THE DOZENS: JELLY ROLL MORTON by Rob Bamberger

“Jelly

   Jelly Roll Morton, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

It’s evening in Washington, D.C., and the year is 1938. Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton, who had once known far better times, tuned in his radio to Robert Ripley’s popular broadcast, “Believe It Or Not.” Ripley’s guest was W.C. Handy, the man who composed or set down some of the most popular blues tunes of all—notably the “St. Louis Blues,” “Memphis,” and “Beale Street Blues.” When Handy was introduced as the originator of jazz and the blues, Morton went uncorked and fired off a 4000-word screed to the Baltimore Afro-American and Downbeat magazine. “W.C. Handy is a liar,” was the headline of the Baltimore paper.

“Dear Mr. Ripley,” wrote Morton, “you have done me a great injustice and you have almost misled many of your fans… . It is evidently known, beyond contradiction that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz and I, myself, happened to be the creator in the year 1902. . . .” Morton signed his letter and titled himself the “Originator of Jazz and Stomps, Victor Artist, World’s Greatest Hot Tune Writer.”

It is always a tricky thing in jazz to declare “firsts” and ascribe invention to anyone because so much of the music in its early years took place away from the recording horn and out of earshot. Nonetheless, it is beyond denying that Morton, in his nomadic wanderings during the early twentieth century, codified a wealth of influences into a music that broke from the stiffness of ragtime to fashion a nascent jazz that was greater than the sum of its parts.

Many of the scribes writing for this page were disturbed by the marginalization of figures like Morton in Ken Burns’ documentary on jazz. The release of Morton’s Library of Congress recordings in 2005 by Rounder Records (which netted a Grammy for John Szwed’s liner notes) boosted Morton’s profile. But, many have yet to discover the beauty, craftsmanship, and excitement of his music. The rest of us might envy them the experience.

Here are a dozen essential Jelly Roll Morton performances.


Jelly Roll Morton: Jelly Roll Blues

Track

Jelly Roll Blues

Artist

CD

Ferd “Jelly Roll” Morton (Retrieval RTR 79002)

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Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano).

Recorded: Richmond, Indiana, June 9, 1924

Albumcoverferdjellyrollmorton

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

Morton believed that the piano should sound like an entire orchestra in every respect—ensemble, sections and soloists. Listening to a Morton solo, one can imagine how passages and Morton’s single-note breaks and filigrees might be assigned to different parts of the orchestra. To this conception Morton added breaks and riffs. “Jelly Roll Blues,” which Morton claimed to have written the in 1905, was in all probability the first of his pieces to be published. It appeared in print, in Chicago, around 1915. This work, like many early original jazz compositions, retained a vestige of ragtime, especially in its employment of multiple melodic strains.

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Jelly Roll Morton: Original Jelly Roll Blues

Track

Original Jelly Roll Blues

Group

Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers

CD

The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial --- His Complete Victor Recordings (RCA 078635236125)

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Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano), George Mitchell (cornet), Kid Ory (trombone), Omer Simeon (clarinet), Johnny St. Cyr (guitar), John Lindsay (bass), Andrew Hilaire (drums).

Composed by Jelly Roll Morton

.

Recorded: Chicago, December 16, 1926

Albumcoverjrmortoncent

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

Comparing Morton’s piano solo recording of the “Jelly Roll Blues” with this version by his Red Hot Peppers affords an opportunity to hear how Morton translated a piano composition into an ensemble format. Whether as a piano solo or band side, the "Jelly Roll Blues" is replete with choruses of what Morton described as the "Spanish tinge," inspired by the tangos he recalled from his New Orleans youth. This tune came to make such an impression that Shelton Brooks included a reference to it—"when they play those 'Jelly Roll Blues'"—in his lyrics to the "Darktown Strutters' Ball."

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Jelly Roll Morton: Black Bottom Stomp

Track

Black Bottom Stomp

Group

Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers

CD

The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial --- His Complete Victor Recordings (RCA 078635236125)

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Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano), George Mitchell (cornet), Kid Ory (trombone), Omer Simeon (clarinet), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), John Lindsay (bass), Andrew Hilaire (drums).

Composed by Jelly Roll Morton

.

Recorded: Chicago, September 15, 1926

Albumcoverjrmortoncent

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

This recording was added to the Library of Congress National Sound Registry in 2006, and it sums up in three minutes the essence of New Orleans jazz—and what differentiates it from “Dixieland.” New Orleans style had, at its center, a reliance on ensemble polyphony. The instruments in the front line—trumpet, clarinet and trombone—have different but complementary functions that, in the hands of musicians skilled in the tradition, allow all three instruments to play simultaneously without creating a musical hash. Morton’s aesthetic is on display: By balancing the ensemble and the soloists, and peppering the performance with instrumental breaks, a stop-time passage and more, the “Black Bottom Stomp” takes on compositional form, but never at any sacrifice of the New Orleans spirit that lies at its heart.

