Jelly Roll Morton

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Jelly Roll Morton, 1917

Jelly Roll Morton (born September 20, 1885 in Gulfport / Mississippi as Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe , † July 10, 1941 in Los Angeles ) was an American pianist , composer and band leader . He is considered one of the most influential jazz musicians of his time.


Jelly Roll Morton was in Gulfport (Mississippi) and grew up in New Orleans ( Louisiana on). His mother Laura La Menthe, née Monette, left her husband FP "Ed" La Menthe, the father of Jelly Rolls, at a time when he was still a child. She then married Willie Morton. In addition to his parents, his grandmother Laura "Mimi" Monette, née Baudoin, his younger half-sisters, one of whom had the first name Amède, his cousin Dink Johnson and his godmother Laura Hunter, who is usually reported as Eulalie Echo, played a formative role Role in the life of Jelly Roll Morton.

His nickname “Jelly Roll” had a sexual connotation that was (at least) generally understood at the time, but was considered immoral according to the prevailing Puritan language norm, and originally served as an allusion to Morton's numerous affairs. For the same reason his interpretation of the "Winin 'Boy Blues" is considered a kind of signature tune. This composition with alternative text is also published as "I'm Alabama Bound".

Morton's date of birth is controversial. There is no birth certificate; the information varies between 1884 and 1890:

  • His draft papers for the First World War mention September 13, 1884.
  • Morton himself stated September 20, 1885.
  • His first wife Anita Gonzales and his half-sister Amède, who was eleven years his junior, gave 1886 as the year of birth.
  • An insurance policy mentions the year 1888.
  • His death certificate shows 1889 as the year of his birth.
  • A certificate of baptism from 1894 states October 20, 1890 as his birthday.

He had been interested in music since early childhood , which is probably due to the fact that his family was very enthusiastic about American folk music as well as operas and operettas . Against this background, his musical allusion to the Verdi opera “ The Troubadour ” during the “ Library of Congress Recordings” (“The Miserere”) can be seen and understood. So far, only Morton's father, FP La Menthe, has appeared as an active musician (trombone). In addition, it should be noted that the cultural diversity in New Orleans was likely to have given the young Ferdinand Morton an insight into a very broad spectrum of musical trends. When he heard a pianist play at the French Opera in New Orleans when he was about ten years old, he was so fascinated that he began taking piano lessons. It is documented that he was taught by the respected teacher Professor Nickerson in New Orleans from 1895.

Career and companions

First, Morton stood out as a talented guitarist, singer and harmonica player. In his memories he named songs like "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight", "Wearing My Heart for You", "Old Oaden Bucket", "Bird in a Gilded Cage", "Mr Johnson Turn Me Loose" as examples from his Repertoire this time. The late recordings Morton made with his biographer Alan Lomax in 1938 at the Library of Congress in Washington DC serve as evidence of his qualities both on the guitar and as a singer .

In 1902, Morton began to appear in public, especially in the entertainment and red light district around Basin Street in New Orleans, at parades and at public festivals in the upscale suburbs of this city (for example the recordings "Milenberg Joys" and "New Orleans Blues") to play contemporary ragtimes , songs and dances . When his devout grandmother, with whom he lived with his younger sisters after his mother's death, learned of the “dubious” work of her grandson, she forced him to move out. After he was able to temporarily stay with her godmother Laura Hunter / Eulalie Echo, he traveled through many cities in the southern states of the USA ( Gulfport / Mississippi , Mobile / Alabama , Memphis / Tennessee , St. Louis / Missouri , Kansas City / Kansas ) and by California and to Chicago / Illinois . Everywhere he appeared as a pianist.

Jelly Roll Morton with the musicians and entertainers of the Cadillac Club in Los Angeles; v. l. From right: "Common Sence" Ross, Albertine Pickins, Jelly Roll Morton, Ada Smith , Eddie Rucker, Mabel Watts

In 1917 he first returned to Chicago and then moved to California for a comparatively long period of time . There the first recordings were made in 1918 with Reb Spikes, Mutt Carey, Wade Waley and Kid Ory . These recordings are now considered untraceable.

Between 1923 and 1928, Morton lived and worked again in Chicago, which was now considered the new jazz center. There were numerous recordings for the record companies Paramount Records , Gennett Records , Vocalion Records , Victor Records and Columbia Records . On July 17, 1923 as Mortons ever second studio recording of the music composed by him was Jazz Standard King Porter Stomp , later often in the big band era gecovert . In September 1926 he founded the legendary "Red Hot Peppers". In their original line-up, this lineup consisted of George Mitchell, Kid Ory , Omer Simeon , Johnny St. Cyr , John Lindsay, Andrew Hilaire and Jelly Roll Morton.

