Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (September 20, 1885 – July 10, 1941), best known professionally as Jelly Roll Morton, was an American ragtime and early jazz pianist, bandleader and composer.
Widely recognized as a pivotal figure in early jazz, Morton is perhaps most notable as jazz's first arranger, proving that a genre rooted in improvisation could retain its essential spirit and characteristics when notated. His composition "Jelly Roll Blues" was the first published jazz composition, in 1915. Morton is also notable for naming and popularizing the "Spanish tinge" of exotic rhythms and penning such standards as "Wolverine Blues," "Black Bottom Stomp," and "I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden's Say," the latter a tribute to the pioneering New Orleans trumpeter.
Known for his arrogance and self-promotion as much as for his musical talents, Morton claimed to have invented jazz outright in 1902—much to the derision of later musicians and critics.
Morton was born into a Creole community in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of downtown New Orleans, Louisiana. A baptismal certificate issued in 1894 lists his date of birth as October 20, 1890; however Morton himself and his half-sisters claimed the September 20, 1885, date is correct. His World War I draft registration card showed September 13, 1884 but his California death certificate listed his birth as September 20, 1889. He was born to F.P. Lamothe and Louise Monette (written as Lemott and Monett on his baptismal certificate). Eulaley Haco (Eulalie Hécaud) was the godparent. Eulalie helped him to be christened with the name Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s parents were in a common-law marriage and not legally married. No birth certificate has been found to date. He took the name "Morton" by Anglicizing the name of his stepfather, Mouton.
Morton claimed to have written "Jelly Roll Blues" in 1905.
Morton was, along with Tony Jackson, one of the best regarded pianists in the Storyville District early in the 20th century. At the age of fourteen, he began working as a piano player in a brothel (or as it was referred to then, a sporting house.) While working there, he was living with his religious church-going great-grandmother and had her convinced that he worked in a barrel factory.
Morton's grandmother eventually found out that he was playing jazz in a local brothel, and subsequently kicked him out of her house. "When my grandmother found out that I was playing jazz in one of the sporting houses in the District, she told me that I had disgraced the family and forbade me to live at the house... She told me that devil music would surely bring about my downfall, but I just couldn't put it behind me." Tony Jackson was a major influence on his music; according to Morton, Jackson was the only pianist better than him; he was also a pianist at brothels, as well as an accomplished guitar player.
Morton (2nd from right) with Bricktop
(right) in Los Angeles in 1918
Around 1904, Morton started wandering the American South, working with minstrel shows, gambling and composing. His works "Jelly Roll Blues," "New Orleans Blues," "Frog-I-More Rag," "Animule Dance," and "King Porter Stomp" were composed during this period. He got to Chicago in 1910 and New York City in 1911, where future stride greats James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith caught his act, years before the blues were widely played in the North.
In 1912–1914 he toured with girlfriend Rosa Brown as a vaudeville act before settling in Chicago for three years. By 1914 he had started writing down his compositions, and in 1915 his "Jelly Roll Blues" was arguably the first jazz composition ever published, recording as sheet music the New Orleans traditions that had been jealously guarded by the musicians. In 1917 he followed bandleader William Manuel Johnson and Johnson's sister Anita Gonzalez to California, where Morton's tango "The Crave" made a sensation in Hollywood.
Morton was invited to play a new Vancouver nightclub called The Patricia, on East Hastings Street. Jazz historian Mark Miller described his arrival as "an extended period of itinerancy as a pianist, vaudeville performer, gambler, hustler, and, as legend would have it, pimp."
Morton moved back to Chicago in 1923 to claim authorship of his recently-published rag "The Wolverines," which had become a hit as "Wolverine Blues" in the Windy City. There he released the first of his commercial recordings, first as piano rolls, then on record, both as a piano soloist and with various jazz bands.
In 1926, Morton succeeded in getting a contract to make recordings for the US's largest and most prestigious company, Victor. This gave him a chance to bring a well-rehearsed band to play his arrangements in Victor's Chicago recording studios. These recordings by Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers are regarded as classics of 1920s jazz. The Red Hot Peppers featured such other New Orleans jazz luminaries as Kid Ory, Omer Simeon, George Mitchell, Johnny St. Cyr, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, and Baby Dodds. Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers were one of the first acts booked on tours by MCA.
