If you love jazz, then the odds are very slim that you do not already know the name “Jelly Roll Morton.” Jelly Roll, who was born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, was the self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz” and a known braggart as well as a great pianist in New Orleans during the Roaring 20s. Morton is widely recognized as a pivotal figure in jazz, but he is also often dismissed as an overly confident egomaniac. We argue that Morton was actually ahead of his time and he may even have invented his own style of piano, in part, to compensate for perceived lack of skills in the burgeoning jazz piano sector.
Read on to learn more about Jelly Roll Morton’s life and legacy.
Morton was part of a Creole community in downtown New Orleans, and his parents could trace their Creole ancestry back to the 18thcentury. He did not have a birth certificate because this documentation was not required until some 25 years after his estimated birth in 1885 or 1890. His father was a bricklayer, and his mother was a domestic worker. The two were never married, and his father left when Morton was 3 years old. Later, his mother married William Mouton and Morton anglicized Mouton’s name to Morton before adopting it.
Morton’s first job was playing piano in a brothel, but he convinced his grandmother he was a night watchman in a barrel factory. When she discovered the truth, she disowned him. He later wrote, “[my grandmother] told me devil music would surely bring about my downfall, but I just couldn’t put it behind me.” It was while working at the brothel that Morton adopted his nickname, which was a common slang term associated with female genitalia. Around the same time, he wrote “Jelly Roll Blues” and he began traveling and recording music as well. He continued to do so for the next 25 years, recording “New Orleans Blues,” “Frog-I-More Rag,” “Animule Dance,” and King Porter Stomp.” Years later, “King Porter Stomp” would be arranged by Fletcher Henderson for Benny Goodman and become a swing standard, but Morton would not receive royalties for that recording.
Morton landed a recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1926 and, two years later, married showgirl Mabel Bertrand in Gary, Indiana. However, the Great Depression cut his recording career short. Victor did not renew his contract, possibly in part because few musicians wanted to play his style of piano. This meant that while his piano solos were well-regarded, he could not compete with the emerging big-band musicians of his day.
“The Inventor of Jazz”
Interestingly, part of the murkiness around Morton’s age stems from Morton himself, who claimed in his later life to have been born in 1890. Some historians say he made up this birthdate in order to stake a better claim to the “invention” of jazz, since he would have been slightly too old to have invented the musical style if he were born in 1885, as many suspect he was. Morton officially made this claim with folklorist Alan Lomax during a series of interviews that comprised the oral history of the origins of jazz.
While it is difficult to give Morton full credit for the entire musical genre’s invention, he did create his own piano style that was a combination of secondary ragtime and “shout,” which eventually evolved to be stride piano. He would play the melody of a tune with his right thumb and harmonize with the other fingers on his right hand. His tempo tended to be a little slower than other jazz pianists of the day, and Lomax would later cite a portion of an interview in which Morton said he “used a slower tempo to permit flexibility through the use of more notes” as an indication that Jelly Roll Morton might have invented his piano style to compensate for what he perceived to be a lack of dexterity “in manipulations” on the piano.
Stabbing, Chronic Illness, and Death
In 1938, Morton was stabbed at the club he managed and suffered for hours before receiving treatment. Doctors placed ice on his wounds for several hours before treating them, and after the stabbing he often became ill and short of breath. At one point, Morton spent three months in a New York hospital and died during a trip to Los Angeles while attempting to stage a comeback with new manuscripts and arrangements.
As if he feared to be forgotten, several of Morton’s compositions were, essentially, musical tributes to himself. He wrote “Winin’ Boy,” “The Jelly Roll Blues,” and “Mr. Jelly Lord” all about himself. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Morton is also an elected, charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame.