Ferdinand Joseph Morton - A Biography
by Max Jones
Jelly Roll Morton outlined his history, with appropriate musical gestures, to Washington’s folklore librarian. Passages have been quoted here for their graphic quality, not because of implicit faith in Morton’s veracity. Nevertheless, his story contained biographical detail hitherto unknown and in cases where no check has been possible incidents are related in his own words. First-hand descriptions, too, are included in an attempt to present an accurate picture.
Print can convey but the slightest impression of the character of Morton’s speech, even so, a feeling for words is disclosed by such as his passing references to Buddy Bolden’s legendary feats of trumpet blowing:
“That’s when he would exert his powerful ability.”
The writer wishes to acknowledge fully his indebtedness to Charles Edward Smith, Frederick Ramsey, and Marshall Stearns, all of whose publications on this subject have been raided for material. Other sources of information are listed below.
“He can be considered the father of jazz piano, for innumerable pianists have taken their inspiration from him.”
Jelly Roll Morton was a musician of consequence, historically and artistically, in addition he was a man of marked individuality. Like many others he witnessed the transitional process from ragtime proper to the ‘swinging music’ of ragtime bands, and beyond to the highly integrated jazz of New Orleans during its ‘classic’ period. Throughout all but the few earliest years he was a participant rather than spectator. To a greater degree perhaps than any other jazzman he absorbed conflicting musical influences; opera, ragtime, Spanish blues, New Orleans brass band, popular ballad, and folksong.
Though he did not ‘invent’ jazz, as he so often claimed, his contribution to its development was an important one comparable with that of Bolden, Bunk Johnson or Armstrong. Moreover, he was active before Armstrong and long after Bolden and Bunk. His life story runs parallel with jazz history, up to his untimely death when it seemed he anticipated by a few years that music’s inevitable demise.
As a musician he was multi-talented, a fine soloist, outstanding orchestral pianist, excellent singer (in the jazz sense), arranger of distinction, and a composer unique in the jazz field. On the strength of those tunes alone that he wrote down, or recorded he merits recognition as the greatest composer of jazz. (Which is not to say he was the most accomplished composer of all those who have been associated with this music in the minds of the confused and the gullible.)
And a writer of real jazz themes was what he considered himself to be. Whenever he played, though, tunes were created almost carelessly yet with a lavishness[,] which must have benefitted scores of publishers. Besides this, was his conversance with folk strains and traditionals. He was a veritable catalogue of New Orleans airs, reflecting in his music every aspect of the society which reared jazz. The alliance of these qualifications to a facile technique produced a first-rate musician from whose work exuded utter confidence and exultancy. Morton was a man whose music will finally represent an epoch, at any rate a style in all its phases. It is unique. Somewhere Henry Miller says: “Nobody can explain it satisfactorily. Nobody can explain anything which is unique. One can describe, worship and adore. And that is all I can do with Katsimbalis’ talk.”
It is about all that can be done with Jelly’s gift too.
Half a century ago musicians were pretty much sought after in the pleasure district of New Orleans. And none more than pianists, for a number of marts depended on them for entertainment of a more or less musical nature. Keepers of the comparatively resplendent brothels[,] which they styled ‘sporting houses’ usually possessed themselves of a mechanical piano, or in circumstances less frugal, a mahogany instrument with ‘professor’ to play it. From either could be coaxed strains appropriate to sexual commerce.
Sporting house pianists need to combine instrumentalism and showmanship with ability as master of ceremonies. Much of brothel music was jingly stuff, the background to numerous erotic exhibitions, but with the gradual advance of ragtime and blues in the good-time public’s favour these strains became more acceptable to ‘madame’s’ ears and were often heard along Basin Street. But languorous refrains and Spanish airs were still the prerequisite of a brothel’s main event. Only late at night as a rule was beat-up music permitted.
Of course ragtime and blues were no bordel creations. As near-folk products of a people well able to entertain itself they had their place in the barrelhouse and lowest saloon. The music was imported into Storyville’s palaces to lend zest to the proceedings there and it chanced to be ideally suited to the business in hand. Such stimulating sounds could never originate in the realms of professional misconduct for all that they may be cradled in an atmosphere of uninhibited sensuality.
Ever increasing popularity of shags and stomps set a premium on the employment of Negro pianists in ‘white’ brothels; they already monopolised the business in houses specialising in femmes de coleur. First to engage a piano player among the big houses had been that of Countess Willie Piazza who hired a ‘dispenser’ named, curiously enough, John the Baptist. He proved sufficient of a success to convince most of the bawds of the soundness of pianists as business speculations.
Since then many a Storyville ‘professor’ has achieved fame — none more than Tony Jackson whom musicians and habitues alike recognised as king of them all. Wealthy hostesses were inclined to invite the great pianists to private parties, and the fee would be high enough to entice them nine times in ten from their regular posts. So every ‘landlady’ sometimes found her piano unattended, and she looked about for a worthy substitute; opportunity was created for tyros, of whom there was a ready supply. Ferdinand Morton’s début was made that way, forty or more years ago, when he deputised for an errant sporting house piano player.
Despite his youth Morton was equipped with fair musical knowledge, the result of instruction at a Catholic university in the Creole Negro quarter. Indeed this schooling, his visits to the French Opera House, the ‘refined’ approach to art that typified the Creole Negro bourgeoisie, might well have led to his musical inclinations maturing along academic lines. However, the economic set-up allowed few openings for coloured musicians other than the dance hail and cabaret. Besides, Jelly’s ear soon became attuned to street music. Among the tunes which helped to enliven his youth were many blues — low down blues to which he referred briefly as ‘real blues’.
“For instance,” Jelly reminisced, “when I first started going to school, at different time I would visit some of my relatives per permission, in the Garden district. I used to hear a few of the following blues players who could play nothing else — Buddy Canter (Carter), Josky Adams, Game Kid, Frank Richards, Sam Henry and many more too numerous to mention — what we call ‘ragmen’ in New Orleans. They can take a 10c. Xmas horn, take the wooden mouthpiece off, having only the metal for mouthpiece, and play more blues with that instrument than any trumpeter I have ever met through the country imitating the New Orleans trumpeters.”
He felt the same beat in the music of tavern pianists whom he heard playing in and around New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast: “Oh, they just played ordinary blues, the real lowdown blues, hot blues,” Jelly explained. Aside from this his closest contact with the folk, musically speaking, had been made singing spirituals in a juvenile street quartette. Of course, no slum music was tolerated chez Morton but having once acquired the taste Ferdinand went out to indulge it.
The Mortons were a worthy middle class family living at the junction of Frenchman (Frenchmen) and Robertson. Morton senior had connections with the wine business[,] which Ferdy entered — making barrels — after a brief essay at hairdressing in his uncle’s shop. There, it is said, he acquainted himself with the guitar inseparable from such establishments.
It has been said, again, that Morton took lessons on guitar from a Spanish teacher at the age of six, revealing himself as something of an infant prodigy. Jelly certainly hinted at unusual juvenile accomplishments when recalling his childhood: “For instance, when I was eight or nine years of age, I heard blues tunes entitled Alice Fields; Isn’t it hard to Love?, Make me a Palate (Pallet) on the floor; the latter which I played myself on my guitar.” Later he changed to drums and, at about ten, began studying the piano.
Ferdy’s leanings towards street music have already been remarked upon, His initiation into the right circles was achieved through friends who introduced bliss to Mamie Desdume (Desdunes), celebrated blues singer and pianist. When Mamie entertained, her party boasted a healthy sprinkling of pianists, and presently, the aspiring Ferdinand who was decidedly impressed by Mamie and her talented guests. His tribute, recorded years afterwards, gives an intimate reflection of this doyen of blues singers. Indolently, with modest humour, he confides: “This is the first blues I no doubt heard in my life. Mamie Desdume (Desdunes) . . . this was her favourite blues she hardly could play any thing else. My, but she really could play this number. Of course, to get in on it — to try to learn it — I made myself the . . . the can-rusher!”
