Dead Man Blues
Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West
by Phil Pastras
In June of 1952, a scant two months after the death of Anita Ford, two good friends, Dick Russell and Joe Marvin, were watching a prizefight on television in a Santa Monica bar. They were celebrating their recent graduation from the University of California at Los Angeles. Dick Russell was the real prizefight fan — to this day, he keeps an archive of fight lore and memorabilia in his home. Joe Marvin liked prizefighting well enough, but his real passion was jazz, especially classic New Orleans jazz.
Alone in the next booth sat a rather loudmouthed older man who was also watching the fight, which involved a black and a white boxer. “Hit that nigger!” he shouted; “Kill the black sonofabitch.” Finally, Joe, the jazz fan, got tired of listening to the man’s mouth and complained to him about his use of the word “nigger.” As some white folks do in such situations, the older man immediately became defensive: he really had nothing against Negroes — why, he had known and worked and even lived among Negroes all of his life. It seemed like nothing more than the tired old “some of my best friends are Negroes” gambit.
But then he made his next move: grinning broadly at them and pointing to one of his front teeth, he declared “See this? This is the diamond of Jelly Roll Morton I’ve got in my mouth.” Even more skeptical now, the two young men didn’t know exactly what to do or say next, except to think that the man must be a blowhard who had had a few drinks too many. In the course of the conversation, Joe Marvin had mentioned that he was a jazz fan, so it was easy to take the older man’s declaration as nothing more than an attempt to impress the two younger men, or to throw them off balance. When they expressed their skepticism, however, the man countered by introducing himself as Jack Ford, and invited them to follow him to the parking lot. He had something more to show them. In the lot, he climbed into a well-kept, still sleek-looking 1930s vintage Cadillac, slipped the key into the ignition, and started the car. As Joe Marvin remembers it now, the car was so well-tuned that he could not hear the engine running. Looking up at them from inside the car, Jack Ford said, “This was Jelly Roll Morton’s car.” Of course, the young men had no more reason then to believe Ford than they had had earlier, in the bar. Not to be deterred by their skepticism, Ford countered with: “Look, get in your car and follow me up the Pacific Coast Highway to my motor inn in Malibu, and I’ll show you something that will make believers of you both.” Joe and Dick took a quick look at one another, and immediately decided to take up the old man’s challenge, even though they still couldn’t bring themselves to believe him. In about half an hour, they arrived at the Topanga Beach Auto Court, and soon found, to their astonishment and delight, that Jack Ford was as good as his word. When they entered the cabin that he used as his residence, he sat the young men down, disappeared for a moment, and came back carrying a suitcase. When they saw what it contained, they did become believers, as Ford had predicted. “We thought he was a real phony,” Joe Marvin wrote some forty-five years later, “but he showed us a real collection of Jelly Roll Morton material that Ford’s wife, Anita Gonzales (“Mamanita”) had kept — no doubt this was the real thing.” [note 1]
In February of 1997, after following a series of leads that took about a year to develop, I found out that Jeanne Ford — widow of Henry Ford, adopted son of Anita and Jack Ford — had inherited the collection of Jelly Roll Morton memorabilia that Joe Marvin and Dick Russell had seen that night in June 1952. I heard their story only after my own discovery made the newspapers in the spring of 1997. When Joe Marvin read about it in the San Jose Mercury News, he wrote me a letter with a short version of the above story; in the rather long telephone conversation that ensued, he spelled out the details as I have set them forth. A phone conversation with Dick Russell verified the story that Marvin told.
The story corroborates what I heard from the Ford family in Portland, Oregon, in February of 1997: Anita got the collection from Morton when he died in July 1941, she kept it until her own death in April 1952, and Jack then inherited it from Anita. The rest I also learned from the Ford family: Henry Ford inherited it from Jack when he died, just a few years after Anita. Henry kept the stuff in a suitcase — perhaps the same one Jack Ford had shown Marvin and Russell — in his office at Ford’s Restaurant in Portland. When Henry died in 1996, no one bothered to open the suitcase to check its contents until about a year later, when Jeanne took a peek, realized what it contained, and took it home to keep it out of harm’s way. The collection includes a fifty-eight-page scrapbook that contains, among other things, newspaper clippings, letters, contracts, and publicity material. The scrapbook has a dark green, imitation leather cover and measures 14¾ x 13 x 3½ inches. Jelly used clear cellophane tape to mount the items; naturally, the tape is no longer clear, having yellowed enough to obscure parts of some of the items. Most of the material dates from 1935 to the fall of 1938, the bulk of it from 1938. The stabbing incident that nearly killed Jelly took place in the late summer or early autumn of 1938, so it is possible that he put the scrapbook together during his recuperation. He did not take the trouble to arrange the items in chronological order, so there are items from 1938 at the beginning of the book and others from 1935, or even earlier, at the end. In some cases a single page holds items from three or four different years. The scrapbook contains no internal evidence to prove definitively that Morton himself compiled it, but he is the most likely candidate for a number of reasons, which I will discuss shortly.
