Jelly Roll Morton in Washington
By Kenneth Hulsizer
IT MUST HAVE been late in 1935 or early in 1936 that a friend of mine told me that Jelly Roll Morton was playing piano in a Coloured Night Club on U Street in the centre of Washington’s largest coloured section. He hadn’t been out to see Morton but he had seen an advertisement in the “Washington News”, advertising Jelly Roll Morton, the man who started Jazz and Swing in 1906.
I found the Jungle Club the next afternoon without difficulty. It was upstairs over a Hamburger stand. It was open and there was a woman there. I asked her if Morton was around and she said yes, he was back in the kitchen eating, to go on back. I went back and found Morton munching a sandwich. It was probably his breakfast.
He looked much like his pictures in the old Victor Race Catalogues. He was still slender and it was difficult to tell his age. I knew he must be nearly fifty as he had been around a long time. Otherwise I might have guessed him to be ten years younger.
I told him who I was, that I had been listening to his music a long time on records and when I saw he was in town, I had come out to talk to him. The fact that I liked his music was enough. He led the way back into the club and we sat in one corner by the piano and talked.
Jelly Roll hadn’t made a record in a long time. I hadn’t heard of his having a band in years. I thought he was either dead of (or) still out around Chicago. I knew he had been to the West Coast once or twice and had played around the mid-west but I had no idea how much time he had spent in the East or how many of his records had been made in New York and Camden (across the Delaware River from Philadelphia where Victor had its plant).
From the long silence from Jelly Roll and the fact that the whole country was just climbing out of a financial panic, I suspected that Morton was somewhat low financially. The looks of the Jungle Club confirmed this impression.
I could soon tell from our talk that Morton was trying to decide just who I was and why I had come to see him. I wasn’t a booker or an agent for a recording company. I wasn’t a song writer or a song publisher. I wasn’t an arranger and I wasn’t a bandsman though I told him that at one time I had played in bands.
He had never heard of a record collector. I was the first one he had ever met. When I asked him if he had any of his old records, he laughed and said, “No, what would anyone want of those old things.” Records were merely something made to get a little money and to spread his name. A profitable sort of publicity device. The only music that counted was the music that you played directly to people who applauded and paid to hear you. His music was not an artistic achievement that he created and permanently inscribed on wax for people to enjoy. It was a stock in trade that he sold nightly or as often as he could.
The idea that people got as much enjoyment out of listening to his recorded music as to his public performances or that there might be men who collected and treasured his records for the music that was on them had never occurred to him.
He had written several tunes, none of them ever popular with the public at large. Writing popular tunes was another easy way of making money and getting publicity. A great many Negro song writers had preceded him. There were many well known and rich Negro singers, dancers, entertainers and song writers before there were well known Negro bandsmen or band leaders.
It was plain that he was desperately anxious to get back into the “Big Time”. He longed for the money, the prominence, and the bright lights once again. Handy had made it, Armstrong had made it, Waller was particularly popular right then. Ethel Waters was rich and respected. He could see no reason why be should not be.
I was interested only in his music, chiefly in his records. I could offer him no business or financial aid. He soon realized that I had no thought of making any money out of him either. But as long as I knew him, I don’t believe he ever ceased to wonder just why I came around to talk to him or invited him to my home to listen to records.
At other times he thought I might be a government official and at others (when I began to question him as to personnels of his bands) he thought I might be a writer. As long as he was in Washington, I don’t believe he ever understood that there were people interested in Jazz as an art form, especially white people. He had never met anyone interested in jazz whose sole interest in it wasn’t in making money out of it or in being entertained. Those people he understood. He never understood me, I’m sure.
On that first afternoon, I didn’t know he had spent a lot of time in New York. So I talked to him about Chicago and the Chicago musicians. He enjoyed this and I spent all afternoon there. He seemed to like to talk about the old days in Chicago, the people he knew, the things they did and what had happened to them. He had been one of the best known coloured musicians in Chicago about 1925 when he was playing piano in Melrose Brothers Music Shop. He had known almost everyone and they had all known him. He remembered it as a pleasant period. About New York, where the money was, he was bitter. He hadn’t been successful there. He had never fitted into the picture in New York. He had never “caught on”. He didn’t blame the panic. He blamed the gangs. He said the gangs ran the bands in New York. He had no connection with the gangs there so he had never made any money or gained any prominence.