Two-Nineteen done took my baby away
Two-Nineteen took my baby away
Two-Seventeen bring her back some day
For a while Morton continued the piano studies. One night he was asked to deputise for a pianist employed at a Rampart Street sporting house. After that he went every night to play for food and tips. He was not more than sixteen then — probably less — so the date would be 1900 or 1901. His parents, supposing him to be engaged nightly at the manufactory, were disgusted when they learned the nature of his work. The inevitable family scene ensued and Ferdy gravitated to Storyville — the best place he knew to earn a living.
There was small delay finding regular employment. Jobs outnumbered applicants in Morton’s line of trade. He played in the ‘district’ nearly three years, establishing himself with frequenters of various resorts on Basin, Iberville, Bienville, Franklin, and Liberty Streets. As a rule he worked alone, the demand for soloists being brisker than that for bands, although M. W. Stearns 1 once reported him as having secured ‘his first band job with Armand’s (Armant’s) orchestra, a little known New Orleans group.’
About this time a pianist named ‘Jelly Roll’ arrived in town from Atlanta, Georgia. Apparently the name derived from his success with unrighteous women. There is a folk couplet[,] which goes:
“If yo’ house ketch fire an’ dere ain’ no water ’round
Throw you’ jelly out de window an’ let de shack buhn down.”
In this sense ‘jelly’ means ‘ever-loving woman’. In all probability the name ‘Jelly Roll’ was common among musicians of certain localities. Like ‘Pine Top’, perhaps, it was attached to more than one man at a time. At any rate the ‘Jelly Roll’ in question protracted his stay in New Orleans sufficiently to vindicate his nickname. Then, resuming his pilgrimage, he was heard of no more. But he left behind an admirer who assumed the title and for all that is known to the contrary some of the obligations that went with it.
Through 1903-4 Morton was away from New Orleans, tramping around playing pretty much where he could. He earned a reputation as solo artist in Mississippi, probably playing for periods in Natchez and Vicksburg since he often mentioned musicians from those places, thence making his way along the coast to Florida. He left town in the company of Will Bendon’s (Benbow) road show[,] which barnstormed through Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois, though the part he played in the proceedings cannot be ascertained. Whatever it was, Jelly remembers: “I was accepted as sensational.”
On the Gulf Coast trip he travelled solo, passing through such towns as Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Ocean Springs, Gulfport, Biloxi, Pensacola and Mobile. At the last-named he found work in the Belmont theatre accompanied by a drummer. It was on this expedition that Jelly met Porter King and encountered such gin mill celebrities as Baby Grice, Frank Raphael (Rachel), Frazier Davis, Brocky Johnny, Skinny Head Pete, Old Florida Sam and nameless others. King and a few more were ragtime men while the latter trio specialised in stuff that was close to the folk concept. From the “Jazz Record Book” comes this intriguing account of Alabama night life:
“Jelly said, ‘Well for instance, Brocky Johnny used to sing a tune something like this. The title was All you Gals better get out and walk because he’s gonna start his dirty talk! . . .’ And as Jelly recorded this his hands played along the keyboard of a grand piano whose action was not too hard for his supple fingers, and his voice spaced out a rhythm unconsciously, making up a pattern: ‘That is where I played for the girls to do the high kicks,’ (he would say) — ‘say, my, my, play that thing boy’.”
I’d say, “I’ll certainly do it, little girl.” ‘That is just the way they used to act down in Mobile in those days around St. Louis and Warren, part of the famous corner.’
Porter King was one of the pianists Morton praised; perhaps Tony Jackson was the only other. Unquestionably he admired the Gulf Coast musician whose name provided a title for his best known composition, written in 1906 or there about and presumably the first stomp committed to paper. King Porter Stomp was in Jelly’s words: “Inspired by a very good friend of mine and a marvellous pianist now in the cold, cold ground, a gentleman from Florida, an educated gentleman with a wonderful musical education, much better than mine, and this gentleman’s name was Mr. King, Porter King.”
Returning home, Morton went back to work in Storyville. This was the period when he began attracting attention and earning large sums of money, if the reminiscences of some of Morton’s contemporaries can be relied upon. Richard M. Jones recalled helping him along about this time: “The first time I ever saw Jelly was at Hannah Rogers’ Cabaret at Gravier and Liberty Streets in New Orleans. This was many years ago when I was just starting out. I was doing pretty well and when I realized Jelly’s ability I bought him a suit and got him a job at Tom Anderson’s, the biggest cabaret in New Orleans, where Tony Jackson had formerly played. There was no salary, but Jelly became so popular he made 15 to 20 dollars a night in tips.”
Jones gave no clue to the date of these events but it must have been late 1904 or perhaps 1905 when Morton returned from his several tours.
Another job Jelly held was that of pianist at Hilma Burt’s sporting house on Basin Street. Burt’s shared a block with Josie Arlington’s and Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall. Jelly may have worked at the latter place too, he certainly played there on occasions, and it was there no doubt that he met Clarence Williams who played piano for Lulu White. Spencer Williams, also, lived at Lulu White’s and heard Jelly Roll among many who came in around three or four in the morning. Other contemporaneous figures of the sporting world were Al Carrel (Carroll) and Kid Ross (a talented white musician) both of whom worked at Lulu White’s, Black Paderewski, Slap Rags White, George Hall, Charles Hill, Blue, Santoy, Sammy Davis, Albert Cahil (Carroll) and Alfred Wilson.
Wilson won a contest in 1904 at the St. Louis Exposition though Morton was convinced he could have carried it off had he competed. “I was very much disgusted,” he said, “because I thought I should have gone. I thought Tony Jackson was going to be there and that kind of frightened me, but I knew I could have taken Alfred Wilson.”
Actually Morton won a number of such contests, in one of which he competed successfully with Jackson. He told R. J. Carew 2 ‘with considerable pride’ how he came to beat Tony, and the account is worth hearing:
“Jelly Roll said that, as the other contestants were seated on the stage while Tony was playing, he (Jelly) was seated near enough to the piano to keep telling Tony, sotto voce, ‘You can’t sing now . . . You can’t sing now.’ I don’t know if that affected Tony’s playing any,” wrote Carew, “but Jelly Roll won the contest.”
Brass bands, and later the dance bands based on them, exerted a lasting influence on Morton. For men like Buddy Bolden, Freddy Keppard, Joe Oliver, Morton felt unbounded admiration. Bolden, heard it Milneburg barbecues and dances at the Teamsters and Loaders Hall, he classed ‘the most powerful trumpet player I’ve ever heard or that was known — the most power man in the history,’ Keppard was ‘the Trumpet King of all times; the first modern trumpeter’. And Oliver — a life long friend of Jelly for whom the latter wrote his tune Mister Joe — was pronounced ‘World’s greatest hot trumpeter’. Obviously Jelly disapproved of invidious distinctions. Others to whom he attributed unusual ability were Manuel Perez, Buddy Petit, Tig Chambers and Happy Galloway.
As for Morton’s piano style: it was a mongrel style formed of barrelhouse elements intermingled with tango and charleston strains, yet embodying a tone purely classical. Clearly, Morton was a disciplined musician with a regard for the conventions. Leading ragmen were in essence the pattern of Jelly’s playing and he remained primarily an exponent of ‘barrelhouse’ music, i.e. rags and fast blues. ‘Honky-tonk style’ made its impression on Morton; blues may have afforded him much valuable material, but comparison of his earliest records with those of untrained blues men should dispel any beliefs that the latter served as his model. Indeed, Morton was unable to master the style, (witness his ineffectual attempt to recapture the atmosphere on Honky Tonk Music) affecting always to despise the limited imagination and technique of the drag blues and boogie woogie pianist. That he considered himself far removed from this standard is indicated by his letter to “Downbeat” in 1938:
“Butts was strictly blues (or what they call Boogie Woogie player), with no knowledge of music . . . Blues just wasn’t considered music — there were hundreds, maybe thousands who could pay blues and not another single tune.”
