A Tribute to Roy Carew
Annotated by George W. Kay

Jazz Journal

A Tribute to Roy Carew


Annotated by George W. Kay

These are the recollections of the late Roy J. Carew who passed away on August 4, 1967 in Washington D.C. Carew was a close friend and benefactor of Jelly Roll Morton during the years Morton struggled in Washington. It was Carew who persuaded Jelly Roll to revive his marvellous ‘Spanish Tinge’ tunes and obscure blues numbers for the Library of Congress recordings and the wonderful ‘New Orleans Memories’ Album for General. Carew also stimulated Morton’s renewed interest in Joplin rags as well as the tunes of Tony Jackson, the man Jelly praised as ‘the world’s greatest single-handed entertainer’. In fact, Jackson’s tune The Naked Dance was a fast speed rag that Tony used to play whenever Roy entered Frank Earle’s cafe in New Orleans back in 1904. Actually, The Naked Dance as played by Jelly Roll, was his interpretation of the way Jackson would have played the tune. Carew’s association with Ferd Morton gains added significance in the search for memorabilia covering Morton’s ‘grey area’ of his career during the late ’thirties in Washington. Morton and Carew formed the Tempo Music Publishing Company for the sole purpose of protecting Jelly Roll’s best interests. (Like so many early jazz composers, Jelly was the loser in monetary benefits from his published tunes. Most of his big hits were copyrighted by Walter Melrose of Chicago and the royalty payments went to the publisher). As Carew mentions in his recollections, several of the tunes recorded by the Library of Congress and General Records were products of Tempo Music. Further identification of the tunes and the details are listed in the book, Mister Jelly Roll, by Alan Lomax.

Jelly Roll was a prolific letter writer. His most notorious repartee appeared in DOWN BEAT in 1938, when Morton chastized Robert Ripley for placing W. C. Handy on a pedestal in a sort of Jazz Hall of Fame as the originator of Jazz. The incensed Morton wrote reams of flowing prose to Ripley and DOWN BEAT, demanding that he, Morton, be recognized as the possessor of this mythical crown. During the period of letters, Jelly Roll sought Carew’s counsel. Whether he listened was another matter. In any event, Jelly Roll carried on this heated exchange until the flurry lost its news value.

But Jelly wrote some lovely touching things to his wife, Mabel, many of which appear in condensed version in Mister Jelly Roll. The excerpts of Jelly Roll’s letters to Roy Carew vividly describe the heartbreaking struggle of a sick, proud, but forever optimistic jazz artist ago against unsurmountable (insurmountable) obstacles. Defeat and eventual disaster were foregone conclusions — not at a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

Death came to Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton on July 10, 1941 in Los Angeles.


I don’t know the date (apparently sometime in 1935) when Joseph Morton (Jelly Roll) arrived in Washington D.C. Neither do I know how fortune treated him before I met him in the Spring of 1938, but I do know that from early 1938 things were pretty tough for him. Business at the Music Box, 1211 U Street N.W., was poor, and getting worse. Jelly told me that during the earlier days the night club had done pretty well, but that his partner (Mrs. Lyles) vetoed all his ideas and suggestions for popularizing the place. From April, of 1938 on it could be seen clearly that the place was hanging on by a thread. Now and then something was done to bring in a little business; for instance, Friday, 3 June was CABARET NIGHT at the MUSIC BOX, under the auspices of the Laundry Workers Organization Committee, with featured entertainment by:


Number One Swing Pianist of America


During the spring and summer of 1938 Jelly was often at the Library of Congress, patiently recording many historical examples of ragtime and early jazz, and giving historical comment on the changes and progress of popular music in New Orleans, sacrificing a considerable amount of time during the day which normally he would have spent in rest. Also, he often stayed at the Music Box after hours to entertain groups of friends and acquaintances who had a fondness for his unique playing and singing, — a bit of old New Orleans brought across the years into the nation’s capital. This took time from his rest which he could ill afford to lose, although he was doubtless pleased to do it. He loved to share his music if he thought it was appreciated. I remember that day a young fellow who couldn’t stay at the time asked Mrs. Lyles, “Do you think he will play for me, if I come back some time?” “Of course he will,” replied Mrs. Lyles, as if voicing a complaint, “He’ll play all night if he thinks you like it.” Had Jelly been younger, these activities might have built him good will for the future, but at fifty three they took a toll from his health, and he gained little.

Feeling his situation rather keenly, Ferd’s mind was always casting about for something that would start money in his direction again. He approached all prospects whom he thought might be receptive to his ideas. A tour of the radio stations got him no results; a proposition to one of the stations to put on a radio programme of New Orleans music fell on deaf ears. He made contacts with a recording studio and succeeded in interesting the operators sufficiently to make a small start at recording. However, it is doubtful if any masters were made except piano solos by himself, although his wife, Mabel, sang some blues songs to Jelly’s accompaniment. His solos were issued after his death on Jazzman label. He tried to get a band together but local talent was very scarce or reluctant, Incidentally, Morton’s tune for the song Why was composed while he was trying to get the recordings started. He composed it for use by a clarinet player he was trying to interest, but the party failed to show up at the studio.

