Jelly Roll Morton (1890 – 1941) is regarded as the first true jazz composer. His composition “Jelly Roll Blues” (published in 1915) was the first published jazz composition. An important transitional figure between ragtime and jazz piano stylings, Morton’s impact and legacy on music is often overlooked and underappreciated. Born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe in 1890 and raised in the Storyville red-light district of New Orleans, Louisiana, he began playing piano at the early age of fourteen in a brothel. Morton later worked as a gambler, loan-shark, pimp and vaudeville comedian before perfecting his craft as a pianist, bandleader and composer. With brief touring stints in Chicago, Vancouver, California and New York City, Jelly Roll produced numerous compositions that became increasingly popular such as: “Kansas City Stomp”, “Grandpa’s Spells”, “Red Hot Pepper” and “Jelly Roll Blues” to name a few. However, it was during his brief three-year stay in the nations capital that brought about one of the most complete and unique recordings of his entire catalog of music. Jelly Roll Morton had walked into the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress and gave the world a glimpse into his amazing catalog of ragtime and jazz compositions along with a detailed and intimate narrative of his life’s experiences. These recordings would be posthumously released a full decade after his death and win two Grammy awards in 2006 for Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes.
The Library of Congress recently held its Jazz Scholars Lecture Series featuring a conversation with noted jazz historian and scholar, John Szwed, PhD, in the Montpelier Room of the Library’s James Madison Memorial Building. Szwed is Adjunct Senior Research Scholar and former Professor of Music and Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, African American Studies, and Film Studies at Yale University and longtime writer for the Village Voice publication. He was awarded a Grammy for ‘Doctor Jazz’ (a book on Jelly Roll Morton) and has also wrote ‘Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth’ along with biographies of Miles Davis, Sun Ra and Alan Lomax. The lecture was hosted by Stephen Winick, writer and editor at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center since 2005.
Szwed’s tireless research into the mysterious life of Jelly Roll Morton uncovers rare factual accounts that further detail his stay in Washington, DC until shortly before his death. He discussed Morton’s hosting of “The History of Jazz” program which aired on WOL-AM radio station; his attempts to form an interracial film company; promote local boxing matches in DC; and his attempts to partner with heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson to develop auto racing ventures. Szwed also revealed the exact location of The Jungle Inn (where Jelly Roll Morton played) as 1211 U Street, NW – which is the current location of a DC landmark, Ben’s Chili Bowl and Ben’s Next Door. Tragically, while working at the Jungle Inn in 1938, Morton was stabbed following a dispute with a friend of the club’s owner. His injuries were critical but he managed to survive the incident and left Washington, DC soon after.
It was when Jelly Roll Morton met Alan Lomax in DC that his musical catalog began to finally recieve due recognition. Alan Lomax was a folk-music archivist and newly appointed assistant archive director at The Library of Congress. His concept was to focus on the history of the music (which included blues, ragtime, and stomps) and allow Morton to give his own explanation of his claims to be the true inventor of jazz. Morton also spoke about his public argument with “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy. These recordings of music and dialogue occurred between May through December of 1938 and resulted in nine hours of edited tapes. The end result – “Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings”. Mostly biographical and historical in context, it remains one of the first and best oral histories of the ragtime era and the days of early jazz.
John Szwed’s research and knowledge of the history of ragtime, blues, and early jazz gives the musical history of Jelly Roll Morton new meaning. We find out so much more about the myth and legend and even a more detailed insight into his time here in Washington, DC (although brief). On display at the lecture were historical artifacts from Jelly Roll Morton’s personal collection including handwritten musical compositions and a collectors wooden box-set of his original Library of Congress Recordings.
– Jamaal Bailey
– Photos: William Bailey