In his early days Morton undoubtedly learned from Tony Jackson though he must have closely rivalled him by the time Jackson moved to Chicago and, during the preceding year or two, enjoyed popularity in excess of any pianist other than Tony. Nor was public esteem quite the artistically worthless thing it has since become in the field of popular music. Although the majority of New Orleans citizens preferred sentimental songs there was a consistently large public for rags and stomps; Philistinism was not then as rife as now. Of a night resort known as ‘the Frenchman’s’ Jelly said: “It came on from four o’clock in the morning at a tremendous rate of speed. Of course when the great pianists used to leave then all the crowds would leave.” But it must be remembered that these events occurred after working hours, which in most houses lasted from about nine o’clock till four.
Like most star performers Jelly habitually visited one of the ‘big places’ to take a turn on piano before breakfasting and retiring to bed. One occasion caught Jackson and Morton together. Jelly occupied the piano stool and Jackson stayed on to hear him play. The latter’s refusal of an attractive invitation that morning suggested high regard for Jelly’s ability. “I’m bein’ entertained myself to-night,” he said.
Jackson left New Orleans in 1908, returned and made his final departure around 1912. In his absence Morton went to the top, earned a great deal of money, and spent it all. New compositions included Georgia Swing, New Orleans Blues, Alabama Bound and a dozen more.
In the winter of 1908-9 he entered the employ of Fred Barasso, theatre owner, as solo act on the number one circuit which comprised houses in Greenville, Vicksburg, Jackson and Memphis.
Arriving in Memphis Jelly made the rounds of the Beale and Main Street pleasure spots where, as in New Orleans river-front dives, entertainment was of the down to earth variety. Dockers and boatmen patronised these places[,] which consequently sacrificed appearance in favour of amusement at comparatively low cost. Their customers set great store by such prosaic diversions as ‘pig ankle night’ or the weekly ‘ham kick’.
Music was furnished by a pianist, piano-drums combination, or trio. Supreme among Memphis pianists of the day was Benny Frenchie whose reputation in that city must have matched Jackson’s standing in Storyville. The old Monarch saloon was where he held sway and Jelly gave this picture of it:
“Well, when Benny would show up, there would be a type of those low-class women, some of them that was a little better class; but they would have a way of dancing when he played. They would run right directly up to the wall with a kind of a little bit of a shuffle and clap their hands together and kick back their right leg. They all — ‘Oh, play it, Benny, play it.’ It never really had a name to it. It is just a little bit of a dance they did in Memphis. I had never seen it before or since — ‘Oh, play it, Mr. Frenchie, play it, Mr. Frenchie’.”
An impromptu contest took place between Morton and Frenchie one evening as a result of certain derisive comments of Jelly’s. (According to a report from Lowell Williams.3) Morton’s performance was so well received that Frenchie never spoke to him again.
During Morton’s stay in Memphis he met W. C. Handy, recently arrived from Kentucky. It has been claimed that Morton played in the Handy outfit but this seems improbable since neither musician has drawn attention to such an association. Besides, there could, never have been room enough in one band for the two of them. A possible explanation is that the episode was one neither of them cared to recall, but it is much more likely they met as rival bandleaders. The encounter appears to have engendered mutual dislike. Morton spoke of Handy’s craftsmanship in a manner downright derogatory.
To quote letters from both men: (to “Downbeat”, 1938) said Jelly: “Of course, Handy played mostly violin when I first arrived in Memphis. Violinists weren’t known to play anything illegitimate even in New Orleans.”
Handy wrote: “Yes, I remember when Jelly Roll played for Barrasso in Memphis on coloured what we call T.O.A.B. time. But we were too busy to take notice of his great musicianship.” Morton one night induced Handy’s musicians to listen to the visiting Freddie Keppard outfit with results the nature of which must remain conjectural. “Keppard came to Memphis on an excursion from New Orleans,” Jelly explained, “I had him and his band play the New Orleans Blues, one of my numbers. That was the first time Memphis heard blues by an orchestra.”
Jelly never remained long in one place. By 1910 or ’11 he was again on tour, with a road show styled McCabes (McCabe’s) Minstrels which reached St. Louis in 1911 or thereabouts, and as a solo act. The Minstrels included on its payroll the brothers Spikes from California who later won national repute as composers and publishers. Reb Spikes and Jelly formed a friendship[,] which endured until the latter’s death. It is learned from “The Jazz Record Book” that Jelly left the show in St. Louis, and visited the Democratic Club ‘where he showed his piano to George Randall (Reynolds), the regular men (man) there at the time.’
When Morton first reached Chicago is not easy to determine. References are contradictory; various writers assert that he arrived in 1908, that he was working the red-light circuit in 1910, that he hit the town as late as 1915. Certainly he was there in ’14 when he took a five-piece band into the Elite Café on 31st and State Streets. Before then he may have undertaken an extensive tour of the South-West for he recalls: “In 1912 I happened to be in Texas, and one of my fellow musicians (James Milles (Mules), trombonist, still in Houston), playing with me at that time brought me a number to play — Memphis Blues . . .”
Probably he made Chicago the following year where he renewed his friendship and rivalry with Tony Jackson. At first he relied on solo engagements, his orbit embracing the district around Dearborn and 22nd Street, but with recognition came the offer of jobs leading small bands in several clubs and restaurants besides the Elite. He appeared as a soloist at the Pompeii Café, Little Savoy, Boston Oyster House, Jim Colosimo’s, the Chateau, Bill Lewis’, and at a number of one-night jobs — according to Stearns. “A lot of times police were called out to hold back admiring listeners,” said Stearns.
In 1914 Chicago was visited by the Original Creole Band with Keppard on trumpet and Will Johnson, Jelly’s brother-in-law, on bass. The band scored a distinct success. Records are said to have been broken at the Grand Theatre. Jelly had this to say of their advent: “I happened to be there myself with a similar combination to that Freddie Keppard used to have. They (the Creole boys) turned the town upside down and caused my trumpet player to quit. He couldn’t play that kind of trumpet, and I had been teaching him a little bit. He was a little stubborn, and when Freddie played he wanted to hit him with a rack.”
Jelly’s remark about coaching the trumpeter was probably no exaggeration. He claimed some knowledge of brass instruments having played trombone himself at an unspecified period in his life. Moreover he is known to have imposed his ideas upon most of the musicians used on his records.
By the time the Creole Band resumed its eastern tour Jelly was holding a job as pianist at the Fairfax Hotel in Detroit. He made sundry excursions into contiguous states, returning always to Chicago[,] which served as his base until 1917. Aside from the piano and band-leading activities Jelly devoted himself to writing jazz arrangements of popular tunes and classical snatches. Fellow orchestrators of his Chicago days included Clarence Jones and Will Cook. The latter, with Harry Bernard, joined Morton in a singing act during his first year in Chicago, which trio played the halls for many months. Four years or so in one place — even with excursions — was enough for Jelly. From Chicago he moved west.
THE WEST COAST.
In California with Dink Johnson, the Creole Band’s former drummer, Jelly needed three men to complete a ‘dixie style’ group. He sent home for Buddy petit, Frank Dusen (Duson) and Wade Waley (Whaley), and their arrival was recalled by Morton twenty-three years later. (In “Jazz Information” magazine.)
Attired in the characteristic garb of the New Orleans musicians of that era, Waley (Whaley) had his clarinet in a back pocket; Petit’s cornet was in his suitcase, while Dusen’s (Duson’s) trombone fitted part into his suitcase, the remainder protruding from a paper bundle carried under one arm. Prepared for any contingency Dink and Jelly awaited them at Los Angeles station in a touring car and in their latter’s words “spirited them away so no one could see them in their tight pants and box back coats, and brought them to a tailor. They wanted to kill us for wanting them to change their outmoded clothing for the then modern clothes.”
Soon the band secured night club work. Despite the high wages the men were drawing, habit prevailed; a New Orleans custom resulting from low rates of pay was the bringing of food for musicians to cook on the job. “And that,” said Jelly, “is what they did in this elaborate night club. They cooked up red beans and rice in a bucket.”
