Sweet Papa Jelly Roll
Ten Year History of Morton’s Library of Congress Recordings
by Orrin Keepnews
Jelly Roll Morton sat down at a piano in the Coolidge Auditorium in Washington, D.C., one day in late May, 1938, and began to explain things. “Jazz,” he said, “started in New Orleans, and this “Tiger Rag” happened to be transformed from an old quadrille that was in many different tempos . . .”
The man he was explaining to was Allan (Alan) Lomax, whose father, John Lomax, is undoubtedly the greatest authority on American folk music and was at that time Curator of the Library of Congress. Jelly Roll returned to the auditorium almost daily for what turned out to be a month-long recording session. Prompted occasionally by questions from Lomax, he spoke, played and sang enough to fill 116 twelve-inch masters with the by now almost-legendary “Library of Congress Jelly-Rolls.”
From Morton’s monumental one-man performance in Washington to the current issuance of a 12-album limited edition by Circle Sound in New York, there is a nine-year gap. Most of the story of these years was filled in for us by Rudi Blesh, the erudite jazz critic who is Circle’s guiding light. At the East Fourth Street apartment that is the record company’s headquarters and Blesh’s home, we listened to some of the sides.
The talking sides — and there is a great deal of Jelly’s rich, rolling, nasal voice and flamboyant phraseology on the records — are a combination of autobiography and of first hand information on the local color and customs that made up the environment of the early New Orleans jazz. There is also much singing and playing blues, Spanish tangos, rags; an explanation-demonstration of piano style; and some amazing imitations of such celebrated contemporaries as Mamie Desdune (Desdunes) and Tony Jackson. There was never any room for doubt about this record session being a memorable and valuable occasion.
There was, however, much doubt as to whether these masters would ever get to be any more than museum pieces. No provisions for any general release had been made. There was one set of dubbings made from the originals for a group of collectors including Bill Russell and the late Hoyte Kline, in 1939, and fifth and sixth re-dubbings from these, bristling with surface noises, were all that were available to be heard. Meanwhile the acetate masters were lying unplayed in the Library’s vault.
With Jelly Roll’s death in 1942 [sic], the rights to the records passed into the hands of his estate. Feelers were put out by at least one of the major record companies and a handful of small jazz outfits. As Rudi Blesh tells the story, he became fully aware of the importance of the material while doing research for his recent book on New Orleans music, “Shining Trumpets,” and set out to obtain permission for it to be released by his Circle label. Kenneth Lloyd Bright, also a Circle official, made a trip to San Francisco to contact the executor of the Morton estate, a lawyer named Hugh MacBeth (Macbeth).
MacBeth (Macbeth), probably a bit fed up with everybody’s attempts to get their hands on the gold mine left by his late friend Jelly Roll, reportedly told Bright: “If you’re here to talk about the Morton records, the answer is “No.” But after listening to an explanation of Circle’s motives in the matter, MacBeth (Macbeth) finally granted the permission in July, 1946, and Circle went about the business of preparing the material for public release.
12 Albums — 90 Sides
Those motives, as Blesh explains it, are to “reflect credit” on Morton and his contributions to jazz by preparing a “dignified set of all issuable sides.” This has meant the division of the records into twelve albums, totaling 90 sides (the remaining sides are “unusable,” some because they are repetitions, others by reason of being too strongly pornographic — just a bit too outspoken). The albums are being sold by subscription only.
A subscription binds the purchaser to payment of $120, in $20 installments, for the dozen albums, which are being issued at the rate of two every three mouths. This $120 bite which limits the set to the richer (or to the more self-sacrificing and devoted) collectors, seems a bit staggering at first. But a check of the figures indicates that there is little or no financial profit in the deal for Circle. There was the added expense of recording on a dark Vinylite surface which is apparently both more costly and even longer-lasting than the transparent reddish vinylite which has recently come into use. There was also a much larger than usual expenditure for skilled engineers on the re-recording. The unplayed acetate surfaces of the masters, which would probably have been entirely unplayable in another four or five years, needed that extra care to restore them to their present quite acceptable condition.