The pile of unorganized clippings and documents is at least equal in volume to the stuff in the book. Indeed, some of the most valuable material — from a biographer’s standpoint, at least — never made it into the scrapbook: for example, the work visa, mentioned earlier, from October 1921, which allows us to date his gig at the Kansas City Bar in Tijuana, where he says he wrote both “Kansas City Stomps” and “The Pearls,” two of his most masterful compositions; [note 2] and the appointment card for the hospital in New York where he was treated after his heart attack in 1939 and where he made his follow-up visits in 1939-40. In contrast to the scrapbook, the loose material is far more diverse and far less focused. It includes material from as early as 1919 and as late as November of 1941, four months after Jelly’s death — at least three items are posthumous: the guest register from the funeral, and two receipts for postal money orders, both dated 18 November 1941, sent from Riddle, Oregon, a town close to Canyonville, where the original Ford’s Restaurant was located. One can only assume that Anita was still taking care of unfinished business related to Morton’s estate and therefore added the receipts to the collection. The contrast between the loose material and the scrapbook puts the latter in a rather surprising perspective: as unorganized as the scrapbook seems, there is definitely a principle of selection at work, a focus on a fairly well-defined slice of time. The year 1938 was a time of backward glances, as far as Morton was concerned: it was the year of the Lomax interviews at the Library of Congress and the year of the public debate between Morton and W. C. Handy over who was the true “originator” of jazz; and it was at about this time that Morton wrote the few autobiographical sketches that he started and never finished. At any rate, Anita Ford was raising her family — or families — on the West Coast in late 1938 and could not possibly have had access to the scrapbook until Jelly brought it with him to Los Angeles in November of 1940. The loose material is another matter: the three items that must have been added by Anita after Jelly’s death open the possibility that some of the material could have been left with her when he departed California for Chicago in 1923.
The link between the scrapbook and the recuperation is not the only factor that points to Morton as the compiler. Above all, it is more than just a scrapbook. It does contain the kind of material that usually finds its way into scrapbooks: notices of appearances, articles about him in newspapers and magazines, fan mail, and the like. However, Morton also used it as a kind of crude business file and included things like letters from the musicians’ union and booking agents, contracts from booking agencies — even, on one page, about a dozen standard American Federation of Musicians contracts, signed by Morton as employer, with everything filled out in his own hand except for the names of the musicians, which he left blank. In fact, David Stuart, who got to know Morton at the end, in Los Angeles, indicates that Morton had more than one scrapbook in his possession when he died: “After he died, I got his scrapbooks and a few photos. . . . I wound up with only the photos, because I made the great mistake of loaning the scrapbooks to Mabel Morton. She said she’d return them, but naturally she didn’t do so. It’s a shame, because the scrapbooks were wonderful, filled with newspaper clippings and things like that.” [note 3] That Morton used the scrapbooks as a kind of business file is corroborated by one of his letters to Roy Carew, on 7 February 1939. In reply to a question Carew asked about “the names of those tunes Southern messed up for you,” Morton says, “At the time it will be impossible to give you the titles of many of the numbers that S- [Southern] have, they are listed in my scrap book & the Agent have that, at present.” [note 4] The date of the letter and his use of the singular “scrap book” suggests the possibility that the scrapbook Jelly had loaned the agent was the very one that wound up in the Ford Collection — it would have been the most recent and up-to-date. The statement also suggests that the scrapbook was similar in function to the portfolios kept by actors, musicians, and entertainers to this day: a kind of self-advertisement.
In Mister Jelly Roll, Mabel tells Alan Lomax that “Ferd did all his own bookings by letter or in person.” [note 5] The scrapbook corroborates that statement only in part. Actually, during his glory years as a popular Victor recording artist, the Music Corporation of America (MCA) handled his bookings, but Mabel was around for only the last year or so of that period. [note 6] In stark contrast to his relationship with Anita, for most of the twelve years he was with Mabel he never discussed business matters with her: “Jelly was always very close about his business affairs,” she tells Lomax, and explains, “He never told me what he made a year, and he never let me know exactly what was going on.” [note 7] She was evidently unaware that, after he was dropped by Victor and MCA, he did his own bookings most often, out of necessity rather than design. Material in the Ford Collection clearly indicates that, through the 1930s, Jelly continuously shopped around for an agency to handle his affairs; however, by then even small agencies considered him a has-been. Had Mabel compiled the scrapbook, she would have known those facts. Stuart gives no indication of exactly when he “loaned” the scrapbooks to Mabel; Russell’s footnote to the interview merely states, “The scrapbooks were almost certainly lost at the time of Mabel’s death in New York, in or before 1969.” [note 8]
That leaves Jelly as the only person likely to have put the scrapbook together. And that, in turn, leaves us with an invaluable set of clues about what was on his mind toward the end of his life, just before he left on his last trip to California. This book is not the place for a close look at the full collection. Certainly, the collection merits examination, but carefully and with close attention to detail — a project in itself. My purpose here is to see what the collection might tell us about Morton’s return to California, specifically what light, if any, it sheds on his motives. With the help of Lomax’s book and the letters Morton wrote to Roy Carew, the collection enables us to construct a fairly accurate, detailed account of his activities and concerns up to November 1940. From that perspective, the word “collection,” for me at least, includes the recollections of the Ford family, who have preserved the material and generously permitted me not only access to it but also a hand in determining its fate. What I have learned from both sides of the family is as much a part of “the collection” as the thing itself.