With the beginning of the swing era, interest in Morton went at that same time as more traditional applicable jazz - style back. He spent the years 1929 and 1930 in New York City . Seven years later, he first came into contact with music journalist Alan Lomax in the “Jungle Inn” bar in Washington DC . In the months of May and July 1938, Morton and Lomax met regularly in the Library of Congress in Washington DC, where the so-called "Library of Congress Recordings" was recorded.

From 1939 Morton made numerous new recordings - among others with Sidney Bechet . Building on this, the musician made a late comeback. In November 1940 he moved to Los Angeles . After being the victim of a knife attack, he suffered from health problems and died on July 10, 1941 in Los Angeles of heart failure.

In addition to his main occupation as a pianist, composer and band leader, Morton worked as a manager of various bars. In the meantime he tried his hand at acting as a theater actor, although he was never able to match his successes as a musician in this area. He was also known as an excellent pool player.


He was also hired as a pianist for commercial productions. So z. B. for the showman and clarinetist Wilton Crawley , who was one of the protagonists of the "gas-pipe" clarinet playing style, a style of playing that was based on the ductus of human voices and combined blowing techniques from klezmer music with other sometimes bizarre blowing techniques. Some of these techniques were revisited by avant-garde jazz clarinetists in the 1980s. "Jelly Roll" Morton was known for having preferred to play his own compositions. Whenever possible, he tried to interpret foreign compositions in his own way. During a production with Wilton Crawley, Morton and Crawley had a confrontation that was ended by Crawley saying the following to Morton: “ Look, Jelly this is my date and we are going to use my arrangements and my way of doing things, not yours! That sort of took him (Morton) down a peg and he didn't have much to say after that for the rest of the day.

Morton was one of the first jazz musicians to deal with the theoretical foundations of this musical genre. Unfortunately, there are few documents on which this claim can be based. In view of his approach to composing and arranging, as well as the high degree of difficulty of his works, it seems reasonable to assume that Morton not only composed and played intuitively, but also worked on the basis of specific knowledge of the characteristics of jazz music. This view is all the more emphatic when one considers that Morton had already composed and notated many of his works before they were played and recorded by the respective orchestra. It was known in musical circles that Morton always dealt intensively with the music to be played. “ Morton, who rarely played tunes other than his own, sat down at the piano to familiarize himself with the music and get the session under way. ”With this planning and sometimes time-consuming way of working, he stood out from the ranks of the many jazz band leaders who worked spontaneously and largely improvised their repertoire. As an example, Morton was the first to cite the so-called "spanish tinge" (Spanish coloring), which is mentioned in the accompanying texts to the album "Sketches of Spain" by Miles Davis and can be clearly seen in "The Crave", "Mamanita" and " The Pearls ”finds.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that there were repeated collaborations with other well-known musicians, in particular Sidney Bechet . Morton and Bechet recorded the aforementioned "Windin 'Boy Blues" together. With Louis Armstrong he played the "Wild Man Blues". Lesser-known but top-notch musicians Morton often worked with included Bunk Johnson , Johnny St. Cyr , Buddy Bertrand , Sidney de Paris and Albert Nicholas , among others . Morton's collaboration with Johnny Dodds and his brother Baby Dodds is impressively documented in the recording of "Wolverine Blues".

Artistic reception

Morton came from a Francophone, upwardly mobile middle class family with a Creole self-image. He did not like to play a subordinate role and rejected the partly open, partly latent racism in the USA . As evidenced by his written oeuvre, he had a high work ethic and made equally high demands on his colleagues, which they did not always accept. The story of the “Red Hot Peppers” in their changing line-ups and Morton's retreat in parts testify to an intelligent and energetic, but also difficult and ambivalent person. Without a doubt, Jelly Roll Morton was an often sensitive, because eccentric, self-centered and proud personality, who on almost every opportunity emphasized her own achievements and loudly named the mistakes of others. But he never tire of remembering the merits of other great composers and interpreters who never achieved the popularity of Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet or Louis Armstrong themselves. His early companion and pianist Tony Jackson, whom he describes as his role model, is one of them.

