Final Years of Frustration (1939-1941)
As told by Jelly Roll Morton in his letters to R. J. Carew
Annotated by George W. Kay
The dismal years of the late 30s that Jelly Roll Morton spent in Washington, D.C. were recalled by Roy Carew in the May issue of JAZZ JOURNAL. The following excerpts (over 100 entries) extracted from Morton’s letters to Carew, pick up the chain of events starting with Jelly Roll’s arrival in New York on Christmas Day, 1938 and continuing until his untimely death in Los Angeles on July 10, 1941.
The study of character is always an absorbing pursuit. These brief extracts not only plot the course of events in Morton’s later years; the diary-like notations transcribed laboriously by Carew actually probe into the thoughts, fears and false hopes of a once-great jazz artist as he wages a grim, losing battle against adversity. In these letters we see the inner character of a sensitive and troubled musician in an entirely different context from his more familiar image of the conceited and eccentric jazz personality. It is only in linking the present with the past that we can really understand this fascinating and enigmatic man. Young Ferd Morton was a thrice-orphaned youth of fifteen when his grandmother turned him out on the streets of New Orleans to shift for himself. His unforgivable sin was an occasional fling as a part time piano player in the tenderloin district. In any event Ferd’s decision to pursue this forbidden way of life barred his return to his grandmother’s household.
It is probable that a pattern of nomadism may have remained with Jelly Roll throughout his life. To those who knew him intimately, Morton was basically a non-conformist and the price for non-conformity generally carries the penalty of a certain degree of social ostracism.
Although geographically a resident of many places, Jelly Roll lived psychologically and emotionally in his hometown of New Orleans. Sociologists tell us that culture and custom play a predominant role in our experience and attitudes and both play important parts in shaping our lives and destinies. No man is unaffected by culture and custom and every phase of our lives and thoughts reflects their influence.
Morton’s first months in New York were almost catastrophic for him. Suffering from failing health, he roamed the streets of the city in futile attempts to get bookings, sell his latest sheet music and collect royalties from publishers. The picture was bleak and foreboding of the hard, post-depression-ridden times.
From January to mid-September 1939 he failed to land a recording contract. He did manage to set up a couple of band auditions with John Hammond in March and early April. But on April 17th he was rushed to hospital, a victim of a near-fatal heart attack. Recovery was slow and discouraging, but Jelly Roll, forever optimistic, reveals his undaunted faith in better times ahead in his entry of September 7, 1939:
“What’s the use of talking about the burdened past, when success is always ahead, it is never in the past . . .”
NEW YORK, N.Y. Dec. 25, 1938.
ARRIVED SAFE TOUGH DRIVE ON ICE GOOD POSSIBILITIES MERRY XMAS
203 W. 131st St. — Jan. 5, 1939
. . . I saw my agent —— he told me to organize a band at once, 15 pieces, which I have been trying to do . . . think I will succeed. I have had two rehearsals so far . . . things look very good if I can hold on . . . between being sick a part of the time . . . placed me in a very difficult position . . .
Jan. 10 . . . The band is fairly organized already . . . sounds very good.
Jan. 14 . . . The band had an audition Thursday and the report went in okey, we will rehearse Monday (and) the bigger shots can post their opinion . . . I believe I will be able to give you a good report.
Jan. 18 . . . It is a hard thing to organize a band . . . it seems impossible to work alone any more . . . it keeps me getting new material all the time.
Jan. 22 . . . I was expecting a check from Melrose, but he never sent it . . . I got in touch with a lawyer . . . and I believe I will be able to get some immediate action, on Melrose & Southern . . .
Feb. 2 . . . I haven’t received my statement from Melrose, I am wondering what could be the hold up. I sent him a registered letter yesterday . . . I am now waiting on the agent, he has several irons in the fire . . . we have positively passed all tests and liable to be called at any time. He claims that we may go in the Top Hat that’s across the river from N.Y.C. in Jersey . . .
