Lord And Lion


Lord And Lion



Is it necessary to denigrate Jelly Roll in order to celebrate Willie the Lion? For over two decades Leonard Feather has been doing everything in his power (grown increasingly great through measures best known and kept to himself) to deflate New Orleans Jazz in general and Mister Jelly Lord in particular. His motives, whatever they are, must be mixed. Basically, I suspect, such music suits neither his taste nor his purpose. A hired hand, no matter how disguised, he cultivated a taste for Ellington and adopted the purpose of serving the Duke. It appears as simple as ABC. As arranger-bandleader-composer, though deceased, Morton remained his only real rival in the field. Because the Duke knew this too, it was easy for Leonard to encourage him to express contempt for the ghost of Jelly Roll. And it was no more difficult for Feather to persuade Ellington’s mentor, Willie the Lion, to assail the New Orleans achievement in favor of the Harlem Jazz he represents.

Feather had a point worth making: jazz did emerge almost simultaneously in separate sections of the country and no area, town, or quarter enjoyed a monopoly on quality. Leonard chose to right a slight wrong with another big one, however, by urging Willie to declare (or seem to say) that jazz actually began in New York and there reached its peak. On November 8, 1957, he supervised a Smith recording session released on Dot DLP-3094 as The Lion Roars. The disc concludes with Feather putting a question no more predetermined than the answer: “While we have the time I’d like to ask you, Willie, your feelings about the theory that jazz was born in New Orleans and that Jelly Roll invented it there?” His feelings thereupon prompted the Lion to roar:

Ha, ha, ha! That’s one of the worst things I ever heard. You know, as I told you before, most of the jazz I heard was in the brickyards — and then, another thing, I think jazz comes from the person’s soul and from the person who happens to be that person. But Jelly Roll Morton was a guy that always talked a lot and what he talked about, he couldn’t back it up. ‘Cause he used to be around the Rhythm Club everyday and he used to stand out on the corner and he used to bull and con all those fellows, you know, about what he did — had his twenty-dollar gold-piece on — he would stand out there with a bank-roll, as we call it, meaning money. So every time I’d come around the Rhythm Club, all the guys who played piano used to keep quiet, ‘cause we used to have jam sessions around there and I used to lay Fats and Jimmy. Sometimes I’d even lay for Tatum. Then we had four or five more guys who used to get in a session there. So I used to come around specially on Saturdays looking for Jelly Roll and these other guys. . . . And I went around this Friday and he was standing on the corner. So I said: ‘Look, Mister One-Hand, let’s go inside and let me give you your lessons and your cutting.’ So I took Jelly inside by the piano. I was the only one that he would stand and listen to and didn’t open his mouth. I must have played nearly everything you could name and, when I got through, the cats said: ‘Well, Jelly Roll, I guess you’ll keep quiet now!’ And true as I’m sitting on this chair, Jelly would talk a lot but he couldn’t play a lot.

Willie assumes, here as elsewhere, that what he knows and feels is the whole truth. Not even Morton was more egocentric and, by Smith’s own admission, he got around much more than the Lion. Jelly Roll was thus somewhat better qualified to consider temporal and geographical issues as well as to assess collective and individual accomplishments. Moreover, in conducting Morton’s spontaneous discussions and demonstrations for the Library of Congress, Alan Lomax had no ax to grind or carefully refrained at least from doing so. Therefore these recordings (The Saga of Mister Jelly Lord. Riverside RLP-9001 — RLP-9012) and the book augmenting them with interludes by Lomax (Mister Jelly Roll, Grove Press E-35) still constitute the most rewarding documentary in the annals of jazz.

Nevertheless, Willie too has a tale to tell and plenty of talent for telling it well. At least we possess that story (Music on My Mind: Memoirs of an American Pianist. Doubleday, New York, 1964). Employing essentially the same process as Lomax, namely interrupting the Lion’s more or less improvised monologue with historical interludes of his own, George Hoefer has likewise as his principal aim to elicit the facts and let them interpret themselves. He is the very type of responsible, objective, impartial critic — with no hypothesis or hobby to ride to death, leaving trampled reputations in his wake. As a result, we recognize not only obvious differences between New Orleans and Harlem but also surprising similarities between Morton and Smith.