This much is certain: the scrapbook is littered with evidence of Morton’s craving for the attention he had once gotten. Understandably, one of the most frequent entries has to do with the famous controversy ignited by Robert Ripley, who in a March 1938 broadcast of his “Believe It or Not” radio program introduced W. C. Handy as “the originator of jazz, stomps and blues.” Morton, an avid fan of the show, immediately fired off a letter to Ripley, denouncing Handy as a liar and announcing that he, Morton himself, had “originated” jazz in 1902. [note 9] The scrapbook contains what appears to be an original typescript of the letter — five pages, single spaced and full of typographical errors. He addressed it to Ripley but also sent a copy to Down Beat magazine, which had already run a two-part feature on him in the December 1937 and January 1938 issues. Down Beat published the entire letter, in two parts, in the August and September 1938 issues, quoting Jelly on the August cover as saying, “W. C. HANDY IS A LIAR!” [note 10] Morton kept everything he could find in print: both Down Beat articles, of course, a long article in the Baltimore African-American, and many others. He was making headlines again.
Before the Ripley affair, Morton had become the forgotten man of jazz. He kept trying to find ways back to the limelight, but nothing worked — for very long, at least. Twice, he landed what were intended to be regular radio shows featuring himself on piano and vocals: one, on WINS radio in New York, lasted barely a month, from August to September 1934; the other, according to the Washington Daily News of 23 June 1936, was to have been a series called The History of Jazz, on radio station WOL in the capital. Letters from WINS in the Ford Collection document the fate of the New York show. The only evidence for the Washington, D.C., program in the collection is the news item cited above, which Morton saved in the scrapbook. Both programs were on long enough to attract some fan mail, at least some of which Morton kept and eventually taped into the scrapbook: a dozen letters in all, most of them handwritten, some in pencil. Morton held fast and long to recognition from even such humble sources.
But easily the most important of the fan letters that he kept has nothing to do with the radio shows — a five-page, handwritten letter dated 30 March 1938 from a self-professed amateur jazz writer named Earle Cornwall, a postal worker who lived in Los Angeles. About half the letter attempts to solicit biographical data for an article Cornwall intended to publish in an unnamed British periodical. The rest is a reply to a letter from Morton in which he had evidently asked Cornwall about what was going on in the Los Angeles jazz scene. Certainly, Morton must have heard that Central Avenue had become a haven for jazz clubs and after-hours joints, and Cornwall’s responses to the inquiry clearly indicate that Jelly’s letter had voiced his desire to return to Los Angeles. However, Cornwall offers little or no encouragement. He tells Morton to “think it all over very carefully” because “the country here is full to the overflowing of orchestras, musicians, writers, etc.” He even tells him that he would “be surprised at the young folks who very likely would not know who the celebrated Jelly Roll was!” He then adds, “Another point: considering the art of piano playing. Here again, times have changed. Listen to Art Tatum’s solos — & Teddy Wilson’s. The boys are getting more and more complex & involved. Radio is educating the public every day more & more. Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ would sound out of place today.” [note 11]
We need not strain to imagine Jelly’s response to the idea that his kind of jazz was out of date. The literature abounds with his replies to younger musicians like Chick Webb who implied or stated outright that his music was old-fashioned — his basic message was always, “If you’re playing jazz, you’re playing Jelly Roll.” Cornwall was right as far as Central Avenue was concerned, though: even when Los Angeles became one of the centers of the New Orleans revival in the 1940s, it never found a home on the Avenue. The revival tended to attract a mostly white audience and thrived in clubs in and around Hollywood. The significance of Cornwall’s letter, however, is that it offers clear evidence of Morton’s desire to return to California, and that it fully corroborates other evidence, if only in bits and pieces. For example, in Mister Jelly Roll, Morton tells Lomax that, when he still had an office in New York, he had hired a West Indian man to run it: “As I had decided to form a monopoly and put my money behind a lot of my type bands with the main offices located in Los Angeles, I needed a confidential partner to handle the New York end.” [note 12] The fact that he could still afford to rent an office outside his home and had enough money to consider such a scheme places this almost-event at about 1930, perhaps earlier. Morton went broke soon after and blamed his bad fortune on a voodoo curse supposedly placed on him by the West Indian. [note 13]
In Floyd Levin’s article, “Jelly’s Last Days,” Anita Gonzales tells Levin that Morton actually did pass through Los Angeles, around 1936, as the anonymous accompanist for a burlesque act known as “Brownskin Models.” Anita’s description of the act is detailed enough to suggest that she saw the show and that she and Jelly were reunited, if only for a brief visit: “They played at the Burbank Theatre on Main Street down on skid row. The girls didn’t strip — they did a lot of posing behind sheer curtains. It seemed quite risqué at the time. Peg Leg Bates was the headliner. Jelly’s name was not used in the advertising. He only played in the pit and was not featured at all — what a waste. But those were depression years and Jelly was glad to have the work.” [note 14] Levin himself supports this story: a great-uncle of his, Jack Rothschild, and Irvin C. Miller were booking agents for the show. Rothschild offered to take his nephew to the show, free pass included, of course, and, knowing Floyd’s growing passion for jazz, mentioned that Jelly Roll Morton was the accompanist. Although he later regretted it, Floyd turned down the offer — he was more interested in Benny Goodman and swing music and did not know much about Morton at the time. In the light of this anecdote, it is especially puzzling that Morton, in Mister Jelly Roll, tells Lomax he “never seen [sic] either Los Angeles or Anita again.” [note 15] Surely Jelly could not have forgotten such a trip in a few short years. There seem to be only two possible explanations: either Morton is lying, or Lomax’s transcription is faulty. Perhaps Jelly’s pride stopped him from admitting that he had been reduced to taking work as an anonymous accompanist to a burlesque act.
