Jelly Roll Morton: Braggart or Not, Still a Pivotal Figure in Jazz

Jelly Roll Morton: Braggart or Not, Still a Pivotal Figure in Jazz

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.

Early Years

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.

First Job

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.

Recording Contract

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.

Morton’s Legacy

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.

How the Victrola Made Jazz the Soundtrack of the Roaring ’20s

How the Victrola Made Jazz the Soundtrack of the Roaring ’20s

You will often hear it said that “jazz was the soundtrack to the Roaring 20s.” However, the birth of this musical genre took place nearly two decades earlier in the form of “New Orleans Jazz” and the bright, brassy sounds of the black brass marching bands in the streets of New Orleans. Usually, we think of jazz as a post-WWI phenomenon, but really it began before the war did. It was the Victrola, promoted and sold by the Victor Talking Machine Company, that literally broadcast the new sound across the country and made early jazz nearly synonymous with flapper dresses, the Charleston, and, later, Gatsby.

New Orleans jazz originated with the invention of the “Big Four” beat by Buddy “King” Bolden, a cornetist whose band, the Bolden Band, was popular in New Orleans around the turn of the century. Bolden has been dubbed the “father of jazz,” although he is far from alone in holding this title. The Bolden Band combined ragtime and blues in an innovative manner, using brass instruments to play both blues tones and gospel music. Because Bolden and his bandmates played mostly by ear, they were among the first to extemporaneously rearrange well-known tunes to better accommodate their own musical preferences and performances. The “Big Four” beat is a rhythmic variation on marching band beats that allows for more improvisational music than other traditional rhythms. Without the “Big Four,” embryonic jazz might not have become the improvisational art form it is today.

Bolden’s band was popular in New Orleans until 1907, when Bolden himself succumbed to a possibly alcohol-induced psychosis that ultimately led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He was institutionalized and spent the rest of his life in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum. Jazz, however, was here to stay, and Bolden’s bold move of bringing brass to the blues would set the stage for the bands that would soon begin combining cornets, trumpets, clarinets, trombones, string instruments, drums, and piano to create the lush point-counterpoint of increasingly spontaneous, robust jazz sounds.

Jazz continued to evolve throughout the early 20thcentury, but it truly began to be broadcast across the air during and after WWI. This was due, in large part, to the popular phonograph, which had actually been invented more than 30 years earlier but only began to be mass-produced and -marketed in the 1920s. What better sound to play on your new Victor Talking Machine (Victrola) than the bright, brave sounds of jazz that had sustained hope throughout the war and personified everything bold, hopeful, and irreverent about the new decade? Jazz flourished as more people began listening to and modeling the sound in their own performances, ultimately leading to the evolution of the genre familiar to most of us in the mellow sounds of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing.”

Unlike many musical genres that have evolved, boomed, and then faded, the creative, spontaneous elements of jazz mean that this music will likely never fade from the American consciousness. In fact, you still hear elements of the “greats” and the “grandfathers” of this music today in Bebop, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz, and even the “Fusion” of the 1990s. Of course, in the 21stcentury, we not only hear echoes of the classics and plenty of mimics of them, but also we hear jazz tones in hip-hop, rap, R&B, and the intriguing “jazz rap” that samples jazz from other eras.

As musicians, artists, and humans, we never stop “broadcasting.” This is particularly true in this day and age. And as long we’re broadcasting and our speakers are working, you can be sure jazz will remain in our music and on our stages — virtual, electronic, and otherwise.