Ideal representatives of their respective schools, each of them displayed a large loyalty to his generic style and a strong sense of his personal genius. As pianists both mounted a two-fisted attack (despite Smith’s disdainful observation), both stressed the significance of melody, both favored a medium tempo (though each contributed a Fingerbuster), and both demanded the right to improvise freely. As recording artists both preferred selecting and directing their bands, composing and conducting their tunes. As apologists for jazz they insisted that this new music, incorporating elements common to operas and symphonies, takes trained musicians to play at all properly. Jelly was twenty-five in 1911 when fourteen-year-old Willie first heard him in New York, but like the man the boy was already accustomed to ragging the Miserere from Il Trovatore and superimposing one semi-classic strain upon another. Even then they agreed completely on attitude, that is, the importance of showmanship. The following passage from Music on My Mind has precise counterparts in Mister Jelly Roll:

Wherever they were from, the old-time piano men tried to develop their own individual style of playing. Because, you see, if one player had a way of performing that made him stand out from the others it would make him a big hit with the ladies and that was one thing we were all looking for all the time. You had to be real sharp in the way you dressed, the manner in which you approached the piano, and in the originality of your ideas; that is, if you wanted to compete for the ladies. . . .

It is amusing to discover that, whereas the Lion came really to know him only after the Crash, he had known the bride long before Morton married.

“Some people used to put me on by asking whether jazz was born in New Orleans and whether Jelly Roll invented it,” laments the Lion, “I said once that that was one of the worst things I had ever heard.” The reference is clear to all familiar with his recording of The Lion Roars. Now, with no undue coaxing or cajoling from Hoefer, Willie voluntarily recants by calling Jelly “quite a piano player and composer in his own right.” He then continues (emphasis mine):

Morton was a man with strong spiritual and magnetic forces; when he sat down to play he could hold an audience by the strength of his strong personality. He was a sharpshooter and had always traveled in fast company. He was intelligent, had something to offer, and as far as I could tell, he was always able to back up what he said. . . . It used to make me mad to hear the New York cats who hadn’t been out to Harlem making fun of Morton. Like myself, Jelly Roll had played in all kinds of places, and that was the way you learned about life — playing in all the different back rooms. . . .

Small wonder that, no longer a bird of Feather’s, the Lion reserves for a closing paragraph his last word concerning certain jazz writers: “They can also be the kind of character who is inclined to follow the dollar sign. Sometimes they’ll say anything if they think it will bring them a buck. They should learn to govern their tongues and look at the water before they jump. . . . Sometimes I think that eight people out of ten are phony.” So the Lion changes his tune. Lover of cognac and sauterne, he has grown discontent with pressing grapes of sour vintage. This is not to say, however, that between Smith and Morton the distinctions are illusory or negligible. The present volume can call for support upon recordings too, and in the case of Willie and Jelly it is as enlightening to compare their discs as their books. My assumption is that jazz fans should, if they do not, have access to the essential records I mention.

It would, for instance, be hard to imagine a more complete contrast in valid conceptions of ensemble function and solo procedure than these two demonstrate respectively on Twelfth Street Rag (RCA-Italiana LPM-10052) and Climax Rag (Jolly Roger 5035). Ragtime classics both, the former was composed by Euday Bowman in 1909 (1914) and the latter by James Scott in 1914. The Lion recorded Twelfth Street with Sidney Bechet’s New Orleans Feetwarmers in New York in October of 1941, fifteen weeks after Morton’s death in Los Angeles. Only the leader’s clarinet and Braud’s string bass were Orleanian in origin. Trumpeter Shavers, guitarist Barksdale, and drummer Catlett belonged almost as much to Harlem as Goshen-born Smith himself. They tear down Twelfth Street, Willie included, at a pace Morton would never have countenanced. With his New Orleans Jazzmen of September 1939, he had prescribed an alternative or supplied an antidote. On Climax Rag the alien trumpet of De Paris, trombone of Robinson, saxophone of Cauldwell, and guitar of Lucie obey the Jelly Roll orders and conform to New Orleans conventions — while clarinetist Nicholas, bassist Braud, and drummer Singleton join fellow-townsman Morton in showing the way. Totally distinct in most respects, both records have much to recommend them.

Should some object that one pair of selections will scarcely suffice to compare the two as orchestral pianists, let them listen as well to Panama made by the Morton Seven in January of 1940 (Commodore 20018) and That’s a Plenty done by the Dixieland All-Stars in May of 1959 (Roulette R-25015). Both flagwavers, cut in New York, feature septets dominated by trumpeter Red Allen and drummer Zutty Singleton — mustering in addition a trombonist, a clarinetist, a saxophonist, a bassist, and of course a pianist. They make for much the same difference, it seems to me, but Willie’s work here is so compelling that this Dixiecats record should be added to Hoefer’s otherwise reliable discography.