I think he was entirely correct in this analysis (he has been corroborated by many other musicians) but I often wonder if Chicago was any better. I can’t believe that it was. The big difference was that Chicago was a wide open town with a “What-the-hell” spirit. New York was wide open only to something that made money for New Yorkers. Morton’s adapted New Orleans style was not commercial in New York. He had been a failure there.
He always spoke well of New Orleans. All good musicians came from New Orleans. But he talked very little of New Orleans. He had been only a wandering pianist and entertainer there. He had never had a band or made much money in New Orleans. He spoke very little of it. Chicago was the place he liked to remember best. So we talked mostly of Chicago.
I knew he came from the Gulf Coast and he had played throughout the South. He had finally landed in Chicago via St. Louis and had stayed there for a long time, playing at Melrose’s composing, arranging, running bands through the mid-west. I knew he had gone to the West Coast and he had been through the East.
Why he left Chicago for New York, why he never went back to Chicago, why he had come to Washington, I never asked and he volunteered nothing. I never even learned where and when he became known as Jelly Roll. All our conversations were impersonal. About music and little else. How much of his past he would have told me and how much of it I would have believed is a question. I was content to talk about his music, Jazz Music.
I went back many times to see him. Sometimes we talked all afternoon. Sometimes he played most all afternoon. He was always glad to play and I was always content to listen. As long as I would listen he would continue playing. He seemed to invent melody effortlessly and endlessly. He could play on and on without repeating. Whether he was playing songs so old that I didn’t remember them or whether they were songs he had composed that had never been published or whether they were spot improvisations, I don’t know. It was probably a little of each. Now and then I would recognize tunes, now and then riffs from his records but mostly the things he played, I had never heard.
His fingers were still nimble and he didn’t seen to tire. He never seemed at loss for an idea or a chord. His rhythm was steady and his bass correct. In his playing he never seemed to play anything to make an impression on me. He seemed to play for himself. This was in contrast to his conversation in which he seemed to be thinking as he talked in an effort to say the right thing. He talked for effect. He played for himself in the only style he knew.
It is hard to describe the music he played for me. It was more melodic than rhythmic. The rhythm was good but the melody was dominant. He played in a medium tempo mostly and in general the style was close to the music on New Orleans Joys and Perfect Rag (Gennett 5486). It was easy to see that he had been a fine ragtime pianist. The transposition to swing had been easy for him. I think it had been harder for him to play stomps. Apparently he was more proud of his stomp piano than of the ragtime. Right then, swing was popular while stomps were considered passe so he played mostly in the light fingered melodic style. I liked his work in stomp-time. He hadn’t the percussive force to be a good stomp pianist. He could do it as numerous records attest, but the light melodic rather than the strong rhythmic was his style.
He never played slow blues unless I asked him to. When he did, they were melodic blues similar to his records. He knew no other and I doubt if he had heard any other kind until I played him Kitty Irvin’s Copenhagen (Gennett 5592).
In all the time he played for me, he never played anything resembling Boogie Woogie though he must have been aware of such a piano style. I believe he felt that real Negro blues was music for the Red Light district and Boogie Woogie was probably not jazz piano at all to him.
Just what his connection with the Jungle Inn was, I never knew. I think he lived with the woman who ran the place. She once said to me, “Mr. Morton is a fine pianist.” It was more a question than a statement. I agreed with her and she seemed happy that someone considered him something beside a relief pianist at the Jungle Inn.
I went to the Jungle Inn only once at night. Park Breck had come down from Philadelphia and we went for a while before we went to bed. Jelly Roll was there but he wasn’t playing. There was a six or seven piece band there playing the latest songs in the most approved Swing style for the dancers. We got Jelly Roll and sat at a table in a corner to talk. I don’t believe the place was ever patronized by white people. The waiters and customers seemed to think we were out to see a little night life. The waiter kept suggesting that we request songs of the girl vocalist who circulated from table to table. He didn’t think we had come out there to talk to Jelly Roll.
Morton didn’t like this. We had come out there to see him and no one else. He was talking to respectable white boys who were there only because of an interest in his music. He didn’t like the waiter injecting the spirit of the Honky-tonk and Black and Tan into our midst. He shooed the waiter away and we talked above the din. We were all glad when the place closed, the band went home and we could go over to the piano and listen to Jelly Roll.
He played an hour for us. Breck was tired and sleepy. Morton played no Boogie Woogie and he didn’t sound like Hines. After an hour I took Breck away before he fell asleep on his chair. I believe Jelly Roll would have played all night if we had stayed.
Morton had known most of the coloured jazz musicians and a great many white ones. When he wasn’t talking for effect, his judgment of them was shrewd and sound.
The first time I talked to him he told me that DeFaut was the best clarinetist and Mitchell was the best trumpeter. At another time he seemed to think Simeon was the best clarinetist. Later he is reported to have said that Keppard was the best trumpeter. When I had him down to listen to records he was particularly impressed by Albert Nicholas on Blue Blood Blues (Victor 22681) “That Nicholas was a man, wasn’t he?” he said as the record finished.
He said that Walter Barnes (who burned with his band in a dance hall fire in Mississippi a few years ago) had once played with him. Barnes had told him that he would have a band of his own some day. He wanted to hear some of Barnes’s records to hear what the band sounded like. He wasn’t impressed when he heard them.
He liked Henry Allen. A good man (and above all) from New Orleans. He didn’t care much for Armstrong. He said Armstrong had no gift for improvisation. He always interpolated old tunes into his solos instead of improvising on the theme.
He liked Bigard. Bigard was from New Orleans. He said Jimmy Dorsey was a good clarinetist because he went uptown in New York all the time to take lessons from Bigard. This was news to me. I have heard Dorsey sound like Teschemaker (Teschemacher) (Nichol’s Waka Hula) (Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula) but I never heard any Bigard influence that I can recall.
He seemed to recall a Kitty Irvin but he thought she was a white girl he had met once at Melrose’s. He thought the clarinet accompaniment was by DeFaut and the piano by Mel Stitzel.
He thought Bobby Stark and Russell Procope were on the Bill Brown of Zonky (Brunswick 7142) but he had no idea whose band it was. It seems that he made a bad guess in this case.
He knew both Jones and Collins. Said they were fine musicians and liked the records (only one had been issued then), but he had never heard of Louis Dumaine. When I asked him what To-Wa-Bac-A-Wa meant, he smiled. He knew but he wouldn’t say.
I never heard Morton say a good word for another piano player. He was the one and only piano man. All others were inferior imitators or just not pianists at all. At that time Fats Waller was making his long series of records for Victor and was the most popular coloured musician. Morton didn’t care for him. “All that singing and hollerin’ he does. I originated that. I was doing that years ago. He just copied me.” Anyone who listens to Jelly Roll’s Dr. Jazz (Victor 20415) must admit a similarity whether he agrees that Waller deliberately copied Morton or not.
Morton didn’t like Clarence Williams, even though Williams was from New Orleans. If he hadn’t been a piano player, I believe Jelly Roll may have liked him. Jelly Roll told me that Williams, like Handy, had made a small fortune just copyrighting, publishing and recording old blues of uncertain origin that had been sung in the South for years. He bore Williams a grudge because Williams had taken one of Morton’s tunes and played it backwards (Morton demonstrated on the piano) copyrighted and published it and made money out of it. But, Jelly Roll got even. He changed the rhythm on one of Williams tunes and sold it under his own name (again he demonstrated). However, Williams had made the most money from his theft and the thought still irked Jelly Roll. I’m sorry I can’t remember the names of the tunes. Maybe some researching pianist can supply them.
He didn’t care for Ellington either. “He ain’t no piano player. He’s got a good band and he’s made a lot of money but you know who made him. He’s got Bigard, a good New Orleans boy, sitting right beside him all the time telling him what to do. Take Bigard away and Ellington ain’t nowhere.”
Nor did he like Hines. “I remember when Earl first came to Chicago. A lot of talk spread around him right away. They came around and told me about the piano man who had come in from Pittsburg(h). I said ‘Well, we got the best there is right here in Chicago. You’re looking at the best right now. Let’s go around and see what this Pittsburg(h) Boy’s got’.” They went around to where Hines was playing with a small outfit and listened. “He was Flashy,” Jelly Roll said, “Flashy, but not solid. He tried to play more piano than he knew how.” Hines is my favourite pianist but some of his recorded work justifies Morton’s criticism. Morton claimed Hines was no Orchestral pianist and with that, too, I can agree. When I played the Hines’ solos of Harlem Lament (Brunswick 6771) and Blue (Decca 714) for Jelly Roll, “He ought to play like that all the time,” was the most Jelly Roll would say.
