Jelly Roll in Chicago (1927)
by Karl Kramer
NOTE: When Alan Lomax was compiling his wonderful biography of Jelly Roll Morton, he wrote to the Music Corporation of America, inquiring if we had anything to contribute to the history of this colorful bandsman and composer. I wrote Mr. Lomax that we had very bright and provocative memories of our adventures with Morton, and if he would send a stenographer to me I would give him the story. However, he advised that his book had to be rushed into print and he could not wait for our material. When the book came out, I noted that Lomax had completely left out everything connected with this period. This little account is an effort to fill in the years 1927 and 1928 which are dismissed in the book with a few brief paragraphs, and most of them incorrect.
Karl Kramer, Beverly Hills, California
It was in 1927 that the then small orchestra booking company, Music Corporation of America, started its first real expansion. Our New York office was opened in the spring of that year, and this enlargement of booking territory stimulated the signing up of as many new dance orchestras as we could keep busy. Up to this time, most of our bands had come from Chicago and the Middle West. Headed by the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks from Kansas City, the list of MCA attractions at that time was not too large or imposing. They were mostly hotel and cafe orchestras, such as Don Bestor, Ted Weems, Charles Dornberger, Jack Crawford, Fred Hamm, Ray Miller, Zez Confrey, and the Egyptian Serenaders. There was not a single jazz orchestra in our catalogue, although for a brief time we did book the Wolverines. But this once “hot” band was only a sweet shadow of its former self when we handled it, and the only member left of the original group was Dick Voynow the leader.
Looking back, it seems strange that apparently there was so little commercial demand for the hotter jazz orchestras of the day. For years, Chicago, MCA’s birthplace, had been exposed to jazz music which had come to the windy City from New Orleans and points south. In an old issue of the “Second Line”, I learned that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had played for a Chicago cafe owner, Sam Hare, as early as 1916. Sam was one of our best customers at the Dells from 1925 on, yet he never went back to a jazz attraction. Oliver, Armstrong, Earl Hines, and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings had all been Chicago fixtures for some years, but these jazz bands were not important economically at that time. No, 1927 was the year of the “smooth” and the “sweet” band. It was to be a long time before Jazz reached its present high estate in the history of popular music and dancing.
This is a long but necessary preamble as to how and why we signed up Jelly Roll Morton in the summer of 1927. Jules Stein from New York had commissioned his brother Bill in Chicago to look for some so-called “entertaining” bands that could be booked in theatres and motion picture houses, as well as for dances. 1927 was a banner year for Bill Stein’s scouting, as he hit the jackpot at least twice: First, in locating Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians in a small Cleveland road-house; and, secondly, for picking up Wayne King right in our bailiwick of Chicago. I can picture jazz enthusiasts shuddering in reading the above, because these two bands are just about as far from the jazz pole as you can get. It proves that 1927 was the year of the sweet band; yet it was also the year that MCA signed its first jazz band — Mr. Jelly Roll Morton. So this year should be memorable in our history, if for no other reason than our contracting two such complete opposites as Guy Lombardo and Jelly Roll Morton.
The way this happened illustrates the casual, almost careless, but nevertheless wonderful way the band business was run in those pioneering days. Bill Stein used to spend his noon hours in front of the Wood’s Theatre Building, a block from our office, picking up leads from the many song pluggers who infested this edifice like gophers in a sandhill. Along came Marty Bloom, associated with the Melrose Company, and with him was Jelly Roll, who published with that house. Apparently, Morton was becoming a little difficult and demanding with Melrose, and maybe Bloom saw a chance to unload his troubles on someone else, so he suggested that we sign up Jelly as an MCA band.
It was not difficult to enthuse Bill Stein, particularly when he was told all about Morton’s Victor records. In those days a major record release was a potent sales factor in the dance band business, although soon radio was to replace records as the most popularizing factor. So Bill brought Jelly up to the MCA offices at 32 W. Randolph St., and as I was handling publicity and promotion for all our bands, he wanted me to prepare an advertising layout to take to our Sales Department. I must confess that the name Jelly Roll Morton meant very little to me at that early date. Most of us in MCA had been brought up on the Chicago beat school, and thought orchestras were only to dance to and not for aural entertainment. The only knowledge I had of Jelly Roll was that he was a co-writer of “Milneberg Joys”, which was a standard in most dance catalogues, and which I had enjoyed playing on the piano in my bumbling fashion.
