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About Jelly Roll Morton
Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe "Jelly Roll" Morton (September 20, 1890 - July 10, 1941)
Genealogy link: http://www.doctorjazz.co.uk/genealogy.html
The self-proclaimed inventor of Jazz and Stomp music, Morton grew up in the right environment to absorb a variety of musical influences: New Orleans, Louisiana. Born out of wedlock (the date is disputed as the baptismal record shows October 20), he eventually adopted for his own a variation of his stepfathers name, Mouton. Considered a true Creole, he was a mulatto, which created its own set of difficulties, as the darker communities did not always accept light skinned blacks, yet they were still too black for the white communities. Ferdinand got past this by communicating through music. He learned guitar at age 7, and piano at 10. In his teens, Morton became one of the most renowned pianists in Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans.
In 1904, Morton traveled to St. Louis to play at the Lewis and Clark Exposition, likely on the Pike, and to absorb local musical influences. There was a contest there that he says he demurred from due to the presence of Tony Jackson playing there. However, from this point on, he lived the ultimate itinerant pianist's life, traveling from town to town, carousing with local women, hustling in pool halls, and taking in the culture wherever he went. Morton's style was unique and emulated by many pianists, although rarely duplicated. It had a bounce to it, and he used many chord inversions instead of expected chord placements. His music was also more instrumental in nature, as he played and recorded with many groups, and was able to imitate various instruments in his playing. Among the most influential stops in his travels were extended stays in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the San Diego/Tijuana area. At the latter, he took in a lot of the Mexican and Latin influences, and wrote a series of "Spanish tinge" pieces. A ladies man to the end, he also married at least once during this time, and later had a common-law marriage that lasted to the end of his life.
"Jelly Roll" spent several years out on the west coast, playing from Los Angeles up through the Barbary Coast area around San Francisco, including an appearance near the end of the 1915 Worlds Fair in the Bay Area. In 1917 Morton registered for the draft in Los Angeles, yet he gave a Chicago address and listed an employer in San Francisco. During this period he may have finally been based in Chicago, as many of his peers would be within the next two to three years, but still traveling in the west. In the 1920's, Morton spent a great deal of time in Chicago where he did a lot of recording with his own band, the Red Hot Peppers. Their recordings were legendary and quickly became best sellers in the Victor catalog. He also absorbed a lot of blues influence during this stay, and wrote many of his finest blues pieces while in Chicago, and later in New York. One of his more important positions while in Chicago was as a composer and staff arranger for the Melrose Brothers Music Company, which was responsible for putting many of the early traditional jazz works into print. By the mid 1930's, Morton had moved from New York to Washington, D.C., where he was all but forgotten in the wake of the swing era.
Morton worked in and may have had some ownership in a downtown Washington D.C. bar, where he was fortuitously rediscovered by historian Alan Lomax in 1938. With the help of the Library of Congress, Lomax took Morton to an auditorium in Washington to do a series of recordings of Morton's music and stories of his life, from which he derived the first printed biography of the jazz master, albeit with many holes and misinformation. Jelly Roll was so encouraged by this interest that he went back to New York, ignoring his failing health and advice from his friends, and attempted a comeback through some recording sessions. He even joined ASCAP in 1939, very late in his career.
Morton's movements of this time period are largely known through a series of passionate letters to his second wife. In late 1940, his health deteriorating, he went to Los Angeles in an attempt to regain some of it. He reportedly had a short stay at the house of his brother-in-law through his first wife, another stride pianist, Ollie "Dink" Johnson, then was admitted to Los Angeles County General Hospital where he died. However, the extraordinary legacy of piano rolls, recordings and publications left behind remain among the finest artifacts of the ragtime and jazz eras to this day.
It should be noted that "Jelly Roll" Morton was unique among all of his peers. He carefully constructed his works and was meticulous about the development of his pieces, largely through his knowledge of other instruments, which helped him to create band-like arrangements for solo piano. A lot of the materiel he left us was not recorded or notated until after the Library of Congress recordings in 1938. So it is hard to pinpoint original composition dates. He also seemed to reuse a lot of his tunes with slightly different developments under different titles. There are probably many more tunes that we may never know about, but what was left behind certainly whets the appetite for traditional jazz fans to hear more.