Name originally Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe (some sources cite surname as Lemott or La Mothe); born September 20, 1885 (some sources say October 20, 1890), in Gulfport, LA (some sources say New Orleans, LA); died July 10, 1941, in Los Angeles, CA; son of F.P. "Ed" and Louise (Monette) La Menthe.

When one hears of jazz having its roots in New Orleans, some of the first jazz musicians that come to mind are Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. While jazz historian Gunther Schuller considered Armstrong "the first great soloist," he called Morton "the first great composer" in his book Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development . In addition to being a composer, Morton was a vocalist, pianist, arranger, and ensemble leader. His contributions to the development of jazz were improvisational as well as compositional and his legacy endures in spite of the fact that he didn't make his first commercial recordings until 1923, twenty years after he first appeared on the New Orleans musical scene.

Much of what we know about Morton's early years is the result of contemporary accounts and Morton's own reminiscences, both of which vary in reliability. In his late-in-life Library of Congress Recordings (1938), he recalled his musical past and recreated many of the styles from the first two decades of the twentieth century. Morton's personality has also tended to obscure his very real contributions to jazz. As Waldo Terry observed in This Is Ragtime, Morton was "a complete singing, joke-telling, piano-playing entertainer, but he was also a key figure in the development of jazz music." In The Jazz Tradition, Martin Williams noted "the colorful character of Jelly Roll Morton seems to be one of the abiding cliches of jazz history."

Morton was at various times in his life a gambler, pool-hall hustler, procurer, nightclub owner, and itinerant piano player. He traveled around the country, and his piano playing was heard all the way from Los Angeles to New York. He was known as a braggart and a liar and claimed to have invented jazz in 1902. Williams confessed that one of the problems biographers face when researching Morton is that "he had a large and fragile ego that hardly encourages one to try and understand the man." Summing up Morton's personality in The Real Jazz, Old and New, Stephen Longstreet concluded that "he was no easy man to get along with. He knew he was good and his bump of ego was salted with genius. He was a creative jazz man, not just a performer; part naive, part mean."

Morton was known to have arrived on the New Orleans scene around 1902. To understand the context in which Morton worked, it is necessary to learn a little about New Orleans geography. Two sections of the city--one uptown and the other downtown--had been partitioned, so to speak, into areas where all kinds of vice were allowed. Music was played in the bordellos, which ranged from converted mansions to the lowest "cribs," as well as in gambling dens and other types of clubs. Each section had its own style of music, with the uptown style characterized as hot and emotional and largely played by blacks. The downtown section was the legendary Storyville, a bawdy, sinful area nestled in the French Quarter. Storyville was named after New Orleans Alderman Sidney Story, who initiated the city ordinance that set up the two areas where prostitution could be carried on legally. Down in Storyville, there were primarily Creoles playing a more controlled type of music, and this is the area where Morton lived and played.

New Orleans around the turn of the century was bursting with music, and ragtime was the music of the period. In Morton's early New Orleans days, from about 1902 to 1907, contemporary accounts indicate that he was playing something different. According to Schuller, "It takes only a few moments of comparative listening to any early ragtime recording to hear the marked difference between Jelly Roll's jazz style and the more rigid, conservative ragtime." He loosened up the rhythmic tightness of ragtime with his left hand, and he made right-hand improvisation the keynote of his piano style. By means of embellishments and improvisations, he gave melodic lines a freer, looser feeling.

Ragtime, within a decade of its emergence around 1899, was overtaken by "exploitation, excess, popularization, decadence, and its own implicit limitations," according to Williams. Calling Morton a "modernist" for the moment he represents, Williams further noted that "Morton was part of a movement which saved things from decadence. Ragtime was structurally, rhythmically, and emotionally limited, and Morton seems to have known it."

An overlapping movement in American popular music in the first decade of the century was "the blues craze," announced by the publication of W.C. Handy's songs, "St. Louis Blues" and "Beale Street Blues." As a composer, Morton considered ragtime and blues not just musical styles, but specific musical forms. Ragtime was a multi-thematic structure, while the blues was a single-theme form with a predetermined chord progression. According to Schuller and other writers, Morton distinguished between ragtime, blues, and jazz before leaving New Orleans in 1907.