Dink and Jelly scoffed at the offenders for ‘home cooking’ on a salary of seventy-five dollars plus tips whereupon Petit and Dusen (Duson) threw in the job and returned home. Jelly described Petit to Herman Rosenberg 4 (in 1940) as “one of the greatest hot cornets that ever lived, second only to Freddy Keppard. He had tremendous power, smoothness, a wealth of musical ideas, and was good in all registers. He was slow on reading, but if the tune was played off first he would pick up his part so fast no one knew he couldn’t read.”
Still in partnership with Dink, Jelly formed his ‘Black and Tanners’ — of whom Papa Mutt Carey spoke, referring to the Los Angeles band battles: “Once we played against the Black and Tan Orchestra, and they let the Black and Tans go at 10.30.” That was an incident Jelly never mentioned.
There was no dearth of engagements on the coast; one job they held — at the Grand Hotel, Southern California — required only three hours playing, five nights a week. Private bookings could be had on the nights off, at princely fees. Until the early twenties they remained in California, though long-distance tours were a regular feature of the summer months, by which time they had all had ample opportunity to amass nice sums of money. Johnson was reported to have possessed a racing car that cost him several thousand dollars. Most or all of the boys owned large tourers in which to carry themselves about the country.
Morton’s inability to retain more than a nominal sum can be attributed to his perennial longing for a successful ‘business’ career. Perhaps he coveted the social standing attached to business life as much as the economic possibilities. Whatever his motives, he sought entry to the ranks of the ‘promoting’ fraternity on every occasion when he found himself in possession of suitable capital. In California his endeavours came to nothing. He was reclaimed by jazz and set about accumulating another bankroll. Undaunted by previous failure he intended ‘going into business’ just as soon as the moment appeared to him propitious.
KANSAS CITY & ST. LOUIS.
During the fourth year of his stay on the West Coast Morton visited St. Louis where the steamer trips had got their firmest hold on public imagination. The boats offered well-paid jobs to dance bands. Very soon Jelly was an established favourite with riverboat crowds. Simms Campbell wrote: “Having been born in St. Louis and intensely interested in blues, I was on many a boat excursion that carried, these early Negro bands — and all of them never played any other type of music. Jelly Roll Morton from Kansas City had probably the greatest blues band.” And elsewhere, describing St. Louis Monday-night ‘specials’ which took place on old paddle-wheel steamers, Campbell said: “Drinking St. Louis corn, packed on the boat like cattle, bunny-hugging to the tunes of Jelly Roll Morton, some too ardent boy friend would cut in on another’s girl — then fireworks!”
So there is no doubting that Morton spent more than a few weeks between St. Louis and Kansas City; his band made a greater impression on Simms Campbell than any other group then playing on the boats. It is not known whether Morton brought the band with him or recruited local musicians. (In any case he possessed the ability to drill average men into a musical unit[,] which would satisfy even his discerning ear. An exacting employer, he was likely to discharge any who disputed his authority.) If indeed he relied on local men the group was soon disbanded, for he returned to California that winter.
Complete absence of data confounds the biographer at this stage of Morton’s career. Jelly’s mobility was at all times astonishing. In the early ‘twenties’ he excelled in that respect. The most precise information was gleaned from a letter of Simms Campbell wherein he wrote: “Jellyroll Morton was in St. Louis and Kansas City in ’21, ’22, ’23, and ’24. These are the dates I mean in my article. Many of these musicians would come to St. Louis and stay over the summer season working on the boats and picking up what money they could. During these same dates they could also be in Kansas City, Memphis and New Orleans, so I wouldn’t worry too much about tacking a date down.” There is evidence of Jelly’s presence in Los Angeles in 1922. When Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band arrived there from San Francisco early that year he asked Joe Oliver to bring the band into the Wayside Park for a night. Jelly probably sat in on piano. The Creole Band’s music sounded new and good even to Los Angeles[,] which could afford the best and latest. Los Angeles agreed it was ‘the greatest of them all’. Oliver was back in Chicago that summer and Morton followed him before the year’s end.
Morton remembered having returned to New Orleans sometime in the period 1920-24, because of illness at home. There is nothing to indicate the length of his visit, or exactly when it was made. Perhaps he went south from St. Louis during one of his summer engagements these (there). Again, it is not clear whether he left St. Louis after the 1922 season and made straight for Chicago, or took a circuitous route via the west coast. Ken Hulsizer, who knew him well, was of the opinion that Jelly most likely went to Chicago from St. Louis. What he gathered from Jelly’s conversation substantiates the view that Jelly made more than a brief appearance in St. Louis. He said that ‘Morton seemed to know St. Louis musicians and something about the town so he probably spent some time there. I would guess that this was just before he went to Chicago.’
The band business was in a healthy state when Jelly reappeared in Chicago. Prohibition had stimulated night life to the extent where leaders were compelled to send south for real jazz talent. Dozens of Jelly’s contemporaries from ‘down home’ were doing well in the Black Belt clubs and in some of the smarter restaurants too. Joe Oliver, for instance, was at the Royal Gardens with Louis in the band. Charlie Elgar had gone to the Green Mill Gardens after six years at the Dreamland Ballroom. Clarence Williams and Richard Jones were working consistently but Tony Jackson had recently died. Jelly told a friend many years later: “Tony died in Chicago about 1921 or 1922, probably from drinking too much.”
Little value attaches itself to these observations, though, for Morton insisted another time that Jackson was a man of moderate habits.
Assembling a group of satisfactory musicians Jelly entered the lists with a band[,] which must have played pretty good music. Zue Robertson — earliest publicized exponent of New Orleans trombone style — was one home-towner who teamed with Jelly in 1922. These regular men, with perhaps one alteration, assisted at Morton’s first band session the following year from which only two of the several titles made were released. These two have been described as ‘classic New Orleans jazz.’ Reviewing them, William Russell wrote: “London Blues is notable for a solo chorus in Zue’s ‘light staccato swing’ style, one of the first trombone solos ever recorded.”
Despite his unquestionable competence as musician and bandleader Jelly was not quite able to ‘click’ in Chicago. He landed no such big-money jobs as came to Oliver and later to Armstrong. The musicians knew he was good. Hines is said to have admired his playing (when the former came to Chicago in late ’23) and most of the men who made up the New Orleans Rhythm Kings hung around listening to him. He was friendly with Mares, Rappolo (Roppolo) and some of the others and possibly worked with them on odd dates, thus giving rise to rumours of his presence on their recordings. Significantly, they used at least four of his tunes on their sessions — London Blues, Wolverine, Milneburg Joys and Mr. Jelly Lord — all of which he had recorded by 1924. But still the public remained largely unaware of his accomplishments.
Earlier, Morton had recorded for the Rialto Music Shop, 330 South State Street, and journeyed to Richmond, Indiana, to make a number of sides for Harry Gennett’s Starr Piano Company. And much earlier than that he had cut piano rolls for Wurlitzer, American, and QRS.
When Chicago bookings fell off Jelly took the band on tour, coming back periodically to carry out local engagements and record dates. Zue Robertson had by this time left for King Oliver’s band; Morton could not remember his successor or, for that matter, the rest of the band. His guesses were unreliable even of record personnel, perhaps because his memory functioned more readily when re-savouring moments of greatness. At any rate he never forgot his session with ‘King Joe’ of whom he said: “You can’t find men like that to-day.” Which was true of Oliver as it would have been true of Morton, and most of the very few jazzmen extant.
The most important bands organised by Morton in Chicago — outside of studio groups — were the ‘Incomparables’ and ‘Red Hot Peppers’; both groups engaged on extensive touring activity. None of the ‘peppers’ appeared on records associated with that name, for Jelly carefully selected his recording bands none of whose members worked regularly for him.