Jelly Roll drove a big Packard sedan. I suppose it belonged to him. I never asked. The elevator boy in the apartment where I lived was more impressed by the Packard when Jelly Roll came down to see me than he was by the fact that it was Jelly Roll Morton who drove it. The elevator boy studied piano but a whole generation had grown up who had never heard of Jelly Roll Morton.
I didn’t have all of my collection of Morton records in Washington; I had left part of it in Ohio. But the ones I did have there, I played over and over for Morton asking him about personnels. There was little interest in Jelly Roll at this time. He had never played for radio broadcasts and hadn’t had a band or recorded for several years. To the Swing enthusiasts, he was “Corny”. Few record collectors prized his records or praised the music on them. Floyd O’Brien was one of the few Jazz-men who spoke highly of his work Panassiť had nothing to say of him in “Hot Jazz” and Delauney had not included him in his “Hot Discography” (1936 edition).
Morton had forgotten what records he had made. He would look at the labels curiously as I got them out and say, “Yes, yes, Gambling Jack, I remember that. I named it after a friend of mine, a great gambler.” It was probably the first time he had ever seen or heard the record. He said he had made the first Orthophonic (he meant electrically recorded) records ever made. That was in Chicago. I don’t know for whom they were made, maybe for Autograph. It wasn’t a big company; one I had never heard of at that time.
Jelly Roll said his records were the largest selling records in the Victor catalogue at one time. I didn’t question this. He was bitter about the way Victor handled his records. “Look at this,” he would say, holding up Dr. Jazz, Load of Coal or Jungle Blues, “Victor Company always messing me up, putting some old corn band on the other side of my records.” He told me that a great many of his tunes were cut for Victor both as piano solos and by a band. He was interested to see which was issued. Delauney says Oil Well is a piano solo. In the United States it is by a band. Things like Freakish and Seattle Hunch may have been made by a band also. Frances was originally Fat Frances or Fat Fanny. Victor didn’t like such titles in their catalogue. Sweet Peter slipped through but it was quickly cut from the catalogue. It is one of the rarest Morton records as a result.
Jelly Roll told me the story of the naming of Milenburg Joys. He said, “We usually cut the side and then I would say, ‘Well boys, there it is, what are we going to call it’?” A look at the titles of Morton’s records indicates that the boys had some strange inspirations. London Blues on Okeh became Shoe Shiner’s Drag on Victor. There are a lot of blues, stomps, one swing and three bumps and two joys. Evidently a bump and a joy have a musical connotation since forgotten.
Jelly Roll remembered making records for Gennett with a band but couldn’t recall the titles. He made several sides under the name of Jelly Roll Morton and His Seven Red Hot Peppers that have never been found as far as I know. I have heard them but don’t remember the titles though I think King Porter Stomp was one and maybe Someday Sweetheart another. He also made a Seminole Blues for Victor that no one seems to have found. I heard it about 1930 and I described the music to Jelly Roll. He remembered the music that started with a slow, soft drum beat, increasing in volume and ending with a drumbeat diminuendo but had no idea what title it was issued under. It was probably one of the sides that the boys named in a hurry.
I would play the records for Morton and he would try to recall where they were made and with whom. As far as I know, he did surprisingly well on recalling the names of the men who played with him considering the number of bands he had, the number of records he made, that many were made with pick-up outfits. He recalled many names that I had never heard of and which I nor no one else seems to have suspected of being on his records. Names like St. Cyr (I took it down Sincere), Stump Evans, Andrew Hilaire, Quinn Wilson, John Lindsay, Ward Pinkett (I took it down as Pinckard), Lee Blair, “Bass” Moore, the two Benfords, Geechie Fields, Edwin Swayze, Billie Gato (Cato), Paul Barnes, Manzie Johnson, Gus Robinson, Bill Beason, one Briscoe (Trumpet), one Rosser (Trumpet), and one Taylor (Guitar) were all unknown to me in 1936. Some of them still are.
