Of This and That and Jelly Roll
by Roy Carew
“. . . come up with something more accurately descriptive.” (Stanley Dance)
The Jazz Journal always contains interesting and thought provoking articles, and always I admire the facility with which the regular contributors cover the jazz scene, both as to music and musicians. The May issue is no exception, and some items have caused the cog-wheels of my thought, very slow of late, to move a little faster. In Lightly and Politely, Mr. Stanley Dance notes the inadequacy of the words “main-stream” or “modern” as designations for certain styles of music. I am very ignorant in regard to late styles in music, but I agree with Mr. Dance; there does seem to be need for more accuracy in nomenclature in the art. I have not given much thought to the subject, but from what I hear now and then on radio and television, I do get certain impressions. For instance, some time ago a radio disc jockey interviewing a “modern” musician, asked how a certain “hit” recording of the previous year was doing. “Oh, that,” replied the modern, “Why, we have made so much progress since then, we never even think of it.” I don’t recall the name of the disc, but I have wondered at the value of such music — a “hit” one year and forgotten the next. On the basis of what I heard on the radio, I wonder if the terms “transient” or “temporary” might not be appropriate for such music. Ferd Morton had more pride in his work than that, and never would have deserted one of his compositions so quickly. Finding the name “Honey Babe” in a list of his compositions, I asked him what kind of a number it was and how it went. He had to confess he had forgotten it, and then, as an afterthought, he said “. . . but I think it is a pretty good tune.” Another time, when I told him he should be exploiting some tunes before they got out of date, be replied “Good music doesn’t get out of date,” and referring to them later he said “When I get started the tunes will blossom like a rose.”
On page six of the May issue is a picture of the Happy Wanderers Street band, playing a type of good music that has endured over a half a century to my personal knowledge. When I heard them coming along Half Moon Street a few years ago, I pinched myself to see if I was back in New Orleans.
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“. . . What makes jazz is a certain flavour, an accent . . .” (Hugues Panassié)
In the February issue I was pleased to see Mr. Hugues Panassié’s article Jazz, Dancing and Bop. I agree fully that jazz is good dance and listening music, as well as good parade music. I know as little about bop as I do about modern music, but I believe Mr. Panassié is on firm ground when he asks for honesty in calling styles of music by their right names. I was also pleased by his reference to Jelly Roll’s statement that jazz is a style of playing which can be performed if one has the knowledge. Morton was seldom at a loss for words to express his views, and I have something of his bearing on this point. To a suggestion (not from me) that the “Maple Leaf Rag” would not be appropriate for jazz treatment, Jelly wrote “I differ with you that the old time tunes such as ‘Maple Leaf’ would sound out of place. You see jazz is applied to the tune, and the quality must be in the operator, and therefore you have the most effective jazz tune in the oldest kind of tune. On the other hand, pick the latest and hottest jazz number and give it to Toscanini to play and see what you get. You’d get a corn field bearing triple fold, ‘why’ because that kind of ability isn’t there.” There’s no record of Toscanini conducting a hot jazz number, but the “Maple Leaf Rag” is still going strong in ragtime and jazz circles nearly sixty years after publication. Joplin’s music stands the test of time.
Morton’s truism that jazz is a style and is applied to the tune, fits in with his statement that one should always keep the tune going some kind of way, and as he stated, an old tune might be very effective. A jazz rendition of a good familiar tune gives the added pleasure of reminiscence; it is an old friend with adornment. In my early days in New Orleans, starting with 1904, most of the jazz tunes were familiar popular tunes, and in this connection it pleases me to quote from a letter to Jazz Journal (Dec. 1953) by Joseph E. Mares, Senior, then nearly eighty years old, in which he stated:
“It was at this period around 1885 that the Negro element formed ‘combos’ to use their expression, consisting of clarinet, cornet, trombone and bull-fiddle. These ‘combos’ played for dances and picnics; jazzing up popular tunes of the day . . .”
Those who think jazz started in Storyville should ponder Mr. Mares’ statement that the combos were formed around 1885, and they played for dances and picnics. Storyville was not established until 1897, twelve years later.