The distinction is even easier to detect in their solo recordings. I submit, for a start, a comparison between their versions of three jazz standards — Maple Leaf Rag (Scott Joplin, Saint Louis, 1899), Buddy Bolden’s Blues (Buddy Bolden, New Orleans, approximately 1899), and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Fats Waller, New York, 1929). Morton recorded the first and last at Washington in May of 1938 (Riverside RLP-9003, 9006), the other at New York in December of 1939 (Mainstream S/6020). Smith cut Maple Leaf and Ain’t Misbehavin’ in New York exactly twenty years after Morton (Grand Award 33-368), Buddy Bolden in Paris exactly ten years after Morton (Dial LP-305). Both entertainers sing the last two numbers as well, and their vocalizing differs as vastly as their keyboard activity.

“When the Lion performs the work of other composers,” comments Hoefer, “he usually embellishes them with his own interpretations.” Depending upon his intention, the same may or may not be said for Jelly Roll. If we elect to judge on the evidence of Maple Leaf Rag, weighing Morton’s memory of Joplin against Scott’s piano-roll transfer and Smith’s recollection of Morton in turn against Jelly’s recorded “transformation,” our verdict must pronounce the former infinitely more faithful to the original. Presumably, then, all Jelly Roll’s recreations possess an authenticity superior to the Lion’s. This simply means that we can rely on Everyone Had His Own Style (Riverside RLP-9007) on which Morton resurrects the forgotten New Orleans figures (Albert Cahill (Carroll), Buddy Carter, Sammy Davis, Tony Jackson, Game Kid, Kid Ross, Alfred Wilson) to an extent impossible in the case of Reminiscing the Piano Greats (Dial LP-305) whereon Smith does likewise for the house-rent-party pianist of Harlem (Eubie Blake, Ford Dabney, Bob Hawkins, Abba Labba, and Lukey (Luckey) Roberts). It does not signify that Willy (Willie) is therefore inferior to Jelly as a jazzman, however, for the creative capacity has little to do with eclecticism or emulation.

The fairest test of their creativity is surely afforded by solo performances of original compositions. There are perhaps two dozen available and arbitrary pairs to compare. A thorough job would involve using, besides those I am about to specify, at least half a dozen others by Morton (Frogimore Rag, Grandpa’s Spells, Milneberg Joys, Mister Jelly Lord, Winin’ Boy Blues, Wolverine Blues) and half a dozen others by Smith (Bring On the Band, Concentratin’, Morning Air, Passionette, Relaxin’, Zig Zag). In order to appraise their range and variety within a reasonable length of time, play the following precisely as I propose. Do not protest too strenuously that the progression seems contrived or imposed.

Fundamental ever are the blues — JRM, Original Jelly Roll Blues (1905), Riverside RLP-9001 (1938); WLS, Willie’s Blues (1953), Dot DLP-3094 (1957). More prevalent than might be expected is what Morton dubbed the Spanish tinge — JRM, Creepy Feeling #2 (1938), Riverside RLP-9004 (1938); WLS, Tango a la Caprice (1939), Good Time Jazz M-12035 (1958). Keyboard cameos of respected associates — JRM, King Porter Stomp (1902), Mainstream S/6020 (1939); WLS, Portrait of the Duke (1949), Dot DLP-3094 (1957). Audible pictures of visible phenomena — JRM, The Pearls (1919), Riverside RLP-9006 (1938); WLS, Rippling Waters (1939), Good Time Jazz M-12035 (1958). Impressionism in jazztime — JRM, Pep (1929), Riverside RLP-9006 (1938); WLS, Echo of Spring (1935), Grand Award 33-368 (1958). Expressionism in jazztime — JRM, Freakish (1929), Riverside RLP-9010 (1938); WLS, Contrary Motion (1949), Dot DLP-3094 (1957). I leave you to make and take your choice, with this final thought: it need not be Lord or Lion, for you are free to cherish both — or even neither!

The above article was published in The Second Line magazine, dated May—June, 1965, Vol. XXI, pages 61—64, 66 and 69.

Special thanks to Don Marquis and Millie Gaddini.

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