Fate should give us notice when it presents us with some magic moment, the importance of which is not realized until decades later. With my present fervid admiration of Morton’s music, that should have been such a moment for me. But it wasn’t. I saw a very nice appearing, fast talking man, about age 42, who seemed to us the biggest braggart that had ever come down our musical pike. When he got through selling us, we thought he was a tremendous prevaricator but must have believed some of it because we signed him to a regular MCA contract.
The orchestra was to be billed as Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers, so as to take advantage of the Victor record sales and publicity. That there was no Red Hot Pepper Orchestra at the time we did not know until later. Meanwhile, we began our advertising campaign. The MCA artist Edouarde, who was a sort of Chicago John Held, Jr., did a wonderful poster — a frantic futuristic caricature of a lean Jelly pounding on a mystic keyboard, surrounded by fat little pepper musicians, who looked like they had just finished an engagement on Mars. Oh, those wonderful dance posters of the Twenties! If only the plates had been saved, they would be collector’s items like the Toulouse Lautrec show posters in Paris. What a display they would make in today’s playroom or in a jazz museum! Those posters, backed up by window cards, circulars and stories, really sold bands to the dance public. A great deal of the early success of MCA and its orchestras was due to the colorful and exciting advertising materials supplied free to each dance promoter. None of our competitors ever came close to us on this type of exploitation.
Meanwhile, the entire staff of MCA (all six of us) got busy on laying out a schedule for the new client. Bill Goodheart, who was in charge of the Chicago office, came up with a wonderful opening engagement: a full week as the stage attraction of the Alhambra Theatre, Milwaukee, at a very good price (then) of $1500. The Alhambra was an independent movie house which was going to try to buck the chain competition and vaudeville theatres by trying out a stage show policy, and Morton was to be the opening gun of their new campaign. It was a first for all of us: Morton had never appeared with his band as a big theatre attraction and MCA had never booked any of its bands in movie houses up to this time, vaudeville yes, but not motion picture theatres. All we had to do was to deliver a great orchestra attraction that would draw business and entertain the film customers. And that’s where the trouble started.
In our eagerness in signing up Jelly Roll, and under the influence of his exuberant oratory, nobody had bothered to inquire if he had a going orchestra ready to roll. Now, after having committed ourselves to a theatre engagement, Jelly informed us that he had no organized orchestra, and the Red Hot Peppers were individual musicians playing in different parts of the country. But with the confident aplomb that was native to his optimistic temperament, he said a few wires and phone calls to New Orleans would bring on the run the greatest aggregation of jazz musicians we would ever hope to hear. So in our anxiety, we even advanced sufficient funds to pay for the messages, since despite the big talk, Jelly was not too affluent at the time. In fact, he was downright broke.
While Jelly is gathering his group, let’s pause for a word about Morton’s personality, based on daily experiences with him for many weeks, during which we worked with him very closely on organizing his orchestra and preparing his stage act. First of all, despite his grandissimo manner, he was very likable. After the first wave of disbelief, we took his braggadocio for granted, as something amusing, but not very serious. This was easy to do, as basically he was always cheerful, loved life and everything connected with the amusement business, EXCEPT — and this is a very big except — he had absolutely no respect for other orchestras, or for very few other composers. He dismissed them all airily as inconsequential and trivial, and that he alone represented the best in the business.
As I look back thirty-three years later from the tolerant and serene position of an old-timer who has gone through all the cycles of the band business, I now understand that Jelly was always playing a part, even for himself by believing the best of himself and continually affirming it to one and all, he probably was realizing his greatest potential. If things went wrong for a while, Jelly was as great as ever, it was the world that was at fault! Jelly was still the tops in his field, and it would only be a matter of time or circumstance when he again resumed his rightful position. To Jelly, his natural superiority in the music world was just as definite and demonstrable as Babe Ruth being the Home Run King. It was self-evident.
This is not meant to indicate that all Jelly had was ego and attitude. He WAS good. He knew it, and we came to realize it, much more now, however, than we did in 1927. Sufficient has been written about his piano playing, but maybe not enough about his philosophical and musical approach to jazz. For this follower, at least, he was original and individual, rather than one who copied or transposed. He created, whereas many of his contemporaries adapted. He was the source of his own genius and remained so, despite his various exposures to New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, and other cults and styles with which he came in contact.
But at that time we had no evaluation of Morton, other than that he had some records and could play a good piano. So we took his natural ego and high talk with great reservations. Nobody resented his extensive claims to be the top figure on the jazz totem pole; we just laughed at him. And, to do the man justice, he laughed back with the confidence of one who knows he is right and the doubters all wrong. His first and only psychological setback came when, after a week went by, he crept into the office and somewhat shamefacedly confessed that he had no orchestra as yet, and the Milwaukee break-in was only two weeks away.