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“Tin Pan Alley — Any place a song writer and a piano player get together.” (Eddie Cantor)
Mr. Mares’ phrase “popular music of the day” is also worthy of note. In my day the popular tunes were Tin Pan Alley tunes. In late years references in jazz writings to Tin Pan Alley tunes have been scornful in the extreme, and, regrettably, a great deal of the present day output does invite disdain. However, conditions were different in the early days of this century. Try to imagine those times when there was no television, no radio, very few phonographs, and a very limited selection of more or less sedate records. Home life would have been pretty dull without a piano or parlour organ and popular sheet music. Ferd Morton had no particular scorn for Tin Pan Alley music as such; he judged the musical value of the tune. Books have been written about Tin Pan Alley, and there is much of interest in its history. It is enough, to say here that it reflected the popular musical tastes of the people and its music was sung and played across the land, except in the most inaccessible places. It was natural for early New Orleans jazz outfits to play popular tunes, for that was the music people wanted to hear and to dance to; they were merely being up-to-date. Tin Pan Alley writers came from all parts of the country and from every class of society, and though many had but little ability, many were extremely talented in music of all types, and their compositions have real merit. Many Tin Pan Alley tunes became jazz favourites, such as “Bill Bailey,” “Panama,” “High Society,” “Ballin’ The Jack,” and many others. Jazz characteristics, such as the break, walking bass, the Habanera rhythm or Spanish bass, appeared in popular sheet music very early. The break was a part of a buck and wing dance, and the music for it often had the same feature. Walking bass was used by Artie Matthews in his “Passtime (Pastime) Rag No. 1” (1913), and in his “Weary Blues” (1915), but in “That Peculiar Rag” (1910), a Tin Pan Alley song by Erdman and Fagan, there are several bars of walking bass. As to the Spanish bass, Habanera or tango rhythm, it appeared in the United States at least as early as the 1870’s in Carmen and La Paloma, and was used frequently in popular music from then on. Its use in an advanced form in “The Charleston” in 1923 has received much comment, but that form was used in a popular song of 1908, “You’re in the Right Church But the Wrong Pew,” written by Cecil Mack and Chris Smith. Fifteen years later Cecil Mack collaborated with Jimmie Johnson to write “The Charleston.” Incidentally, Louis Chauvin used almost the same form in a popular song “Babe It’s Too Long Off” (1906), and Chauvin and Joplin used it in their “Heliotrope Bouquet,” published in 1907. Wm. H. Tyres (Tyers) used the same form in “Panama” (1911), mentioned above, and was thoroughly familiar with Spanish bass, having used it in “Trocha,” “A Cuban Dance” in 1897, the treble being syncopated.
It is interesting to note that the tune of the barroom ballad “Frankie and Johnnie” appeared in a popular song of 1904. “He Done Me Wrong,” written by Hughie Cannon, the white “black-face” comedian who wrote “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home.” It was a sort of sequel to “Bill Bailey” and deals with his death. The words bear no resemblance to “Frankie and Johnnie” except the line “He done me wrong”. In 1908 the Leighton Brothers wrote “Bill You Done Me Wrong,” similar to Cannon’s song, but using the words “He was my man, but he done me wrong.” In 1912 the Leighton Brothers and Ren Shields collaborated on a fairly authentic version of “Frankie and Johnny” that could be presented to the public. For those who think that “folk music” is better than Tin Pan Alley music, there is a folk music version of the tune in “My Baby In A Guinea Blue Gown” in R. Emmet Kennedy’s book “Mellows.”
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“The average Londoner would rather take a whiskey and soda than take dope.” (Sir Ronald Howe — Sunday Times)
This remark carries me back to 1904 and 1905 in Gretna, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, where I was factory clerk at the New Orleans Acid and Fertilizer Company. From Hylas, the office boy at the plant, I got my first impressions of the blues. He had a choice assortment of fragments that be sang, some of which would not bear repeating. One of the better bits was the following:
Why don’t you be like me?
