1211 U Street, Northwest
by Roy Carew
SPRING has come to Washington once more, as a look at the calendar will attest, even if the weather doesn’t always agree. But a robin has visited the yard and, although it snowed last night, we place our hopes with the robin. And since, as we grow older, the past acquires added lustre, and we derive increasing pleasure from memories, it isn’t difficult to let the mind revert to other springs, and to reminisce with mingled emotions over what is past. One of the first thoughts that presents itself to the mind is the fact that it was on a March evening, almost exactly nine years ago, that I read in a local newspaper that Jelly Roll Morton was holding forth in his night club at 1211 U Street, Northwest, here in Washington. It was an interesting article, accompanied by a picture of Jelly Roll at the piano, but I probably would have let matters drop at the reading, had it not been for just three lines, wherein Jelly Roll was quoted as saying that ‘Tony Jackson was the world’s greatest single-handed entertainer. He ranged from opera to blues.’ The first time I had ever seen Tony’s name in the public print, these were words to stir my memories. And how they carried me back . . . over thirty years to the night I stood outside the establishment of Antonia Gonzales in New Orleans, where I first heard Tony playing and singing . . . to other nights, outside other places where Tony would be entertaining . . . to more satisfying nights, when I found him playing in a white café, and I could sit and watch him while I listened . . . to the time I looked him up in Chicago . . . and to later times in New Orleans, before he left the crescent City for good . . . very pleasant memories all. Tony Jackson! The man who knew ‘a thousand songs’, and who played and sang them like no one man ever did! So there was only one thing I could do; I simply had to look up Jelly Roll Morton and find out what had become of Tony. And just as my thoughts went back to Tony Jackson on that March day in 1938, they often revert to the day I sought out Ferdinand Joseph Morton at 1211 U Street, and to the many pleasant meetings I had with him after that.
I remember that chilly afternoon in the early spring of 1938, when I climbed the long flight of stairs that led from the street entrance on U Street up to the large, somewhat empty appearing room that served as the Music Box nightclub. I had called there before, but had missed him. This time be was expected ‘to be along pretty soon’, so I waited. When he came, he walked in slowly, as if a little tired, or perhaps the raw March wind, affected him, for his overcoat collar was turned up and his shoulders raised to keep the collar closer to his throat. I introduced myself, and we sat down by the small oil stove that was doing its inadequate best to keep the chill out of the room. Soon the conversation was running along at a great rate. We found many things of common interest to discuss: Tony Jackson and his great musical ability; old New Orleans musicians and the tunes they played; the bands, parades, funerals, Mardi Gras celebrations, social dub affairs and outings; these were some of the topics that made the conversation seem but a few minutes long. Morton said that Tony had died ‘in 1921 or 1922’ in Chicago, and of course I was sorry to hear that Tony had passed on. Tony Jackson, composer of Pretty Baby and other popular songs, left his mark on American music. A pioneer ragtime and jazz pianist in New Orleans, he was a peerless performer; in addition to outstanding ability on the piano, he possessed a remarkable voice of unusual ranges. The time came for me to say good-bye and I started to leave. Jelly Roll caught up to me as I reached the stair door, and asked me to tell him my name again, which I did. ‘And where do you work?’ he asked. I told him and he carefully entered the information in his little book. I think he felt as I did, that here was a friend; I’m sure neither of us had to change his mind.
I remember a visit a little later, after Ferd had expressed admiration for certain of Scott Joplin’s ragtime compositions. Before leaving home I carefully picked out a few Joplin numbers that I had treasured from my early New Orleans days, and wrapped them in a package. Upon telling my wife where I was going, she expressed a desire to go along, so we made our way to the Music Box, and I showed the numbers to Jelly. He looked them over with evident interest, and had good things to say about Joplin’s music. We went over to the piano, and he ran over a tune or two; I remember he played the Chrysanthemum in a careful sort of manner, sitting erect at the keyboard. Morton had that way with him when playing a new number or one he hadn’t seen for a long time, playing softly and following the music closely. Even on his own composition, Grandpa’s Spells, which I had with me one day, he used the same gentle technique. In playing for me, he usually began in that easy manner, working up by degrees to what sometimes amounted to a remarkable pianistic display. That evening we discussed Joplin’s compositions, and I expressed the opinion that they could again be popular if they received some ‘modern’ treatment. Morton agreed wholeheartedly, ‘They should be brought up to date, and I don’t know anyone better qualified to do it than myself,’ much to the delight of my wife. Well, only one number was destined to receive the Morton treatment, Original Rags, and the result is a decidedly unique piece of Morton ragtime.
