Ferdinand "Jelly Roll"
Morton (1880s – July 10, 1941) was an American ragtime and early jazz pianist,
bandleader and composer.
Widely recognized as a pivotal figure in early jazz
, Morton claimed, in self-promotional hyperbole
, to have invented jazz outright in 1902.
Morton was the first serious composer of jazz, naming and
popularizing the "Spanish tinge
exotic rhythms and penning such standards
as "Wolverine Blues
"Black Bottom Stomp
Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe was
born into a Creole community
in the Faubourg
Marigny neighborhood of downtown New
A baptismal certificate issued in 1894
lists his date of birth as October 20, 1890; however Morton himself
and his half-sisters claimed the September 20, 1885, date is
correct. His World War I
registration card showed September 13, 1884 but his California
death certificate listed his birth as September 20, 1889. He was
born to F.P. Lamothe and Louise Monette (written as Lemott and
Monett on his baptismal certificate). Eulaley Haco (Eulalie Hécaud)
was the godparent. Eulalie helped him to be christened with the
name Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s parents were in a common-law marriage
and not legally
married. No birth certificate has been found to date. He took the
name "Morton" by Anglicizing the name of his stepfather,
was, along with Tony
Jackson, one of the best regarded pianists in the Storyville District early in the 20th century.
Morton claimed to have written "Jelly
Roll Blues" in 1905.
age of fourteen, he began working as a piano player in a brothel
(or as it was referred to then, a
.) While working there,
he was living with his religious church-going great-grandmother and
had her convinced that he worked in a barrel factory.
Morton's grandmother eventually found out that he was playing jazz
in a local brothel, and subsequently kicked him out of her house.
"When my grandmother found out that I was playing jazz in one of
the sporting houses in the District, she told me that I had
disgraced the family and forbade me to live at the house... She
told me that devil music would surely bring about my downfall, but
I just couldn't put it behind me." Tony Jackson was a major
influence on his music; according to Morton, Jackson was the only
pianist better than him; he was also a pianist at whorehouses, as
well as an accomplished guitar player.
Around 1904, Morton started wandering the American South, working
with minstrel shows
, gambling and
composing. His works "Jelly Roll
," "New Orleans Blues," "Frog-I-More Rag," "Animule Dance"
and "King Porter Stomp
composed during this period. He got to Chicago in 1910 and New York
City in 1911, where future stride
greats James P. Johnson
and Willie "The
caught his act, years before the blues were widely
played in the North. In 1912–1914 he toured with girlfriend Rosa
Brown as a vaudeville
act before settling
in Chicago for three years. By 1914 he had started writing down his
compositions, and in 1915 his "Jelly Roll Blues" was arguably the
first jazz composition ever published, recording as sheet music the
New Orleans traditions that had been jealously guarded by the
musicians. In 1917 he followed bandleader William Manuel Johnson
sister Anita Gonzalez to California, where Morton's tango
"The Crave" made a sensation amongst the
early Hollywood set.
moved back to Chicago in 1923 to
claim authorship of his recently-published rag "The Wolverines"
which had become a hit as "Wolverine Blues" in the Windy
There he released the first of his commercial
recordings, first as piano rolls, then on record, both as a piano
soloist and with various jazz bands.
In 1926, Morton succeeded in getting a contract to make recordings
for the US's largest and most prestigious company, Victor
. This gave him a
chance to bring a well-rehearsed band to play his arrangements in
Victor's Chicago recording studios. These recordings by
Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers
regarded as classics of 1920s jazz. The Red Hot Peppers featured
such other New Orleans jazz luminaries as Kid
, Omer Simeon
, George Mitchell
, Johnny St. Cyr
, Barney Bigard
, and Baby Dodds
. Jelly Roll
Morton & His Red Hot Peppers were one of the first acts booked
on tours by MCA
New York City
November 1928 Morton married showgirl Mabel Bertrand in Gary, Indiana and moved to New York City, where he continued to record for Victor.
His piano solos and trio recordings are well regarded, but his band
recordings suffer in comparison with the Chicago sides where Morton
could draw on many great New Orleans musicians for sidemen.
Although he did record with such great musicians as clarinetists
, George Baquet
, Albert Nicholas
, Wilton Crawley
, Barney Bigard
and Artie Shaw
, Johnny Dunn
and Henry "Red"
, saxophonists Sidney Bechet
and Bud Freeman
, bassist Pops
, and drummers Paul
, Cozy Cole
and Zutty Singleton
, Morton generally had
trouble finding musicians who wanted to play his style of jazz, and
his New York sessions failed to produce a hit. With the Great Depression
and the near collapse of
the phonograph record industry, Morton's recording contract was not
renewed by Victor for 1931. Morton continued playing less
prosperously in New York, briefly had a radio show in 1934, then
was reduced to touring in the band of a traveling burlesque act
while his compositions were recorded by Fletcher Henderson
, Benny Goodman
and others, though he received
no royalties from these recordings.