Omer Simeon, the clarinettist, made a powerful impression on Morton when the classic Peppers session took place. Jelly wished him to stay on but Simeon refused. Nevertheless he participated in the majority of Morton’s records until well into 1928. Jelly has described him as the greatest clarinettist alive and an examination of his work on these records would reveal why. He fitted Jelly’s picture of the complete jazz clarinettist. His parts — from their sound — might have been Morton’s conceptions[,] as indeed many believe to have been the case. (One cannot listen to the solo clarinet passage in Doctor Jazz without discerning Morton’s hand in its construction.)
Of all Jelly Roll’s band-records those on which Simeon played were the most consistently fine; a propos of the clarinet trio, how few jazz recordings can stand against the enchanting Shreveport Stomp. Here, Simeon’s expressive presentation of the theme is enhanced by flawless accompaniment from piano and drums. Briefly then, the Morton-Simeon association must he considered a good and happy one by those who choose to deliberate on the important role played by jazz-partner ships in the production of this music.
Issued under the Red Hot Peppers name were Simeon’s first records — made while on holiday in Chicago. For the initial session Morton hired six remarkable jazzmen, the resultant performance being notable for quality of tunes and arrangements used, in addition to the high standard of musicianship that obtained. The band improvised along ‘traditional’ lines — disciplined by Jelly’s basic score and individual tunes — though it may observed that Mitchell, the cornet player, was not from New Orleans while Simeon encountered jazz in Chicago several years after his departure from the Crescent City.
Black Bottom Stomp and The Chant, from this session, have about them an exhilaration — a sheer drive which eighteen years of changeful fashion have done nothing to stale. Listeners must at once be impressed by the ardour of the execution. This intenseness is sustained through solo, break and ensemble passage so that even the banjo and piano solos in no way diminish tension. Rather are they delightful reminders of the ragtime origins of such music.
Referring to The Chant in one of his lectures, Rudi Blesh 5 attempted a delineation of classic jazz ensemble (as employed on that record)[,] which could hardly be improved on. Advancing the opinion that The Chant ‘is a well-nigh perfect example of pure New Orleans Style’ Blesh proceeded to analyse the performance. To quote:
“It contains a certain amount of head arrangement but is mainly improvisation of the most inspired sort; it combines ensemble passages with short solos. Note the beautiful instrumental balance, the way each instrument is distinctly itself but distinctly indispensable to the whole, the almost incredibly rhythmic complexities, out of which nevertheless comes not chaos but clarity and order in motion. Note the swing in every bar, and the irresistible rhythmic momentum which despite the moderate tempo flows through the record without let-down. Note finally that no matter how rapidly or how heatedly any of these Negro musicians is playing, he seems always relaxed; as the Negroes themselves express it. ‘He has room to move around.’ One never gets the impression — as one often does in white jazz playing — that, to borrow another Negro expression, ‘These folks is running to keep from falling on their faces’!”
The following week, and again three months later, this group revisited the studio though musicians were added for certain records. All sides reached a high standard, Doctor Jazz being perhaps outstanding. This record has special points of interest; first, Morton’s admirable singing; second, his employment of the break. Rudi Blesh stresses both in his review of The Chant:
“ . . . there follows a vocal chorus by Jelly Roll, a perfect one by Jazz standards, abounding with ‘dirty’ tone, very instrumental in feeling and concluding with two vocal breaks. Ensues a chorus opened by two concerted brass breaks alternating with clarinet and the chorus ends with possibly the most remarkable use of breaks on records: breaks alternating with breaks, piano, clarinet, banjo, trumpet and trombone. The concluding ensemble chorus follows, with the final cadence ushered in by four successive breaks; two by clarinet and two by piano.”
Of course the lavish use of breaks is not peculiar to that one Morton effort. Indeed the Black Bottom side presents nearly as satisfactory a field for study of the break[,] which Morton deemed indispensable to jazz. Said he: “Without breaks and without clean breaks and without beautiful ideas in breaks — you don’t need to even think about doing anything else if you can’t have a decent break — you haven’t got a jazz band or you can’t even play jazz.”
Outside the studios the normal Red Hot Peppers continued touring the country, covering long distances in two big cars and playing regular ‘proms’ at Notre Dame and Northwestern colleges. This would seem to indicate that Morton was leading fairly large bands on tour, a contention which is borne out by Ken Hulsizer’s remark: “I know that Jelly Roll worked out of Chicago with ten and twelve-piece bands during that time. A friend of mine heard him once in Iowa on a one-nighter sometime around 1927 or 1928.”
The band was being handled by the Ernie Young agency until Jules Stein, their previous manager, organised the M.C.A., when Jelly transferred to him and remained until 1928.
Morton’s tendency to retire from band-leading when finances permitted has already been remarked upon. In California he once decided to promote boxing matches — the venture being short-lived. Later he teamed with the brothers Spikes in a publishing business. Now one other thing inclined Jelly towards sedentary occupations — a fall off in band bookings. When this occurred in Chicago he commenced plugging songs for the Melrose Music Publishing Company[,] which put out many of his tunes, including an album styled ‘Jelly Roll Morton’s Blues and Stomps’. How Morton entered the firm was related by Lester Melrose, to a “Downbeat” reporter, shortly after Jelly’s death:
“When we first met Jelly Roll,” said Melrose, “he walked into our music store — it was in 1928 — wearing a cowboy hat and a big bandanna round his neck. He announced: ‘I am Jelly Roll Morton.’ He talked constantly for two hours and we didn’t get a word in edgewise. All of the monologue concerned how good he was and damned if he didn’t prove it, as he helped a great deal in pulling us out of the red.”
Elmer Schoebel and Mel Stitzel were both associated with Melrose Brothers at the same time Morton was. The fact that Morton recorded one of the latter’s tunes, The Chant, in 1926 may indicate that Melrose was mistaken in placing the date of his meeting with Jelly.
In the summer of 1927 Morton had made eight more sides for Victor and in January of the following year he recorded for Vocalion, presumably with his regular band this time since the musicians have remained unidentified. On the Vocalion date his piano playing was strangely unobtrusive intimating that for once he was reluctant to reveal his identity — no doubt for reasons relating to contracts. Appearing to bear this out was the label pseudonym of Levee Serenaders. However, any assumption of incognito is dramatically challenged by the vocalist’s avowal:
“Mr. Jelly Lord . . . his melodies have made him Lord of Ivory.” And Eugene Williams, jazz music’s foremost critic, observes of that record that ‘the rhythm section is complete and solid, with the offbeat accents which Jelly liked so much; and the ensemble, whether arranged or not, is characteristically Morton . . . On both sides the musicians — controlled, prompted and perhaps even instructed by Morton — play tasteful solos and relaxed, full ensembles. Characteristic melodies, rhythm, arrangement and breaks label the record as clearly as if each one were autographed by Mr. Jelly Lord himself.’
It was Jelly’s final Chicago session. By June he had taken a band east and that month he recorded for the first time in New York. Jelly had accepted an invitation, from the Orchestra Corporation of America, to form a band for the Alcazar ballroom — York, Pennsylvania. Unhappily, the engagement terminated a week after Jelly’s arrival[,] which meant he and the band were very unemployed and stranded in York, Pennsylvania. It can be assumed that Morton’s next act was to sever his relationship with the Orchestra Corporation of America after which he established himself in Harrisburg, with Gordon Kibbler in charge of bookings, and conducting operations from there launched the band on a programme of casual jobs and one-nighters which took it from one end of Pennsylvania to the other.
Almost certainly the reason Jelly worked out of New York was because he found it difficult to get engagements in town. But he spent part of the summer of 1928 playing in New York aside from his two visits to Victors. For the June recording session he employed a group of Harlem musicians but was happy to discover Omer Simeon, recently come in to join Luis Russell at the Nest, whom he booked for the session at once. Morton’s band was at the Rose Danceland where Simeon joined it for a week — the result of Jelly’s entreaties — after leaving Russell. Simeon affirms that this was his only job with Jelly outside the studios.
