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Jelly Roll Morton - Jazz Legend

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'Jelly Roll' Morton sits by a piano.
...I'm gonna dance off both my shoes
When they play those Jelly Roll blues...

Considered by many to be the first important jazz composer, Jelly Roll Morton polished the New Orleans jazz style to perfection. In turns a braggart and egocentric, this self-proclaimed inventor of jazz music lived a life of alternating success and obscurity, finally garnering the place in musical history that he so richly deserved.

Early Years

Jelly Roll Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe1 in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA in 1890, to unwed parents of Creole descent. He later adopted his stepfather's surname, Mouton, and anglicised it to 'Morton' as a stage name.

Ferdinand showed an early talent for music, teaching himself to play the piano and a host of other instruments at a very young age. It was apparent early on that he had a technical brilliance, and a rare inventiveness with his music. After his mother died, Ferdinand, at the age of 14, began playing the piano for money in bordellos along New Orleans' red light district known as Storyville. It was around this time he began to use the stage name 'Jelly Roll', which was a euphemism for the bawdy activity found inside those bordellos.

From this humble start he roamed the South, playing music in clubs and bordellos, and composed songs in a new hot style that would eventually become known as jazz. He penned 'Jelly Roll Blues' and 'New Orleans Blues' in 1905, 'King Porter Stomp' in 1906 and 'Georgia Swing' in 1907.

A Star is Born

Tiring of bordellos, Morton joined various travelling minstrel and vaudeville shows that were touring America. Over the next several years he managed to work up a loyal following of fans with his new jazz sound, and eventually became the headlining act of these shows in places such as St Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. In 1915, he published his first composition, 'Jelly Roll Blues', which he had written back in 1905.

In 1917 Morton moved to California where he put together a series of bands that toured the west coast of America and established himself and his New Orleans flavored jazz music as the innovative king of the new sound. It was around this time that, flush with money and success, Morton acquired a diamond that he had studded in his front tooth. In the coming years the diamond would prove handy, as he would be forced to pry the thing loose and pawn it from time to time, when money was tight.

Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers

In 1923 Morton moved to Chicago, which was becoming a hotbed of jazz activity. He quickly recorded six original compositions, and many piano solos, duos and trios under the Gennett label. Sheet music publishing was also becoming a large industry, and Morton knew he was sitting on a goldmine. Unfortunately for him, Walter Melrose, owner of the Melrose Publishing Company, knew a goldmine when he saw it, too.

Morton became a staff writer for Melrose Publishing, and published such classic Morton tunes as 'Grandpa's Spells', 'London Blues', 'The Pearls' and 'Wolverine Blues'. Within two years, thanks to Jelly Roll, Melrose Publishing became a major music publisher.

By 1926 Walter Melrose had an idea. In order to bolster the popularity and sales of Morton's music, he helped put together a contract for Morton with Victor Records. Morton assembled a group of outstanding jazz musicians, and recorded over 40 sides under the name of Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers. They recorded such jazz standards as 'Black Bottom Stomp', 'Georgia Swing', Grandpa's Spells', 'Jungle Blues' and 'The Pearls'. The musicians he assembled were both very familiar with the New Orleans style, and able to read music with facility. From time to time, Morton would change the line-up of the band, but the quality of the musicians would never diminish. On the recordings, Morton was meticulous with the ensemble passages, intros and endings, but allowed his musicians free range in their solo passages. Morton was able to demonstrate that not only was he an exceptional piano player, but that he was a remarkably innovative composer and conductor as well. These recordings proved to be outstanding, and Jelly Roll Morton's popularity soared.

Never shy by nature, Morton enjoyed every minute of his new-found fame. He became an extravagant dresser, wore diamond rings on every finger, and could be heard bragging to anyone who was listening, 'Man, I invented jazz!'

So sure was he that his place in musical history was sealed, Morton often over-spent his income. Even as his debts rose, he was sure that his next big jazz hit would make him a man of means forever.

There's a Sucker Born Every Minute

Unknown to Morton, Walter Melrose was skimming royalty money off the top. When Melrose submitted copyright claims for Morton's tunes, he added lyrics to the tunes. This made him a collaborator, and he could claim songwriting royalties. That wasn't all. Melrose also arranged the recording contract for Morton with Victor Records. The contract, signed in December of 1926, specified that all monies would be paid to Melrose Brothers Music rather than to Morton. Morton never saw or signed a contract for these recordings. As far as Melrose and Victor were concerned, Morton had no claim on the artist royalties for some of the greatest recordings in jazz history. He was entitled to composer royalties, but even those were going partially to Walter Melrose.

Lean Years

In 1928 Morton relocated to New York and continued to record for Victor Records until 1930. The Great Depression had fallen on America, and like all jazz musicians of the era, Morton fell on hard times. Although he continued to tour in the northeast, his popularity was sinking. Hot jazz was out of style, and the public now preferred the smoother sounds of big bands. Ironically during the following 'swing' era, Benny Goodman's band scored a major hit with the remake of an old Jelly Roll Morton tune called 'King Porter Stomp', but few people remembered it as the jazz classic.

For the next 12 years, Morton bounced between New York and Washington, DC working as piano player and house band leader in bars and nightclubs. In 1938, Alan Lomax, a brilliant music folklorist, tracked Morton down and recorded him in an extensive musical interview for the Library of Congress. Morton's retelling of jazz history was colourful, and his piano playing in generally fine form as he related the stories of old New Orleans and demonstrated the playing style of the era. The result was over eight hours of hot jazz music and reminiscences.

In the following years, Morton attempted several comebacks, but was met with little success. He also tried to legally recoup his lost royalties, and did in fact receive a paltry cheque in the amount of $86.94 from Walter Melrose. He then began receiving regular royalty cheques, but they were quite small due to the fact that Morton's music no longer generated the kind of revenue it had a decade before.

Jelly Roll Morton died in Los Angeles on 10 July, 1941. He was 50 years old.


Jelly Roll Morton was posthumously inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1982, as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (early influence) in 1998. Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records had this to say of Jelly Roll:

Jelly talked a lot between numbers - about how he invented jazz and that sort of thing. He always looked dapper and had style. If anybody invented jazz, he did, because he predicted so much that was to come... Obviously, Jelly was the greatest person in jazz - with all due respect to Louis (Armstrong) and Duke (Ellington).

In April, 1992, the musical Jelly's Last Jam opened on Broadway, starring Savion Glover and Gregory Hines as Jelly Roll Morton. The show ran for 569 performances, and garnered three Tony awards. It ignited a renewed interest in the life and music of one of the greatest jazz legends of all time.

Essential Collection

  • Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings. As the title implies, this is an eight-CD set of the complete Alan Lomax interviews of Jelly Roll Morton. It includes the musician's live recordings accompanied by Jelly's remarkable stories of the songs, his groundbreaking influence on jazz, and his life. Without a doubt, this is the most comprehensive study on the history of jazz ever recorded.
  • Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole, and "Inventor of Jazz" by Alan Lomax, Duel, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1950
1Alternately Lamenthe or Lamott.

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