Jelly Roll Morton Biography

Ferdinand Joseph Lemott, 20 October 1890, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, d. 10 July 1941, Los Angeles, California, USA. A gifted musician, Morton played various instruments before deciding to concentrate on piano. In the early years of the twentieth century he was a popular figure on the seamier side of New Orleans night life. He played in brothels, hustled pool and generally lived the high-life. His reputation spread extensively, owing to tours and theatrical work in various parts of the Deep South and visits to Kansas City, Chicago, Los Angeles and other important urban centres. He also worked in Canada, Alaska and Mexico. From 1923 he spent five years based in Chicago, touring and recording with various bands, including the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and his own band, the Red Hot Peppers. He later worked with Fate Marable and W.C. Handy, and by the end of the 20s had moved to New York for residencies and more recording sessions. He also formed a big band, with which he toured throughout the east coast states. Various business ventures played a part in his life, often with disastrous financial consequences, but he remained musically active throughout the 30s, even though he was on the margins of the commercial success which many jazzmen enjoyed in that decade. During the 30s Morton moved to Washington, DC, where he made many recordings, also playing and reminiscing for Alan Lomax Snr. of the US Library of Congress. By 1940 his health was failing and he moved to Los Angeles, where he died in July 1941.

One of the major figures in jazz history and a significant musical conceptualist, in particular the role of the arranger, Morton’s penchant for self-promotion worked against him and for many years critical perceptions of his true worth were blighted. Many of the recordings that he made during his stay in Chicago have proved to be classics, not least for the construction of those songs he composed and the manner in which they were arranged. Although some thought that carefully arranged music went contrary to the spirit of improvisation that was inherent in jazz, Morton’s arrangements, to which he insisted his musicians should strictly adhere, inhibited neither soloists nor the ability of the ensembles to swing mightily. In his arrangements of the mid-20s, Morton foreshadowed many of the musical trends that only emerged fully a decade later as big band jazz became popular. Curiously, Morton failed to grasp the possibilities then open to him and preferred to concentrate on small group work at a time when popular trends were moving in the opposite direction. His compositions include many jazz standards, among them ‘The Pearls’, ‘Sidewalk Blues’, ‘King Porter Stomp’, ‘Dead Man Blues’, ‘Grandpa’s Spells’, ‘Doctor Jazz’, ‘Wolverine Blues’, ‘Black Bottom Stomp’ and ‘Mister Jelly Lord’.

As a pianist, Morton’s early work was ragtime-orientated, but unlike many of his contemporaries, he was able to expand the rather rigid concept of ragtime to incorporate emerging jazz ideas, and his later playing style shows a vital and often exhilarating grasp of many styles. It was, however, as an arranger that Morton made his greatest contribution and he can be regarded as the first significant arranger in jazz. Morton himself certainly never underestimated his own importance; quite the opposite, in fact, since he billed himself as the Originator of Jazz, Stomps and Blues. Shortly before his death he became involved in a mildly embarrassing public wrangle over the origins of the music, denying (rightly, of course) that W.C. Handy was the ‘originator of jazz and the blues’ and counter-claiming that he had created jazz in 1902. This outburst of self-aggrandizement was ridiculed and created an atmosphere in which few fans, critics or fellow musicians took his work seriously. By the early 50s, however, some more perceptive individuals began to reassess his contribution to jazz and this reappraisal gradually swelled into a tidal wave of critical acclaim. By the 70s musicians were eager to play Morton’s music, and through into the new millennium many concerts and recordings in the USA and UK have been dedicated to his achievements.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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