Barney Bigard’s autobiography contains an important recollection of Morton talking about a return to California a few years before his final return. Bigard mentions the 1930 recording session — a trio with himself, Morton, and Zutty Singleton — and says,
After those records I saw Jelly off and on[,] and then it seemed like he was out of the picture for a few years[,] or maybe I was travelling so much [with Duke Ellington’s orchestra]. I saw him years later coming up 125th Street. He was all bundled up with his coat up high against the icy wind. “How’s things going, Jelly[?],” I asked him.
“Boy, those booking agents are smart people. They know if they hold Mr. Jelly down, they can hold the rest of those cats down,” he replied.
“Come on, Jelly. That’s not like you,” I said.
“I’m getting ready to go to California,” said Jelly Roll.
A few years after that I saw him again one more time. This time it was actually in Los Angeles. He said, “I’m doing good out here. Got a place out in the country. Everything’s all right. I’ll make it.” Next thing I heard, he had died. [note 16]
Bigard doesn’t even try to guess the dates of his last meetings with Jelly Roll, but what he does recall fits the chronology of Morton’s activities during the 1930s. The period when Morton seemed “out of the picture for a few years” could be the 1935-38 period, when he was living in Washington, D.C. The winter meeting in New York most likely took place during the winter of 1938-39, just after his return from Washington — that is, if Bigard remembers correctly that he last saw Jelly “a couple of years later” in Los Angeles. That last meeting would have happened somewhere between November 1940 and April 1941; after that, Morton was permanently bedridden.
It may be no coincidence that the Earle Cornwall letter and Bigard’s winter sighting of Morton happened within about a year of one another, between March 1938, when Jelly was still in Washington, and the winter of 1938-39, just after his return to New York. Evidently, while he was moving north he was considering, if not planning, a move west, even though Anita and Mabel later gave Lomax the impression that the move was sudden and unplanned. The stabbing in Washington left Morton in a weakened and deteriorating state of health, and he may have had no choice under the circumstances than to return to New York with Mabel, at least temporarily. Her own words to Lomax indicate that she did in fact force the issue of the move. [note 17] The blow to Jelly’s ego must have at least equaled the physical trauma he had sustained: during his last years Morton was so weak that he had to rely on the women in his life to help him get to the finish line — that is to say, on Mabel first and then on Anita. It is fairly certain that the trauma precipitated the heart attack Mabel describes in Mister Jelly Roll, though the heart condition must have been latent. The scrapbook preserves a letter to Morton from his brother-in-law, J. P. Oliver, M.D., who ran his own Oliver Sanitarium in Lubbock, Texas. In the letter, Oliver acknowledges a letter, dated 7 May, from Jelly to his sister Frances, in which he complained of both poor health and union problems. Dr. Oliver mentions both problems and urges Morton to come to Lubbock “for a month or until you feel able to resume your work.” Unfortunately, the year is not mentioned anywhere in the letter, but it is possible to date it approximately: the scrapbook contains nothing after 1938, and in May of that year Jelly had not undergone either the stabbing incident or the heart attack. The scrapbook does contain a considerable amount of correspondence about union problems, most of it from 1935. On 31 May of that year, Morton had contracted with an agency, Cosmopolitan Entertainments, to take a band for a quick one-week tour of upper New York State during the week of July 4. Evidently, Jelly bungled the job and tried to blame the musicians in order to take the heat off himself. The case he brought against the musicians dragged on until the autumn of 1935, when Jelly lost by default (he failed to show for the last hearings). He kept all the correspondence and eventually placed it in the scrapbook, along with a few letters having to do with other union or labor disputes. By May of 1936, Morton had moved to Washington, D.C., and no doubt would have written his sisters, Frances and Amide, about what had happened — in Lomax’s interview of Amide and other members of Morton’s family, it becomes clear that Jelly kept in close touch with his family over the years (1933-41). An educated guess would date Dr. Oliver’s letter to May 1936; at any rate, it gives a strong indication that Morton had complained of health problems long before the 1939 heart attack — even before the 1938 stabbing incident. Indeed, in the notes in the Library of Congress from interviews that were not recorded, Morton reveals that he had had a serious bout of some kind of venereal disease in his early youth, when he was about sixteen or seventeen years old: “At that time, there was something called the ‘whore’s itch,’ which broke out all over Jelly Roll. He would scratch and scratch until he almost poisoned himself. A big cake of a sore formed between his thighs. . . .He cured himself with sulphur, lard, and bluestone.” [note 18] If the undiagnosed malady was syphilis, Jelly’s cardiovascular problems may possibly have been the symptoms of the tertiary stage of that disease. We know now that the only certain cure for syphilis is penicillin or one of many forms of antibiotics now available, but those drugs were not available to cure the illness until after Morton’s death.
