Friday, June 17, 2011

Jelly Roll Morton - Dr. Jazz-1926

I've decided to share some of my favorite upbeat musical selections, starting here with a rendition by the famous Ferdinand Joseph "Jelly Roll" Morton, whose band, The Red Hot Peppers, was one of the major hot jazz bands of the 1920's. They toured all over the country.

F.J. "Jelly Roll" Morton (1885 or 1890 -1941) grew up in New Orleans like Louis Armstrong. He played his piano in "sporting houses" (brothels) in the Storyville District. He claimed later to have invented jazz piano himself around 1902, which is generally considered a bit of a stretch.

He likely was one of the first to transition from the ragtime style to something close to jazz.

He was also one of the great jazz composers, and a 1915 song he wrote and arranged might have been the first jazz tune published. (A jazz band itself was not recorded until the folowing year, players like King Oliver and WC Handy being afraid that other bands would copy their music note for note if it went to records.)

It is true that Morton wrote "Wolverine Blues", "King Porter Stomp", "New Orleans Bump" and other major standards of the early "hot" and "swing" eras. He never got any royalties for these compositions however.

Allen Lomax, a music pioneer as far as finding and recording these great artists, did record Jelly Roll in his later years for a collection that was issued by the Library of Congress later on. By the late '30's his style of music was considere passe.

Morton ran a saloon near Washington, DC in his later years. He was in an altercation in 1939 with a robber where he suffered stab wounds. His wife got him to leave the business and move out to California in his final years.

His was such a major influence on all types of American music that he was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And how he could play piano!


  1. This period of Jazz always left me a little cold. That said, it is possible to hear in the early recordings the roots of what was to become Americas only original contribution to culture. Jazz and Blues have become iconic of the 20th Century America know and loved the world over. The range of the music is breath taking with near full orchestral pieces by Gershwin through to small groups, perhaps best exemplified by Miles Davis, means that you would have to be tone deaf not to find something to please the ear.

  2. I agree this period is not to everyone's taste, Jim. I find the best of the 20's and early 30's material more accessible and interesting generally than the "free jazz"of Odette Coleman and "fusion" stuff of various artists that came around when I was coming up in the 70's, but that's simply a matter of taste.

    Great music as you know comes out of all periods and musicians like Miles and John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins gave us great legacies by reinventing America's one true original art form. It's a process that is still going on, of course.

    And you make an excellent point. Jazz and Blues was so democratic in this era. Great music was coming out of the most unlikely places! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Are you deliberately looking to provoke a fight Jim?!!

  4. No, but if one's a comin' then I'm up for it!


    But seriously, Jazz and Blues are the only true cultural contributions originating in America. That of course does not mean that there are no great American symphony musicians, ballet dancers, painters or indeed any other genre of artist. And, I think, the world would be a damn sight poorer for not having Jazz and Blues don't you agree?

  5. This music to me is very much the urbanisation of the Blues. When I hear early jazz like this I am not only reminded of the black American cultural contribution, but also of Bertolt Brecht and European cafe society between the wars. To me we are hearing the birth of global popular music here, the first commodification of an American cultural identity and the birth of the record companies growing expropriation of popular culture on a worldwide scale, the first strains in the earliest soundtrack of modernity. The music has for me a number of layers of meaning, but ultimately it provides the first anthems of the American empire and the origins of the entertainment industry.

  6. Well said Jim. The world would be a damn sight poorer without American writers and other artists. And I'm not flag-waving here. Just the importance of the American film industry to the first 60 or 70 years of global 20th Century pop culture is so readily self-evident it requires no additions from me. But I could hardly claim cinema itself is an American creation.

  7. I can't add anything to that analysis, AA. Between you and Jim I feel a bit over my head. :-)