Names like Bacquet (Baquet), Walter and Joe Thomas, Zuty (Zutty) Singleton, Bernard Addison, Wilbur De Paris, Charlie Irvis, Billy Taylor, Cosy (Cozy) Cole, Sandy Williams, and others I knew of but never suspected their presence on his records.
Deep Creek is my favourite Morton band record. Every time Jelly Roll came down to see me, I played it for him and asked him again who played on it. I just couldn’t believe that the man (Paul Barnes) who played the beautiful soprano on it could be forgotten. But Morton never varied on this point (he did at times on others). It was always Barnes. I often wonder what became of Barnes and if he made records other than the Mortons.
On Ponchatrain Blues, Little Lawrence, Harmony Blues, I’m Looking for a Little Bluebird, Fickle Fay Creep, That’ll Never Do, Gambling Jack, Crazy Chords, and Each Day, Jelly Roll claimed the clarinet was played by the Victor House Man who was white. He tried often to think of his name without success. He would listen to the records and say, “He tried hard but he just didn’t have it in him.” Morton liked expressive musicians, especially on the clarinet, that is why he particularly liked Albert Nicholas. The White House man was too cold.
Morton insisted that Bacquet (Baquet) played clarinet on Mushmouth Shuffle, and no others. I have tried to check the information about the Victor House man and Bacquet’s (Baquet’s) presence without success.
Lonnie Wilfong (a Washington musician and arranger) sat in on one of these Morton Inquisitions. When Jelly Roll named Zuty (Zutty) Singleton as drummer on the four trio sides with Bigard, Lonnie asked Jelly Roll how the hell he kept Singleton that quiet. Jelly Roll said, “I was the man, when they played with me they played the way I said or they didn’t play. I never had any trouble.” This attitude may account for some of the strange musicians who got on Morton’s records. He couldn’t always get the man he wanted. They wouldn’t play with him.
“To play with me, a man had to play some horn,” Jelly Roll often said. He expected a high degree of proficiency from the musicians he hired. He liked them to be technically able. He wanted no one-note trumpet players or riff saxophonists. He was sensitive to the music of men like Barnes and Nicholas but his greatest admiration was for DeFaut, Simeon and Mitchell.
He told me the story of Johnny Dunn coming to Chicago with a yard-long coach horn to cut Armstrong. “I saw him right after he got off the train. I told him ‘You better take that long thing and go right back to New York, these Chicago boys’ll cut you to death’.” Morton mentioned that he had made records with Dunn, but I could tell he wasn’t proud of them. These records were supposed to be some Columbias and to have Johnny Hodges on them. I rather think that they are three Victors made under Wilton Crawley’s name, Keep your Business to Yourself, She’s Got What I Need and You Oughta See My Gal (38116, 38136). Morton knew Crawley but didn’t like his music. He wouldn’t have mentioned playing with him unless asked. Morton is certainly on the records and the horn sounds like Dunn and the alto like Hodges. The other Crawley Victors seem to have been made with a contingent from Luis Russell’s band.
Morton remembered the name of the man who did the goat and hyena imitations on Billy Goat Stomp and Hyena Stomp but he wasn’t proud of the record. I think he was sorry he had made it.
Morton at this time felt that he was down in the world. He longed to be up. He spoke carefully and conservatively in comparison to his later published statements. He never mentioned playing in dives and brothels, or scuffling for cakes and coffee with small bands, of playing with musicians he knew to be corny or passe.
Jelly Roll was advertising himself as the creator of Jazz and Swing and denouncing all later musicians as imitators and thieves of his style and tunes. In giving me the dates of his records, he gave them as 3 to 5 years earlier than they were. This may have been a bad memory but I think it was deliberate. He wanted to be known as the earliest recording coloured band, I believe. I knew the approximate issue date of many of his records but since records are sometimes cut a long time before they are issued, I didn’t question him closely, he might have been correct. Even after he was proven wrong, I considered it only a harmless vanity. I believe the other information he gave me about the records was as accurate as he could make it.