Morton’s stay in Washington, D.C., which lasted roughly two years, was itself a strange affair, and as might be expected, the scrapbook includes a fair share of mementos from those years. He told Mabel that he was going to the capital to try his luck with prizefight promotion, and the scrapbook does show evidence of his activities in the fight business — particularly a flyer announcing that Ferd Morton is representing K. O. Clark (“A REAL BOX OFFICE ATTRACTION”), who at the time supposedly held the featherweight and bantamweight championships of Florida. The flyer lists the names and weight classes of five other equally obscure boxers, the most well-known of whom was Lou “Tiger” Flowers, whose main claim to fame was being Joe Louis’s “most successful sparring partner.” But, according to Mabel, Jelly wrote her that the boxers “wouldn’t keep training, drank all the time, and so that went flop and he didn’t know what he would do next.” [note 19]
Then she did not hear from him in almost two years. If she ever suspected that Jelly was doing his best to leave her, she apparently never showed it. With her characteristic persistence and loyalty, she finally located him, and he wrote her a number of apologetic notes that are full of his own characteristic evasiveness about his activities. When she forced the issue by showing up in Washington, D.C., she understood both the silence and the evasions: he had taken up with a woman by the name of Cordelia Rice Lyle, proprietor of a D.C. nightspot variously called the Jungle Inn or the Music Box. “I saw what the situation was,” Mabel says to Lomax; “You can sense those things.” Mabel’s response was typically self-effacing: “Immediately the help at the place accepted me as his wife. They expected some sort of big blow-up, I suppose, and then nothing happened. Cordelia was very polite and nice to me and I was the same to her, but I soon saw that it was the wrong spot for Jelly.” [note 20] Morton’s attempts to improve the club and its clientele are reflected in the many ads he saved in the scrapbook (some fourteen), but Cordelia seemed more intent on catering to her friends than running a successful business. Even after the stabbing incident, Mabel had a hard time convincing Jelly to leave. Perhaps he was finally convinced when the young man who had stabbed him got only thirty days in jail because Cordelia “couldn’t do nothing against the child of a schoolmate of hers” and, a few weeks after his release from jail, he was back at the Jungle Inn again. [note 21] Finally, his health irreparably damaged, Jelly allowed himself to be convinced to return to New York, where his heart attack in the spring of 1939 spelled the beginning of the end.
Among the loose material in the Ford Collection is, as mentioned earlier, Morton’s appointment card from the Vanderbilt Clinic on 168th Street and Broadway in New York. That document and the letters Morton wrote to Roy Carew during this period allow us to set down an accurate chronology for the ups and downs of Jelly’s condition — far more accurate than what we find in Lomax’s book, at least. According to Lomax, Mabel says that Morton was in the hospital for three months, and her letter to Roy Carew informing him of the heart attack is dated 17 April 1939. [note 22] However, Morton’s stay was nowhere near the three months that Mabel supposedly remembers. In a letter to Carew dated 8 May, Jelly writes, “I was released from the hospital Sunday May 7th at 1 pm.” [note 23] His hospital stay, in other words, was about three weeks, not three months. In another letter to Carew, this one dated 30 May, Jelly mentions the follow-up appointment during which the doctors advised him to stop playing for reasons of health. That would have been the appointment on 29 May, noted on the Vanderbilt Clinic card (stamped on the right-hand side). The next follow-ups noted on the card are 14 August and 21 August. One can only assume that having two appointments so close together indicates some kind of crisis — otherwise, they tend to be spaced at intervals two to three months apart; the next are on 16 October and 11 December, which would indicate that Morton’s condition had stabilized or improved. But then his next appointment is 8 January 1940, less than a month after his December visit, and is followed by another exactly a week later, on 15 January.
