MORTON, Jelly-Roll: Mr. Jelly Lord
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'Mr Jelly Lord' Original Recordings 1924-1930
Jelly Roll Morton often seemed to operate as both his own best press agent and his own worst enemy. A brilliant pianist, composer and arranger who was one of the first major giants of jazz, Morton frequently hurt his cause by bragging and exaggerating (although usually just slightly) about his accomplishments. The truth was impressive enough without any embellishment. Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe was born 20 September 1885 in Gulfport, Louisiana, near New Orleans. After briefly toying with the guitar and trombone, he started seriously playing the piano when he was ten. He became a 'professor' in Storyville's bordellos, playing background music for customers. He learned to play the blues early on, was influenced by New Orleans brass bands (although there was no need for marching band pianists) and started composing songs as a young teenager. Always a bit of a hustler and curious about the rest of the world, he renamed himself Jelly Roll Morton, left New Orleans by 1904 and during the next eighteen years was involved in a remarkable variety of professions. During 1904-22, Morton worked with varied success as a pool shark, vaudeville comedian, gambler, pimp, hotel manager, boxing promoter, tailor and gambling house manager in addition to being a pianist. He loved to come into a town, check out the other pianists, and then defeat the locals in informal competitions. Although he did not record until 1923, by 1915 Morton was an important transition figure between ragtime and early jazz. He swung rags, infused them with bluish ideas, improvised and strided in his own original style. He performed throughout the South, visited Chicago as early as 1914 and also spent time in San Francisco, Alaska, Wyoming, Denver, Tijuana, Canada and Los Angeles, the latter his home base during 1917-22. By the time he moved to Chicago in 1923, Jelly Roll Morton was a full-time and fully formed musician. His remarkable series of recorded piano solos from 1923-24 often found him using the three-theme structure of rags and marches while emulating a full band. Among his originals that he introduced were 'King Porter Stomp', 'Grandpa's Spells', 'Wolverine Blues', 'The Pearls' and 'Original Jelly Roll Blues'. Most of Morton's earliest band recordings were unfortunately made for the Paramount label, a company infamous for its primitive recording techniques and excessive surface noise. However in 1926 Morton signed with Victor, arguably the premier label of the 1920s. During the next four years he recorded some of the finest work of his career. A close listen to the opening track, 'Black Bottom Stomp', gives plenty of evidence why Jelly Roll Morton was so special. Utilizing a three-horn four-rhythm septet, Morton came up with a seemingly infinite number of instrumental combinations during the three-minute performance without any of the musicians switching instruments. Improvised solos alternate with passages that were written out, jammed ensembles share space with arranged sections. Utilizing both brief breaks and chorus-long solos, Morton kept the music continually intriguing and unpredictable. The solos are a logical part of the arrangement and vice versa. 'Smoke House Blues'
(a thinly disguised 'Beale Street Blues') and 'The Chant', which like 'Black Bottom Stomp' also feature cornetist George Mitchell, trombonist Kid Ory and clarinettist Omer Simeon, are almost as remarkable. In 1926, very few arrangers were on Morton's creative level, and the same can be said for jazz pianists and songwriters. A pair of piano solos is next. 'Tom Cat Blues'
from the 1924 sessions, is a charming if obscure number while 'King Porter Stomp'
would soon become a big band classic when recorded by Fletcher Henderson in 1927. Oddly enough, Morton never recorded 'King Porter Stomp' with a band but did document it on several occasions as a piano solo throughout his career. This 1926 version is the hottest of all of his versions. The next three selections are from 21 September 1926 and use the same personnel as 'Black Bottom Stomp' except for the addition of a clarinet trio. Morton shows off his roots in vaudeville with a bit of verbal hokum at the beginning of 'Sidewalk Blues' and 'Dead Man Blues', interacting with banjoist Johnny St Cyr. Those two numbers plus the spirited 'Steamboat Stomp' feature George Mitchell, Kid Ory and Omer Simeon at their best but it is Morton's inventive frameworks that make the performances into classics. As mentioned, the 1923 piano solo versions of 'Grandpa's Spells' and 'Original Jelly Roll Blues' have Morton imitating a jazz band. The 1926 band renditions of the same songs do the opposite, with the septet essentially playing piano parts in colourful fashion. The same session yielded 'Doctor Jazz' which not only became a standard of dixieland bands in future years but includes Morton's only vocal of the 1920s, an exuberant chorus. Simeon's solo, with its held note, is a much-imitated classic. Next up, one of Jelly Roll's most haunting compositions, 'The Pearls', is heard in two versions. Notice the similarity in the arrangement between the unaccompanied piano solo and the rendition by an octet that includes George Mitchell, trombonist Gerald Reeves, altoist Stump Evans and the great clarinettist Johnny Dodds. 'Mr Jelly Lord' is a special treat since it features the trio of Morton, Dodds and drummer Baby Dodds. Sensing correctly that the center of jazz was shifting from Chicago to New York, Morton moved to the Big Apple. Unfortunately he did not repeat his Chicago successes, partly due to his bragging turning off many New York musicians. His recordings, while sometimes brilliant, lacked the earlier consistency due to his inability to always get musicians who would follow his directions. But there were good moments along the way. 'Georgia Swing', from Morton's first New York session, holds its own with the earlier recordings, helped out by Omer Simeon being present along with trumpeter Ward Pinkett and trombonist Geechie Fields. In contrast, 'Deep Creek' uses a ten-piece group in which some musicians (particularly clarinettist-altoist Russell Procope) are clearly better than others. 'Seattle Hunch' and the exotic 'Freakish' have no such trouble since these are Morton piano solos. 'Ponchatrain' is lucky to have both Ward Pinkett and Bubber Miley on trumpets while 'Burnin' The Iceberg', using a somewhat out-of-control twelve-piece band including Rod Rodriguez on ensemble piano (while Morton tried to direct the ensemble) is certainly full of spirit. For Jelly Roll Morton, the glory years ended with the rise of the Depression and the end of his Victor contract in 1930. Having burned too many bridges, he struggled for the next eight years even as, quite ironically, a few of his compositions (most notably 'King Porter Stomp') became swing era hits for others. He fought unsuccessfully to get the royalties he deserved, claimed in a famous letter to Downbeat (which he saw as his way to get publicity) to have invented jazz in 1902, and was reduced to running a dive in Washington D.C. called the Jungle Inn. In 1938 fortune seemed to smile at him. Morton was interviewed and recorded extensively about the early days in New Orleans by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, telling fascinating tales, playing piano, and revealing himself to be an excellent singer. Unfortunately he was never paid for that work and the performances were not released during his lifetime but Morton was inspired to try to make a comeback. In late 1938 he returned to New York, made some records (with bands, as a solo pianist and backing his own vocals) and gained a little attention without becoming a hit. Suffering from a weak heart, he impulsively moved back to Los Angeles and was rehearsing a new band when his health quickly declined. He died on 10 July 1