Personalities | Jelly Roll Morton | Twenties | Jazz & Blues

Ridiculed as a braggart, pimp, card shark and pool hustler, the audacious, self-proclaimed inventor of jazz Jelly Roll Morton was also hailed as a pioneering composer, gifted arranger, dazzling pianist and the greatest entertainer that New Orleans ever produced. He was one of the first jazz musicians to strike a perfect balance between composition and collective improvisation, bridging the gap between ragtime and jazz.

Ferdinand Lamothe Becomes Mr. Jelly Roll

Born on 20 October 1890, Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe was a Creole of mixed French and African ancestry. He was among the earliest piano players in the bordellos of the Storyville district, where he mixed elements of ragtime, minstrel and marching-band music, foxtrots and French quadrilles, opera and salon music along with Latin American-influenced rhythms, which he called ‘the Spanish tinge’.

By 1907, after re-christening himself ‘Jelly Roll Morton’, he began to travel the black vaudeville circuit around the Gulf Coast. By 1911 his travels had brought him up to New York, and the following year he made trips through Texas and the Midwest. Morton settled in Chicago in 1914 and remained in this new centre of hot jazz until 1917, during which time he composed and published his earliest numbers, including ‘Jelly Roll Blues’, ‘New Orleans Blues’ and ‘Winin’ Boy Blues’.

Morton’s Red Hot Peppers

Morton travelled to California during the summer of 1917 and remained there throughout 1922, working his way up and down the West Coast from Tijuana to Vancouver with pick-up bands. By May of 1923 he was back in Chicago and in June made his first recordings – ‘Big Fat Ham’ and ‘Muddy Water Blues’ – for the Paramount label. In July, he cut sides with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (‘Sobbin’ Blues’, ‘Mr. Jelly Lord’, ‘Milenburg Joys’ and ‘London Blues’), along with some solo piano pieces (‘Wolverine Blues’, ‘New Orleans Joys’, ‘Grandpa’s Spells’, ‘The Pearls’ and ‘King Porter Stomp’), for Gennett Records. In 1924, Morton recorded two piano-cornet duets, ‘Tom Cat Blues’ and ‘King Porter Stomp’, with his New Orleans colleague King Oliver. Morton recorded prolifically throughout 1926–27 with two different editions of his Red Hot Peppers, cutting classic New Orleans-flavoured sides such as ‘The Chant’, ‘Black Bottom Stomp’, ‘Sidewalk Blues’, ‘Dead Man Blues’, ‘Jelly Roll Blues’ and ‘Grandpa’s Spells’ in 1926 with a group featuring Kid Ory, Omer Simeon and Johnny St. Cyr, and ‘The Pearls’, ‘Jungle Blues’ and ‘Wild Man Blues’ in 1927 with a band that included both Johnny and Baby Dodds.

When the centre of jazz shifted to New York, Morton relocated there and from 1928–30 recorded several sides for the Victor label, including lesser-known tunes such as ‘Low Gravy’, ‘Deep Creek’, ‘Tank Town Bump’ and ‘Smilin’ The Blues Away’. For these New York sessions, Morton recorded with a new edition of the Red Hot Peppers, featuring trumpeters Henry ‘Red’ Allen and Bubber Miley, trombonists Geechie Fields and J.C. Higginbotham, clarinetists Omer Simeon and Albert Nicholas, bassist Pops Foster and drummers...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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