It was found out later that Jelly really did contact many of the musicians that had played with him before, but they turned him down, one and all. The reason was that several times previously, he had cajoled them into leaving home and good jobs, and, on joining Morton, had found the bookings sparse and the pay uncertain. The “winin’ boy” had whistled wolf once too often, and now that he really had a good tour lined up, the musicians thought it just another of Jelly’s musical mirages. This was a low time for Morton, as he did not inspire enough confidence in his pleas to bring one single man to Chicago. As a proof of his financial distress, he had even pawned the diamond filling from his teeth, but he would show the place it had reposed at the slightest request, and without any embarrassment. Tough times did not faze Jelly, he had been through them before.
But now the time had come to cut out the soft talk and get down to the business of finding Morton a band. MCA was plenty worried, because we had signed a play-or-pay contract, which meant that if the band did not show up, we had to pay the theatre $1,500.00. There was no time to line up individual musicians, what we had to do was to find an organized unit that had some kind of presentation of its own and merely put Jelly Roll in front of it. There were not too many organized colored orchestras around, except for a very few top names, but with typical MCA luck the perfect outfit was located right in Chicago.
It is a sad historical reflection that the first colored dance orchestra ever booked by MCA and the one that became Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers way back in 1926, today remains in complete anonymity. Who were the musicians, completely unknown then as now, that were so good that after one audition, the very critical Mr. Morton expressed himself as perfectly satisfied that these boys could qualify as being able enough to play the master’s accompaniment.
In reading the “Second Line” it has always amazed us to note the identifications of the individual musicians who made up the personnel of the various old-time bands, while we in the orchestra booking business only remember the leaders. In an effort to find out something of the orchestra which went out with Morton, and one which Jelly Roll himself seemed to feel was as good as any he had ever directed, we consulted with the other MCA men, in an effort to discover who was in this group and where they came from. Very conscious of our dereliction on what has now become an important epoch in early MCA history, there has been a great scratching of heads by all of us in an endeavor to tie down this band. The combined result is confusing but perhaps illuminating enough to call forth clearer recollections among others who may read this article. First of all, the orchestra was an organized unit found by Taft Schreiber, who was booking the MCA small band summer circuit. He christened them the Chicago Blew Blowers, mostly because we had good advertising prepared under that name. It is agreed by everyone concerned that this was the first colored orchestra signed and booked by MCA.
Taft Schreiber writes, “You were right. I found the band somewhere on the Southside, but whether it was one of the big places like the “Entertainers”, or one of the all-night joints, I don’t know. The band had a Chicago background and played several weeks for us as the “Chicago Blue Blowers” before we put them with Morton. I believe Cab Calloway was in this band.”
Bill Goodheart, who handled all Morton’s bookings, advises, “I believe the first band we had for Jelly Roll was the Eldredge Band, and Eldredge played the piano. It could be that Calloway was with them. After they broke away from Jelly Roll, they went East and played for Moe Gale at the Savoy Ballroom in New York. I don’t think we booked Jelly for more than a year and I must admit that no one — certainly not me — realized that we had a famous artist on our hands. All we thought of him was that he was a fellow who didn’t know what a dollar was — he was constantly drawing money ahead.”
My own recollections are about as vague:
1. It seemed to me that Schreiber said at the time these musicians had been left in Chicago by Oliver when he went to New York.
2. The only Eldredge I can find in the jazz books was Roy, a trumpet player, whereas our leader was a pianist definitely and wore glasses. I saw him in Paris in 1929 playing in a bistro, and still can’t remember his name.
But, regardless of who these musicians actually were, we set up an audition for Jelly to hear the Blew Blowers, and he was not only happy with their playing, but genuinely enthusiastic, and agreed to adopt them as Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. Plans were made for a two-week rehearsal session to create a stage act, and to school the band in Morton’s arrangements. It was a hectic two weeks. Bill Stein and I were to produce the act for the theatre, and it was tough going. Jelly wanted the entire program to consist of his numbers, whereas we thought it better to follow the very successful Paul Ash picture house formula of lots of singing, dancing and novelty numbers.
