Jelly Roll Morton
One of the questions I screwed up on the “Jeopardy!” contestant test online last week was about Jelly Roll Morton
, so I figured I could stand to give him some attention now. If the question had been about Eubie Blake or Louis Armstrong, I would’ve been fine, but for whatever reason, there’s been a void in my knowledge of Jelly Roll.
I’ve been listening to his music for a few hours today. The instrumentals are great for the whole family. Ragtime piano, ragtime band, blues, jazz. The lyrics on this album, Jelly Roll Morton: The Last Sessions, are family-friendly, thanks to double entendres.
Things get a little more complicated when you have to explain that in the late 19th century “jelly roll” was slang for female genitalia. Then if you want to get into how Jelly Roll learned his craft, you’ll find yourself talking about a boy playing piano in a bordello.
When you start reading his lyrics, you have to be prepared for, um, “blue” language. I don’t think there’s anyone on a mainstream label, no rapper, no rocker, no one talking more explicitly about sex than Jelly Roll did. If you know Cam’ron’s “Bottom of the Pu_ _y” tune, then you have an idea of where Jelly Roll went with some of his tunes. Here’s the deal though, he was playing the piano and singing in brothels, sex was being sold. Those lyrics fit the environment. That’s not all that he wrote, but when you start reading his recollections and lyrics you’ll see that the man heard a lot, saw a lot, lived a lot, and wrote songs about it all.
Jelly Roll was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1885. His birth name as Ferdinand Joseph LeMothe (sometimes written Lamott). Jelly Roll’s stepfather’s name was Mouton, which the youth altered and adopted as Morton.
New Orleans was colorful in the 20th century and it was just as wild in the 19th century. It was a good time city with a whole lot of partying and mixing going on. These were days before cocaine was outlawed and you had people, “colored” and white partying together and using cocaine, opium, alcohol, pretty much anything and everything. When Jelly Roll was still a boy his grandmother kicked him out of the house because he didn’t want to stop playing piano at the bordellos. She didn’t think that was a proper environment for a youngster. I think most parents and guardians would agree.
This was a time when a talented piano player who wrote tunes and could play tunes by ear was a large draw for a saloon, bar, or bodello. People would stay longer, drink more and spend more. The piano players were well-paid and well-respected within that world. From the stories he tells, he was also quite the little pool shark. He did OK for himself all-around from a young age.
One of Morton’s most widely recognized tunes today is the Tiger Rag (“Hold that Tiger”). Here’s Adam Swanson playing it at the 2010 Old-time Piano Contest in Peoria, IL. I chose this clip to show the rag time action on the keyboard and because Swanson does an elbow draw, which was one of Morton’s signature moves. (Not everyone who plays this tune does that move.) Morton used standard notation to write his music and band arrangements. I’d like to find out how he notated the elbow drag. Check this out.
Morton died in Los Angeles, Calif. on July 10, 1941. The apex of his career had definitely been decades earlier, and in the ’30s he had been overshadowed by Louis Armstrong and the big bands of jazz. By some accounts Morton had turned bitter toward the music world in his later years. In his recollections recorded in the Library of Congress project in 1938, he clearly had regrets about his failed marriage. You can read transcriptions of those Morton interviews conducted by Alan Lomax here. The Library of Congress Recordings project as transcribed also contains Jelly Roll’s original lyrics to many songs. (Adult Content)
The Doctor Jazz site is a rich source of information about Jelly Roll Morton.
There are several biographies about Morton available, and in 1992 George C. Wolfe brought his “Jelly’s Last Jam” to Broadway with the late, great Gregory Hines. Here’s a clip from that.
On this 13th day of Black History Month, I doff my cap to Jelly Roll Morton for his inspiring creativity and his contributions to America’s gift to the world, jazz.