Feb. 12 . . . Well, I am supposed to make another audition tomorrow . . . for Theatres, I hope everything proves alright . . . because when I get started the tunes will bloom like a rose.
Feb. 18 . . . After a lot of hard work and plenty trials, I finally got the okey to start working . . . the 23rd, but it seems doubtful . . . I understand the place isn’t finished yet . . . This is a new place under the Old Cotton Club . . . I will be immediately reinstated and become a full 802 member again . . . I am sending my application in the ASCAP Monday.
Feb. 26 . . . the date was given to me alright, but the place isn’t ready & wont be until about the 15th of March . . .
Mar. 11 . . . the place I was to open on the 15th opened on the 10th, & another agent has the two bands that went in, Lucky Millender & Hazel Scott’s Band, . . . so I have lost that application made for ASCAP . . . will have to lay in ASCAP for three months . . .
Mar. 11 . . . I have been a bit sick, not to extremes, it acted and had all the symptoms of asthma. After a few days of trying different things I managed to get something to check it . . . lots better now.
Mar. 19 . . . I was a very sick man, but at this moment I feel surprisingly good . . . two days ago I would of much rather been dead than alive.
Mar. 30 . . . I am going to make an audition for Decca tomorrow . . . and Saturday I am going to make an audition for John Hammond, Lomax is arranging for this one . . . Stein of M.C.A. hasn’t returned yet.
April 5 . . . John Hammond is supposed to listen to the band tomorrow.
April 9 . . . The audition was made for John Hammond Friday Apr. 7th, he said the band met with his approval very much . . . I got out of the sick bed to make this audition, and had to go right back to bed.
(To Roy J. Carew)
April 17th 1939
Mr. Morton taken very ill today. I had (them) take him to Medical Center Hospital . . . he wants to see you at once . . . Mrs. Mabel Morton
203 West 131st St. Apt. 3A
April 20th 1939
Received your letter this morning . . . I thank you so much for your kindness . . . Jelly has been very sick for two weeks, but he wouldn’t give up . . . I do pray for him to get his health back . . . Mrs. Mabel Morton
‘I visited Ferd in the Hospital at 622 West 168th St. on Sunday morning April 23rd about 10 a. m; not visiting hours, but Mrs. Morton had arranged for me to be admitted. Ferd was in a pleasant ward on an upper floor. He was very glad to see me, and we had a good talk, after which I left. I returned in the afternoon at regular visiting hours and found Mrs. Morton there. Ferd was cheerful, and seemed to be doing all right.’
Roy J. Carew
April 27th . . . Only a few lines to inform you of my husband’s health. He is feeling fine today. He only weighs 134 pounds, before taking sick 179 pounds. Mrs. Mabel Morton
May. 8 . . . I was released from the hospital Sunday May 7th at 1 p.m. . . . My first mind is to get N.Y. Town [a] ready . . .
May. 10 . . . Well I am out, but I find myself very weak in my lower extremities . . .
May. 19 . . . very fine sunshine today and I feel a lot better than I have any day since I’ve been up . . . I haven’t tried to organize the hand since I’ve been out of the hospital . . . Nelson kept them together I guess as long as he could.
May. 30 . . . I went to the hospital for my check up and tried to explain all I could concerning myself, well, I was examined again, and finally was told what my main troubles were. I have ‘hardening of the arteries of the heart’ and was told that it was incurable, but that if I did not exert myself I would . . . do all right. I was very sad over the report at first ‘but’ after a second thought, I had a different decision. I was not expecting to live when I went there, and I am at least living yet. Then again we have a much greater power that has something to say about those things — that’s the Supreme Power above.
June 12 . . . I think that was a great break for Lomax, to sing for the King, Queen and President at one time. Well, I wish him the greatest SUCCESS . . . I am beginning to feel a bit stronger . . . Yes, Leadbelly made some recording for (Musicraft) that was done through Lomax . . . I have been in touch with an attorney about the (Southern) and intended to take up the (Melrose) question too . . .