Morton moved to Washington,
DC, to become manager and piano player at a dive called at various times the "Music Box", "Blue
Moon Inn" and "Jungle Inn" in the African American neighborhood of Shaw. (The building that hosted the nightclub still
stands, at 1211 U
Street NW.) Morton was also the master of ceremonies,
bouncer, and bartender of the club.
He was only in
Washington for a few years; the club was owned by a woman named
Cordelia who allowed all her friends free admission and drinks,
which prevented Morton from making the business a success. When
Morton got stabbed by one of her disgruntled friends in 1938 in
which he suffered wounds to the head and chest, his wife Mabel
demanded that he depart Washington. There is speculation the attack
may have contributed to his early demise.
However, it was during his brief residency at the Music Box that
folklorist Alan Lomax
first heard Morton
playing piano in the bar. In May 1938, Lomax invited Morton to record
music and interviews for the Library of Congress.
The sessions, originally intended as a
short interview with musical examples for use by music researchers
in the Library of Congress, soon expanded to record more than eight
hours of Morton talking and playing piano, in addition to longer
interviews during which Lomax took notes but did not record.
Despite the low fidelity of these non-commercial recordings, their
musical and historical importance attracted jazz fans, and they
have helped to ensure Morton's place in jazz history.
Lomax was very interested in Morton's Storyville days and some of
the off-color songs played in Storyville. Morton was reluctant to
recount and record these, but eventually obliged Lomax. Morton's
is a sexual reference and many of his
lyrics from his Storyville days were vulgar. Some of the Library of
Congress recordings were unreleased until near the end of the 20th
century due to their nature.
Morton was aware that if he had been born in 1890, he would have
been slightly too young to make a good case for himself as the
actual inventor of jazz, and so may have presented himself as being
five years older than he actually was, and his statement that
but not jazz is not accepted by consensus of
Bolden's other New Orleans contemporaries. It is possible, however,
that the contradictions may stem from different definitions for the
terms "ragtime" and "jazz". Most of the rest of Morton's
reminiscences, however, have proven to be reliable.
These interviews, released in various forms over the years, were
released on an eight-CD boxed set
Complete Library of Congress Recordings
. This collection
won two Grammy Awards
. The same year,
Morton was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement
period when he was recording his interviews, Morton was seriously
injured by knife wounds when a fight broke out at the Washington,
D.C. establishment where he was playing.
hospital refused to
treat him, and he had to be transported to a lower-quality hospital
further away. When he was in the hospital the doctors left ice on
his wounds for several hours before attending to his eventually
fatal injury. His recovery from his wounds was incomplete, and
thereafter he was often ill and easily became short of breath.
Morton made a new series of commercial recordings in New York,
several recounting tunes from his early years that he had been
talking about in his Library of Congress Interviews.
worsening asthma affliction sent him to a New
York hospital for three months at one point and when visiting
Angeles with a series of manuscripts of new tunes and
arrangements, planning to form a new band and restart his career,
the ailment took its toll. Morton died on July 10, 1941, aged 51 or
56, after an eleven-day stay in Los Angeles
County General Hospital.
Morton's piano style was formed from early secondary ragtime and
"shout," which also evolved separately into the New York school of
. Morton's playing,
however, was also close to barrelhouse
which produced boogie woogie
Morton often played the melody of a tune with his right thumb,
while sounding a harmony above these notes with other fingers of
the right hand. This added a rustic or "out-of-tune" sound (due to
the playing of a diminished 5th above the melody). This may still
be recognized as belonging to New Orleans. Morton also walked in
in the bass, instead of tenths or octaves. He played
basic swing rhythms in both the left and right hand.
Some of Morton's songs (listed alphabetically):
- "Big Foot Ham" (a.k.a. "Ham & Eggs")
- "Black Bottom Stomp"
- "Burnin' the Iceberg"
- "The Crave"
- "Creepy Feeling"
- "Doctor Jazz Stomp"
- "The Dirty Dozen"
- "Fickle Fay Creep"
- "Finger Buster"
- "Frog-I-More Rag"
- "Good Old New York"
- "Grandpa's Spells"
- "Jungle Blues"
- "Kansas City Stomp"
- "London Blues"
- "Mama Nita"
- "Milenberg Joys"
- "Mint Julep"
- "My Home Is in a Southern Town"
- "New Orleans Bump"
- "Pacific Rag"
- "The Pearls"
- "Red Hot Pepper"
- "Shreveport Stomp"
- "Sidewalk Blues"
- "Stratford Hunch"
- "Sweet Substitute"
- "Tank Town Bump"
- "Turtle Twist"
Several of Morton's compositions were musical tributes to himself,
including "Winin' Boy", "The Jelly Roll Blues" subtitled "The
Original Jelly-Roll," and "Mr. Jelly Lord". In the Big Band
era, his "King Porter Stomp" which Morton
had written decades earlier, was a big hit for Fletcher Henderson
and Benny Goodman
, and became a standard covered
by most other swing bands of that time. Morton also claimed to have
written some tunes that were copyrighted by others, including
" and "Tiger Rag
Legacy and fictional portrayals
Broadway shows have featured his music, Jelly Roll
and Jelly's Last
The first draws heavily on Morton's own words
and stories from the Library of Congress interviews.