In the same building with the recording studios, the old Rialto Theatre Building, now torn down, was the office for a local commercial movie outfit. Ferd turned his energy in their direction and sold them the idea of promoting coloured movie companies. The idea was to give a grand Negro ball at which the ambitious persons in attendance could be “typed” and have the chance to appear in Negro movies, to be made at a later date. Ferd got out and peddled small dodgers advertising the ball over all the Negro Sections he could reach.

To Inaugurate Inter-Racial Production
Headed by the “Daddy of Jazz”

For the purpose of surveying possible talent and choosing the personnel of production units, experienced judges will choose types from the GRAND DRESS PARADE which will take place at 12 midnight.

In spite of Morton’s efforts, the grand ball scheduled for September 21, 1938 was a complete failure. It was to be held at the COLONNADE, a few doors from the Music Box, and there was to be a Battle of Music between Bill Baldwin’s Band and Bill Hester’s Bluebird but a stretch of bad weather and other adverse conditions intervened, and the project stopped right there. There was practically no attendance.

While Morton was engaged in these activities he was talking over the possibilities of working up modern arrangements of some of the old ragtime classics, particularly the Joplin rags. Perhaps it would be better to say “Morton jazz arrangements,” since the word “modern” invited argument. Morton had the greatest regard for Joplin rags, although he claimed to have bested Joplin in a piano playing contest. The conclusion was reached that Morton’s arrangements would have a market, and that his financial affairs would be on the upgrade once more. A good friend was willing to publish an arrangement or two. Once again, however, Jelly’s fate was working against him, and the wrong choice was made. He had some songs that were in various stages of completion, and he advanced the opinion that songs would have a better chance than arrangements of old rags. So it was decided to publish a couple of songs, on the prospect that he could plug and demonstrate them successfully, and that professional friends would use them. So, while he was trying to keep things going at the Music Box, do a little recording at the Library of Congress, get talent interested in commercial recordings, promote a grand movie ball, etc., Morton was working on songs and was pretty busy. He was enthusiastic about them all, and one day made the remark, “I don’t believe I ever had more good opportunities than I have right now, and less money to spend on them.”

Toward the end of August, 1938, the songs were pretty well in shape, and it was decided hat publication should be undertaken. Morton argued that, for them to have a chance, the songs should bear a New York address, so it was arranged that he should go to New York to see the printers and arrange for a New York agent or address. He spent from Tuesday, September 5th to Friday the 8th in New York. Clarence Williams agreed to let the music bear his address, and details for printing were secured. Four songs were published the latter part of October — Why; If You Knew; Sweet Substitute and My Home Is In A Southern Town. The less said about them the better, or it is hard to imagine anything flatter than their failure. Professional copies were printed, and Ferd canvassed everything that had the remotest resemblance of a prospect, but to no avail. Kind words and good wishes were the sum total of the results.

Sometime during the latter part of the summer of 1938, Jelly Roll suffered the first substantial attack of the sickness that was to carry him off. On one of my visits to the Music Box, he told me he had been very sick a day or two before, and had not gotten-right yet. I don’t remember how he described the trouble, but it sounded bad enough for me to insist that he go to a good doctor, which he consented to do. The doctor gave him something, but told him he couldn’t diagnose the trouble completely unless he had X-rays taken. Feeling a little better in a day or two, Ferd didn’t go back to the doctor and didn’t have the X-rays taken. (Incidentally, when Ferd got worse, the doctors took many X-rays of him, both in New York and Los Angeles, but apparently to no good result).

Sometime during the latter part of the year, Ferd got a few nights work with Natty Brown, who was running a cafe at the corner of 13th and H Streets, N.W. Brown was a retired boxer and tried to do something with the place, which had changed hands several times. Morton worked about a week in a small lounge upstairs, but business was dull, and the entertainment part was discontinued.

As the year drew to a close, the outlook in Washington for Morton grew darker and darker and it became evident that he would have to make a change of some kind. There were only two of us besides Morton who really knew what straits he was in, (Lomax and myself), and one day he came to me and said that he and Lomax had talked it over and they had decided it was best for him to move to New York. He had previously traded his Packard for a Cadillac, so he was about set to get away from Washington. It must have been quite a job packing his and Mabel’s belongings, in the car. Later I learned they had got packed and ready to leave late on December 24th. It was bad weather, with a cold freezing rain, but Jelly never lacked confidence in himself, so they started out. When one thinks about Morton’s experiences in Washington, the thought must come to mind that the bleak weather that December day was very appropriate — and the memory of Washington that he carried away must have been pretty dark.

The next day I received a telegram:-

NEW YORK. N.Y. Dec. 25, 1938.

(The above commentary was written by Roy J. Carew, Washington D.C.)

The above article was published in the Jazz Journal magazine, dated May 1968, Vol. 21, No. 5, pages 22—23.

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