Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Morton, Jelly Roll (Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe)

Pianist Jelly Roll Morton invented himself, even if he did not invent jazz, as he once claimed. Born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, his formidable technique at the keyboard enabled him to reproduce the polyphonic sounds of New Orleans' street bands, which he then brought to a national audience.

Jelly often misrepresented the facts of his life, as he sought to play up his role in the emergence of jazz. However, the contours of his early career are now well established. He was born on October 20, 1890 in New Orleans to parents of a common-law marriage. His father, Edward J. Lamothe was of Haitian ancestry, and left the family soon after 'Ferd' was born. His mother, Louise Monette, was a Creole and soon married another man, William Mouton.

By age six or seven, Ferd began experimenting with a trombone left behind by his biological father, and took up guitar lessons from a Spanish man close to his home. After a period of drumming and violin playing, he also learned how to play the piano. He later reminisced that it was only after he made up his mind that the piano was not a 'sissy' instrument, and that he wouldn't be 'misunderstood', that he focused more seriously on piano and left the other instruments behind.

�Jelly

   Jelly Roll Morton, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

As a teenager, young Ferdinand took on his step-father's surname of Mouton, and lived in the home of his great-grandmother, Mimi Pechet. When he began frequenting the tenderloin district of New Orleans, largely known for its brothels and gambling joints, he was exposed to a wide variety of society music and the piano players who worked there.

On May 24, 1906, his mother died of phthisis pulmonitis. He began working in the brothels of Storyville as a pianist, and told his religious great-grandmother that his spending money came from a job in a barrel factory. After he bought a showy new suit and hat, his true source of income was discovered, and she threw him out. Traveling to Biloxi, Mississippi, he stayed in the home of his godmother, Laura Hunter/Eulaley Hécaud, who he later claimed was a practitioner of "voodoo" or vodun, the West African religious system which traveled to New Orleans with migrants from Haiti.

In Biloxi, he earned money playing piano at The Flat Top and other clubs. Morton said he was forced to leave Biloxi and returned to New Orleans after threats of lynching, when rumors spread he had become romantically involved with Mattie Bailey, the proprietor of an all-white club.

In 1908, the pianist began using the Anglicized surname "Morton," and traveled the Southern United States. He frequently worked as a soloist, but also joined the vaudeville shows of Billy Kersand's Minstrels, Fred Barrasso and McCabe's Troubadours. By this time, he also had begun wearing a trademark - a diamond insert in his gold front tooth. Morton gambled avidly, continued to dress the part of larger-than-life entertainer, and quickly earned a reputation as a cocky teller of boastful tales. In 1910 and 1911, Morton made his first trips to Chicago and New York.

For two years, Morton and his girlfriend Rosa Brown toured as a vaudeville act. He also developed a repertoire of arranged music that was written down in parts for pick-up bands to play with him. Musically, Morton's piano style developed early on, with a unique left hand bass line that mimicked the sound of the New Orleans 'tailgate' trombone playing.

His playing would ultimately take on the characteristics of an ensemble, with melody, harmonic support, and rhythmic punctuations all functioning in tandem and giving the sense of multiple elements operating collectively. This collective aspect of Morton's music also was a pervasive quality of much of the early jazz tradition of New Orleans.

The use of 'breaks', or improvised passages, in much of the music coming out of New Orleans around this time also played a significant role in Morton's style. Breaks are quick stops in the musical activity of the ensemble or solo performer that set up a showy flourish or arpeggiated line, usually only lasting one measure or two before the return to the melodic content of the piece of music. These breaks eventually would become routine in the New Orleans style of jazz, and a pervasive trait of much of the jazz tradition beyond its early years.

Between 1914 and 1917, Morton lived in Chicago. He continued to perform as a soloist and with a variety of ensembles, while also working on publishing his own compositions. "Jelly Roll Blues" is arguably the first in a string of such efforts that also include the tango "The Crave" and the popular ragtime piece "Frog-I-More Rag."

Traveling to California with bandleader Bill Johnson and his sister Anita Gonzalez, Morton worked as a club owner. Gonzalez ("Mama Nita") and Morton co-owned a restaurant called The Jupiter, and established a reputation for lively entertainment led by Morton. The Jupiter closed after competitors in the area reported problems to police. Morton then split time between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1923, where he lost large sums of money at the horse tracks.