June 15 . . . I am working on the orchestration every day . . . but I become nervous after a period then I have to stop for the day. I am arranging 15 pieces . . .
June 25 . . . I was lucky enough to hear (the orchestration) again Friday . . . the two bands that played seem to be elated over the number. I am starting on (Elk) Monday to make an orchestration.
June 27 . . . I heard the (orchestration) played by Chas Johnson’s Paradise band, man, it sure did sound nice . . . I haven’t started on the Elk tune as yet . . . The convention will be held here in August . . .
July 4 . . . I have also made inquiries at ASCAP concerning my membership and I was told that I would hear from them as soon as they could convene . . . The Elks are due here in August.
July 12 . . . I have an appointment with Fred Simpson, the band leader for the Elk’s Monarchs . . . to try to get Elk started.
July 20 . . . would you mind sending a copy of the clarinet of Why as I intend to start on the orchestration . . . soon as I can.
July 23 . . . Nelson can’t do any good, he isn’t working, but Braud can, he’s got a band and working near the World’s Fair, I feel sure he would try to push anything that would be good for me.
July 25 . . . I received the title page Elk through the printer, and think it very pretty . . . I hope it turns out ok. . . . I believe this is going to he a great outlet for (Tempo) he seems to be doing some kind of a business . . .
July 27 . . . I don’t understand ASCAP. all summer without a meeting to enroll new members, after waiting nearly six months for their approval . . . I think we will do good with all the tunes . . .
August 1 . . . I tried to find out definitely when ASCAP hold their meetings, I was really (un)able to find out a thing . . . I cannot file all my tunes, since they must be in publication form . . . whilst I cannot get any money on my own tunes they are earning money for the publisher . . .
‘Went to New York Aug. 8th try to line up another agent for the music. Spent part of afternoon with Ferd and the prospect. Came back the same night.’
August 16 . . . I delivered the music to Mr. *** on Friday . . . I was feeling bad when I left you at the depot, I guess I did a little too much walking for a couple of weeks . . . I had my check-up Monday and the doctor ordered me to rest a lot more . . .
August 21 . . . I am hoping and trying to do something in this convention with Elks . . . they don’t seem to be a lot of money spent anywhere . . . tomorrow is the parade . . .
August 25 . . . Well I don’t know just how well we have done with Elks but it won’t be much . . . the way things turned out after the parade Tuesday the streets were clean . . .
August 29 . . . no one made any money. I feel terribly about this . . . but I guess no one can control fate . . . You are positively right about me getting started recording, which I have been working very hard to do . . . I have been in touch with John Hammond I did get in touch with W ——— of Decca, and he promised me a date. I got in touch with Musicraft Records they seem very much interested . . . ASCAP is supposed to have a meeting the first or second week in September . . . things begin to look like they will open up a bit . . .
Sept. 5 . . . I had a very bad week, last week . . . I feel better today, so I went down town to bring Benny Goodman N.Y., Elks, and Mr. Joe, to see if he can record them to-morrow . . .
Sept. 7 . . . what’s the use of talking about the burdened past, when success is always ahead, it is never in the past . . . well, some of Tempo’s music will be recorded on Victor or Blue Bird record . . . one week from now.
Months of discouraging rebuffs harrassed Jelly Roll Morton before he finally closed a deal with Victor in September 1939 to make eight sides for their Blue Bird label. Steve Smith of HRS was the man responsible for arranging the sessions calling for a nine-piece band identified as Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans Jazzman (Jazzmen).
‘The Morton formula was simple, but such was his skill in choosing the right jazzmen’, observed Gilbert Erskine in an article for DOWN BEAT. Although Morton was not given a free hand in hiring his sidemen, he was happy to get four trusty hometowners in Bechet and Nicholas, reeds, Braud, bass and Singleton, drums. The non-New Orleanians were Sidney de Paris on trumpet, Claude Jones on trombone, Happy Caldwell on tenor and Lawrence Lucie on guitar. Everyone but de Paris passed muster of Morton’s critical standards and a few of those typical flareups erupted over de Paris’s idea of how a New Orleans horn should be played. Jelly Roll took it upon himself to write the lead trumpet part on Oh, Didn’t He Ramble for Sidney’s enlightenment and guidance.