Why don’t you be like me?
Just drink good whiskey boy,
And let the cocaine be.
The melody wasn’t much and bore a similarity to “Alabama Bound”, to which Jelly Roll laid some claim, stating that the tune was picked up from him. As with “Frankie and Johnnie”, the tune was very simple, and its value is apparent only when performed by someone like Morton. There were other bits that Hylas sang, some of which were later expanded and published in sheet music form, such as:
“He may be your man, but he comes to see me once in a while.”
“If you don’t want me, send me to my ma,
If she don’t want me, send me to my pa,
If he don’t want me, throw me in the sea
For the fishes and crabs to make a fuss over me.”
“Oh my honey baby she can cook and stew,
She’s a good doing baby through and through,
But she’s got low down ways.”
There must have been considerable folk music in that area, but the only person to collect it systematically was R. Emmet Kennedy, who compiled and published two books, Mellows and More Mellows.
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“The . . . panic of 1907 . . . the severest financial disturbance the country ever had . . .” (Carter Glass, former Secy. of the Treas.)
Several years ago I felt impelled, for the sake of the record, to write that. when Jelly Roll made his claim “I created jazz in 1902,” he meant piano jazz. This seemed to me to be obvious, since Morton stated that, in creating the style, he was doing it to be able to complete with his fellow piano players. Still, there are always those who doubt, and it is always pleasing to get corroborating evidence from outside sources, and the words of President Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury recalled a time I remember very well. The panic of 1907, which occurred when I was cashier at a New Orleans cigar factory, was to quite an extent a currency shortage panic. Paper money became so scarce that the local Clearing House had to issue “Clearing House Certificates” in various amounts to supply the deficiency. When I drew money from the bank for the factory payroll, a considerable portion of the amount would be in such certificates, and I had to spread them among the pay envelopes, along with the United States currency. I well remember the strong protests of the employees that their grocers, bakers, butchers, etc., didn’t want to take “those things for money.” Jelly Roll remembered the hard times of the depression and on page 123 of Alan Lomax’s Mister Jelly Roll (U. S. Edition), he quotes Morton as saying, “There was a big slump in business, they were handing around drafts that were supposed to be as good as a dollar but weren’t . . . It seemed tough at the time, but, looking back now, I know a depression was a good break for me, because I learned the band business.” So when Jelly said “I created jazz in 1902,” he meant piano jazz; by his own statement, he didn’t learn the band business until 1907. When he bad to learn the band business, he really learned it, and by the time he began to make recordings, he could compose, arrange, play piano and direct, all in a highly competent manner.
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“. . . I created a style, and most pianists were using it . . . I had created something that everybody else was using . . .” (Who said that?)
No one will deny that Ferd Morton was an egotist. He was intensely proud of New Orleans, of its music and musicians, and of the part he had played in the development and spread of the music. He was highly conceited, in which he differed from a great many other performers, actors, etc., only in degree. It was seldom that he boasted to me, I had lived in New Orleans from 1904 to 1919, and he knew there was no necessity to extol New Orleans, its music or musicians to me. Much of his boasting was the result of “needling” by some who thought it smart to make misstatements about jazz, merely to enjoy his reaction. Ferd would deny such canards vehemently and say “Was you there? I was there at the time, and I know.” He didn’t mind being kidded by someone who, he felt, was familiar with the facts. He laughingly told me one time that, after the Handy incident, he chanced to meet Wilber C. Sweatman. composer of “Down Home Rag,” who greeted him with, “What do you mean by claiming you invented jazz in New Orleans? Don’t you know that I originated jazz in the Ozarks of Missouri?” After getting back to New York in 1938, Morton got what publicity he could, and made guest appearances here and there. One night he visited a place featuring boogie woogie artists; he was introduced, and favoured the audience by playing a couple of numbers. Meeting Mr. Lomax a little later, Jelly told him of the visit, saying his music was well received by the patrons. “Did you hold your own with those boogie players?” asked Mr. Lomax. “Of course I did,” replied Ferd. “Why shouldn’t I hold my own with fellows who only know one tune?”