Suffering a New York winter must have put a tremendous strain on Morton’s heart and must have made him remember rather wistfully the mild winters of Southern California. But a letter to Carew on 6 February 1940 attests to the fact that Los Angeles was on his mind at this very time for reasons apart from the weather: “It is true that warm weather is due in short, I am sure I won’t be in New York to greet it. . . . My last near relative is. . . on a death bed in Los Angeles. . . and the other is stone blind. . . . These two was responsible for my little musical education, and just the same as my mother and father. . . . It seems I just can’t get things to roll my way as I have in past years, this is God’s work and no one can do anything about it.” [note 24] Three days later, on 9 February, he writes, “My relative passed away yesterday, I feel very badly over it.” [note 25] That relative was, of course, Laura Hunter, whose final illness and death coincided exactly with Morton’s closely spaced visits to the Vanderbilt Clinic in December and January. Perhaps the spacing was no mere coincidence: the death of someone so close to Morton could easily have caused a setback in his own condition. The next three appointments on the card — 18 March, 15 July, and 11 November — certainly suggest that the three visits so close together, from 11 December to 15 January, were an anomaly. The spacing of the next appointments after 18 March — four months in each case — indicate that his condition had improved somewhat; at any rate, he was gone from New York by 11 November, the last date on the card. Morton’s weakened condition certainly would explain why he did not leave for Los Angeles in the spring of 1940, as he had intended, according to the letter to Carew. But if Jelly’s condition had improved enough by 18 March that another visit to the clinic was not deemed necessary until 15 July, why did he wait until November for his coast-to-coast trip? Stranger still, a letter to Carew on 19 September places Jelly in Cincinnati, Ohio, following a lead on a gig in that city. [note 26] Why go back to New York only a month and a half later, before heading west again? The most obvious answer would be that he was doing all he could, given his condition, to raise as much cash as possible, as his letters to Carew indicate. We should remember too that the letters express his determination to continue playing music, in spite of his doctors’ advice. [note 27]
The trip to Cincinnati was only one of a number of failed prospects. Another such reversal was a gig at the Hunt’s Point Palace in New York. On 6 April 1940 he writes to Carew, “I planned the starting of a band circuit with what money I could get ahold of . . . but before we could get under way the Union stepped in and raised the scale so high . . . we could only stay one night.” [note 28] The Ford Collection has preserved the contract for that engagement, and the document clarifies what Morton says about starting the circuit “with what money I could get ahold of”: signed on 6 May, the contract states that Morton agrees to pay “50.00 nitely” for the privilege of using the Grand Ball Room (“Can use Casino if Main Hall is taken”). In addition, the letter to Carew includes a flyer that makes it clear that the engagement was not just for a solo piano but involved two big bands, Morton’s and another led by Baron Lee. Evidently, Morton, still the gambler, was betting that he could pay the rent on the hall and the musicians’ salaries out of his own pocket and recoup his losses from whatever money the job raised and, eventually, from the royalties of increased record sales that a successful engagement might inspire. The only other possibility is that Morton had found a backer. He certainly did not have much money at that time: a receipt from 21 October 1939 in the loose material of the Ford Collection shows that Morton could afford only a two-dollar deposit on three used tires costing a total of twelve dollars. Where was he to come up with fifty dollars a night? Could Anita have already been lending him a hand? No hard evidence exists to support that possibility. We may never know how Morton intended to finance the engagement, but it was to have lasted, according to the terms of the contract, from 12 May 1940 “until May 1941,” and it would have forced him to postpone his trip to Los Angeles indefinitely. Perhaps the trip to Cincinnati was cut from the same cloth: Jelly was a desperate man, living under a sentence of death, willing to do anything to turn his fortunes around. And perhaps the move to Los Angeles was his ace in the hole, to be played only when all else had failed. He knew he would have to play it sooner or later and was hoping for some measure of control over exactly when he would show his hand. By late October, he knew the time had come, before his health failed completely and he would be unable to make the trip.
Which brings us back to Mabel. Her words to Lomax in Mister Jelly Roll, cited earlier, are clear and unambiguous: “In November of 1940 the news came to Ferd from Los Angeles that his godmother had passed away. He got terribly restless. He was worried because his godfather was blind, and he said anybody could step in and take advantage of the old man. He felt like he ought to get out and take care of the money and the jewels his godmother had left.” [note 29] Perhaps Mabel was the one from whom he was hiding his ace in the hole. Lomax is guilty of occasional lapses, like writing “three months” where Mabel must have said “three weeks,” but those are usually obvious slips of the pen on a single word. But Mabel’s statement could not involve such a slipup. Mabel simply could not have said “February” instead of “November” — the entire statement would make no sense whatsoever. If the statement is accurate, it must mean that Morton kept the news about his godmother from Mabel until he needed it as an alibi for his sudden departure for Los Angeles. And it also means that Anita must have been in on the plan. Why else would she continue the deception, even after Jelly’s death, in her statement to Lomax: “Laura taken sick in 1940 and here came Jelly Roll driving his Lincoln”? [note 30]
Incredible though the deception might seem, it is entirely consistent with the way he treated Mabel throughout their relationship. As noted earlier, he told Mabel nothing about his income or about his handling of the business end of his music. And he insisted on complete control even over their personal affairs, right down to his practice of carrying their marriage license in his inside coat pocket:
Now I think back, it’s a peculiar thing that he always insisted on carrying our marriage license and wouldn’t never give it to me to keep. I used to ask him why couldn’t I have it framed and put up on the wall and he’d tell me, “Look, now, May, the way we travel up in Massachusetts and all that where they have those strict laws about entertainers being married, I need to carry this license at all times. I’m the man of the house and you just let me bother about these things.”