I remember the day I walked into the Music Box and found Jelly Roll Morton playing The Angel’s Serenade from the music. As I walked up he said, ‘I was just trying this over. It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?’ Jelly Roll liked good music, be it honky-tonk or classical. This may surprise many jazz fans, who like to think that the old pianist entertainers confined their p1aying to barrel-house music such as was pounded out in low-class honky-tonks, dives and dance halls. As far as I ever observed, this wasn’t the case in New Orleans, and it probably wasn’t the case elsewhere. Then, as now, musicians played where they could get employment, and the competent ones played what the customers desired. Jelly Roll admired and praised Tony Jackson’s ability to play ‘anything from opera to blues’, and I can add that he meant grand operas. Of course, there were players whose ability never enabled them to play anywhere except in low-class joints, their music usually being crude attempts to imitate the good players; if their music had anything of value in it, it was necessary for some one with more talent to build it up. There seems to be a school of musical thought that admires crudity. I don’t believe that many of the New Orleans musicians were of that school, certainly not those of whom I have personal knowledge. Good players could play a tune down to a low level if they wished, but they could also bring it up to an almost classical style if that were desired. Jelly Roll’s Winin’ Boy Blues is an example; when his listeners requested it that way, Jelly could render as low down a version as one could imagine, but when he warmed up to it Jelly could make it sparkle, as I’m sure those who heard him play it on the Basin Street programme will agree. His versions recorded for Victor, General and Jazz Man also appeal to me, and he recorded a version for the Folk Music Archives that demonstrates technical ability of a very high order. Ferd told me after he had gone to New York that the leader of a high class orchestra had offered to play a symphonic arrangement of Winin’ Boy if he would prepare it, but he said with his health as it was the results wouldn’t justify the effort.
Morton could be deferential to a great degree, but he couldn’t refrain from expressing his opinion if he thought he was right. I remember one time at the café I found him about to partake of a little lunch. I took a seat at the piano and began to fumble at the keys while I was waiting for him to get through eating. With considerable presumption I started playing the Jelly Roll Blues. When I had played about halt of the first part, Jelly called over, ‘Say do you know you’re playing that wrong?’ I had to confess that I never had learned it properly. ‘Well,’ he continued in a mollifying manner, ‘I don’t know but that it sounds just about as good that way.
I hadn’t made many visits to the Music Box before I became aware that the place was on the down-grade. Morton had some investment in it, and tried to stave off the failure that was coming, but his efforts came to nothing. It seems that Mrs. Lyle, his partner, had more authority than he had, and according to Ferd, she would reject all his suggestions, and nullify all his efforts to create an interest in the place. He felt that he had much to contend with, but I must say that he was no hand to complain. One day when I was there, three or four husky young Negroes about twenty years old came in, and began running about the place in a rather boisterous manner. I could see that Ferd was irritated, but he made no move to stop them. After they left, he got a chance to tell me the story. It seems that Mrs. Lyle some years previously had the candy and popcorn concession at one of the Negro playhouses, and hired a bunch of boys to work the audience during the intermissions, etc., selling her confections. Well, every so often a group of these fellows would get together and visit their old employer at the night club, where they would generally raise more or less a disturbance. ‘And,’ lamented Morton, ‘she won’t let me correct them or keep them in order. She says they are “just her popcorn boys”.’ A moment of silence, and then ‘Popcorn boys!’ he snorted, ‘they might have been popcorn boys once, hut they’re popcorn MEN now.’
Morton’s pride in his music is well known; he believed implicitly in his ability, which is not hard to understand since his successful recorded jazz compositions number nearly one hundred. He had no difficulty in composing a number, and could produce a composition of any type or style one might suggest. I remember a compliment paid him after his death. A New Yorker was negotiating for the use of a Morton number for a juke box movie. Someone asked ‘Who was Jelly Roll Morton?’ He replied, ‘Why, Morton was a musical genius; he could meet you, talk to you a while, and then compose a number that would describe your character exactly.’ Possibly exaggerated, but there is no doubt about his ability. One day he told me how he would joke the boys. ‘You see this penny pencil I have here?’ he would ask. ‘Well, this cheap pencil is going to make hundreds of dollars for me. Just watch me.’ Then be would take a piece of manuscript paper and start writing a tune. One day be handed me the manuscript of a song he was working on; I was playing it over slowly as he busied himself about the club. As he came near the piano I called his attention to a short strain that sounded too reminiscent of another tune I knew. Merely pausing at the piano, Jelly Roll reached over to the keyboard and played a different strain. ‘Use that,’ he said as he kept on going. A dozen ways of expressing a musical idea were always flashing through his mind, and tunes seemed to come to him the same way. One evening I was at the recording studio where the Jazz Man masters were made. The boys wanted a honky-tonk number, and they kept telling him how they wanted it — faster, slower, more bass, a minor strain, Spanish movement, etc., and Ferd patiently played it over and over to get it to please them. Finally they said, ‘There, play it that way and we’ll make the master.’ ‘Well,’ said Jelly, ‘you’ll have to remember one thing — I’ll never play it twice alike.’
I remember the afternoon Jelly was working on a song that we hoped might have a chance in New York where the World’s Fair would open in the spring of 1939. As Jelly was playing the number, the door opened and a young man walked in. Coming over to the piano, he remarked that he was selling electric light bulbs, and asked if the place needed any. Ferd directed him to Mrs. Lyle, who was somewhere in the back, but the few measures of music he had heard made him linger near the piano. ‘Say, that’s good,’ he said, following up with, ‘Who are you? What’s your name?’ Without stopping his playing, Jelly turned his head and replied, ‘Jelly Roll Morton.’ ‘JELLY ROLL MORTON?’ the young fellow almost shouted. ‘Here, let me shake your hand! I’ve been reading about you in the magazines; you certainly can hand it out!’ Mrs. Lyle came along and the light bulbs were taken care of. The young man loitered around hoping to hear Jelly play some more, but other things had to be done. Mrs. Lyle spoke up, ‘You won’t sell many light bulbs, waiting around here.’ ‘Do you think he will play for me if I come back some time?’ he asked. ‘Of course he will,’ she replied complainingly. ‘He’ll play all night, if he thinks you like it.’
I remember the autumn evening I dropped in at 1211 U Street and found Ferd at the piano, with two young Negroes seated alongside, each with about the biggest saxophone I ever saw. They were ambitious in a big way and Ferd was giving them pointers on playing. When he saw me and came over to where I stood, I could see that he was in a cheerful mood. We spoke a few words, and then he said, ‘I made a good recording today; it’s a great number. Do you want to hear it?’ Of course I said I did, so, stepping briskly back to the piano and getting seated comfortably, he went to it, and really made the instrument talk. It was a peerless performance of a fine composition. The young saxophonists, who had been getting impatient as Ferd and I were talking, were carried away with it also, for the final parts of the piece found them both with their saxophones held upright in their laps, swaying back and forth under the spell of the hypnotic rhythm. The composition was the Finger Breaker, since issued under the title of Finger Buster on the Jazz Man label. In my opinion, the Finger Breaker is unsurpassed in the field of genuine American instrumental music.
I remember the day Ferd told me he had decided to leave Washington. The night club had gone down to nothing; there should be opportunities in New York. I was genuinely sorry that the decision had to be made, but could see that it was inevitable. Morton had exploited every possibility that presented itself, if there seemed any chance to turn it to advantage, but the conditions weren’t right, and he couldn’t change conditions. One of the adverse conditions, not fully realized at the time, was his health; the unseen malady that finally carried him off had put its touch upon him. Still, he never relaxed his efforts, and never lost his optimism. For himself, his Washington experience was almost a total failure, but for his music there was gain. The recordings he made for the Folk Music Archives furnish a graphic chapter for the history of American music, although there is a considerable amount of excess verbiage. At the same time, Morton’s penchant for pushing himself into the limelight, and his refusal to truckle to musical hokum, gave him a certain amount of prestige; the part he played in the development of jazz had to be recognized, grudgingly at first, but more freely and positively as time goes on. For my part, after I met Ferdinand Joseph Morton and heard him play, I never had any doubt as to his genuine ability with New Orleans music, and found out as time passed that his powers did not stop there. There have been many scenes in life’s drama that have been too short for me, but inevitably the curtain must be dropped and the stage set for the next act; I would have wished that the scene in Washington might have had a happier ending, but if, in thinking of 1211 U Street, there are no regrets, there is satisfaction in the thought that ‘Genius passed this way.’
This article was written by Mr. Carew in 1947
The above article was published in JAZZBOOK 1955, edited by Albert J. McCarthy, pages 109—116.