JELLY ROLL MORTON: THE COMPLETE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS RECORDINGS / Songs and spoken reminiscences by Jelly Roll Morton, pno/voc; additional interviews from 1949 with Johnny St. Cyr, Paul Dominguez Jr., Alphonse Picou, Albert Glenny, Leonard Bechet / Rounder11661-1888-2, all tracks available as MP3 download at Amazon for $18.98. Included book, Mr. Jelly Roll by Alan Lomax Jr., available used for $10 or less from sellers at Amazon or for free reading or download online at Internet Archive by clicking HERE.
Although I began listening to authentic old New Orleans jazz in my teens—Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band –Jelly Roll Morton didn’t enter my life until I was 19. I loved the loose, laid-back, funky beat of Morton’s records, which were different from Armstrong’s baroque fantasias or the stiff beat of Oliver or the ODJB. Only the New Orleans Rhythm Kings sounded anything like Morton’s bands, although they kind of had a loose shuffle sound while Morton had a bluesier feel to his music.
I had heard about the Library of Congress recordings, and somewhere along the line I acquired two of the original red vinyl Circle 12-inch 78s, one being The Pearls, parts 1 & 2 and the other Ain’t Misbehavin, which surprised me (Morton playing Fats Waller??). The sound was somewhat unpleasant—tubby and dry, with no hall ambience—but later on, when I started buying the LPs on Classic Jazz Masters (the original Riverside LPs were long out of print, and original copies were selling for far too much money in the collectors’ record shops in New York City), the sound was even worse…and I was never able to find the whole series in the record stores, only six of the 12 volumes. Thus I was thrilled when, in 1991, Rounder Records started issuing them on CD. I bought all four volumes, and the sound was considerably cleaned up, but to my dismay they only included the musical numbers (and not all of them) and left out the colorful spoken reminiscences which were, to me, as valuable if not more so than Morton’s piano playing. When I learned that the whole shebang was to come out in a boxed set in 2005, I was elated—until I saw the price tag. $150? They had to be kidding! And now, it sells for $200!
Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to Amazon this week and discovered that you could download all of the music files for a mere $19, less than 10% of the asking price of the boxed set. What I was missing, of course, was a new copy of Alan Lomax’s book, Mr. Jelly Roll (which I already have), the huge booklet with all the photos and copies of the original sheet music, and the bonus DVD with additional items on it.
Bu so what? Morton, his playing and his reminiscences, were my main concern. I wanted to hear the whole series before I died, and $19 was just my price. Besides which, if you’ll examine the header on this article, you can buy a good used copy of Lomax’s book from a third-party seller at Amazon for $10 or less (several good, used copies going for under $3) or, if you’re so inclined, read it for free (or download it as a PDF file) at the Internet Archive.
Compared to all previous issues, this set has remarkably good, natural sound. The background noise and hum have been removed; when Morton taps his foot for emphasis, it sounds less like a woodblock here than before. Some listeners have complained that the piano tone sounds too harsh, but they’re probably used to the tubby sound of the old LPs and 78s, which was unnatural. Of course, some tracks still have crackle in them that couldn’t be completely removed without harming the quality of the original sound, but that doesn’t bother me.
Many others have said what I would say about these recordings, to which I would only add a few things. First, although I realize that Morton in 1938 was a bitter man, having had royalties stolen from him by others (particularly his Chicago publishers, the Melrose Brothers) and receiving none from the numerous big-band recordings of his tunes (particularly, but not only, King Porter Stomp), and wanting to establish his place in jazz history, his spoken delivery has an almost comical pompousness about it, like a grumpy parent telling you what to think or how to dress. Secondly, for someone who was pretty frail by that time, the result of his having been stabbed while acting a a bouncer at a seedy Washington, D.C. dive called The Jungle Inn and having suffered great trauma at the emergency room where the nurses just packed his heart with ice to stop the bleeding and left him there for several hours, his playing is remarkably robust and inventive., in many cases even better than his studio recordings for Victor in the 1920s. And thirdly, regarding the obscene lyrics he sang to several numbers, these were meant for patrons of the Storyville whorehouses, not for general audiences. Moreover, Lomax encouraged his playing and singing these tunes because he thought them comical as well as racy, and to him—and, sadly, many other white jazz lovers of the time—the very term “jazz” had a rather racy sexual meaning.