Blesh cited the trickiest job of engineering maneuvering. The first side, on which Jelly Roll shows how “Tiger Rag” evolved from that French quadrille, took six hours to reproduce. It seems the first part of the quadrille was on the end of one master, the finish of it and the start of “Tiger Rag” on a second, and the completion of the rag on a third. Cutting, piecing and using hand signals, they put the two numbers on two sides only after 20 unsuccessful attempts.
Two hundred sets have been made, and when the first albums were recently distributed, almost all of these had been spoken for, which meant that at least expenses were covered — including the expense of reproducing the original masters on chromium plated bronze, a truly permanent surface. As for possible issuance of additional sets at some later date, Blesh says he “doesn’t know,” but chances are that any substantial interest on the part of a sizable number of collectors would make up his mind for him.
Prestige, Not Cash
Even if Circle isn’t going to realize much cash on this venture, the project is obviously worth — in prestige — more than its weight in gold. But the fact that Rudi and his company were the sort of jazz purists who would do the job largely for the prestige involved is probably one of the major reasons for the Morton estate’s turning the job over to them. The biggest worry that the family and MacBeth (Macbeth) had was that the records would he taken over by some outfit that would issue only the twenty-odd completely solo music sides, reap the small fortune that those collector’s items could surely bring in, and ignore the all-talking and largely-talking sides, leaving Jelly Roll’s tremendous contribution to the understanding of New Orleans jazz and its background to rot away in the vaults of the Library of Congress.
As for the records themselves, much of their magic, not unexpectedly, is in the actual sound and inflections of Jelly’s voice. I recall reading, about a year ago, two chapters from his “autobiography,” as transcribed from the masters, and in print the words seemed stiff and unnaturally awkward. Which means that there is little point in quoting extensively from the records; even if you try to recreate his voice in the back of your mind it just isn’t the same as the real thing.
But one or two hits are too good not to try to reproduce. One is Jelly’s story, in album nine — concerning his travels, of Bad Sam’s saloon in Memphis, a low dive frequented by “killers, pimps, . . . a very low class of whores, and some a little better class.” There was a celebrated piano player there named Benny Frenchy. Jelly, quite young at the time, but with as much self-confidence as he ever had, told Bad Sam, who was the toughest man in town and could break your jaw with one blow, that he certainly could play better than that (here he gives a devastating imitation of how Benny Frenchy thumped the piano). Bad Sam told him he could try, but he better be good or “I’ll kick your ass out of here.” Jelly not only cut Benny, but went on to win the low crowd that he had “drifted in with” by singing a sentimental ballad of the day. Then comes the song he sang: a very Perry Como-ish version of something called “All That I Ask is Love.” And then, in a happily reminiscent voice: “I really brought the house down.”
Story of His Name
Then there is the “true” story of how Ferd Morton had the name Jelly Roll “thrown on me as an alias.” He was in a vaudeville act in Chicago at the time, ad libbing comedy. Sammy Russell, his partner, said: “You don’t know who you’re talking to . . . I’m Sweet Papa Cream Puff, right out the bakery shop.” “This seemed to get a laugh,” so Morton “stated to him” that he was “Sweet Papa Jelly Roll with stove-pipes in my hips, and all the women in town was dying to turn my damper down.”
In the background Allan (Alan) Lomax can be heard asking for an explanation of all this, and, rather condescendingly, the Sweet Papa tells him that stovepipes and dampers refer to heat — it meant he had “hot hips.”
It is interesting but pointless to speculate as to how much of what is on these records is unadulterated truth and how much is colorful improvisation on a basis of facts (and that kind of improvising would, after all, be in the proper jazz tradition). What is important is that the uninhibited heart and soul of one of the jazz greats is on record and, to a certain extent, available. For this pleasing and important fact, thanks is due to a long list of people, starting with Ferd Morton himself, and with the anonymous benefactor who first suggested to Allan (Alan) Lomax the idea of the record session. To them, to the Lomaxes (Lomax’s) and the Library of Congress, to the Morton family and Hugh MacBeth (Macbeth), and finally to Circle Sound, we take off our hat and bow low.
Note: The above article was published in The Record Changer magazine, dated February 1948, Vol. 7, No. 2, pages 6—7 and is reprinted with permission of Richard B. Hadlock, owner/publisher of The Record Changer.