So I didn’t worry my head about it and let it go. I was just dumb to the fact, that’s all I can say now. [note 31]
In one of his letters from California to Mabel, Morton writes:
Don’t pay any attention to any of those [rumors]. I never told her [an anonymous gossip] no such thing. She ask if you were home and I said no and did not give them any satisfaction. . . . Pay no attention to them. . . . I never told anyone you wasn’t my wife. [note 32]
The wedding ceremony that took place in Gary, Indiana, in November 1928 “at the sign of Justice McGuire on the highway” could very well have been a fake. [note 33] If so, her words about her first encounter with Jelly in Chicago are loaded with unintentional irony: “As soon as he saw me he said he was going to kidnap me, but that took some time, it really did.” [note 34] Jelly adamantly refused to have their marriage blessed by the Roman Catholic Church in New York circa 1939-40, however, which makes sense only if the civil marriage was a lie or if he was planning to leave Mabel, or both. His embrace of the Church at the end of his life seems to have been sincere, and he must have known that a civil marriage was not accepted as valid by the Church. In the eyes of their religion, Jelly and Mabel were living in sin, as Father McCann, Mabel’s priest, must have mentioned when he urged that they be married in church. [note 35] Jelly may have made good his threat to kidnap Mabel in 1928.
Danny Barker’s recollections of his last visit with Jelly and Mabel in New York confirm that Morton was indeed restless and unhappy there, and that his relation to Mabel was strained, to say the very least. Barker happened to run into them as they were talking to some priests in front of St. Aloysius Church, and they invited him up to their apartment. “I sat for a couple of hours,” Barker says, “listening to Jelly speak sadly of all the misfortunes that he had been through, and how completely disgusted he was with New York City as well as the music business. He told me that he was spending most of his time at the church and the rectory with the priests. Mabel said nothing as she started dinner, she just looked sadly at Jelly and then looked at me. I don’t think she realized she was shaking her head as she moved about the kitchen and dining room. When I left the apartment, I was real shook up.” [note 36] The concern he expresses in that last sentence must have been as much over Mabel as Jelly. The extent to which both of the Mortons trusted Barker can be measured by Mabel’s statement that Jelly was so jealous that he usually refused to have even friends over for dinner. [note 37] At any rate, Barker’s words offer a cameo of a restless man about to make a desperate move.
One further piece of evidence points clearly to a plan to move west. In an interview with Laurie Wright, Morton’s discographer, Reb Spikes reveals that he and Morton were planning to go into business together upon Jelly’s return to Los Angeles. [note 38] In another interview, Spikes talks about the plan in greater detail: “When he came back [to Los Angeles] the BMI Music Association was opening up to try to be like ASCAP, and they sent for us [Spikes and Morton], and, and we went out there and they wanted us to come in with them ’cause we had a cataloge [sic] you know. They didn’t have nobody with any catalogue of music so we told them. . . Jelly and I was getting ready to open up a music publishing [sic], and he died. That was about ’38 I think it was and that ended that.” [note 39] The date is a long way off if Spikes means that Morton died in 1938. Could he instead be remembering when he and Morton began to talk about joining forces again? Perhaps, but Spikes’s citations of dates are often imprecise in the Rutgers interview. At any rate, the 1 January 1941 issue of Down Beat announces, in a short note, that Spikes and Morton had come to an agreement with BMI. [note 40] Since Morton had arrived in Los Angeles just a month and a half earlier, he and Spikes may have discussed the plan before Jelly left New York — perhaps as early as 1938. It seems highly unlikely that the idea not only occurred to them but also came to fruition so soon after Morton’s arrival in Los Angeles. If Morton wrote to a complete stranger like Earle Cornwall about his prospects in Los Angeles, he may also have contacted the two people he had lived and worked with on the West Coast from 1917 to 1923: Reb Spikes and Anita Gonzales. Clearly, Morton either had maintained contact with the two over the years or had revived the contacts near the end of the 1930s. Anita, a successful businesswoman by that time, had the means to help finance Jelly’s comeback and was evidently secure enough in her relationship with her husband to be able to follow Morton from Canyonville, Oregon, to Los Angeles, where her own family, the Johnson brothers and their offspring, could help out. And Spikes, though no longer at the hub of the music scene in the city, still could provide important connections there, as well as the partnership in the BMI venture. And then there were Jelly’s New Orleans home boys — Mutt Carey, Kid Ory, Bud Scott, Minor Hall, and Ed Garland — waiting and ready to rehearse and to bear witness to the revival of Jelly Roll Morton and his music. [note 41]
