Let Jelly Roll Speak For Himself
by Roy Carew


The Record Changer

Let Jelly Roll Speak For Himself

by Roy Carew

Although Edmond Souchon’s article on W. C. Handy in the May, 1952 issue of the Record Changer is a praiseworthy presentation of the pros and cons in regard to that gentleman, I feel obliged to protest against one of his statements. Near the end of the article there appears the following:

“Immediately this calls to mind the supreme egotist, Jelly Roll Morton, and his claim to be not only the inventor of jazz, but also of ragtime — and the blues!”

Jelly Roll was an egotist, but this statement is largely incorrect — to put it mildly. I’m very sure he never made any claim to inventing ragtime, and he specifically denied any part in inventing the blues. He did claim to have invented jazz, meaning piano jazz. Jelly was a victim of loose and lurid reporting while he lived; I had hopes that he would fare better after he died.

Jelly Roll and I talked a great deal about ragtime during the time he was playing at the Music Box, in Washington. Our first idea to mend his fortunes was for me to publish characteristic Morton versions of good rags by some of the pioneer composers. Jelly Roll stated that he didn’t take up the piano until, at the age of ten, he heard a man play a piece of very good ragtime on the piano. When Jelly started to play professionally in New Orleans, he found older pianists playing first class ragtime, and it was this very condition that led him to “invent” jazz piano. In 1938 he wrote, “. . . My reason for trying to adopt something truly different from ragtime ‘was’ that all my fellow musicians were much faster in manipulations I thought, than I, and I did not feel as though I was in their class. Of course they all seem to classify in the No. 1 class, men like Alfred Wilson . . . Tony Jackson . . . Albert Cahill . . . Sammy Davis, (with his original ragtime idea, four finger bass . . .).” This statement not only shows conclusively that Jelly made no claim to inventing ragtime, but also shows that, at that time, he was not egotistical about his playing of it.

As to the blues, Jelly Roll was even more emphatic. In a letter to published in Down Beat in September 1938, he stated: “Please do not misunderstand me. I do not claim any of the creation of the blues, although I have written many of them. . . .”

I hope these statements by Jelly Roll himself adequately dispose of reports that he laid any claim to inventing ragtime or blues. As to his claim to inventing jazz, while it cannot be accepted, I think it is undeniable that he was a pioneer in advanced piano style. Keen competition impelled him to work on something different from ragtime, and he has stated some of his basic ideas — the use of a slower tempo to permit flexibility through the use of more notes, a pinch of Spanish to give a number the right seasoning, the avoidance of playing triple forte continuously, and many other points.

Morton’s ideas are expressed pretty well on the Circle issues of the Library of Congress recordings, and also in the Lomax book, Mister Jelly Roll. Jelly said he originated jazz music in “a small desolated back room” at the Frenchman’s, and he may have started there. However, I don’t doubt that his efforts at making two notes bloom where one bloomed before were continued in many places, over much time. That his efforts were not in vain is attested by his music. Not only as he wrote it, but to an even greater degree as he lived it at the keyboard; his themes were usually written in simple form, but there was no limit to his improvisations in playing them. He was very fond of chord progressions, such as occur in the trio of Kansas City Stomps and Wolverine Blues, the latter being the number which Fred H. Higginson discusses so well in the June Record Changer.

Perhaps the accompanying scored excerpts from Morton recordings (see next page) will help a little to illustrate what he did with melodies. The bits from Creepy Feeling and Winin’ Boy should give a hint of Jelly’s technical ability also, especially when it is remembered that he interpolated variations

(Continued on Page 14)

On Handy

In his article, W. C. Handy — An Enigma, in your May issue, Dr. Souchon, in addition to his remarks about Jelly Roll that largely prompted me to write the above article, also makes some very interesting comments about Mr. Handy.

He apparently admits that Handy is not a convincing performer of the music with which he is so intimately identified, and then proceeds to explain Handy’s prestige on the basis of the folk music and history he has preserved for posterity, and on the basis of his compositions. As to folk material, Mr. Handy has collected a considerable amount, and presented it in an interesting manner in his books. As to composition, Dr. Souchon writes: “Suppose we stripped Handy of all that is supposed to have appropriated, and retained only the compositions which everyone regards as his own. We would still have the greatest collection of true blues ever assembled!”

This is a very important statement, and I cannot understand why these compositions were not listed. If his compositions are to constitute the criterion for judging Handy’s merit, certainly these compositions “which everyone regards as his own” should be named. At least this much is due Mr. Handy, and I hope The Record Changer will be able to print such a list.

Roy J. Carew

On the facing page [see above] are some unusual samples of Jelly Roll’s style: brief scored excerpts from three of his recordings, as transcribed with meticulous care by Roy Carew.

(2)

. . . it was the year of 1902 that I conceived the idea, probably through force, my reason for trying to adopt something truly different from ragtime “was,” that all my fellow musician’s were much faster in manipulations I thought, than I, & I did not feel as though I was in their class. Of course they all seem to classify in the No. 1 class, men like Alfred Wilson, (Won Piano Playing contest St. Louis exposition 1904). Tony Jackson, worlds greatest single handed entertainer, could play & sing from Opera to Blues in its correct formation, knew everything that probably was ever printed). Albert Cahill, with his (so soft, sweet, non exerting perfect perfection of passing tones & strange harmonic’s cool & collective style) Sammy Davis, (with his original ragtime idea, four finger bass left hand & speed like the electrified streamline & etc) these men set a pace for everyone entered N. O. . . .

A rare jazz document is reproduced above: in Jelly’s own handwriting comes the startling admission that it was — of all things — a feeling of inferiority that led him to create his own style of piano jazz.  From a letter written to Roy J. Carew in 1938.

(Continued from Page 7)

without studied preparation, and never played them twice alike. The sample from Frog-I-More Rag is just ragtime, but it has Morton originality, and the notation “cornet solo” on his original manuscript shows that he composed with band performance in mind. These samples are no measure of Ferd Morton’s musical ability; unfortunately, some of his best work never got on sheet music or records. But enough exists to make his place secure in the jazz music world.

Note: The source for the sheet music example of CREEPY FEELING should be Jazz Man #12 (MLB146) not Jazz Man #11 (MLB147).

Note: The material in Jelly Roll’s handwriting is not from a letter written to Roy J. Carew, but from a second Fragment of an Autobiography written by Jelly Roll in 1938 at Roy J. Carew’s suggestion.

The above article was first published in The Record Changer, dated December 1952, Vol. 11, No. 11, pages 7—9 and 14, and is reprinted by kind permission of Richard B. Hadlock, owner/publisher of The Record Changer.

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