Thus, for many reasons, Morton's person was exposed to criticism. However, it seems more than questionable to question his musical achievements. On this point, the relevant literature often lacks the desired objectivity and objectivity. Morton was one of the few people who not only witnessed the first steps in jazz music, but were also involved in this original act of creation. Even his harshest critics cannot deny him a minimum of credibility, since a considerable part of his stories was confirmed by contemporary witnesses or can be proven in other ways. His stories are also one of the most important sources about the early development of jazz music. The claim, however, that in retrospect Morton is not only to be regarded as an outstanding musician, but also as the first jazz historian, goes too far.

In retrospect, one can only agree with the musician Art Hodes when he says: "Morton was to the small band what Ellington was to the big band ."

Compositions (selection)

Received recordings and chart placements

see also: The Piano Rolls: Realized by Artis Wodehouse

Chart positions
Explanation of the data
Black bottom stomp
  US 13 1927 (3 weeks)
Original Jelly Roll Blues
  US 17th 1927 (2 weeks)
Grandpa's Spells
  US 17th 1927 (2 weeks)
Wolverine Blues
  US 19th 1928 (1 week)

Sessions documented by published recordings between 1923 and 1940

  • Chicago, June 1923, Jelly Roll Morton and his Orchestra
  • Richmond, July 1923, piano solos
  • Chicago, October 1923, Jelly Roll Morton's Jazz Band
  • Chicago, April 1924, Jelly Roll Morton's Steamboat Four
  • Chicago, April 1924, Jelly Roll Morton's Stomp Kings
  • Chicago, May to June 1924, piano solos
  • Chicago, September 1924, Jelly Roll Morton's Kings of Jazz
  • Chicago, May 1925, Jelly Roll Morton's Jazz Trio
  • Chicago, May 1925, Jelly Roll Morton acc. by Voltaire de Faut
  • Richmond, February 1926, Jelly Roll Morton's Incomparables
  • Chicago, April 1926, piano solos
  • St. Louis, May 1926, St. Louis Levee Band
  • Chicago, July 1926, Jelly Roll Morton feat. Edmonia Henderson acc. by King Oliver
  • Chicago, from September 1926, Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers
  • New York City, Nov / Dec 1929, Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers
  • New York City, Dec 1929, Wilton Crawley and His Orchestra acc. by Jelly Roll Morton
  • New York City, Dec 1929, Lizzie Miles acc. by Jelly Roll Morton
  • New York City, Dec 1929, Jelly Roll Morton Trio
  • New York City, March 1930, Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers
  • New York City, April 1930, Miss Billie Young acc. by Jelly Roll Morton
  • New York City, June 1930, Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers
  • New York City, July 1930, Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers
  • New York City, July 1930, Wilton Crawley and his Orchestra acc. by Jelly Roll Morton
  • New York City, July 1930, Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers
  • New York City, Oct 1930, Jelly Roll Morton and His Orchestra
  • Washington DC, May and July 1938, Library of Congress Recordings
  • New York City, Sept 1939, Jelly Roll Morton's New Orleans Jazzmen
  • New York City, July 1940, Jelly Roll Morton acc. by The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street