The story of Jack Ford and Jelly’s legendary diamond does have an ending, and it deserves to be told, even though it leaves the question about the gem’s ultimate fate unanswered. Just about everyone who has talked or written about Morton mentions the diamond, so much so that at times its gleam seems the light that illuminates the legend itself. It was the last of the many diamonds that Morton had sported at the peak of his career in the 1920s, and he managed somehow to hold onto it through the poverty and neglect he suffered during the 1930s. Lomax’s book records the rumor that Anita Gonzales paid for the diamond, so it may be linked in more ways than one to the person Jelly called “the only woman I ever loved.” [note 42] And, as noted earlier, according to Jelly himself his love of diamonds was first inspired by his beloved godmother: “She kept boxes of jewels in the house and I always had some kind of diamond on. Through her I came to be considered the best dresser [among his peers].” [note 43]
The fact that it was missing when he was buried was established early on, though it turns out that no one had a clear idea of how or why it turned up missing. Again, Lomax is the source of this information: “Two persons at the funeral knew that something was missing out of the coffin. ‘I’ve always lived with my diamonds and I want to be buried with them,’ he had said time and again, but now beneath the cold lips forever sealed, the gold inlay in the front tooth showed a ragged hole. The diamond was gone. It was curious that no one accused the undertaker.” [note 44] Unfortunately, Lomax’s account raises more questions than it answers. Who told Lomax that the diamond was missing, and just who were the “two persons at the funeral” who knew about it? If Anita herself was the source, Lomax doesn’t say so explicitly, though the likelihood is clearly implied by the context of the story as Lomax tells it. But then who is the second of the two persons? Lomax offers not a single clue, unless he means Morton himself and intends the reader to understand the statement as a figure of speech. And — even more curious — why should anyone have suspected the undertaker? Surely, the absence of the diamond would have to have been noticed before Morton’s body was delivered to the undertaker: after the undertaker had done his work, Jelly’s lips would truly have been sealed — literally — and no one could have noticed its absence. Until now, the only other suspect was fingered by Danny Barker, who says in his autobiography that the dirt was done by “an old underworld acquaintance of Jelly’s, a dope fiend and a notorious thief” who “sneaked into the undertaking parlor during the night and, with a chisel and a hammer, removed the four-carat diamond from Jelly’s front tooth.” [note 45]
Like Lomax, Barker says nothing about his source, but at this point neither story matters much except as testimony to the extent to which the diamond had become a part of the Morton legend. Curiously, David Stuart, one eyewitness who spent a lot of time with Morton near the end, says the diamond was gone when Jelly arrived in Los Angeles. [note 46] Had he pawned it temporarily, as he often had done with his diamonds over the years when he was broke? Certainly Anita would have noticed. Whatever the case, both Jeanne Ford and Mike Ford, Jack and Anita’s grandson, have verified Joe Marvin’s story that Jack did have the diamond. As for the question of who removed it and why, the most likely answer, aside from the possibility that Anita simply redeemed it from a pawnshop, is a very practical one, and not at all as sinister as Lomax would have it: the risks involved in burying someone with jewelry are simply too great under most circumstances. In fact, it would have been foolish to leave it on him in the nursing home or hospital. Even jewelry that can be seen on the deceased during the funeral, like rings and bracelets, can too easily be removed by an unscrupulous undertaker or assistant after the coffin has supposedly been sealed. It would have been easier still for whoever prepared Morton’s body to remove the diamond before his lips were permanently sealed. Anita was nobody’s fool; it would have been completely out of character for her not to understand that Morton’s wish to be buried with his diamond was impractical and that to honor his wish would have been foolish. If Lomax’s innuendoes were intended to suggest that Anita did something sinister or unscrupulous, they are entirely out of place here. Anita may not have removed the diamond herself — she may have asked someone in the family to do it for her; but no matter who actually did the deed, Anita would only have been following the dictates of common sense.
As for the diamond itself, it seems to have been fated to disappear. When I asked Jeanne Ford about it, she couldn’t remember what had happened to it. Mike Ford, however, told me that Jack died suddenly of a heart attack and that when Mike’s father, Henry, went to identify and claim the body, the diamond was missing, along with a diamond ring Jack was in the habit of wearing. Like most grave robbers, the person who stole it probably had no idea of its history and acted out of sheer greed. Should anyone ever come forth with a diamond and claim that it is Jelly’s, there would be no way to either verify or dispute the claim: diamonds don’t talk and, as everyone knows, dead men tell no tales.