‘I Created Jazz in 1902, Not W. C. Handy’
Jelly Roll Morton
“Whiteman Claimed to be King of
Jazz with no Knowledge of it”
By Jelly Roll Morton
Dear Mr. Ripley:
For many years I have been a constant reader of your (Believe It or Not) cartoon. I have listened to your broadcast with keen interest. I frankly believe your work is a great contribution to natural science.
In your broadcast of March 26, 1938, you introduced W. C. Handy as the originator of jazz, stomps and blues. By this announcement you have done me a great injustice, and you have also misled many of your fans.
It is evidently known, beyond contradiction, that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, and I, myself, happened to be the creator in the year 1902, many years before the Dixieland Band organized. Jazz music is a style, not compositions, any kind of music may be played in jazz, if one has the knowledge. The first stomp was written in 1906, namely King Porter Stomp, Georgia Swing was the first to be named swing, in 1907. You may be informed by leading recording companies. New Orleans Blues was written in 1905, the same year Jelly Roll Blues was mapped out, but not published at that time. New Orleans was the headquarters for the greatest Ragtime musicians on earth. There was more work than musicians, everyone had their individual style. My style seemed to be the attraction. I decided to travel, and tried Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and many other states during 1903-04, and was accepted as sensational.
Whoever Heard of a Professor
In the year of 1908, I was brought to Memphis by a small theatre owner, Fred Barasso, as a feature attraction and to be with his number one company for his circuit which consisted of four houses, namely Memphis, Tenn., Greenville, Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi. That was the birth of the Negro theatrical circuit in the U.S.A. It was that year I met Handy in Memphis. I learned that he had just arrived from his home town, Henderson, Ky. He was introduced to me as Prof. Handy. Who ever heard of anyone wearing the name of Professor, advocate Ragtime, Jazz, Stomps, Blues, etc.? Of course Handy could not play either of these types, and I can assure you he has never learned them as yet (meaning freak tunes, plenty of finger work in the groove of harmonies, great improvizations, accurate, exciting tempos with a kick). I know Mr. Handy’s ability, and it is the type of Folk Songs, Hymns, Anthems, etc. If you believe I am wrong, challenge his ability.
Williams Wrote Original Tune
of “St. Louis Blues”
Prof. Handy and his Band played several days a week at a colored amusement park in Memphis, namely, Dixie Park. Guy Williams, a guitarist, worked in the band in 1911. He had a blues tune he wrote, called Jogo Blues. This tune was published by Pace and Handy under the same title and later changed to St. Louis Blues. Williams had no copyright as yet. In 1912 I happened to be in Texas, and one of my fellow musicians brought me a number to play — Memphis Blues. The minute I started playing it, I recognized it. I said to James Mules, the one who presented it to me (trombonist, still in Houston, playing with me at that time), “The first strain is a Black Butts’ strain all dressed up.” Butts was strictly blues (or what they call a Boogie Woogie player), with no knowledge of music. I said the second strain was mine. I practically assembled the tune. The last strain was Tony Jackson’s strain, Whoa B-Whoa. At that time no one knew the meaning of the word jazz or stomps but me. This also added a new word to the dictionary, which they gave the wrong definition. The word blues was known to everyone. For instance, when I was eight or nine years of age, I heard blues tunes entitled Alice Fields, Isn’t It Hard to Love, Make Me a Palate (Pallet) on the Floor — the latter which I played myself on my guitar. Handy also retitled his catalogue “Atlanta Blues.” Mr. Handy cannot prove anything is music that he has created. He has possibly taken advantage of some unprotected material that sometimes floats around. I would like to know how a person could be an originator of anything, without being able to do at least some of what they created.
I still claim that jazz hasn’t gotten to its peak as yet. I may be the only perfect specimen today in jazz that’s living. It may be because of my contributions, that gives me authority to know what is correct or incorrect. I guess I am 100 years ahead of my time. Jazz is a style, not a type of composition. Jazz may be transformed to any type of tune, if the transformer has doubt, measure arms with any of my dispensers, on any instrument (of course I’ll take the piano). If a contest is necessary, I am ready.
The whole world was ignorant of the fact that blues could be played with an orchestra (with the exception of New Orleans). One of my proteges, Freddie Keppard, the trumpet King of all times, came to Memphis on an excursion from New Orleans. I had him and his band play the New Orleans Blues, one of my numbers. That was the first time Memphis heard blues by an orchestra.
The broadcast states that “Tom Toms” came on the Mayflower from the jungles of Portugal, which were considered the first step in Jazz. I contradict this, since the first “Tom-Tom” was known to come from China, the home of the crash, and in no way did the “Tom-Tom” of any jungles have anything to with jazz. It was simply a part of the equipment that comes with a set of drums such as: xylophones, bells, chimes, woodblocks, triangles, gongs, crash, cymbals, tom-tom, bass drums, snare drums, tympani, etc. The Mayflower departed from Plymouth, Eng., Sept. 6th, 1620, arrived near Cape Cod, Nov. 9th, 1620, two months and three days after departure, with 103 Pilgrims.
