Jelly Roll Morton - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


             Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton may not have invented jazz, as he claimed, but there’s more than a germ of truth to his boast. A nonpareil pianist, composer, arranger and band-leader, Morton was a key figure in the early days of the music. From the start, Morton made distinctions among ragtime, blues and jazz, and he incorporated into his music all that he heard, including rags, work songs, the blues, opera and classical music. There was also the influence of songs in French and Spanish that were popular at the time, the basis of “the Spanish tinge” that Morton saw as essential to jazz. Morton’s influence has been monumental and lasting. His immortal “King Porter Stomp,” composed before 1910, became one of the biggest hits of the thirties when Fletcher Henderson arranged it for the Benny Goodman orchestra, and was a favorite of the Sun Ra Arkestra in the seventies. His music won new fans in the nineties, when the Tony Award-winning musical Jelly’s Last Jam, featuring a score of Morton classics, ran on Broadway for 569 performances.


            The self-promoting Morton told a lot of stories about himself, leaving even basic facts shrouded in mystery. When you factor in the many mishearings of his first biographer, folklorist Alan Lomax, the situation grows murky indeed. Because of Morton’s importance, a cadre of researchers, inspired by their encounters with his music, has spent decades trying to pin down every detail. Key contributors have been Lawrence Gushee, Professor Emeritus at the School of Music, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who contributed new information and an afterword to an updated edition of Lomax’s Mister Jelly Roll, and British enthusiast Laurie Wright, who compiled Morton’s Music with famed sound restorer John R.T. Davies and also wrote Mr. Jelly Lord. The best available biographical and discographical details of Morton’s fabled career are now assembled online at There’s a lot of documentation on the web site, everything from newspaper clippings to photographs of Morton’s childhood home.


            According to these findings, Jelly Roll Morton was originally named Ferdinand Lamothe. He was born on October 20, 1890, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Whatever the facts of his childhood are, by the early years of the 20th century, the young man who named himself Jelly Roll Morton was regarded as one of the best pianists in the Storyville district of New Orleans. He had at least one piano teacher, a Mrs. Moment that he talked about on his 1938 Library of Congress recordings. By his early teens he was playing piano in a brothel; although he told his great-grandmother that he was working in a factory. As he later recalled, “When my grandmother found out that I was playing jazz in one of the sporting houses in the District, she told me that I had disgraced the family and forbade me to live at the house... She told me that devil music would surely bring about my downfall, but I just couldn't put it behind me.”


            By 1905, Morton was ready to hit the road for the life of an iterinant musician, card hustler, pool shark and any other activity that would generate a bit of income. He traveled for years, playing in vaudeville bands and hotels across the South and Midwest. In 1911, he toured with McCabe's Minstrel Troubadours in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri. When his "Jelly Roll Blues" was published for orchestra in Chicago in 1915, it was probably the first jazz orchestration issued as sheet music. Morton made it out to Southern California around 1917, where he found plenty of work in Los Angeles and San Diego. He wound up spending five years on the West Coast, playing as far north as Alaska and as far south as Baja California.


            Morton’s fame preceded any documentation of his work. He moved to Chicago in 1923 to join the writing staff of The Melrose Brothers and make his first recordings for Paramount. He also recorded with The New Orleans Rhythm Kings in July, 1923, making him one of the first African-American musicians to play with a group of white musicians.


            An announcement of Morton’s new position with Melrose in the Phonograph & Talking Machine Weekly in November, 1923, mentions the immediate publication of many of his best-known songs, including “Kansas City Stomps,” “Grandpa’s Spells,” “The Pearls,” “King Porter Stomp,” “Mamanita,” “Mr. Jelly Lord,” “Wolverine Blues” and “Original Jelly Roll Blues.” The polished compositions and the advanced conception of the ensemble and solo roles on Morton’s earliest records reflect a style that had clearly been many years in the making. Much of Morton’s output from 1923 and 1924 was collected on LP by Riverside in the early sixties, later reissued on Milestone. He also made a series of piano rolls, probably in the spring of 1924, which were reproduced with Disklavier technology for CD release in 1997 on Nonesuch.