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Jelly Roll Morton: Doctor Jazz

Track

Doctor Jazz

Group

Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers

CD

The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial --- His Complete Victor Recordings (RCA 078635236125)

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Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano, vocals), George Mitchell (cornet), Kid Ory (trombone), Omer Simeon (clarinet), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), John Lindsay (bass), Andrew Hilaire (drums).

Composed by Jelly Roll Morton

.

Recorded: Chicago, December 16, 1926

Albumcoverjrmortoncent

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Morton sometimes worked as an entertainer during his nomadic years, and fancied himself a great comic. But the sketch openings on a few of his records reveal that Morton’s sense of humor was devoid of subtlety for anything but a tent show audience. Morton’s inability to outgrow the conventions of early twentieth-century vaudeville account in part for the lack of common ground between Morton and the new generation of swing musicians in New York during the 1930s. However, as a singer and raconteur, Morton was nonpareil, as he is on “Dr. Jazz.” Jelly’s elongated “Well” at the start of his vocal (more like “Wal-l-l-l-llll”) sounds like a cicada with strep and draws us right to the side of ‘ole Dr. Jazz.

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Jelly Roll Morton: Wolverine Blues

Track

Wolverine Blues

Artist

CD

The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial --- His Complete Victor Recordings (RCA 078635236125)

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Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Baby Dodds (drums).

Recorded: Chicago, June 10, 1927

Albumcoverjrmortoncent

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

The success of this tune may have helped convince Morton to devote all his energies to music. Morton claimed to have written “Wolverines” around 1906. Years later, the publishing rights were sold to Melrose Music, and Morton was disturbed when the Melrose brothers published it as the “Wolverine Blues.” Titling a song a “blues” was good for sales; however, Morton was fussy about such things and didn’t like “Wolverines” designated a blues when it wasn’t. Here are three New Orleans masters at their craft, Morton and the Dodds each employing half the record to show just how much the published “Wolverine Blues” wasn’t!

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Jelly Roll Morton: Freakish

Track

Freakish

Artist

CD

The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial: His Complete Victor Recordings (RCA 078635236125)

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Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano).

Composed by Jelly Roll Morton

.

Recorded: Chicago, July 8, 1929

Albumcoverjrmortoncent

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

It is among the profoundest ironies in jazz that by the time Morton recorded titles like “Black Bottom Stomp” and “Dr. Jazz,” the New Orleans polyphonic ensemble had become an anachronism. Morton was not entirely unmindful that orchestras were getting larger and the traditional multi-strain compositions displaced by the AABA of Tin Pan Alley popular song. “Freakish” is one sign that Morton knew changes were afoot. Jim Dapogny has noted that the final strain of the piece uses a device that was “enduringly modern in conception: [Morton’s] use of repeated two-measure phrases,” which would prove to be the basis of many a jazz tune in the years to come.

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Jelly Roll Morton: Deep Creek

Track

Deep Creek

Artist

CD

The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial --- His Complete Victor Recordings (RCA 078635236125)

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Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano), Russell Procope (clarinet, alto sax),

Edward Anderson, Edwin Swayze (trumpets); William G. Kato (trombone); Paul Barnes (soprano sax); Joe Garland (tenor sax); Lee Blair (guitar); William Moore (brass bass); Manzie Johnson (drums)

.

Recorded: New York City, December 6, 1928

Albumcoverjrmortoncent

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Once he was in New York, Morton’s recording ensembles grew in size. Single instruments gave way to sections. “Deep Creek” was not attributed to the Red Hot Peppers, but to “Jelly-Roll Morton and his Orchestra.” This piece might not be a consensus pick for inclusion in a list of Morton recordings pared to a dozen, but it’s a blues so unhurried and inspired in its use of space that it leaves one mesmerized and stunned by record’s end. It’s unusual for Morton to commit so much of a performance to individual solos, but Morton uses the resources of the ensemble to provide a deep and rich organ-like background that persists until his final floating chord.

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Jelly Roll Morton: The Pearls

Track

The Pearls

Artist

CD

Jelly Roll Morton 1938, 1940
(LP only: Alamac QSR 2424)

Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano).

Composed by Jelly Roll Morton

.