The only knowledge that anyone may claim today is strictly what history gives. This gentleman, no doubt, has a greed for false reputation. Through an infringement possibly on someone else’s property, which happens to be the undersigned. At this particular time, for world information, I shall get in touch with a few leaders in the early 19th century, namely, John Robicheaux, Manuel Perez, Armand Pirons, and ask them how long they have been playing Blues, even before they heard of Handy, let alone any compositions with his name. Happy Galloways played blues when I was a child. Peyton with his accordion orch, Tick Chambers orch, Bob Frank and his piccolo orch. Their main tunes were different pairs of blues. Later Buddy Bolden came along, the first great powerful cornetist. On still or quiet nights while playing Lincoln Park, he could be heard on the outskirts of the City, Carrolton Ave. Section, from 12 to 14 miles away. When he decided to fill the park, that’s when he would exert his power-
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Jelly Roll Morton
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ful ability. This man also wrote a blues that lived a very long time (thought I heard Buddie Bolden say, “-------, -------, take it away.”) This tune was copyrighted by someone else under the name of St. Louis Tickler, and published about 1898. Buddie was older than I. I wrote a blues in 1907 entitled Alabama Bound. Some one heard the number and had it published in New Orleans. A copyright doesn’t always prove the rightful owner to a piece of music. I have had many numbers stolen. Many have attained glory and reaped benefits, who have not written one note. Of course the copyright laws protect the supposed to be owner.
“Whiteman Had No Knowledge
Paul Whiteman claimed to be the “King of Jazz” for years, with no actual knowledge of it. Duke Ellington claimed the title of “Jungle Music,” which is no more than a flutter tongue on a trumpet or trombone, to any denomination of chord, which was done by Keppard, King Oliver, Buddie Petit and many more, including myself when I played trombone, no doubt before he knew what music was. This very minute, you have confronting the world all kinds of Kings, Czars, Dukes, Princes and Originators of Swing. (“Swing” is just another name for jazz) and they know that the titles are deceiving. Of course it’s meant for financial gains, (but they should stop at that), but instead they have lied so much, gained fabulously in many cases, and have been doing this so long, that they actually believe they are telling the truth, ready to give anyone an argument, including me. I would like to put a lie tester on many of these make-believe stalwarts of originality. Mr. Ripley, these untruthful statements Mr Handy has made, or caused you to make, will maybe cause him to be branded the most dastardly imposter in the annals of the history of music. For your own satisfaction I would advise you to get some of Mr. Handy’s records, then get some of mine. Then draw your own conclusions. For many years I was Number One man with the Victor Recording Company. Tiger Rag was transformed into jazz by me, from an old French Quadrille, that was played in many tempos. I also transformed many light operas such as Sextet, Melody in F, Humoresque, etc., and After the Ball, Back Home in Indiana, etc., and all standards that I saw fit, more than 35 years ago.
“My Tunes Made a Lot of
Many orchestras and individual musicians have become famous by merely being able to play a few of my tunes successfully which were always chucked full of originality. James Reese, of Europe, became very famous during the World War, with Jelly Roll Blues, and was also the cause of the rhythm dancing, still in vogue, according to Brown and McGraw, the originators. Milenberg Joys helped Paul Ash in his darkest moments, in his struggle to fame, it being his most dependable hit tune. Fletcher Henderson played the entire East and demanded respect from all first-class orchestras with King Porter Stomp. Abe Lyman placed several inserts in New York papers, extending thanks to Milenberg Joys, for his esteemed debut. King Oliver with a truly great personnel — King Oliver (World’s greatest hot trumpeter), Louis Armstrong, Lillian Armstrong, piano; Dutrea (Dutrey), trombone; Bud Scott, guitar; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Baby Dodds, drums; Wm. Johnson, bass — after failing with Gennett, Columbia and Okay (OKeh) recording companies, finally made good with one of my numbers, Dead Man Blues, on Vocalion. By this time the personnel had also changed — Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Barney Bigard, clarinet and sax; Darnell Howard, clarinet and sax; Paul Barbarin, drums; Bob Schaffner (Shoffner), trumpet; King Oliver, trumpet; Kid Ory, trombone; Bud Scott, guitar; Bert Cobbs, tuba; Lou Russell, piano.
In 1925 St. Louis Blues was dead as a doornail. Mr. Handy came to Chicago to try to sell some tunes. Mr. Melrose’s knowledge was very limited, and he always relied on my honesty when it came to outside tunes, which were seldom accepted. Melrose would not accept St. Louis Blues and Beale Street Blues unless my arrangements were used. I consented, the tunes accepted, arrangements were made of outstanding parts by me, and a house arranger’s name was used, either Elmer Schobel (Schoebel) or Mel Stitzell (Stitzel). Paul Whiteman happened to be playing Chicago at that particular time. St. Louis Blues was given to him and later to Ted Lewis. This was the new dawn for the St. Louis Blues.
(Continued Next Month)