Jelly Roll Morton: an innovator of jazz

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.” In his teen years, Morton travelled all over the country making money as musician, vaudeville comedian, pimp, and gambler. 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 move 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 BechetRed Allen and Albert Nicholas, and while Morton did record some wonderful solos, they were never big sellers. In 1940, Morton set out for Los Angeles, but died suddenly at the age of fifty. As 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.”


Dr. Jazz

Dr. Jazz is a popular tune first written by Joe “King” Oliver in 1926. In the same year, Jelly Roll Morton and his band (the Red Hot Peppers) recorded the song, and is a prime example of early New Orleans jazz “counterpoint and collective improvisation.” The record is well known for its number of special features, improvised solo passages (which was really beginning to emerge in this time period) and pre-written stop-time breaks. Collectively, the record yields “a tapestry of musical contrasts.”

‘Hello Central give me Doctor Jazz
He’s got what I need, I’ll say he has
When the world goes wrong and I’ve got the blues
He’s the guy who makes me put on both my dancin’ shoes’

References:

Biography.com Editors. “Jelly Roll Morton Biography.” Biography.com, 2 April, 2014. https://www.biography.com/musician/jelly-roll-morton

Thom Holmes. American Popular Music: Jazz. Facts on File, Inc. (New York, 2006)

Phil Pastras. Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West. University of California Press, 2001.

Scott Yanow. “Jelly Roll Morton Biography.” Allmusic.com. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/jelly-roll-morton-mn0000317290/biography