It may be true that the band lacked that loose ensemble resiliency and melodic singing quality of the ‘Hot Peppers’, but many of the lead instrumental passages, such as the exciting Bechet-Nicholas reed duets on High Society and Jelly Roll’s inventive piano solo on Climax Rag have never been topped. Also on the plus side was the golden opportunity that the recordings provided Morton for introducing on a major label, three of his latest published tunes — Winin’ Boy Blues, I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say and Don’t You Leave Me Here.
In December Steve Smith and Gordon Mercer of General Records approached Jelly Roll to do the famous New Orleans Memories album consisting of piano solos and vocals devoted to early New Orleans blues and rags. Charles Edward Smith, in his superb story entitled ‘Oh, Mr. Jelly’, tells of this memorable session:
We settled the tunes right there in Jelly’s apartment off upper Seventh Avenue. When we walked onto the studio we had the album in order, backings and all, with a couple of substitutes on hand in the event he had to fight it out. We didn’t. The album went through as planned. The tests thrown out (none of them accessible now) consisted of an infamous Tiger Rag, an equally infamous Anamule Ball, and a Sporting House Rag that didn’t come off. We used as many as four waxes on certain sides, because Jelly was really sick at this time, and we took a few sessions to complete the job. At Jelly’s request I sat in the studio with him as he recorded and I thought at the time I was going through as many crises as he. On Winin’ Boy Blues, for example, he closed his eyes on the humming passage. Gordon and the engineer motioned me frantically to nudge Jelly. I didn’t. Jelly opened his eyes slowly and murmured, ‘Oh, Mamie’, and the number came to its close.’
In January 1940, Gordon Mercer again approached Jelly Roll with a proposition to record a series of small band sides geared primarily to the juke box trade under General’s Tavern Tunes label. It is quite evident from Jelly’s letters that he was not completely happy with the results; lack of sufficient rehearsal time, hasty preparation of the material and Morton’s failing health contributed to the spotty quality of the music. Nevertheless, one of his greatest blues compositions, Sweet Substitute, appeared for the first time on record.
The General sides featuring mixed a bag personnel for Morton’s six and seven piece bands were his last recordings. Informants say that Decca asked him to join Armstrong for the Decca New Orleans Jazz album but Jelly Roll wanted the leader’s fee and he adamantly refused the secondary role as a sideman. There is a line in Shaw’s play ‘Don Juan in Hell’ that goes something like this, ‘To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.’ For Jelly Roll, as for most creative persons, to be shaved back to the rear echelon of acclaim as just another face in the crowd would have been a living hell on earth.
Sept. 15 . . . I was too tired to write you after I arrived at home after the recording yesterday . . . I don’t know how good the recordings are but I do hope they are okey, these numbers will get lots of publicity.
Sept. 16 . . . I understand we will have another date in the week of the twenty-fifth . . . the numbers that was recorded, High Society, Didn’t He Ramble, Buddy Bolden’s Blues, Wineing Boy.
Sept. 29 . . . We recorded yesterday . . . numbers recorded . . . Climax, Ballin’ The Jack, West End Blues, Don’t You Leave Me Here . . . The ——— tried his best to mess this batch, he was just as hateful as could be . . . my session did not suit me much, but they may pass.
Oct. 14 . . . I am trying very hard to get a company interested in making the things I suggest and I had something . . . arranged, until L ——— advised them to let me make the numbers myself and eliminate the band. Of course that would be alright but I cannot stand the endurance that belongs in these kind of things; with a band I can place the energetic part on someone else’s shoulders.
Oct. 18 . . . I got some good news yesterday from the Musicraft Record Co. they said they was willing to make some recordings of me for album sales, if they could get a hold of Chas. Smith to write the story as recordings were made.