Of course Morton boasted. He had something to boast about, and it is interesting to note that, in the sixteen years since his death, his prestige has grown steadily . . . without the aid of press agents. He wasn’t the only pianist to boast. And incidentally, that statement at the head of this section was not made by Morton, but by another fine pianist, and I never saw where he was called an egotist.
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“. . . the thrill of driving the Cadillac formerly owned by Jelly Roll Morton.” (Floyd Levin)
There is no doubt that, when Ferdinand Joseph Morton was in the money, he was a real highflyer; he liked expensive clothes, diamonds and big automobiles. While in Washington, although in straitened circumstances, he had his good clothes, carefully preserved from better times; he still had the diamond in his front tooth, and had a big Packard automobile — old and a bit dilapidated to be sure, but big certainly. Whenever I went down to the Music Box to see Jelly, I would usually glance at the cars parked in the streets nearby, and if I saw the Packard taking up extra space along the curb, I could be pretty sure that he was either at the club or at home, just around the corner on Twelfth Street. One day in September 1938, he telephoned me at my office, and asked me to meet him at a spot nearby, where he said he would be waiting in his car. So I knocked off for the day and went out to meet Jelly, and found him, not in the Packard, but in a big old Cadillac. He was enthusiastic about the car, and said, “Just think, this car only cost me $50.00, a real bargain!” I told him it looked like a good buy at the price, but personally I could get along with something smaller. He said Mr. Lomax thought it was a great car, and got a kick out of driving it. He suggested that I try it out, so we got away from the centre of the city, I took the wheel, and the car rumbled along for several blocks under my guidance. Ferd kept repeating what a good buy the car was at $50.00.
His real reason for seeing me that day was to try to interest me in the Inter-Racial Production Corporation, a talent promotion scheme he was trying to organise. Fortunately for me, I was unable to take any part in the venture, which was a complete failure, as were most of his efforts to better himself. As the end of the year approached it was clear that further effort in Washington would be fruitless, and it was decided that he should go back to New York and see what could be done there. A move to New York also fitted in with his activities as staff writer for Tempo-Music Publishing Company, which was operating from a New York address, and he could rely on some remuneration from that. So at Christmas time he and Mabel loaded their few belongings into the Cadillac, and it carried them to New York through a freezing rain that coated the road with ice a good part of the way.
Morton’s fortunes were but little bettered by the move to New York, although he made every effort to get re-established in the musical picture. His talents were more than ample, but when it came to finances and health, there was a sad deficiency. From the time the Cadillac carried them to a Harlem address, he kept me informed of conditions — a telegram told of his arrival, and letters told of efforts to organise a band, lack of money being a big drawback in that respect. I likewise found out that money was needed in a quarter I had not expected, because, early in January, 1939, I received a letter in which, among other things, he wrote, “I guess I’ll have to ask you another favour since I haven’t gone to work yet, and I am sure I will be able to pay you off soon the way it looks. Monday, Jan. 16th the bill on the auto is due $12.00 (twelve dollars) if you can, you could maybe mail them a check for it, for Ferd Morton . . .” As it worked out, Ferd was right when he said the Cadillac was a “real bargain”; he had traded in the Packard and maybe made one payment. I paid the final payments and sent him the title to the car.
When Morton finally was forced to give up hope in New York, he decided to go back to California where he had enjoyed good health and made some money. He had another big car in storage in New York, a Lincoln I believe, and he tied the two together, loaded in what belongings he could, and headed for the setting sun. From California he wrote, “I had a mighty dangerous trip, I was in a storm from Pennsylvania clear to Calif., the types were Rain, Snow, Hail, Sleet and Wind. I came near serious accident three different times but with the help of God I made it.”
In view of his bitter experiences in New York one can understand why he decided to return to California, but better times were not for him. His health was too far gone for any climate to benefit him, and he grew steadily worse. On July 10, 1941, he died, and another gifted musician was gone from the scene.
The above article was published in the Jazz Journal magazine, dated December 1957, Vol. 10, No. 12, pages 10—12.