New York City
In November 1928, Morton married showgirl Mabel Bertrand in Gary, Indiana and moved to New York City, where he continued to record for Victor. His piano solos and trio recordings are well regarded, but his band recordings suffer in comparison with the Chicago sides where Morton could draw on many great New Orleans musicians for sidemen. Although he did record with such great musicians as clarinetists Omer Simeon, George Baquet, Albert Nicholas, Wilton Crawley, Barney Bigard, Lorenzo Tio and Artie Shaw, trumpeters Bubber Miley, Johnny Dunn and Henry "Red" Allen, saxophonists Sidney Bechet, Paul Barnes and Bud Freeman, bassist Pops Foster, and drummers Paul Barbarin, Cozy Cole and Zutty Singleton, Morton generally had trouble finding musicians who wanted to play his style of jazz, and his New York sessions failed to produce a hit.
With the Great Depression and the near collapse of the phonograph record industry, Morton's recording contract was not renewed by Victor for 1931. Morton continued playing less prosperously in New York, briefly had a radio show in 1934, then was reduced to touring in the band of a traveling burlesque act while his compositions were recorded by Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman and others, though he received no royalties from these recordings.
In 1935, Morton moved to Washington, D.C. with to become the manager/piano player of a bar called, at various times, the "Music Box," "Blue Moon Inn," and "Jungle Inn" in the African American neighborhood of Shaw. (The building that hosted the nightclub still stands, at 1211 U Street NW.) Morton was also the master of ceremonies, bouncer, and bartender of the club. He was only in Washington for a few years; the club owner allowed all her friends free admission and drinks, which prevented Morton from making the business a success. Morton was stabbed by one of the owner's friends in 1938, suffering wounds to the head and chest. After this incident his wife Mabel demanded that they leave Washington.
During Morton's brief residency at the Music Box, folklorist Alan Lomax heard Morton playing piano in the bar. In May 1938, Lomax invited Morton to record music and interviews for the Library of Congress. The sessions, originally intended as a short interview with musical examples for use by music researchers in the Library of Congress, soon expanded to record more than eight hours of Morton talking and playing piano, in addition to longer interviews during which Lomax took notes but did not record. Despite the low fidelity of these non-commercial recordings, their musical and historical importance attracted jazz fans, and they have helped to ensure Morton's place in jazz history.
Lomax was very interested in Morton's Storyville days and some of the off-color songs played in Storyville. Morton was reluctant to recount and record these, but eventually obliged Lomax. Morton's "Jelly Roll" nickname is a sexual reference and many of his lyrics from his Storyville days were vulgar. Some of the Library of Congress recordings were unreleased until near the end of the 20th century due to their nature.
Morton was aware that if he had been born in 1890, he would have been slightly too young to make a good case for himself as the actual inventor of jazz, and so may have presented himself as being five years older than he actually was, and his statement that Buddy Bolden played ragtime but not jazz is not accepted by consensus of Bolden's other New Orleans contemporaries. It is possible, however, that the contradictions stem from different definitions for the terms ragtime and jazz. These interviews, released in different forms over the years, were released on an eight-CD boxed set in 2005, The Complete Library of Congress Recordings. This collection won two Grammy Awards. The same year, Morton was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
During the period when he was recording his interviews, Morton was seriously injured by knife wounds when a fight broke out at the Washington, D.C. establishment where he was playing. A nearby whites-only hospital refused to treat him, and he had to be transported to a lower-quality hospital further away. When he was in the hospital the doctors left ice on his wounds for several hours before attending to his eventually fatal injury. His recovery from his wounds was incomplete, and thereafter he was often ill and easily became short of breath. Morton made a new series of commercial recordings in New York, several recounting tunes from his early years that he had been talking about in his Library of Congress interviews.
A worsening asthma affliction sent him to a New York hospital for three months at one point and when visiting Los Angeles with a series of manuscripts of new tunes and arrangements, planning to form a new band and restart his career, the ailment took its toll. Morton died on July 10, 1941 after an eleven-day stay in Los Angeles County General Hospital.
Morton's piano style was formed from early secondary ragtime and "shout," which also evolved separately into the New York school of stride piano. Morton's playing, however, was also close to barrelhouse, which produced boogie woogie.
Morton often played the melody of a tune with his right thumb, while sounding a harmony above these notes with other fingers of the right hand. This added a rustic or "out-of-tune" sound (due to the playing of a diminished 5th above the melody). This may still be recognized as belonging to New Orleans. Morton also walked in major and minor sixths in the bass, instead of tenths or octaves. He played basic swing rhythms in both the left and right hand.
