Jelly Roll Morton, the first great composer-arranger

On 21 May 1938, a warm spring day, a middle-aged Creole man walked into the office buildings of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and asked to see the manager.  His clothes were not new, but still elegant, his watch and chain golden, and when in a calm and well modulated voice he addressed the librarian behind the counter, he finished his request by emitting a flashing "Please" from a front tooth crowned with a diamond.
   The nature of his business was - business.  Since the famous 1937 Carnegie Hall concert "From Spirituals To Swing", in which the newly crowned "King of Swing" Benny Goodman hailed jazz, historians had announced that they wanted to meet people who knew about the origins of the music, hoping that they could find and record evidence of its roots before it was too late.  And this man was here to tell his story.
   When asked what he knew about the origins of jazz, he simply said, "I invented it."  Simple as that.  To put it shortly: he had been a musician all of his life (b. 1885), and much of the innovative quality in what is known as jazz, was actually his invention.
   The librarian asked him if he could prove his assertion, to which the gentleman asked for a piano; and when that had been provided, he sat down and started telling his story while playing examples of the musical development he had witnessed around him and invented himself.

Luckily for us, the librarian was up to his task, for he recorded the whole interview on several 78 rpm's, cutting them directly as the story unfolded.
   The material was later edited and issued on 12 LP's and later edited down to 8 LP's (just imagine the original pile of 78's).

The story of Jelly Roll Morton, pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger, was later issued as a book, Mister Jelly Roll, edited by interviewer Alan Lomax, one of the most prolific collectors of American folk music for the Library of Congress.

Like the (nick)name of Jelly Roll (the "winding boy") indicates, his world was one of fast women, booze, gambling, voodoo - and jazz.  His real name was Ferdinand Joseph la Menthe, born in New Orleans around 1885 by Creole parents and later adopted by one Morton.

The above story is the condensed version of how he and his music came to life again after his first fame had faded in just a decade, from being a hot RCA Victor record artist with his Red Hot Peppers in 1928 to playing for coffee and cookies in a night club in Washington, D.C.  In spite of his fall in both fame and fortune he retained the image of a southern gentleman.  During the depression he'd had to pawn his diamond studded garters, he'd had to see other, more "contemporary" (swing) musicians take over, but he hadn't lost the dignified air of a southern gentleman, and he was still a great pianist.

Thanks to the Library of Congress recordings his fame is now undiminished as far as jazz from the 1920s is concerned, but he didn't live to enjoy it for long.  He died in 1941, one of the greatest piano players, composers, and bandleaders in the history of jazz, and were I to be reborn, I wish my next life could be that of Mr. Jelly Roll.

Read the book and listen to the recordings.
Alan Lomax: Mister Jelly Roll (also available in Danish)

Jelly Roll Morton - his musical style

The most important innovative feature of Jelly Roll Morton's style has to do with the traditional organization of the New Orleans jazz orchestra and its practice of  collective improvisation.
   The classic New Orleans style with:

allowed each player to improvise spontaneously, adding his touch to the performance.  The musical form of the piece was a repetition of the already established original form of the tune played for as long as the ensemble agreed.  The tutti (everybody) presentations of the original tune were interspersed with improvised solos by especially trumpet and clarinet, and in later years also trombone and piano.

To this generally accepted style Jelly Roll Morton added that of organization in terms of arrangement and variation in the tutti ensemble passages:

he created the first idiosyncratic (and often written) jazz arrangements - his players had to know how to read music to fit into this arranged collective style.
   Emphasis was thus put on the ensemble rather than the soloist which presents a striking contrast to the solo improvisation w/ arranged backing, first perfected by Louis Armstrong.

Other great New Orleans veterans have unanimously pointed to Armstrong as the one who broke decisively away from the accepted style, and there's no doubt that had it not been for a soloist of Armstrong's caliber, there's no telling how jazz would have developed.

Anyway, Jelly Roll Morton thought of himself as the originator of jazz as such.  To him the blues, ragtime, and jazz were three distinct musical styles, and in his Library of Congress recording he plays the same tune in different ways to illustrate his point.  His main contribution to the development of jazz was, however, that he fused the previous way of often random playing with his own temperament and an acute sense of the overall form into a unified style that was an early forerunner of the integrated big band experiments some 30 years later.

March 2001
Erik Moldrup

P.S. Some Danish libraries still stock my thesis,
Erik Møldrup: Ragtime (available in Danish only)

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