Among the musicians playing with Morton’s various outfits in and around New York was Joe Garland who was present on the December session at Victors. He recollected the time spent with Morton, and his account (printed in “Downbeat”) showed Jelly to have been well on the right side of bankruptcy at that period. “When I worked with him as a kid back in 1928,” said Garland, “Jelly Roll wore a big diamond, stick pin and always carried a thousand-dollar bill around on him. If you accused Jelly of being broke, he would flash that G-note and laugh in your face.”
For the greater part of 1929 the Morton band toured New Jersey. Four batches of records were made in July — one session solo, the remainder with an eleven-piece combination — at the company’s plant in Camden, N.J. But towards the close of the year, on the completion of a moderate run at the Roseland, Asbury Park, the band suffered a spell of unemployment[,] which brought them back to New York.
As a result of the Wall Street crash there were few jobs for musicians and so Jelly’s group disbanded. He never again led a band other than pick-up groups for temporary engagements and recordings. Clay Jefferson, the drummer, claims to have made records with Morton around ’28-’29. According to Ken Hulsizer, “Jefferson played at Joe Stavley’s (or Joe’s Stables) with Roy Banks (who played like Hines) and T. Joe Thomas (sax.) Jelly Roll played three doors away with a four-piece outfit that belonged to the sax man. So Jelly Roll wasn’t doing so good about this time.”
During 1930 he played ‘gigs’ whenever possible, in New York, Pennsylvania, and perhaps New Jersey. “Downbeat” reported that his existence was even then not without glory: “For example, one week after Ellington had played the Reading, Pa. Country Club, Jelly Roll carved the Duke’s attendance record by a large margin. They still remembered the Red Hot Peppers in Pennsylvania.”
But from his conversations with Morton, Hulsizer gained the impression that Jelly’s Victor recording contract was about all he had to sustain him in the east. His records sold well and he had five sessions in the year. The last, in October, ended his activities in that direction for nearly nine years.
“He may have been mixed up in several things in New York besides music,” said Hulsizer, “when his Victor contract ran out and there was no work for musicians (this would be during the financial panic). I asked him once why he didn’t get himself a band and play with it and make some more records. He hooted the idea. Evidently he had tried desperately to get another contract with Victor and had been turned down cold. You see somewhere during this time, R.C.A. took over Victor and they wanted only big sweet bands who plugged commercial tunes, tunes from R.K.O. pictures. Apparently they gave Morton a rapid brush-off when he tried to get recording dates there.
So what old Jelly Roll did I don’t know. Maybe he played in little joints in New York. Maybe he played for a while around Philadelphia. He may have had Union trouble. From his reticence on the subject, I suspect that he may have been mixed up in several things, none of them reputable, and maybe got in trouble with some of the gangs. I know he made records with Wilton Crawley somewhere in this time so he must have been in pretty dire straits.”
In the latter months of 1932 Morton invested such money as he possessed, and his records were still earning him reasonable sums, in yet another business venture — this time in cosmetics. Inevitably — it must have seemed — the enterprise failed, and with it Morton’s ambitions subsided for a space of two or three years. He contented himself with piano playing in the Harlem vicinage, assembling scratch-bands for occasional dates, deputizing for absentee pianists, and making infrequent appearances in trifling reviews.
Hope revived in 1935 when a scheme was mooted the purpose of which was the presentation of an American jazz band in the capital cities of the world. Morton was somehow in on the plan and prepared to convoke any given number of musicians. The figure mentioned for salaries and expenses was little short of fantastical but the project never matured. Disheartened by his series of reverses Jelly accepted an offer from Washington, D.C., making his way there in the winter of ’35-’36.
For the length of his stay in the capital Morton forsook the music profession in favour of night-club management, in partnership with a Mrs. Lyle. Doubt exists as to Jelly’s precise status at the club. “Downbeat” reported: “Back in ’37 Jelly had a half interest in a Washington nitery where the barrels were opened by Morton, bad actors bounced by Morton, show emceed by Morton, and the piano thumped by Morton.” But Hulsizer, who visited Jelly there, (his full account appears in this issue) holds other opinions. He wrote:
“I don’t think Jelly Roll worked there at all. He was just around there. At first he did a little piano playing and entertaining. Then they got a small local band to play and Jelly Roll didn’t play at all. I don’t think he ever worked there as a waiter or a porter, certainly not as a bouncer. He didn’t have the physique for the latter.
I am pretty sure he didn’t own the place. He would never have tolerated the other band in there if he did. He would have gotten himself a band had he been the owner. He just never acted like he owned the place. He acted exactly like a man whose mistress ran the place (perhaps for someone else).”
Subsequently published was an account of another visit to, the Jungle Club, other-times known as the Music Box and Blue Moon Night Club, by R. J. Carew in March, 1938. His story upholds Hulsizer’s observation, he says:
“Ferd never told me the whole story of how he happened to land in Washington, but among the papers[,] which he turned over to me[,] I found the following, apparently an idea for a song, which is rather interesting:
‘Got a letter from a friend called Young
from his letter I got terribly stung
he said come to Washington, D.C.
to manage a club for a woman do-ra-me
and said take the next train and leave
it was cold as hell and that I freeze
he met me at the train
in the snow and ice and rain
he said to me I know she will be please
we went in the place, and the oil stove
hit me in the face.’
I don’t doubt that, financially speaking, the Washington night club venture was unfortunate, both for Jelly Roll and the woman who went into the business with him.”
Jelly spent a fortnight in New York that summer. In the nature of a holiday he yet contrived to combine with it a little business, appearing at the Onyx Club as intermission pianist.
His visit was given no publicity; jazz critics made little, if any comment[,] while some collectors doubted if he had been in town at all. However, his presence at the Onyx on the Spirits of Rhythm’s night off is confirmed by Ralph Gleason — associate-editor of “Jazz Information” — who went down to see him that evening and finished up playing drums to Jelly’s piano. The rest of the customers, says Gleason, paid slight attention to Jelly Roll.
A little after this the Ripley affair took place from which Morton derived so much publicity. In a way Jelly was justified in striking out at the ‘great names’ of jazz — men who in several instances played not a note of jazz and who in a few cases were ignorant even of its true nature. Besides, he saw a chance to gain himself tremendous free advertisement.
Ripley introduced W. C. Handy on his ‘Believe it or not’ programme as the originator of jazz, stomps and blues. This, naturally, was too much for Morton who challenged the statement. More, he wrote refutations to (one suspects) all the Negro newspapers and lily-white dance band journals likely to interest themselves in the controversy. Two of his articles appeared, under such headings as ‘W. C. Handy is a Liar!’ and ‘I Created Jazz in 1902, Not W. C. Handy.’, one in the “Baltimore Afro-American”, the other in “Down Beat” of August and September, 1938. He attacked Handy’s claims using the argument that one unable to play, Jazz was unlikely to have originated it. To quote the “Down Beat” letter: “Mr. Handy cannot prove that he has created any music. He has possibly taken advantage of some unprotected material that sometimes floats around. I would like to know how a person could be an originator of anything without being able to do at least some of what they created.”
Morton signed himself ‘World’s greatest Hot Tune writer.’ His claim to the title is indisputable. Of the hundred and a quarter tunes listed in the discography all but a dozen or so are his. Anyone knowing them will vouch for their worthiness and, for the most part, true jazz character. Certain piano (and vocal) solos stem from classical sources, in formal content though not in manner; others again are based on a Spanish dance tune. But through all runs a streak of originality. And Morton never allowed Spanish or academic influences to enter his stomps and destroy their unique Negro quality.
The publicity attending the Ripley incident was what Jelly Roll had long stood in need of. A series of interviews with Alan Lomax of Congress Library resulted from it, leading eventually to the historical recordings that Morton made for the Archive of Folk Song. Then, towards the close of the year, Victor re-issued sixteen sides of Jelly Roll music on their Bluebird label, though whether prompted by the publicity of Mr. Panassié it would be hard to say. At any rate, the French critic commented on these and other re-issued records in a booklet put out by the company in which he wrote:
“There are many beautiful passages in these records, but their greatest charm lies in Jelly Roll Morton’s music itself. Such tunes as The Pearls, Original Jelly Roll Blues, Shoe Shiners’ Blues (Drag) and Boogaboo are all outstanding compositions.”