By the end of 1923, Morton had returned to Chicago. Having composed "Wolverine Blues" around this time, he gained more popularity with this song. Forming a working skiffle band that included instruments like jug, kazoo, and suitcase, he maintained an ambitious performance career in Chicago. Morton also recorded a series of solo piano performances for the Gennett record label based in the Mid-West. These tracks remain some of the most influential early jazz recordings.

Seeking to form an authentic band for further recordings, Morton compiled more of his arrangements of original compositions and popular selections like "Black Bottom Stomp," "Beale Street Blues," "The Chant," "Doctor Jazz," "Wolverine Blues," "Wild Man Blues," "The Pearls," "King Porter Stomp," and "Grandpa's Spells." He worked for The Victor Talking Machine Company leading a studio band called The Red Hot Peppers. In the band rotation over the next two years were some of the top artists of the era: trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetists Omer Simeon, Barney Bigard and Johnny Dodds, banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, and drummer Baby Dodds, to name a few. Here the New Orleans style of jazz is best exemplified, with collective improvisation being used in the specifically arranged context of Morton's own conception.

The creative peak of Morton's career came during his recording sessions for Victor in 1926 and 1927, as the leader of The Red Hot Peppers. Following the popularity of these recordings, and a marriage in 1928 to dancer Mabel Bertrand, the pianist moved to New York.

As Harlem became the cultural capital of Black America, where jazz played an increasingly significant role, Morton's star might have shown that much brighter. Unfortunately, his period in New York during the late 1920s was less productive for him than the preceding years. He led a New York version of The Red Hot Peppers, which included the 'gut-bucket' trumpeter Bubber Miley, drummer Zutty Singleton, and Pops Foster. However, his health faded quickly - something he blamed on a voodoo curse placed on him by his godmother.

Morton's troubles grew when he was denied access into ASCAP as well as The American Federation of Musicians Union. His publisher, Melrose Music, had dropped him from their roster, and thus he was unable to secure sponsorship in order to join ASCAP.

Morton left New York for Washington, D.C. in 1935. He began a relationship with the city both as a performer and proprietor of The Jungle Inn nightclub, and also collaborated with pioneering researcher Alan Lomax, who at the time was documenting folk life and music for the Library of Congress.

Between May 23 and June 12, 1938, Lomax recorded Morton's extemporaneous commentary, often punctuated by musical passages at the piano, about his life and career. These recordings, done at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, are a vital and colorful document which contribute a great deal to our understanding of jazz and its role in American culture in the early twentieth century.

Morton's own accounts of life in New Orleans, his touring around the U.S., and the various types of people he knew and worked with are told as extravagant tales. The recordings also featured him performing many pieces of music as illustrative examples of his legacy, as well as imitations of unrecorded artists from New Orleans and elsewhere. This includes his statements that jazz music has within it a certain appropriation of structural elements from Latin music, something he dubs "The Spanish Tinge."

Furthering his own legacy through the Library of Congress sessions with Lomax, Morton also famously wrote to a newspaper and aimed to prop himself up further, writing, "It is evidently known, and beyond contradiction, that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz and I, myself, happened to be [its] creator in the year 1902." While many found his claims outlandish, Morton managed to pique the curiosity of others. Morton experienced a slight resurgence in popularity during the late 1930s, at which point he returned to New York to record with Sidney Bechet, Albert Nicholas, and Sidney DeParis.

Morton's final years were met with steadily declining health, and he moved to California in 1939, hoping to find some relief with the warm climate there. On July 10, 1941, Morton died in Los Angeles. At his funeral, no music was played, and he was buried in a pauper's grave. His significance as a father of ensemble jazz and music of the New Orleans tradition is, however, nothing short of iconic. Full of personality, his life and musical career became the topic of a Broadway production called Jelly's Last Jam in the 1990s, which featured Gregory Hines.

Select Discography

The Library of Congress Recordings (Rounder 1897)

Jelly Roll Morton Centennial: His Complete Victor Recordings (Bluebird/RCA 2261-2-RB)

Jelly Roll Morton 1923/24 (Milestone 47018)

Contributor: David Tenenholtz


Related Links

The Dozens: 12 Essential Jelly Roll Morton Performances by Rob Bamberger