This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, known professionally as “Jelly Roll Morton,” was born on Oct. 20, 1890, in New Orleans, La. At the age of 10, Morton learned to play the piano, and within a few years, he began to play in the “red-light district” bordellos, where he earned the nickname “Jelly Roll.” As a teenager, Morton travelled all over the country, doing anything he could to support himself. He was known as a vaudeville comedian, a pimp, and a gambler. But perhaps the most significant aspect of Morton’s early life was not only his musical talent, but his contributions to the emerging genre of jazz. Musically, he blended the styles of “ragtime and minstrelsy with dance rhythms,” placing him at the forefront of this new movement known as “jazz” music. He took the essential “syncopation of ragtime music” and gave it a “lighter, more rhythmically dynamic feeling.” In 1915, Morton was one of the first artists to record his compositions on paper, and the Original Jelly Roll Blues has come to be known as jazz’s first published work.
After five years of various jobs and performances in Los Angeles, Morton moved to Chicago in 1922 where he produced his first recordings in the following year. By 1926, Morton succeeded in landing a contract with one of the largest record companies in the United States, the Victor Talking Machine Company. Under the record label, Morton’s new seven-or-eight piece band, called The Red Hot Peppers, recorded several hits that have become known as jazz classics of the 1920s. Some of these hits include Black Bottom Stomp and Smoke-House Blues.
By 1928, the centre of jazz began to shift to New York, and Morton relocated with it. However, by the onset of the Great Depression, Morton began to drift into obscurity. In New York, he made few connections with other artists, as many viewed his music to be “old-fashioned.” Between 1931 and 1937, Morton only managed to land a few minor appearances on records, but by 1938, Alan Lomax “recorded him in an extensive and fascinating series of musical interviews for the Library of Congress.” In the interviews, Morton told “colourful” stories, accompanied by “his piano playing in generally fine form as he reminisced about old New Orleans and demonstrated the other piano styles of the era.” A decade later, the interviews were finally released on an album.
In 1939, Morton was in New York City, determined to make a comeback. While he lead a few band sessions with ‘sidemen’ such as Sidney Bechet, Red Allen and Albert Nicholas, and while Morton did record some noteworthy solos, they were never big sellers. In 1940, Morton set out for Los Angeles, but died suddenly at the age of fifty. As musicologist Scott Yanow points out, “ironically his music soon became popular again as the New Orleans jazz revivalist movement caught fire and, if he had lived just a few more years, the chances are good that he would have been restored to his former prominence.”