Musician, gambler, quack medicine salesman, vaudeville comedian – the many and varied faces of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton are celebrated today. Doubts persist over the year of his birth and even the spelling of his name, but amidst the myths and legends the value of his music is beyond question.
Jazz pianist Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe aka Jelly Roll Morton born in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Renowned for both his solo and band work, Morton’s compositional and arranging talents are also regarded as pivotal in the development of the genre from ragtime and stomp to swing and “hot jazz”.
A colourful character of Creole origin with a gift for self-mythologising, Morton began playing piano in his native New Orleans before travelling across the USA. Settling in Chicago and surrounding himself with musicians from his hometown (“his Red Hot Peppers”), he recorded some of the most acclaimed sides of his career in 1926 and 1927, alongside cornettist Kid Ory and clarinetist Johnny Dodds.
Later sessions in New York City were less successful and disputes over publishing royalties also contributed to his comparative fall from grace. Poor health and a lack of commercial success saw Morton’s profile fade and he was working as a barman when Alan Lomax sought him out for Library of Congress recording dates in 1938.
The results of those sessions were released following Morton’s death in 1941 and documented his historically significant singing, playing and reminiscences. Lomax then published “Mister Jelly Roll” in 1950 – a book based on the artist’s spoken recollections during those 1938 sessions.
Decades later, Jazz buffs were still poring over those recordings (by now remastered to cure problems with the recording equipment that resulted in variations of speed over the discs). British enthusiasts such as Ken Colyer George Melly meanwhile kept alive the tunes that made Morton famous in their shows, Melly selecting Jelly Roll’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” for his 1973 Desert Island Discs appearance.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and with a Broadway show chronicling his flamboyant lifestyle, the legend of the man known as “Doctor Jazz” continues to grow. And 2011 saw TV actor/comic Hugh Laurie’s venture into New Orleans Jazz “Let Them Talk” include a rendition of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” that owed much to Morton’s definitive version.
Check out and purchase Jelly Roll Morton CDs from our e-shop, Propermusic.com by clicking on the logo below:
And here’s a classic recording from Doctor Jazz: