Saturday Night Tunes: Jelly Roll Morton

Since we spend so much time on 1950s and 1960s-era jazz in this series, I thought I’d take things really old school this week, all the way back to the man who claimed to have “invented” jazz, Jelly Roll Morton (d. 1941).

Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph LaMotte (though there are disagreements as to how he spelled his last name) in New Orleans sometime in the 1880s; he claimed 1890, but there are a lot of conflicting stories that have his birthdate a few years earlier than that. He was apparently a prodigy, and got his first professional gig playing in a brothel at the age of 14, which apparently got him kicked out of his grandmother’s house, where he’d been living, so he may have experienced something like this:

Anyway, Morton (who took his last name from his stepfather, and “Jelly Roll” from, well, here) eventually started to get touring gigs, and traveled to Chicago and New York, among other places, before he finally settled in Chicago and got a recording contract with Victor Records, playing his New Orleans-style of “hot jazz” and often leading a band called “The Red Hot Peppers.” He got married and moved to New York in 1928, but was hit hard by the Depression (and the fact that there weren’t as many good musicians to fill up a band in NYC as there were in Chicago at the time) and lost his recording job. He moved to Washington, DC, in 1935, and while there was offered the opportunity to record music and oral histories about his life and jazz for the Library of Congress. After a little career resurgence in the 30s, he fell into obscurity (big bands were all the rage then, and Morton’s “hot jazz” style was no longer in demand) and died in Los Angeles (where he’d moved when his health started to decline) in 1941, in his 50s.

Morton’s claim to have “invented jazz” is obviously too subjective to be assessed, but on the other hand it’s not like you can just dismiss it out of hand. His piano style evolved out of ragtime, one of jazz’s main precursors, and incorporated blues (another jazz precursor) elements into something kind of like boogie-woogie or stride piano, but the way Morton added a walking bass line with his left hand and the way he articulated chords with his right hand had an important influence on how New Orleans jazz developed. Morton’s biggest contribution to the new style may have been as a composer and arranger; he was able to combine written lines with the improvised “breaks” that were part of the New Orleans scene so effectively that he helped to show that jazz could still be jazz even when written. That innovation led to the big band era and the height of jazz’s popularity.

The downside of going back to the 1920s and 1930s for our material is, obviously, that the recording quality sucks for the most part. I also don’t like having to artists rather than albums, but the whole “album” concept as we think of it didn’t come into being until the advent of the LP in the late 1940s. So we’ll be jumping around a bit just to get a flavor of Morton’s music.

“Wolverine Blues” is a great tune, and we’re lucky that it’s available on YouTube. Morton is joined by clarinetist Johnny Dodds and his younger brother, Warren “Baby” Dodds on drums, but most of the first half of the tune is just Morton (and thankfully the quality of the recording is pretty good), so you can get a good sense of his playing style. The ragtime roots are pretty evident, but it’s also pretty evident that he’s not just playing ragtime piano:

“King Porter Stomp” might be Morton’s best-known composition, but that’s because it later became a big band staple for Fletcher Henderson, and then (using Henderson’s arrangement) Benny Goodman. Morton’s own recordings of the tune, like this solo version from 1923, didn’t do much for his own popularity:

Here’s the same tune as Goodman’s band performed it:

Here’s the Red Hot Peppers in action from 1926, on “Smokehouse Blues.” Joining Morton are George Mitchell on cornet, Kid Ory on trombone, Omer Simeon on clarinet, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, John Lindsey on bass, and Andrew Hilaire on drums:

One of the things you may get a little sense of in these early recordings is that jazz instrumentation wasn’t nearly as settled as it became in the big band era and beyond. Since one of New Orleans jazz’s main influences was the ragtime marching band, tubas were often used in the role that the bass later completely took over (marching with an upright bass would be quite a feat). Here’s another Red Hot Peppers recording from 1927, “The Pearls,” with Mitchell on cornet, Gerald Reeves on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Stump Evans on alto saxophone, Bud Scott on guitar, Quinn Wilson on tuba, and Baby Dodds on drums:

From Morton’s early NYC days, here’s the new Red Hot Peppers in 1928 on “Georgia Swing,” with Ward Pinkett on trumpet, Geechie Fields on trombone, Simeon on clarinet, Lee Blair on banjo, Bill Benford on tuba, and Tommy Benford on drums:

Last, here’s “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say,” an in-joke reference to Buddy “King” Bolden, a New Orleans cornetist who can also lay claim to having invented jazz (he led the fusion of ragtime and blues with improvisation that was at the core of the new style) and whose famous tune “Funky Butt” may be the first musical use of the word “funk,” but also still refers to, you know, something that smells bad. Along with Morton’s piano and vocals, you’ll hear Sidney de Paris on trumpet, Claude Jones on trombone, Sidney Bechet on soprano saxophone, Albert Nicholas on clarinet, Happy Cauldwell on tenor saxophone, Lawrence Lucie on guitar, Wellman Braud on bass, and Zutty Singleton on drums.

I picked this one because it was recorded in 1939, close to the end of Morton’s life, so you can hear how he’d changed his style from his Red Hot Peppers days. But this tune is also noteworthy because you get to hear Morton sing and because it features an extended solo from Bechet, who (along with Louis Armstrong) led jazz into its next phase of development, where the virtuoso solo improviser really became the star of the show:

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Author: DWD

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One thought

  1. Very well written! Indeed, we tend to forget the very early era of Jazz, when it emerged out of the Blues, Gospel, Ragtime.
    I am sure you know RedHotJazz (www.redhotjazz.com), where you can find a lot of that stuff. As you say, sound quality sucks. Somebody told me, that one gets used to it. And indeed I might agree, but “getting used to it” is obviously not as good as “liking it”.

    I am spending some intimate weeks with the one following and overshadowing Jerry Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden, a guy called Louis Armstrong.

    Thanks for sharing!

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