Jelly again visited New York in December. Panassié heard him play. Already impressed by Morton’s records, Panassié became even more enthusiastic. Back in France he wrote in his magazine, “Hot Jazz”: “I had the great luck to meet Jelly Roll Morton when he came to New York. Everyone has been very unfair to him, and I feel ashamed myself for having failed to give him the place he deserves in my book. Unfortunately, I knew on one or two of his records at that time and had no idea of his importance in relation to jazz music . . . I’ll try to make up for the prejudice against him of the critics up till now.” And in his second book, “The Real Jazz”, Panassié granted Morton a place in the sun.
With the Bluebird re-issues selling strongly Morton’s name came more often before the jazz public. Finding it necessary to drive up to New York with increasing frequency Jelly decided to transfer his ménage there. Soon afterwards he was approached by the Victor Company who intended making recordings of New Orleans style jazz and who invited Morton to lead a band of ‘old-time’ jazzmen. This attempt at re-creating classic jazz was inspired by Steve Smith of the Hot Record Society who chose the musicians and selected material from Jelly’s extensive repertoire of fine traditionals and Jelly Roll originals. Two sessions were held; on the whole both were successful in recalling the best days of jazz, although nothing from the date could stand alongside the classic jazz recordings. But good tunes — very good tunes — allied to musicians who knew jazz and how to play it, resulted in six records being made which demonstrated the possibilities of collective improvisation existent in New York City in September of 1939.
Feeling himself back in harness Morton embarked on a programme of self-advertisement. Discarding life-long habits of dress he flaunted new and ostentatious attire before the Harlem public. His conversation, even his big car, was in keeping with his apparel. However, friends insist he still dressed quietly when at home — and as expensively as he had always done, which implies he possessed fifteen or twenty overcoats as Richard Jones remembered he ‘always had in his more affluent days, though he would often shoot crap and lose them all.’
Following the recording date at Victors came a session for the General Record Company, a firm whose output was restricted to ‘special interest’ albums, at which Morton made a dozen sides of elegant music typical of the Storyville era. Entitled ‘Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans Memories’ the album made its appearance early in 1940 with a companion booklet written by Charles Edward Smith. Smith concerned himself with the production of these excellent records from the beginning, though the idea germinated from a suggestion of Alan Lomax’s. The tunes had already been recorded for Lomax but Morton took exceptional pains with the General versions and, flavoured by brilliant recording, produced a selection which must rank with America’s highest contribution to the world’s folk-store. Ten sides were issued, all piano solos — some with vocals, on which Morton played and sang superbly. Mamie’s Blues has been has been mentioned. A slow tempo piece with Yancey-ish bass figure, it transcends everything of corresponding mood; its aura of intimacy is complete.
Winin’ Boy, a corruption of ‘winding boy’ and originally perhaps of ‘winding ball’, is a title that reverts to Morton’s Storyville days when he was thus known. Despite the obvious link between the ‘winding’ and ‘staving chain’ in the lyrics — possible inference that the legendary pianist, Stavin’ Chain, was also nicknamed Winin’ Boy — it is supposed that Morton acquired the title from his habit of twisting the piano stool, when he played fast exhibition pieces, and moving his hands in complex fashion and with arms crossed up and down the keyboard.
The General version of this tune — best of the three — is a triumph of restraint. Jelly plays slow blues (with no trace of honky tonk atmosphere), sings some verses, and even hums a few measures. Whether playing, singing or humming his timing is perfect.
King Porter Stomp is very much like the solo he recorded fifteen years earlier but it has less fire than that version. Original Rags, Mister Joe, and The Naked Dance are three more examples of ragtime taken each at a different tempo. Mister Joe has an extremely pleasant theme; The Naked Dance is played fast but tends to grow monotonous, while Original Rags typifies the ‘correct’ ragtime tempo. One tango, The Crave, and two vocal blues complete the album with the exception of Don’t You Leave me Here[,] which in its way is outstanding for Morton’s work. (Sounding in places quite Hines-like in its vehemence.)
Morton paid further visits to the General studios on Broadway to record, with a band, a miscellany of songs dating from 1900 and earlier. The collection — styled ‘Tavern Tunes’ — embraced a deal of historically interesting material but as jazz the records fail to satisfy. Despite Morton’s efforts to infuse vigour into the performances, to invest them with his personal earnestness, there remains little to commend in these un-lusty executions. On his own Jelly might have made much of the tunes. But this band lacked integration, the standard of musicianship being adequate only. Why Morton chose certain of the men can be pondered; perhaps they were capable of finer things, or came from New Orleans; perhaps he just owed them money. In any event their records are the poorest of Morton’s total output.
For a while Jelly enjoyed a gleam of publicity. He re-embarked on a succession of one-night engagements using such Harlem musicians as were available. When band dates were wanting there was often a place for him in one of the numerous inns[,] which favoured a piano interlude. That summer, too, saw his inclusion in the radio series, ‘Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street,’ when he was invited to perform a Jelly Roll original in the inimitable Morton fashion. And his presentation was indeed unique, for undaunted by the protests of fellow artists and officials he insisted upon completing his improvisations though it entailed overlapping the time allotted to the rest of the show. Resulting from this act of consummation was the omission of Dinah Shore’s song of the week — veritably a triumph for the forces of righteousness.
There was a broadcast prior to that, on which Morton laid claim to the credit for having put jazz on the map. He featured in the programme ‘We, the People’, talking and playing Tiger Rag. “Man, I discovered jazz!” said Jelly over a national network.
Afterwards he embroidered the statement so that none might slip his net. When Hot Lips Page, rehearsing a new band, told Morton they played Kansas City style the indignant report was: “Kansas City style, Chicago style, New Orleans style — hell, they’re all Jelly Roll style.”
Jelly felt injured at the thought of bandleaders making fortunes out of a bogus variety of jazz when he, who could create and execute so well the authentic stuff, had to content himself with a modest reward. Publishers, too, incurred his displeasure. He suspected them of plagiarism, in fact he sued several for theft of his material. The Melrose Brothers were among them, the suit being withdrawn without settlement made. Said Jelly: “I’ve been robbed of three million dollars all told. Everyone to-day is playing my stuff and I don’t even get credit.”
During September, 1940, George Hoefer of “Downbeat” visited New York. One of his impressions of the trip was ‘an afternoon journey to Harlem to catch Jelly Roll Morton alighting from his shiny Cadillac, garbed in summer sports costume. Mr. Jelly Lord is on a law kick and all wrapped up in cases.’ Morton told Hoefer: “I am a busy man now and I have to spend most of my time dealing with attorneys, but I am not too busy to get around and hear jazz that I myself introduced twenty-five years ago, before most of the kids was even born. All this jazz to-day is my own stuff and if I had been paid rightly for my work I would now have three million dollars more than I have now.”
Jelly’s big action-at-law was dismissed for lack of evidence. But he felt convinced he would have “whipped ’em to pieces” had he but presented his own case.
Until the end of the year Morton remained in New York though his professional appearances were sporadic. It is unlike his activities were confined to the music business for ill-health had diminished his energy yet he contrived to earn a fair living. Once again Alan Lomax recorded him for the Folksong Archives. Speaking of the occasion to Onah Spencer (“Downbeat” reporter) in January, 1941, Lomax said: “I recorded Jelly Roll Morton last week for purely folk musical purposes for the Library of Congress archives and it was the damndest thing you ever heard. One hour and a half of continual monologue and musical flashes. He would shout: ‘I am the great Jelly Roll Morton’ (and intersperse a little piano music): then he would holler ‘I invented jazz, yes I did. I did that,’ and the record is really something to hear.”
