Sunday, January 1, 2012

Jelly Roll Morton

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Jelly Roll Morton

Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton was one of the greatest jazz pianists and composers of all time. He is mostly remembered for his music which successfully bridged the gap between blues, jazz, and ragtime. He even claimed in once that he invented jazz

Born to Creole parents in 1890, he grew up in a poor neighborhood in New Orleans. After his father left, he took the surname Mouton from his stepfather because he didn’t like the French name he was born with. From banging on pots and pans he progressed to the guitar and ultimately to the piano at which he excelled. He made a living by playing at the local brothels and cabarets until his grandmother, whom he was living with after his mother passed away, found out and kicked him out of the house.

He then traveled the South and made a living playing the piano, pimping, hustling pool, and playing cards. He began carrying a pistol and drinking whiskey and even did time on a Mississippi chain gang for allegedly robbing a mail truck. By the age of 20 had already written songs that were to become classics such as “New Orleans Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” and “Jelly Roll Blues.”

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In 1897, at the age of 7, he arrived in Los Angeles and played at the many bars and clubs in the booming western town. There was money to be made so he stayed there for five years working as a pianist and a hotel owner. One of his trademarks was the diamond he had set into one of his front teeth. He pawned the diamond whenever necessary.

Then he moved to Chicago to record music. Jazz was becoming very popular and Chicago was at the center of it. He became very popular and was well known for his wild boasting and storytelling. Sheet music was becoming a large industry, and for those who composed popular tunes, like Morton, there was money to be made. Previously, musicians had been scared of publication (and sometimes recording, too) fearing that others would steal their music. But now there was simply too much money to be made to ignore, and Jelly Roll Morton cashed in on it.

Morton was very busy that first year in Chicago; he recorded more than thirty sides in that single year. These included solo piano works and duets with King Oliver as well as trios with Oliver and clarinetist Volly de Faut.

By 1906 his band, Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers, was doing very well and he was also labeled as Melrose Publications’ staff writer. The group was composed of a variety of New Orleans musicians, and Morton used two separate lineups on the records George Mitchell played cornet, either Omer Simeon or Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Kid Ory or George Bryant on trombone, Stump Evans playing alto sax on several sides, Johnny St. Cyr or Bud Scott on the banjo, John Lindsay playing bass or Quinn Wilson on tuba, and Andrew Hilaire or Baby Dodds on drums. With help from The Melrose brothers, he released several albums of his work that went all the way back to what he had played in the New Orleans brothels 10 years before.

Jelly Roll then met up, through Melrose, with Victor Records. Victor had been looking for “race” and “hillbilly” musicians to record for those niche markets. Both companies collaborated with the sales of both records and sheet music to tap into both businesses. This gave Jelly Roll and his band an opportunity to reach a much larger audience than they were able to do before.

From 1907 to 1920 Morton recorded 58 songs for Victor but when his contract expired in 10 they did not resign him. The thirties were hard on him as well as the rest of the country. He drifted to New York and Washington D.C. but could not find a way to get things back together. No longer did he have all the diamond rings, watches, and fancy cars that he’d had in the mid-20’s.

When Melrose had submitted Jelly Roll’s songs for patents he wrote in lyrics any chance he could get. This made him a collaborator and he was able to receive royalty checks that he was unwilling to share. When Jelly Roll contacted the Department of Justice, Melrose just sold all the music and his company to keep the rest of the money.

Jelly Roll Morton remained mostly obscure throughout the thirties except for a famous recorded interview for the Library of Congress in 1938. When his godmother died in 1940 he moved to California, reportedly to make sure that some diamonds she had had would not be stolen. He arrived too late to recover the jewels and eventually died a bitter, broken man in Los Angeles in 1941.

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