Jelly Roll didn’t like the probing into the personnels of the records very much. Some of them, as I say, he wasn’t proud of (at least, not at that time). He considered them dead stuff. He had been paid for them, had spent the money and the public had forgotten them. He seemed to feel that they dated him as a passe Chicago stomp man when everything was Swing and Jive. He was willing to forget them too. When I would try to pin him down to factual information, names, dates and places, he could stand it a long time, trying his best to remember, but after a couple of hours, he would edge over by the window and look down in the street longingly. When he got this Jump-Out-The-Window look in his eye, I knew he had had enough. He was ready to go home. He was a musician and entertainer. He wanted the crowds, the bright lights, the applause. He had played the music and sung the songs. Let someone else take care of the history.
I asked him once who hollered out “Oh, Mr. Jelly” on Smokehouse Blues (Victor 20296). He laughed. “I hollered that. They wanted someone who could yell and I said I could yell.” Morton’s voice is also the first voice heard on Sidewalk Blues and Dead Man Blues. The second voice is St. Cyr’s.
The personnels I so laboriously took down for my own information in 1936 have a curious history. Through “Down-beat”, Jelly Roll received considerable publicity. Show people say there is no bad publicity. In Morton’s case, the saying seems true. It was directly responsible for his getting out of Washington, going to New York, making records, and becoming once again a well known jazz figure. People began to talk about Jelly Roll Morton. Collectors and Jazz enthusiasts began to decide the Seven Red Hot Peppers weren’t as corny as they first thought. He wasn’t considered as yet the “Giant of Jazz”, the “Solid New Orleans Ensemble Man” or “Pioneer Jazz Pianist” that he has become since his death but he was on his way.
People began to collect and listen to his records. They heard many things they had never noticed or suspected before. They began to wonder about the personnels. Delauney decided the omission of Morton from his first edition of “Hot Discography” was a grievous error. In the 1938 edition, a Morton section was hurriedly installed. The cataloguing was good if incomplete but the personnels were wild and foolish guesses. Their only value was the assurance they gave to record collectors that the highly publicized “Ears” of the self-appointed “Experts” on jazz music existed only on paper. Their ignorance was matched only by their confidence. Their ability to recognise musicians by style, vibrato or other tonal component existed only on paper.
I suspected many inaccuracies in the personnels Morton had given me. I didn’t have all his records to play for him and I knew his memory wasn’t too good. A check with the musicians whose names he had given me would probably clear up a lot of dark spots. I sent the personnels just as they had been given to me to Paul Edouard Miller in Chicago asking him to see if he could talk to some of the musicians around Chicago and to see if they would corroborate or deny their presence on certain records; in the latter case, if they could suggest someone else who may have been present. I told Miller just how I had gotten the names and how accurate I suspected they were. He never even acknowledged receipt of my letters. I guess he wasn’t interested in Morton. Or maybe it is so much easier to give out expert opinion on records than it is to do laborious research work, chasing down forgotten musicians and checking facts, that he preferred the former.
When Gene Williams started “Jazz Information” and wondered in print as to certain musicians on the Morton records, I sent him a list of them with the same Information I had sent to Miller and asked his aid in checking them with any musicians he could find in New York. Williams wrote me an enthusiastic letter and promised to do what he could. He recognised several inaccuracies and thought he could rectify enough of the remaining errors to make the list a good basis for a Morton Discography in “Jazz Information”. I readily agreed to their publication as they were by far the best (I might say only) personnels for any of Morton’s records and at this time Morton was in New York making records and interest in him was high among collectors.
The publication of any list of personnels, however inaccurate, might encourage collectors to listen, hunt and question just as the mess in Delauney had caused me to see if I could help clear the fog of guess and conjecture that surrounded the personnels of these records.
After the first letter, I heard no more from Gene Williams about Morton. I was greatly surprised however some months later to receive a Morton Discography from the Victor Company prepared by Jack Reid and to see that he had used the personnels I had sent Williams. He had checked the recording dates and corrected a few obvious errors, but he had omitted a lot of pertinent and interesting information such as the presence of the Victor House Man and had substituted several decidedly questionable names as verified personnel (at least he didn’t list them as Probable Personnel).
Since Reid had access to the Victor files, I wrote him at once telling him I had originally assembled the personnels he had used and how I had gotten them. I asked him for a little help he could give me by the use of the files. I particularly wanted to know what had happened to the Victor of Seminole Blues. I thought I could give him a half dozen numbers under one of which it had been issued. He had apparently overlooked it in making his search for Morton information. I never received an answer from Reid either. Now that Morton is dead, I fear we will never have a good knowledge of who played on his many fine records.