            Beginning in 1926, Morton led his Red Hot Peppers on a historic series of recordings for the Victor label with such numbers as “Black Bottom Stomp,” “Smokehouse Blues,” “The Chant” and “Doctor Jazz.” At various times, the group included such luminaries as clarinetists Barney Bigard and Johnny Dodds, trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen, trombonists Kid Ory and J.C. Higginbotham, banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, bassist Pops Foster, and drummers Baby Dodds and Paul Barbarin. Although Louis Armstrong was already in the process of altering jazz into more of a soloist’s music, Morton’s recordings blended improvisation with composition in the New Orleans style of collective improvisation. Musical historian, educator, and composer Gunther Schuller has written, “The most perfect examples of this kind of improvised-ensemble organization were produced by Jelly Roll and his Red Hot Peppers, where contrasting individual lines attain a degree of complexity and unity that jazz had not experienced before." Morton’s piano breaks as well as his solo records reveal a formidable and commanding pianist.


            With the New Orleans style of jazz widely considered passé by the thirties, Morton had more and more difficulty finding work. Jazz fans of the era were more attracted to the big band scene, ironically fueled in part by new adaptations of Morton’s classic material. His Victor contract was not renewed in 1931, and Morton played ballrooms, clubs and social functions in the New York area until he ran into some trouble with the musicians’ union in late 1935. He moved to Washington, DC in the spring of 1936. He had a radio show in Washington that June and July, and soon established himself as the manager, emcee and performer at a nightspot variously known as the Jungle Inn, the Music Box, and the Blue Moon Inn. His business partner often invited her friends to drink for free and the club never really had a chance to grow. When one of those friends stabbed Morton after a brief verbal altercation, he and his wife decided it was time to leave the nightclub business.


            Morton’s Washington club was just a few blocks from the Library of Congress. Folklorist Alan Lomax was working at the Library, focused on documenting the vanishing sounds of American folk music, when he came across Morton playing at the club. Lomax arranged for a series of recorded interviews in May and June, 1938. A further session was held at the end of the year, after Morton had been wounded. A mix of reminiscence, story-telling, piano playing and singing, the material comprises one of the most important oral histories of jazz. It was originally issued on a series of 78s by the Circle label. Rounder Records issued The Complete Library of Congress Recordings in a 7-CD box set in 2006.


            Morton returned to New York early in 1939, where a serious case of asthma put him in the hospital for three months. The release of the Library of Congress recordings revived interest in Morton’s music. By the fall, he’d recovered sufficiently to go into the studio for the Bluebird label, with a New Orleans group that included the great soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, trumpeter Sidney DeParis, bassist Wellman Braud and drummer Zutty Singleton. His final recording sessions, in December 1939 and January 1940, for the small General label, were split between piano solos and band sides. The material was later leased to Commodore Records, and appeared on CD as Last Session: the Complete General Recordings (1997 Commodore/GRP). The solos include fresh takes of many of his best-known compositions, including “The Crave” and “The Naked Dance,” plus definitive versions of two vocal features, “Winin’ Boy Blues” and “Buddy Bolden’s Blues (I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say).” The band, which included Singleton, “Red” Allen and clarinetist Albert Nicholas, recorded such gems as “Sweet Substitute” and “My Home is in a Southern Town.”


            With his health failing, Morton returned to Los Angeles in 1940 in hopes that the California climate would improve his condition. There he formed a new band and set to work on new songs and arrangements. His health continued to decline, however, and he found it more and more difficult to work. He checked into Los Angeles County General Hospital at the end of May of 1941, and died eleven days later, on June 10, 1941. An “American grand master,” in Stanley Crouch’s words, who expressed the “…timeless vitality of his age,” was no more, but his legacy of unsurpassable swing remains at the heart of jazz.

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