (and) was hired. Positively green to the job, I made three dollars the first week, (and) my heart was jumping with joy and I could then see success by my own hands. (Lining is the small strip that’s nailed around the head of a sugar barrel to make the head secure; two strips to each head; 5 nails to each strip). I finally got to be one of the best in the shop, and was promoted higher departments to learn the trade of cooper (making barrels).
By this time I was considered among the best of all junior pianists in the whole city, and everywhere I went I was accepted as a king. I was always dressed well by my folks, “but” I myself wanted to dress myself. My Godmother had her country home in Biloxi. Miss., and in the summer time I would go over on the Sunday excursion to see her. . . . Some boys enticed me to go to the tenderloin district. I finally accepted the invitation. That was on a Saturday night. I had leave then till 11 P.M. on Saturday and Sundays. I liked the freedom of standing at a saloon bar, passing along the streets crowded with men of all nationalities and descriptions. There were women standing in their cribs with their chippies on. (A crib is one room about 7 feet wide). (A chippie is a dress that women wore, knee length, very easy to disrobe). One Saturday night whilst on one of the wild jaunts, we heard that one of the houses was stuck for a professor (pianist). My friends encouraged me to go for the job, but my fear was so great the only way I would go was if my friends would go with me. They only wanted me, however, so that was impossible. They finally agreed to take the other upstarts along and put them in a rear room, so their guests could not see them. (I felt sure that it was a plot to kidnap me, since I had a narrow escape when I was younger on Melpomene and Willow Streets). So they agreed to let them stay where I could see them. I was so frightened that when I first touched the piano the girls decided to let me go immediately. One of my friends spoke tip, “Go ahead and show these people you can play.” That encouraged me greatly, and I pulled myself together, and started playing with the confidence of being in my own circle. (Remarks of the inmates and guests) “That boy is marvelous.” The money was plentiful, and they tipped me about $20, but I did not want to accept, because I was not taught that way.
I was immediately given the job as regular professor, but I could not see the idea. I was making about $15 legitimately, and furthermore if my folks were to ever find out that I had ever passed through the tenderloin I would be dealt with drastically. I asked, what salary would they pay? “$1 a night is the regular salary,” was the landlady’s answer. I flatly refused, and my attention was called (to the fact) that I made about $20 in maybe 1 hour’s playing, that was more than my weekly salary by my own admittance. “You see the $1 is to guarantee that in case there happens to be a bad night you are sure of some kind of change. It is the tips to look forward to, and there’s no telling how much you can make,” she exclaimed. “But I can guarantee you $5 a night —if you don’t make $5 in tips I’ll pay you $5 or make up the rest if short.” There was no salary attached. My friends coaxed me. I thought of all the incidents that might happen, maybe in the thousands I could tell the folks I was changed to the night watch since the cooperages ran 24 hours a day. And I could notify the job that I had taken ill, they never had time to investigate, and this plan would possibly make things safe all around. I then accepted the job, but would not stay that night. I reported the next night promptly at the given time, 9 P.M.
The streets were crowded with men walking in both directions; police were always in sight, never less than two abreast, this always guaranteed the safety of all concerned. Lights of all colors were glittering and glaring, music was pouring into the street from every house. Women were standing in the doorways, singing or chanting some kind of blues, some very happy, some very sad, some with desire to end it all by poison, some planning a big outing, a dance or sonic other kind of enjoyment Some were real ladies in spite of their downfall, and some were habitual drunkards, and some were (dope) fiends as follows: opium, crown, heroin. cocaine, laudinum, morphine, etc. All these drugs could be had, sometimes at the nearest pharmacy; without disappointment at any hour of the year, Chinatown would be waiting. I was personally sent to Chinatown many times with a sealed note and a small amount of money, and would bring back several cards of hop (opium). At that time it sold for 15c a card. (1 playing card out of a deck). Chinatown was located exactly one block from the Parish Prison, but there was no slipping and dodging; all you had to do was walk in and be served. Very often I would bring back Chop Suey, Yatca-mee (Chinese noodles), or some other Chinese dish on my errand. Around 4 A.M. the boy friends of the girls would show up to escort their girls home.
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The above article was first published in The Record Changer, dated March 1944, Part 1, pages 15—16 and April 1944, Part 2, pages 27—28 and is reprinted by kind permission of Richard B. Hadlock, owner/publisher of The Record Changer.