  • Gunther Schuller : Jelly Roll Morton . In: Barry Kernfeld (Ed.): The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz Vol. 2 . Macmillan Press Limited, London, 1988, ISBN 0-333-39846-7 ; and Grove's Dictionaries of Music, New York, ISBN 0-935859-39-X .
    A successful introduction to the life of Jelly Roll Morton. This post provides an extensive review of the Jelly Roll Morton literature.
  • Gunther Schuller: Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (= The History of jazz, 1). Oxford University Press, Oxford / New York, 1968, reprinted 1986, ISBN 0-19-504043-0 , pp. 134-174.
  • Brian Rust : Jazz Records 1897-1942 , Volume 2. Storyville Publications, London, 4th Edition, 1978, ISBN 0-87000-404-2 .
  • Laurie Wright: Mr. Jelly Lord . Storyville Book, Chigwell, 1980, ISBN 0-902391-01-1 .
    A compilation of all the recordings associated with Jelly Roll Morton and further discographic information.
  • Omer Simeon: Mostly about Morton . In: Jazz Record, No. 37 (1947), page 5 ff.
    A treatise that has almost been forgotten, written in 1945 by his friend and colleague.
  • Alan Lomax : Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and "Inventor of Jazz" . University of California Press, Berkley / Los Angeles / London, 1991, ISBN 0-520-22530-9 . 1st edition: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1950, LCCN  50-008436 ( online edition ).
    English: Doctor Jazz: an autobiography . Translated by Fritz Herdi. Luchterhand-Literaturverlag, Hamburg / Zurich, 1992, ISBN 978-3-630-71076-1 . First German edition: Doctor Jazz: Mister Jelly Rolls Moritat vom Jazz (= Sanssouci Jazz Library, 1). Sanssouci Verlag, Zurich, 1960, DNB 453462472 .
    This work is the indispensable basis for this contribution. The biography is considered a standard work on the life of Jelly Roll Morton. It was created in close cooperation between the musician and the author and is based on the conversations during the aforementioned "Library of Congress Recordings" from 1938. In addition to a presentation of the social conditions in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries This work contains interviews and statements from family members and numerous contemporaries of Jelly Roll Morton and in this way offers a far-reaching insight into the circumstances that led to the emergence of jazz. The title of the German-language edition Doctor Jazz: An Autobiography is based on the composition of the same name. Some representations by Morton have been corrected by more recent historical work.
  • Martin Williams : Jelly Roll Morton . In: Nat Hentoff, Albert John McCarthy (Ed.): Jazz. New perspectives on the history of jazz by twelve of the world's foremost jazz critics and scholars . Rinehart & Co, New York / Toronto, 1959, LCCN  59-011788 .
  • Martin Williams: Jelly Roll Morton (= Kings of Jazz, 11). Cassell, London, 1962, LCCN  62-004600 .
  • William Russell : Oh Mister Jelly! A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook . Jazz Media ApS, Copenhagen 1999, ISBN 87-88043-26-6 .
    The source collection is the result of over 30 years of collecting, interviews and research.
  • Phil Pastras: Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West (= Music of the African diaspora, 5). University of California Press, Berkeley, and Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College Chicago, 2001, ISBN 0-520-21523-0 .
    Pastras mainly describes the time in California.
  • Howard Reich, Williams Gaines: Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton . Da Capo Press, Cambridge (Massachusetts), 2003, ISBN 0-306-81209-6 .
  • James Dapogny : Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton: The Collected Piano Music . Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and G. Schirmer, New York, 1982, ISBN 0-87474-351-6 .
    Dapogny offers transcriptions of around 40 solo piano recordings by Morton.


Web links

Commons : Jelly Roll Morton  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Alan Lomax: Complete Library Of Congress Recordings .
  2. ^ Peter Hanley: Ferd Joseph Morton: WWI Draft Registration Card 12th September 1918 . November 2005, accessed January 1, 2017.
  3. The bright, screeching clarinet sounds of this style are reminiscent of the whistling and squeaking noises of a leaky gas pipe.
  4. ^ Columbia A-2994, recorded in New York June 23, 1920
  5. ^ Liner notes to RCA Victor LPV-524, by Charles Edward Smith .
  6. Alan Lomax Mr. Jelly Roll , New York 1950, p. 62 : "If you can't manage to put tinges of spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for Jazz" . He is referring to his "New Orleans Blues" from 1902
  7. ^ Gerhard Klußmeier : Jazz in the Charts. Another view on jazz history. Liner notes and booklet for the 100 CD edition. Membrane International GmbH. ISBN 978-3-86735-062-4 .
  8. Parts of this overview are based on the information provided by Laurie Wright and Roger Richard. A comparable compilation can be found in the appendix to the German-language edition of Alan Lomax's biography on Jelly Roll Morton "Doctor Jazz - An Autobiography" from 1992 (Luchterhand collection) and comes from Gerhard Klußmeier.
  9. Morton documents the early history of jazz by recording and juxtaposing several versions of the same piece in different ways. In this way he illustrates the differences between ragtime and jazz and makes it possible to understand the early development of jazz. He also tells from the lives of various jazz musicians as well as numerous anecdotes from the childhood days of jazz. Overall, these recordings focus less on the person of the narrator than on the circumstances in which he lived and which shaped him as an artist. The recordings were newly published in full in 2005 as an eight-CD box set under the title “The Complete Library of Congress Recordings”. The reason that these recordings were only fully published after 67 years is probably that Morton's language usage largely corresponds to that of a pimp (Alan Lomax: "pimp slang") and he does not shy away from using politically incorrect terms and formulations . The recordings won two Grammy Awards .
    Duck Baker: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings: Jelly Roll Morton . Description of the recordings and review in: JazzTimes , January / February 2006 (English).