Recorded: Baltimore, ca. August 1938

Albumcoverjellyrollmorton1938-1940

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Morton remarked on one occasion that “The Pearls” was one of the most difficult of his numbers to perform, and said that its various strains were carefully matched like pearls and strung together to make the perfect necklace. Like the New Orleans polyphonic tradition itself, “The Pearls,” taken as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts, estimable as they may be. At a running time of nearly five minutes, this rendition of “The Pearls” is contemplative, and laid out with a jeweler’s precision.

Note: Although the music has been assigned a rating of 95, the sound performance is poor on this out-of-print vinyl release, and scores only a 75.

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Jelly Roll Morton: Creepy Feeling

Track

Creepy Feeling

Artist

CD

Winin’ Boy Blues: The Library of Congress Recordings, Volume 4 (Rounder 1094)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano).

Recorded: New York City, December 14, 1939

Albumcoverjellyrollmorton-wininboyblues

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Morton always retained a pronounced aesthetic sense for the music he absorbed during his boyhood in New Orleans and his subsequent travels. Morton’s sensibility was never any keener than in the “Spanish tinge” that Morton distilled from Latin, Caribbean and Portuguese influences. Jelly Roll asserted to Alan Lomax that it was the “Spanish tinge” that separated jazz from ragtime. In effect, Morton understood that jazz drew from a wider swath of international influences than is widely acknowledged—even today. These influences were not occasional departures imposed upon jazz, but an integral part of the tradition that lay behind it.

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Jelly Roll Morton: King Porter Stomp (solo piano, 1939)

Track

King Porter Stomp

Artist

CD

Last Sessions: The Complete General Recordings (Verve 403)

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Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano).

Composed by Jelly Roll Morton

.

Recorded: New York City, December 14, 1939

Albumcoverjellyrollmorton-lastsessions-completegeneralrecordings

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

It’s difficult to imagine Jelly Roll Morton and the City of New York sitting down together over a glass of beer. Their respective musical outlooks never charted the same course. Yet, in late 1939, his optimism renewed, Morton made one last assault on the burg he once described as “that cruel city.” Morton made a fresh recording of his “King Porter Stomp” that has a free and unfettered joie de vivre. Named for Porter King, a pianist Morton met in his travels, Jelly Roll dated its origin to 1906. The composition had been a hit for Benny Goodman and served as a major anthem in the launch of the Swing Era four years earlier, but Morton’s inflexibility and grandiosity had not endeared him to the new generation of musicians, and he watched from the sidelines.

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Jelly Roll Morton: Mamie's Blues

Track

Mamie’s Blues [aka 2:19 Blues]

Artist

Jelly Roll Morton (piano, vocals)

CD

Last Sessions: The Complete General Recordings (Verve 403)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano, vocals).

Recorded: New York City, December 16, 1939

Albumcoverjellyrollmorton-lastsessions-completegeneralrecordings

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

“Mamie’s Blues” comes from a series of recordings Morton made for the General label, later acquired by Commodore, and issued in a multi-pocket album of 78s titled New Orleans Memories. Had these sessions yielded only “Mamie’s Blues,” we could consider ourselves blessed. As Morton recalls Mamie Desdumes, we may not be able to see the pictures inside the musician’s head, but we bear witness as Morton combs his memory for three perfect minutes. It is one of the unforgettable experiences in jazz discography. Morton’s narrative phrases and chording complement one another rhythmically. One does not frame the other; instead, they are sublimely joined. Morton’s foot can be heard quietly tapping, setting off his exquisite use of space as both singer and pianist.

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Jelly Roll Morton: Buddy Bolden's Blues

Track

Buddy Bolden’s Blues

Artist

Jelly Roll Morton (piano, vocals)

CD

Last Sessions: The Complete General Recordings (Verve 403)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Jelly Roll Morton (piano, vocals).

Recorded: New York City, December 16, 1939

Albumcoverjellyrollmorton-lastsessions-completegeneralrecordings

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

Who was Buddy Bolden and why do we care what he said? Because Bolden was the trumpeter who, even in Morton’s estimation, merited the status of “legendary.” Mention Bolden’s name and two things generally come up. First, he is alleged to have made some cylinder recordings that have never been traced. The second is that he played with uncommon power. Morton explained to Alan Lomax that, when Bolden was playing a job that had not been well-publicized, Bolden would “take his trumpet and turn it towards the city” and play his signature tune, also known as “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.” “The whole town would know that Buddy was there,” continued Morton, “And, in a few seconds, why the park would start to gettin’ filled.”

Reviewer: Rob Bamberger


Note: The pristine transfers from the Morton acetates by the Library of Congress were compromised when they reached the mastering engineers. The sound quality of the Rounder release has been a huge disappointment to many who so eagerly anticipated it. Some have expressed the wish that it be withdrawn and redone.

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