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Jelly Roll Morton: Black American and the First Arranger of Jazz

Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe was an American jazz and ragtime pianist, composer, and bandleader. His professional moniker was Jelly Roll Morton, and he is widely heralded as the “first arranger” of jazz. Morton proved that a genre heavily rooted in spontaneity successfully preserved its essential attributes, even when recorded through notations.

Jelly Roll Morton

Early Life

Ferdinand LaMothe was born on the 20th of October 1890 to Edward Joseph Lamothe and Louise Hermance Monette in the Creole community of New Orleans. However, the date and year of birth are quite uncertain due to the lack of any birth certificate, with some sources claiming he was born in 1885. Edward left Louise when Ferdinand was three. In 1894, Louise tied the knot to William Mouton, whose surname was later adopted by a young Ferdinand. He subsequently anglicized it to Morton.

Musical Journey

Jelly Roll Morton's "Jelly Roll Blues" poster

Morton started off as a piano player, performing in a local brothel. He adopted the nickname “Jelly Roll,” an African-American colloquial term for female genitalia. He started living with his great-grandmother and had convinced her that he was a night watchman at the local factory. However, his cover was blown, and his grandmother subsequently disowned him for disgracing the family name.

In 1904, he started touring Southern America, working in medieval music shows along with composing music. He crafted “King Porter Stomp,” “Animule Dance,” “Frog-I-More Rag,” and “Jelly Roll Blues” in this period. In 1910, he was touring Chicago and also visited New York City in the next year. Morton and his partner Rosa Brown performed as a “vaudeville act” before settling in Chicago for the next three years. In 1915, his “Jelly Roll Blues” become one of the foremost jazz numbers to be published. In 1917, he performed “The Crave,” one of his popular tango numbers at Vancouver’s Hotel Patricia nightclub. In 1923, he claimed the authorship of “The Wolverines,” which was also famous as the “Wolverine Blues.” His first commercial recording was also released that year, both as piano rolls and recording.

In 1926, he entered into a contractual agreement with the Victor Talking Machine Company. He was given access to a band and the opportunity to utilize the company studios in Chicago. The band was named “Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers.” The members included Andrew Hilaire, Johnny Dodds, Barney Bigard, Johnny St. Cyr, George Mitchell, Omer Simeon, and Kid Ory. Morton continued his association with Victor even after moving to New York City. However, he often failed to find musicians who were adept at playing his jazz style, and his New York sessions ultimately failed to produce any significant hits. In 1928, Ferdinand tied the knot with showgirl Mabel Bertrand.

In 1931, his contract was not renewed by Victor owing to the Great Depression, and he further faced financial constraints. In 1934, he had a brief stint on the radio and even toured with a burlesque band. The following year finally brought success, as his “King Porter Stomp,” a 30-year-old composition, was deemed a commercial hit. However, he received zero commission for this piece. In 1935, he moved to Shaw in central Washington, D.C., and was appointed the manager-cum-pianist at a local bar called the “Music Box.” He successfully performed in this African-American neighborhood for quite some time before catching the eye of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. In 1938, Lomax encouraged him to record his life stories, to which the composer reluctantly agreed. The short sessions and interviews were initially intended for the researchers working at the Library of Congress. However, they soon turned into elongated recordings where Morton often played the piano while Lomax took extensive notes.

In 1938, tragedy struck when Morton was stabbed by a local who frequented the Music Box. He suffered multiple wounds to the chest and head, but the local all-white hospital refused him entry. The racially segregated neighborhood had separate hospitals for the colored population. Morton had to be transported to another hospital far away, which treated black people. However, the delayed treatment made it impossible for him to completely recover physically. This incident left its mark, as he contracted asthma and often fell ill. He was subsequently transferred to another hospital in New York City, where he was admitted for three months. He finally moved to Los Angeles for a fresh start, where he passed away on the 10th of July, 1941.

Compositions and Awards

Ferdinand’s piano style comprised “shout” a New York branch of stride piano and early ragtime characteristics. It was also similar to the “Barrelhouse style,” which gave birth to the “boogie-woogie” dance form. Also, Morton predominantly used his right thumb while playing a tune while utilizing the other fingers of his right hand for any other higher notes. This unusual blend often added an “out-of-tune” or rustic sound to his melodies. This technique also had a touch of New Orleans, where he grew up. Morton further utilized the major sixth interval and minor sixth interval in the bass in place of octaves or tenths. He also had the unique ability to play the swing rhythms efficiently with both hands.

The majority of his compositions were actually self-musical tributes, the most prominent ones included “Winin' Boy” and “Mr. Jelly Lord.” His band hits included “King Porter Stomp,” which was considered a standard in the swing band repertoire of that time. Jelly Roll Morton had claimed ownership of multiple songs that were copyrighted by other musicians, including - “Sweet Peter,” “Tiger Rag,” and “Alabama Bound.” Morton had recorded “Sweet Peter” in 1926, which appeared to be the inspiration of another hit number “All of Me,” which was copyrighted by Seymour Simons and Gerald Marks in 1931.

In 1970, Van Morrison, the Irish singer-songwriter, referred to Morton as “Jelly Roll” in the opening track of his album “Moondance.” He later articulated it as a tribute to his own childhood memories of listening to Morton’s recordings. In 1984, Samuel Charters, an eminent folklorist, released a book titled “Last Night at the Jungle Inn: An Imaginary Memoir,” which elaborated the pianist’s early life stories. His “Library of Congress interviews” won two Grammy Awards and were also released posthumously. Morton was also presented with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also a posthumous inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Jazz Royalty

Jelly Roll Morton was a colossus in the world of jazz, the first great traveling jazz and piano star of the 20th century. His work for the Library of Congress is absolutely magical. The French influence in his high-stepping ragtime compositions is profound and equally hard-driving. His musical elements reveal a masterclass of how to transform the shortcomings of the “Barrelhouse,” an elegant makeover that is deeply embedded all across contemporary music, even after 80 years.

In the 1920s, at his prime, Morton showed the world how the rough, blue-rooted Jazz of New Orleans could be converted into a vivacious ensemble of subtle counter melodies, a sophisticated art that evokes and nurtures the choirs and the blues into the heart of the musical world. He triumphs like a maestro, combining the character of a city and the origins of its people into a musical concoction that will forever remain etched across eternity. His jazz connects like no other - Jelly Roll Morton is indeed jazz royalty.


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