Schuller is one writer who appears willing to accept, at least in part, Morton's claim to have invented jazz, noting the variety of sources Morton used in his music: ragtime, opera, and French and Spanish popular songs and dances. To these musical materials, Schuller concluded, Morton "applied a smoother, more swinging syncopation and a greater degree of improvisational license." Schuller also credited Morton with "blending the more technically controlled playing of Downtown with the hot, unabashedly emotional playing of Uptown." He characterized Morton's improvisational style as one based on themes or melodies, rather than improvisations over a chord structure, as in later jazz. Finally, Schuller pointed out that Morton took the "vertical" harmonic emphasis of ragtime and turned it into a "horizontal" music with a "rhythmic forward momentum ... without which, either in Morton's or subsequent players' terms, there could be no jazz."

Morton's innovations as a piano player, and later as an ensemble leader, reflect his compositional genius. By means of melodic improvisation, Morton would give songs variations over chorus-like patterns, combining several strains into larger complete ideas. In addition to ragtime, with its multi-thematic structure, blues influenced Morton's style of play and composition. It was likely the blues, being essentially improvised, that allowed Morton "the improvisational freedom and emotional expressiveness that one side of his nature demanded," according to Schuller.

He also absorbed Italian and French opera, as did other trained Creole musicians of the day. His solo and ensemble playing has been praised by critics for his use of countermelodies, in ensemble to accompany soloists and in his orchestral-like compositions played on solo piano. It was likely his opera influences that gave him an appreciation of unity of form and allowed him to introduce countermelodies and embellish his melodies by repetition. Schuller believes that through his exposure to opera, "Morton learned to value the sense of enrichment and complexity contributed by such counterlines."

Morton may have also invented the jazz break, typically two bars of improvisation inserted into a composition. Again quoting Schuller, "Morton was certainly the first jazz musician to insist upon inclusion of particular compositional details [such as riffs and breaks] in an otherwise improvised performance." He constantly sought variety and contrast in his formal compositions. "When the composition did not already contain sufficient formal contrast," Schuller continued, "Morton would intersperse blues choruses at just the proper moments."

Ironically, when Morton hit his peak in the Red Hot Peppers ensemble recordings of 1926-28, his particular mixture of ragtime and blues and his strong sense of form in his compositions had become "old-fashioned." According to Schuller, Morton was "an anachronistic figure in mid-career." By the late 1920s popular music had strongly influenced jazz, and Louis Armstrong's innovations had left the New Orleans tradition of collective improvisation way behind. Nevertheless, Schuller stated, that "the most perfect examples of this kind of improvised-ensemble organization were produced by Jelly Roll and his Red Hot Peppers, where contrasting individual lines attain a degree of complexity and unity that jazz had not experienced before."

It is Williams's belief that Morton's Red Hot Peppers recordings, done in Chicago and New York, form the basis of his musical reputation. The recording sessions were successful for several reasons. For one, they were carefully rehearsed. Morton wrote out or dictated the arrangements, and he discussed with the players where the solos and breaks should occur. The sessions combined improvisation and pre-arranged compositions in a perfect example of the New Orleans style of collective improvisation. Some of the best cuts from these sessions, according to Schuller, are "Black Bottom Stomp," "Smoke House Blues," "Dead Man Blues," "Grandpa's Spells," and "Original Jelly Roll Blues." Later sessions, often with other musicians, would not be as memorable.

The musical record left by Jelly Roll Morton is incomplete, leaving out as it does the first 20 years of his career. However, all is not lost, and through Jelly Roll's genius he was able to recreate the piano styles of Storyville in the first decade of the twentieth century. Listening to his solo piano on songs like "Sporting House Rag" and "Naked Dance" from the 1939 sessions for General (later released as New Orleans Memories ), one understands and hears that Morton's piano playing was characterized by rhythmic variety, shifted accents, delays and anticipations, and melodic embellishments, all leading to a sense of fantastic and frenzied variation. His most successful solo and ensemble recordings reveal his vision of jazz as requiring contrast and variety at all levels.

by David Bianco

Jelly Roll Morton's Career

Pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader credited by many jazz historians as being the father of jazz. Played piano, sang, and led New Orleans-style jazz ensembles from around 1902-1940. Made first commercial recordings in Chicago in 1923.

Jelly Roll Morton's Awards

Named to the Down Beat Critics' Poll Hall of Fame, 1963.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 30, 2004: Morton was inducted into the inaugural class of Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Source: "Jazz At Lincoln Center To Induct Inaugural Class of Musicians into The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame" (Press Release), September 30, 2004.

Further Reading



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