Oct. 31 . . . I will be on ‘We the People’ program Tuesday Oct. 31. I am sorry I have to play Tiger Rag, but it will help . . .
Nov. 8 . . . I also stopped by Musicraft and (it) seems definitely sure that I will make those records . . . they insisted on Tiger Rag on account of the history of it, and the novelty of the tiger roar with my arm.
Nov. 18 . . . I was up long enough yesterday to go down town and stopped at Musicraft. I found the people over anxious to get started on the records, they intend to make 10 numbers . . .
Nov. 23 . . . I had to go back to bed since Monday evening, it’s about 4 p.m. Thursday I am feeling some better, maybe I will be able to go in the streets by tomorrow . . . My doctor told me not to stay here, it seems as if he knows what he is talking about . . .
Nov. 30 . . . It seems like the recording will be set about next week, Smith has the story to write . . .
Dec. 7 . . . We missed the recording date, but something bigger has happened, . . . I have been accepted in ASCAP, I haven’t received my contract yet . . . I also found out some valuable information . . . one of my numbers was broadcasted more than 4400 times in one year . . . things beginning to shape up at last.
Dec. 12 . . . Chas. Smith wrote the story of the tunes and selected, Mamie’s Blues, Michigan Water, Winin’ Boy, Buddy Bolden, Don’t You Leave Me Here, The Crave (Spanish), Mister Joe, Original Rags, Sporting House Rag, The Naked Dance, Anamule Dance . . . the date is Thursday 14th . . .
Dec. 18 . . . These records will be, I believe under General Records, Mercer is with this company instead of Musicraft.
Dec. 23 . . . I don’t like to take credit for something that don’t belong to me . . . I am expecting to record . . . with a small band if I can get them together . . . the situation is very disheartening sometimes, but I will go on trying and trying again, as long as I have a spark of energy left in me.
Jan. 6 . . . I just made recordings of Substitute, N.Y., Big Lip Blues and Panama . . . I had to make the recordings under adverse conditions . . . so there will be bad spots, but there are much worse recordings . . .
Jan. 6 . . . the terrible neuralgia taking the lead in the complications, I was told cold weather would make me suffer and it have proven true . . . I just wrote Big Lip Blues in the studio, it don’t amount to much . . .
Jan. 24 . . . I recorded four numbers yesterday Jan. 23rd . . . the titles are Why, If You Knew, Get The Bucket and Shake It . . .
Feb. 1 . . . I had to delay . . . on account of being sick and making some arrangements, which I recorded Tuesday as follows: Elks, Southern Town, Mama’s Got A Baby (named Tee Nah Nah) and Dirty, Dirty, Dirty . . .
Feb. 6 . . . It is true that warm weather is due in short, I am sure that 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 can’t get things to roll as I have in past years, this is God’s work and no one can do anything about it . . . I have an appointment with my lawyer and the one for Southern . . .
Feb. 9 . . . My relative passed away yesterday, I feel very badly over it. I will expect you Sunday, if I’m not feeling too badly I will meet you . . .
‘Went to N.Y. February 11, 1940 (Sunday) and saw Jelly and Mabel at their apartment, 203 West 131st St. He played over the New Orleans Memories Album records for me on a small record player.’
(ROY J. CAREW)
Mar. 10 . . . I tried to go to the funeral of Clarence Williams mother last Monday the 4th the weather was terrible and never gotten there on time . . .
Mar. 13 . . . chance has come at last, ——— has found a man with recording equipment and are willing to co-operate in a recording co, which includes transcriptions . . .
April 6 . . . I planned . . . the starting of a band circuit . . . in order to do some real biz with the records . . .
April 16 . . . due to my feeling bad . . . all of my energy seems to be lost . . . It was a good day Thursday April 11th so ——— and I went to Phila. to try to line up some band dates, we think there’s a fair connection . . .
May 15 . . . I made a great attempt to start the band circuit with what money I could get a hold of . . . but before we could get under way the Union stepped in and raised the scale so high . . . it was impossible to stay . . . we could only stay one night . . .