Jelly Roll Morton appears as the piano 'professor' in Louis Malle's
, where he is
portrayed by actor Antonio Fargas
with piano and vocals played by James
Jelly Roll Morton is featured in Alessandro Baricco
. He is the "inventor of jazz" and the
protagonist's rival throughout the book. This book was later turned
into a movie: Giuseppe
's The Legend of
. His character is played by actor Clarence Williams III
. In this movie,
he is depicted as an arrogant master in a piano competition against
the film's main protagonist. He performed "Big Foot Ham", "The
Crave", and "Finger Buster", in that order, against the
Roll Morton is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame.
2008, Jelly Roll Morton was posthumously inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of
Don't You Leave Me Here by Clare Brown, which premiered at
Yorkshire Playhouse on 27 September 2008, deals with Morton's
relationship with Tony
Morton and his godmother, Eulalie, appear as characters in David Fulmer
's mystery novel
the Devil's Tail.
His influence continues to this day in the work of Dick Hyman
and Mark Birnbaum
Notes and references
- Culture Shock: The TV Series and Beyond: The
Devil's Music: 1920's Jazz
- Prominent Jazz Musicians: Their Histories in Washington,
D.C. at www.gwu.edu
- Louisiana Music Hall of Fame
- Dapogny, James. Ferdinand
"Jelly Roll" Morton: The Collected Piano Music. Washington,
D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.
- The Devil's Music: 1920s Jazz
- Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man; page 486.
- "Ferdinand J. 'Jelly Roll' Morton", A Dictionary of
Louisiana Biography (1988), pp. 586-587.
- "Jelly", Time magazine,
March 11, 1940.
- Ward, Geoffrey C., and Kenneth Burns. Jazz, a History of
America's Music 1st Ed. Random House Inc.
- Lomax, Alan. Mister Jelly Roll, U. of California
Press, 1950, 1973, 2001. ISBN 0-520-22530-9
- For decades the only important book on Morton, contains a
biography based on Morton's Library of Congress interviews
interspersed with interviews with other contemporary musicians. The
2001 edition adds an afterword by Lawrence Gushee focussing largely
on Morton's ancestry and other historical questions not fully
explored by Lomax.
- Wright, Laurie. Mr. Jelly Lord, Storyville
- Mostly a detailed discography,
focusing on Morton's recordings.
- Russell, William.
Oh Mister Jelly! A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook,
Jazz Media ApS, Copenhagen, 1999.
- Jazz historian Russell spent over 40 years compiling this book,
containing interviews with musicians, relatives, and others who
knew and worked with Morton, in addition to Morton's own writings
and letters. A compendium of source material, with no attempt to
weave it into a single narrative.
- Pastras, Phil. Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out
West, University of California Press, 2001.
- Focuses on Morton's previously largely neglected years in
California and his relationship with Anita Gonzales.
- Reich, Howard; Gaines, William. Jelly's Blues: The Life,
Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton, Da Capo Press,
- Well organized and articulate biography marred by numerous
factual errors. Makes a strong case that Morton was correct when he
claimed that he had been cheated out of over a million dollars due
him in royalties for his compositions. A
revisionist account of Morton's life
based in part on newly acquired historical sources, this book
provides insight into Morton's later years detailing the events
surrounding his decline, his struggle for popular redemption and
his death. Reich and Gaines are sympathetic to Morton's plight and
attempt to update common notions of the arrogant, self-serving and
single-minded performer with stories of an artist, optimist, and
deeply complex man who, late in life, fell victim to racism and
- Dapogny, James. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton: The
Collected Piano Music, Smithsonian Institution Press,
- A scholarly undertaking of a jazz musicians' work, this volume
includes transcriptions of Morton's solo piano performances of 40
of his compositions (all of the original music he either performed
or copyrighted on or for solo piano). The book also includes
detailed analyses of each composition and essays on Morton's life,
composition style, and solo piano style.