Jelly appeared to acquiesce, and we hired a couple of acts: a very tall light tan girl dancer, and a very short tap dance team. The girl was so tall that the wardrobe company couldn’t find a pair of opera hose long enough to cover the tremendous expanse of thigh, but she could dance and even warble the chorus of “Milneberg Joys.” The boy dancers were young and peppy, and, added to the vocal numbers of the band, rounded out a lively stage presentation.
It was during this rehearsal period that I came to know Jelly real well. We were always arguing, but out of this conflict I believe there came some mutual respect. Once after the band had played a very spirited arrangement of “Hallelujah”, Jelly weakened and said, “That’s a fair song.” “It’s a great song,” I countered. “Not great,” he insisted, “just fair.” And fair it remained. Another time I was amazed when as one of a quartette doing a section of “Deep River”, Jelly could not or would not master the simple harmonies of this spiritual. He always took off on some strange harmonic diversion that was so startling it broke up the quartette, so we left the number out.
Meanwhile, Jelly continued composing, because almost every day he brought in some manuscript and played it for the boys. From the index and dates of his works as compiled in Mr. Lomax’s biography, I personally feel that his best music had already been written. One day, he brought in a song and asked me to do a lyric for it. I felt tremendously flattered and worked all night on the words, and when I gave the results to him next day he said it was great. All I remember of the song is the title — “High Brown Baby Mine” — and the first phrase of the chorus. However, Jelly did bring me a yellow tie with blue spots, so the song was not a total loss. But I sure wish I had saved a copy.
Came that great day when the show was to open in Milwaukee. With historic appropriateness, it was also the day Charles Lindberg was to parade in that city as part of the triumphal tour following his flight. In fact, as Jelly was actually opening his show on the stage, the parade was passing by right in front of the theatre. So when we couldn’t find one of our little dancers, we thought he was out in front watching the parade. George Campbell, another MCA man who was appointed tour manager for the band, went out on the street with me, and we looked in vain for our boy. When we came back empty-handed, we saw him in one of the upper boxes, sound asleep. A vigorous handling fortunately got him backstage just in time.
The funniest part of the opening came when Jelly played the girl’s opening three times and she still didn’t come on stage. He looked enquiringly at the sides and the audience began to titter. I found her strolling nonchalantly among the wings. “Milly, get on stage, this is your number!” “Is dat ‘Milenberg Joys’?” she asked, “doesn’t sound like it to me.” She had only rehearsed the number two solid weeks. However, otherwise the act went smoothly and was well received. We went back to Chicago happy, and in the middle of the week several of us returned to catch the act again. We said nothing to Jelly and sat out front. To our amazement, the entire act was gone, and replaced with a complete program of Morton’s own compositions. The band merely served as a background for his solos, and the entertainers came in only for the finale.
After the show, we hurried backstage. “Jelly, what did you do to our beautiful show?”, we anguished. But Jelly was unperturbed. “People don’t come here to see a show,” he advised, “they come to hear old Jelly play the piano.” So we gave up and left him alone from that time on.
Morton never obtained another stage engagement while with us, but went out on a one-night dance tour. Bookings were steady and successful. Their greatest triumph occurred in Herrin, Illinois. At first, there was some resentment in that town about engaging a colored band; in fact, there was almost a small riot. But after they heard the orchestra the dancers went crazy over the stomp beat; and, as I remember it, the orchestra returned to Herrin several times in the next few months.
But all was not serene on the financial scene. Jelly just couldn’t handle money. He would collect the fees from the promoters, but instead of using the money for salaries and transportation, he spent it some place else. So we had to collect advances from the dance managers, and this Jelly resented. Finally, it got so bad that several times he did not show up for engagements. He just could not stand the organization and discipline necessary for a road tour. So, within a year, the contract was terminated by mutual agreement. In his book, Jelly apparently had hard feelings for MCA, because he was always threatening to sue. For our part, we had no such feelings, but our records show he still owes us money.
A final word about Jelly and his music. Much has been written by many more qualified than myself, and we need another appraisal of this artist like we need a new tax. But there might be some interest in a purely personal reaction from this square, who knew little or nothing about jazz until he came under the Morton influence. At that time, most of us in the band business never considered our product as a possible art form or a bit of Americana culture. Booking bands was a business, and the best orchestra was the one that commanded the highest price. Popularity and box-office draw were the only standards we had as to the greatness of the dance orchestra. Of course, this method of rating prevailed only at the time and does not stand up today in the stern spotlight of jazz history.
What I am trying to say is that when MCA booked Jelly Roll Morton, he was about the most unimportant item in our orchestra catalogue. Few of our promoters had ever heard of him, and it was only clever advertising and enthusiastic selling that made bookings possible. This may be a sad reflection on the dance promoters of the day, but it is true. The only consolation I have to my own underrating of Morton’s undeniable genius is the memory of my frequent meetings with him, when he tried to teach me something of his music and partly succeeded.
When we laid out the program for his stage act, he felt that we did not include enough of his own works. When I questioned that the public did not know or even care about some of these, he was not hurt, just astounded. “You need educating boy,” he told me. So the next day he brought me a batch of manuscripts, some published and others in hand script, and made me take them home. In my halting style, I fingered through these numbers at the piano, and somehow, somewhere along the line, I began to get a glimmer. After about the tenth massacre of London Blues. I finally got religion, particularly on the last movement. The next day I reported as much to Jelly, and he beamed that “I had seen the light and was saved.”
There were two other aspects of Morton’s music which many critics have neglected. The first was the tremendous cleanliness of his playing, both as a soloist and with his orchestra. I hesitate to apply the word “dainty” to music of such vigor, but it comes close to conveying the extreme gracefulness of his style. There was an entire absence of that fusion and confusion which so many mistake for hot jazz. Morton was as classical in his field as Mozart to his. Many of his phrases are intellectually, rather than emotionally, musical. Perhaps that is why Jelly’s music has weathered so well, and why it sounds just as fresh today as it did some thirty years ago.
The second item that has been overlooked was the tremendous tempo of Morton’s stomp playing. We don’t have anything like it today, and haven’t had since the thirties. The Morton one-step beat was a product of the early 1900s, and was not his alone, but was popular wherever dance music was played. The original one-step, as introduced by the Castles about 1912, was played at just about the same speedy tempo as Jelly’s stomps in 1927. Compare the continental “Too Much Mustard”, the Castle one-step hit, with Morton’s “Grandpa’s Spells.” They were not only both the same fast tempo, but amazingly alike in mood and spirit. This fast movement became a part of the famous Chicago beat of the twenties, which most bandleaders agree has never been surpassed, and began to fade with the advent of the sweet bands. Lombardo slowed up the dance tempo in Chicago and he was soon followed by others. Today’s one-steps are funeral marches compared with the verve and life of Jelly Roll’s stomps.
As a final judgment, I make the timidly prophecy that Jelly Roll Morton will be known and remembered in that future day when all the other orchestras of his time will be forgotten.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Karl Kramer, who shares with Jazz America this heretofore untouched phase of Jelly’s life, was born in Detroit, Michigan, September 13th, 1899. He was educated at the University of Chicago. And received his Ph B. degree from that school. After graduation he took the position of Press agent for the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit. It was through this connection that in 1925 he met Jules C. Stein. Mr. Stein had organized and incorporated the “Music Corporation of America” one year prior, and had just begun booking travelling band tours. Mr. Kramer was hired by Mr. Stein on a “free lance” basis, to do the publicity promotions for the orchestras he hired. His starting assignment: The Coon-Sanders Orchestra.
In 1927, Kramer joined MCA permanently and full time, and has been with this company ever since. He remained in Chicago until 1939, then was transferred to their California office. On arrival there he switched into the radio end of MCA.
When television came along, Karl took over in 1950, the production end of this important new advertising medium. Since that time he has produced for MCA about 500 TV film programs, including “Coronado 9,” “Mike Hammer,” “State Trooper,” and “City Detective.”
While living in Chicago, he met and fell in love with a girl he used to take dancing 3 times a week. Coincidentally, this was the time when all the great Chicago bands were going at their best. Their marriage has produced four children, and their progeny is assured of going right on dancing through life by the addition of four grandchildren.
Mr. Kramer is an avid collector of old sheet music, starting with early ragtime and running to about 1920. At present he is assigned the mammoth task of compiling a complete history of MCA (circa 1924-31) up to the beginning of swing. His biography includes this plea: “Any and all reminiscences of contributions about this glorious period will he gratefully received.” Send c/o MCA, Beverly Hills, California.
Certainly, the least some of our readers can do is dig up material to send Mr. Kramer, as a partial recompense for this wonderful article on Morton!
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The above full-scale article was published in The Second Line magazine, dated January—February 1961, Vol. 12, Nos. 1 & 2, pages 1, 3, 5—6, 23, 25—26 and March—April 1961, Vol. 12, Nos. 3 & 4, pages 19—22.
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Note: Karl Kramer died in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California in October 1980.
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Special thanks to Don Marquis, Daniel Meyer and Michael Hill.