Some of Morton's songs (listed alphabetically):
- "Big Foot Ham" (a.k.a. "Ham & Eggs")
- "Black Bottom Stomp"
- "Burnin' the Iceberg"
- "The Crave"
- "Creepy Feeling"
- "Doctor Jazz Stomp"
- "The Dirty Dozen"
- "Fickle Fay Creep"
- "Finger Buster"
- "Frog-I-More Rag"
- "Good Old New York"
- "Grandpa's Spells"
- "Jungle Blues"
- "Kansas City Stomp"
- "London Blues"
- "Mama Nita"
- "Milenberg Joys"
- "Mint Julep"
- "My Home Is in a Southern Town"
- "New Orleans Bump"
- "Pacific Rag"
- "The Pearls"
- "Red Hot Pepper"
- "Shreveport Stomp"
- "Sidewalk Blues"
- "Stratford Hunch"
- "Sweet Substitute"
- "Tank Town Bump"
- "Turtle Twist"
- "The Crave"
- "Wolverine Blues"
Several of Morton's compositions were musical tributes to himself, including "Winin' Boy," "The Jelly Roll Blues," subtitled "The Original Jelly-Roll," and "Mr. Jelly Lord." In the Big Band era, his "King Porter Stomp," which Morton had written decades earlier, was a big hit for Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman, and became a standard covered by most other swing bands of that time. Morton also claimed to have written some tunes that were copyrighted by others, including "Alabama Bound" and "Tiger Rag."
Legacy and fictional portrayals
Two Broadway shows have featured his music, Jelly Roll and Jelly's Last Jam. The first draws heavily on Morton's own words and stories from the Library of Congress interviews.
Jelly Roll Morton appears as the piano 'professor' in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby, where he is portrayed by actor Antonio Fargas, with piano and vocals played by James Booker.
Jelly Roll Morton is featured in Alessandro Baricco's book, Novecento. He is the "inventor of jazz" and the protagonist's rival throughout the book. This book was later turned into a movie: Giuseppe Tornatore's The Legend of 1900. His character is played by actor Clarence Williams III. In this movie, he is depicted as an arrogant master in a piano competition against the film's main protagonist. He performed "Big Foot Ham," "The Crave," and "Finger Buster," in that order, against the protagonist.
Jelly Roll Morton is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame. In 2008, Jelly Roll Morton was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
The play, Don't You Leave Me Here, by Clare Brown, which premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse on 27 September 2008, deals with Morton's relationship with Tony Jackson. Morton and his godmother, Eulalie, appear as characters in David Fulmer's mystery novel, Chasing the Devil's Tail. His influence continues to this day in the work of Dick Hyman, Reginald Robinson and Mark Birnbaum.
- Dapogny, James. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton: The Collected Piano Music. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.
- The Devil's Music: 1920s Jazz
- Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man; page 486.
- "Ferdinand J. 'Jelly Roll' Morton," A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography (1988), pp. 586–587.
- "Jelly," Time magazine, March 11, 1940.
- Ward, Geoffrey C., and Kenneth Burns. Jazz, a History of America's Music 1st Ed. Random House Inc.
- Lomax, Alan. Mister Jelly Roll, U. of California Press, 1950, 1973, 2001. ISBN 0-520-22530-9
- For decades the only important book on Morton, contains a biography based on Morton's Library of Congress interviews interspersed with interviews with other contemporary musicians. The 2001 edition adds an afterword by Lawrence Gushee focussing largely on Morton's ancestry and other historical questions not fully explored by Lomax.
- Wright, Laurie. Mr. Jelly Lord, Storyville Publications, 1980.
- Mostly a detailed discography, focusing on Morton's recordings.
- Russell, William. Oh Mister Jelly! A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook, Jazz Media ApS, Copenhagen, 1999.
- Jazz historian Russell spent over 40 years compiling this book, containing interviews with musicians, relatives, and others who knew and worked with Morton, in addition to Morton's own writings and letters. A compendium of source material, with no attempt to weave it into a single narrative.
- Pastras, Phil. Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West, University of California Press, 2001.
- Focuses on Morton's previously largely neglected years in California and his relationship with Anita Gonzales.
- Reich, Howard; Gaines, William. Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton, Da Capo Press, 2003.
- Well organized and articulate biography marred by numerous factual errors. Makes a strong case that Morton was correct when he claimed that he had been cheated out of over a million dollars due him in royalties for his compositions. A revisionist account of Morton's life based in part on newly acquired historical sources, this book provides insight into Morton's later years detailing the events surrounding his decline, his struggle for popular redemption and his death. Reich and Gaines are sympathetic to Morton's plight and attempt to update common notions of the arrogant, self-serving and single-minded performer with stories of an artist, optimist, and deeply complex man who, late in life, fell victim to racism and circumstance.
- Dapogny, James. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton: The Collected Piano Music, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.
- A scholarly undertaking of a jazz musicians' work, this volume includes transcriptions of Morton's solo piano performances of 40 of his compositions (all of the original music he either performed or copyrighted on or for solo piano). The book also includes detailed analyses of each composition and essays on Morton's life, composition style, and solo piano style.