Early in ’41 Morton decided on a move to Los Angeles whereupon his ménage was transferred, by the shiny Cadillac, to the California coast where he had enjoyed his most successful years. It had been his intention to retire from the dance-band trade and concentrate on writing songs. Probably he visualised a publishing house with his friend Reb Spikes but illness prevented him accomplishing these designs. An attack of asthma weakened an already overstrained heart and necessitated his remaining in bed where his condition was aggravated by a variety of personal worries ranging from union trouble to financial embarrassment. The A.F.M., it seems, wanted forty-five dollars from Morton[,] which he was not prepared, and in no position, to part with.
Eventually, his plight was made known through the columns of “Downbeat” April 1st, 1941, resulting in numerous offers of assistance. None was accepted however, for Jelly emphasised his ability to support himself and reassured friends that the A.F.M. claim had been met, but with extreme reluctance: “I was just too sick to fight it,” he said. He appreciated offers of help but insisted he was not in need. “I’m feeling better now and will be back in shape soon. I’ve had plenty of trouble all right, but I’m not licked.”
Despite the defiant assertions, Morton knew things were bad. Apparently he had been ill for a long time. (R. J. Carew, who met him in March ’38, said Jelly gave him the impression of a tired man who was really sick then). Years of illness unchecked by treatment seriously affected his heart. His condition deteriorated rapidly so that in June he consented to enter a private sanatorium in Los Angeles. After a few weeks he left, returning to his home on East 32nd Street, although still very far from recovered.
Unable to work, destitute of savings, Morton’s circumstances were unenviable. Friends he had in abundance willing to help but themselves impoverished by age and modern trends in music. Reb Spikes, of course, was with him and Dink Johnson, Mutt Carey, Frank Withers, and Kid Ory. Dave Stuart of the Jazz Man Record Shop in Hollywood was another of Jelly’s friends who was active in his interest.
Morton showed no sign of improvement; his condition, early in July, had become critical and he made efforts to arrange his affairs at home and in New York satisfactorily. “Downbeat” reported in its issue of July 15th that ‘the old-time Negro blues pianist was definitely in need of financial assistance.’ By the time the issue reached print Jelly Roll was dead.
He died on July 10th, at the Los Angeles County Hospital. From all accounts his funeral was a pretty impressive affair attended by a hundred and a half coloured people and a white, Dave Stuart. The ceremony was held at St. Patrick’s Church and conducted with Catholic fervour. Morton’s wife and sisters and all his Los Angeles friends were there, including the entire personnel of Ory’s Sunshine Band, the first coloured band from New Orleans ever to make records.
“Downbeat” commented at the time: “Notably absent from the funeral . . . were two of the most successful Negro bandleaders of the day, Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford. Ellington is appearing at the Mayan Theatre here (L.A.) and Lunceford at the Casa Manana.” The report continued: “Reb Spikes, Jelly’s old song-writing partner, didn’t have a car and almost didn’t get to the cemetery. Dave Stuart saw that Reb was about to get left behind and took him out in his car. ‘Sure appreciate[d] that’, said Reb. ‘Wanted to go as far as I could with Jelly’.”
Immediate financial difficulties of Morton’s dependents were taken care of by union benefits from his A.F.M. local, New York’s 802, and Local 767 in Los Angeles. Subsequent problems were not so easily solved. The sisters disappeared as abruptly as they had come, while Mrs. Morton found it impossible to establish legally her right to such of Jelly’s assets as could be realised. Money came in from songs and records and it has accumulated during the years since his death.
The exact position to-day is not known but the following notice — in “The Music Dial”, August, 1943 — disclosed that Mrs. Morton’s claims had not been met by that date. Nor had the sisters been located.
“A large sum of money awaits the rightful heirs of Jelly Roll Morton, pianist-composer who died a few years ago in California. According to Eli H. Oberstein, the noted composer of the Wolverine Blues and many other hits left a wife who is unable to prove her legal status with the courts. Anyone knowing the whereabouts of relatives of the distinguished artist should communicate with Mr. Oberstein of the Classic Recording Co., 2, W. 48th St., New York City.”
Early in ’43 Dave Stuart issued four of Jelly’s solos on his Jazz Man label. (All four were Lomax’s sides.) The version of Winin’ Boy lacks the subtlety of touch and timing which graced the General record. But it is different and interesting. Honky Tonk Music points the distinction between honky tonk and barrelhouse music. Creepy Feeling and Finger Buster are both brothel pieces, the first a Spanish-sounding theme which like The Crave is based on habanera rhythm; the second a lusty show piece for Jelly to exhibit every trick at his command: probably the type of thing he described to Lomax as ‘one of Tony Jackson’s fast speed tunes.’ Despite indifferent recording they form a valuable addition to the Morton discography.
As to Morton’s personal attributes: he was in conversation something of a ‘character’, given to utterances that contrasted markedly with the mutual back-slapping so prevalent among big-timers. True he was motivated partly by envy but a spirit of conformity might have advanced his interests further. Of Paul Whiteman he said: “claimed to be ‘King of Jazz’ for years with no actual knowledge of it.” Of W. C. Handy: “get some of his records then get some of mine. Then draw your own conclusions.” Sometimes Jelly seemed pre-occupied with a musician’s personality rather than his talents; reminded of Wingy Mannone whom he met in Washington, Morton could only say: “He was a most pee-culiar man.”
In appearance Jelly was slim, light coloured, always youthful. One of his front teeth held a diamond[,] which gave the impression of a gap when he was photographed smiling. In the Chicago days a total abstainer, he was at all times moderate in his habits. As Joe Garland summed up:
“Morton was a time man. He was always on time and was a stickler for discipline. During the nine months I was with him I never saw him drink or smoke. He was an egotist but he could deliver and back up most of his statements. Jelly was a really swell fellow against whose sincerity nobody could truthfully say one word.” As a musician Jelly has been, with Hines, the most benign influence on piano jazz. And his talents were never confined to musicianship, judging from his claim to have originated wire brushes for drummers, (“I produced the fly swatter.”) and to have excelled in the role of ‘first clown director, with witty sayings and flashily dressed, now called master of ceremonies.’
Indeed his powers of definition hint at literary potentiality and it is unlucky he omitted to compile an autobiography more substantial than that which at present reposes in Congress Library. However, the forethought of Lomax and his merry men has atoned in part for this oversight, besides providing an invaluable permanent record of musical trends of the New Orleans of 1900 and before.
NOTE TO ENTHUSIASTS: (from a letter of Sept, ’43, received from the Assistant in Charge, Archive of American Folk Song.) “I regret that we have no transcriptions of the text of Jelly Roll Morton’s monologues. The records themselves are restricted from duplication until we can arrange for their release by the Estate of Jelly Roll Morton.”
1 M. W. Stearns, “History of Swing Music”, Downbeat, Dec. ’37, Jan./Feb (March ’38).
2 R. J. Carew, “New Orleans Recollections”, The Record Changer, ’43.
3 Lowell Williams, critic who interviewed Morton in Washington.
4 Herman Rosenburg, collaborated with Gene Williams on a number of pieces in Jazz Information.
5 Rudi Blesh, “This is Jazz”, a series of lectures at San Francisco.
Acknowledgements to the above, also to:—
Jazzmen, and The Jazz Record Book, by Charles Edward Smith and Frederick Ramsey.
Introduction to Morton’s New Orleans Memories, Charles E. Smith.
Downbeat, Aug. 1st ’41. Articles by Onah Spencer and George Hoefer.
Jazz Information, March, ’40. Zue Robertson by W. Russell. Also July/Sept. ’40.
Thanks are due to Ken Hulsizer, E. Simms Campbell, and Ralph Gleason who assisted with data, and to Jeff Aldam, Stanley Dance and Charles Fox for freedom of their files.
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Note: This full-scale article was first published in the British Jazz Music magazine, dated February—March 1944, Vol. II, Nos. 6 & 7 (issues 16/17), pages 86—101. The editors of this rare WWII magazine were Albert McCarthy and Max Jones.