Note: Adapted from a post on this date in 2010
On June 9, 1924 Jelly Roll Morton stepped into a Chicago studio and recorded a solo piano version of Jelly Roll Blues, one of the most important early jazz pieces. In fact to hear Morton tell it, it was THE first jazz song and he invented jazz. While both claims are hard to prove, Morton was certainly on hand from the beginning and was one of the most influential composer/arranger/pianist/band leaders in the early days.
Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe was born in New Orleans to a common law Creole couple. No original birth certificate has ever been found, but at various times he later listed dates of birth ranging from 1884 to 1890. September 20, 1885 is the date most commonly accepted. In youth he took the last name Morton by Anglicizing the last name of his step father, a man named Mouton.
By the turn of the 20th Century he was regularly playing popular ragtime music in Storyville, the Crescent City’s brothel district. Another young piano player, Tony Jackson influenced his style, as did the Spanish habanera dance style. Morton later claimed to “invent” jazz as a distinct style from rag time in 1902 while still a teen ager.
After the grandmother he was living with found out that he wasn’t working in a barrel factory, but making good money playing piano in a whore house, he was on the streets and on his own. By 1904 he was barnstorming the South in minstrel shows and playing in Black barrel houses.
It was in those years that he first composed Jelly Roll Blues, King Porter Stomp, New Orleans Blues, and a number of other tunes. Composed did not mean they were written down, rather they were committed to memory and themes were improvised on. None of the songs would be notated for several years and lack of written proof of authorship left the credit for some of the songs in question.
But they were all undoubtedly in Morton’s repertoire when he came north to Chicago in 1910 and New York City the next year. In both places he was among the first to perform blues and jazz. After touring in a vaudeville act for two years, he returned to Chicago, already becoming a magnet for southern Blacks and a destination for fellow New Orleans musicians.
Playing local clubs with small bands, he began transcribing the songs he had written earlier. In 1915 Jelly Roll Blues was published and is considered the first jazz composition ever published. In 1917 he played piano for bandleader William Manuel Johnson and his sister Anita Gonzalez when they went to Los Angeles. While in California he also performed with barrel house singer Bricktop. Morton spent the next few years on the west coast, including frequent trips to Vancouver, British Columbia where he found an appreciative audience. When not playing in clubs or touring the vaudville circuit, he supported himself as a gambler, and quite likely, a pimp.
Back in Chicago in 1924 he discovered that the Prohibition speakeasy era offered plenty of employment. That year he began cutting player piano rolls of his music and recorded a handful of records, including Jelly Roll Blues. In 1926 he signed with Victor and assembled a band of New Orleans greats including Kid Ory, Omer Simeon, George Mitchell, Johnny St. Cyr, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, and Baby Dodds. The Victor sessions of Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Chile Peppers are considered along with recordings by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong the finest example of the New Orleans/Chicago jazz sound.
After marrying a local show girl, Mabel Bertrand, in 1926, Morton moved to New York where he continued to record for Victor as a single, with a trio, and with pickup bands. Without the core of solid New Orleans sidemen the quality of the band recordings fell off and failed to produce hits, although his solo and trio work still sold well. Morton’s contract with Victor was not renewed when the Depression collapsed the market for phonograph records.
He worked briefly in radio but was soon forced to tour on the low prestige burlesque circuit while younger musicians like Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman made hits of his songs, many of which were unprotected by copyright or were considered to have no indefinable composer.
In 1934 Morton and his wife moved to segregated Washington, D.C. to become manager and house musician of a local club known variously as the Music Box, Blue Moon Inn and Jungle Inn.
During his residency at this club he was “discovered” by Smithsonian folklorist Alan Lomax who eventually recorded hours of performances and recollections. Because he recounted his Storyville days in full and vivid detail, the recollections could not be released until the later years of the century, although Lomax drew on them for his 1950 book Mister Jelly Roll.
In 1938 Morton was stabbed and seriously injured in a fight at the club. Refused treatment at a near-by Whites-only hospital, he suffered infections in the poorly equipped segregated hospital where he was finally treated. His health never fully recovered.
At Mabel’s insistence the couple got out of the dangerous D.C. club and returned to New York. Morton was hospitalized there for severe asthma but he was writing and arranging.
In 1940 he was in Los Angeles with his new material trying to put together a big band to re-start his career when he died of asthma and complications of his old injuries on July 10, 1941.
Morton’s piano style influenced generations, particularly of practitioners of the boogie-woogie style. He was an original “roots” inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1992 his memory got a boost with the opening of Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway staring Gregory Hines and Savion Glover as the older and younger Morton.
Today Jelly Roll Morton is considered an almost mythic figure in the saga of American music.