On one of my trips out to see Morton at the Jungle Inn, I met Lowell Williams. Lowell was talking to Morton and taking notes for an article. Williams meant well and he was sincerely trying to help Jelly Roll. Jelly Roll had met someone he could talk to without being pinned down to names, dates and places. Williams was young and believed everything Jelly Roll told him. I warned Williams that it was a lot of fun to listen to Jelly Roll talk but that he was given to exaggeration. That his conversation was enjoyable and amusing to listen to but if reproduced in impersonal print without Jelly Roll’s warm personality, it was certain to make Jelly Roll sound like a paranoic (paranoiac). Williams felt that all Morton needed was a little help and a little publicity would be just the thing to help him. He knew he had a good story and he went ahead, sent it to “Down-beat” where it was given considerable prominence. Emphasis was placed on some of Morton’s frank estimates of jazz musicians and his incautious claims for his own eminence in the jazz world. “Down-beat” specialized in controversies at that time. The Williams articles stirred up a fine one. It even drew a reply from Handy, one of the men Morton had mentioned none too politely. Handy, rich and respectable, with an established reputation could afford to be charitable and slightly contemptuous of Morton, the impoverished old whorehouse pianist, who seemed to be trying to loud-mouth his way back to the big time, attacking anyone at all as long as he attracted attention to himself.
I don’t think there is any doubt that Morton made all the statements attributed to him. I have heard him make others that would look worse in print and had less substantiation in fact, but to people who never met Morton, I’m afraid they gave a false impression. The picture they drew of him is more nearly a caricature than a true likeness. I wish he had lived long enough to correct some of the false impressions these articles created in the minds of men who sincerely liked Morton’s music but cared little for him as a man.
I think there is no doubt that the publicity Morton got helped him, got him out of the tight, dark corner of the Jungle Inn, got him to New York, helped him to get a record date at General. If it helped him give the world Mamie’s Blues, it was well worth-while. Mamie’s Blues will last longer than the memory of the “Down-beat” articles.
What Morton called Mamie’s Blues has been used many times before and Armstrong has used it since calling it 219 Blues. It will be recorded many more times under many different names but I believe anyone who hears Morton’s record will always think of it as Mamie’s Blues. There is more of Morton’s personality in this record than in any other, the sound of his voice, his reverence for the most expressive music of his race, the way he could recreate this music on a cold staccato piano without losing its singing quality. It is all there. Anyone who listens to old Jelly Roll say, “This is the first Blues I remember—” and to the slow, deliberate, delicate music that follows knows more about Jelly Roll Morton than I can tell him with a typewriter.
I didn’t go out to see Jelly Roll during his last months in Washington. The Swing and Jive boys had discovered him. There was always a crowd around. There was a lot of talk and when Jelly Roll did sit down at the piano, they wanted him to play his version of King Porter Stomp while they jigged around on the dance floor instead of listening.
I went off to Cuba for a vacation and came back and waited in the Poconos for the Washington heat to subside. Jelly Roll came down to see me one afternoon in September. He said he had been down to see me several times while I was gone. He had been going up to the Congressional Library to see Dr. Lomax. He had played for the Doctor and had told him how his tunes had been stolen from him and sold in Tin Pan Alley. Grandpa’s Spells had become Glad Rag Doll. He, Jelly Roll Morton, had been cheated of a fortune. Dr. Lomax had explained that these things were hard to prove. Jelly Roll wanted to borrow my collection of his records to play for Dr. Lomax. He wanted to prove with them that he had played this music first and that those who came after him were imitators and plagiarists.
I have never been interested in who made how much money out of jazz. I think the less money made out of Jazz music, the better the music. I get no musical pleasure from figures in a bankbook. However, I told Jelly Roll he could borrow the records to play for Dr. Lomax. He said he would be down for them in a few days. He didn’t come back on that day and I moved to Ohio soon after that. I never saw Jelly Roll Morton again.
Note: This full-scale article was first published in the British Jazz Music magazine, dated February—March 1944, Vol. II, Nos. 6 & 7 (issues 16/17), pages 109—116. The editors of this rare WWII magazine were Albert McCarthy and Max Jones.