I should also like to add that, in Lomax’s book, he makes it clear that he confused jazz with folk music. Constantly throughout these recordings, Morton tries to disillusion him of this false premise, but to no avail. Long after Morton’s death, Lomax produced concerts at which Bunk Johnson played with folk singer Leadbelly. He couldn’t hear, and didn’t know, the difference.
Another thing Morton was bitter about was that jazz styles had passed him by. He couldn’t compete with such virtuoso pianists as Fats Waller, Earl Hines or Art Tatum in terms of speed and digital dexterity, though he came pretty close in his Jazz Man 78 recording of The Fingerbreaker, but he didn’t much like stride or modern jazz piano styles in general. For him, the rhythmic looseness of his own style was the way to go, and that was pretty much that. The only pianist he praises in this set is Bob Zurke, the sadly short-lived star of the Bob Crosby Orchestra.
As for his oft-repeated claim that he “invented jazz,” you have to understand what HE considered jazz. He never claimed to have invented syncopated music, but insisted that most of it was ragtime-based, including stride—and he was right. James P. Johnson, the inventor of the stride style back around 1918, came out of ragtime, and even Fats Waller’s playing had more of a ragtime beat. Morton’s concept of jazz had space in it, even at the fastest speeds, whereas theirs had none. And that is what he considered real jazz as opposed to just hot syncopated music. Ironically, the one stride pianist (and jazz composer) who came close to him in this respect was Duke Ellington, and for whatever reason Morton detested Ellington and put him down publicly. Not surprisingly, Ellington retaliated in kind. Another pianist he hated was Willie “The Lion” Smith, and there was a lively feud between those two as well. Mind you, he wasn’t really a nasty man: those who he valued as friends spoke highly of his humor and generosity, but as someone once said, “Jelly wasn’t a good-time Negro. He was a serious artist, and high competitive. He didn’t brook competitors well.”
Morton’s last band recordings for the small General Records label are rather disappointing because he was using musicians like Henry “Red” Allen, Jr. who, although from New Orleans, had moved on to playing swing style and didn’t much like Morton’s stomp-influenced jazz, but he should really have had a couple of hits with Sweet Substitute and Why?, had the records been given better distribution (and had contemporary jazz critics been a bit more fair-minded towards him). But by and large, fighting the three-minute limit of the 78, his solo piano recording for General aren’t really at the high level of his playing here. You really need to hear this set in toto, obscenities and all, and you’ll appreciate both Morton’s pianism and his total recall of early New Orleans and the jazz musicians he remembered. He was called a liar by people who didn’t know what it was like back in N.O in the early years, but those who were there, like Danny Barker, Sidney Bechet and Alphonse Picou, verified every story he told as being the way it really was. As Lomax put it in Mr. Jelly Roll, he had no idea that he had discovered the Benvenuto Cellini of jazz.
As I put it in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, Morton had a mind like a steel trap. Any music he heard, he memorized, and could play back at least part of it perfectly decades later. The first time I heard it, I was utterly delighted with his jazz treatment of the “Miserere” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, an opera he heard at the French Opera House in the late 1890s with the great French tenor Leonce-Antoine Escalaïs as Manrico. In the interviews with other New Orleans musicians on CD 8, they generally back up everything Morton claimed, including that his first hit tune, the Jelly Roll Blues, was already popular in the Crescent City by 1902. If Morton were indeed born in 1890, as is claimed nowadays, rather than 1885, this would patently have been impossible. A 12-year-old kid would never be playing the Storyville whorehouses or writing hit tunes. The only claim Morton made which is debunked here, by guitarist and banjo player Johnny St. Cyr, is that he wrote Tiger Rag. St. Cyr makes it clear that no one was playing that tune before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. “It was their tune,” he says, emphatically. “They wrote it.”
A cultural reference: near the end of Morton’s long (and funny) story about pianist Benny Frenchy, he says he “brought the house down” by playing and singing All That I Ask of You is Love, which he then proceeds to do for Lomax and the recording device. This song, written by Ingraham and Selden, was a smash hit in 1910-11. Among the recordings made of it were no less than three for Victor, by Helen Clark and Joseph A. Phillips in 1910 and by tenor Reed Miller in 1911, two for Columbia, by Henry Burr in 1910 and William A. Thompson in 1911, and another by British operatic tenor Walter Hyde on an Edison cylinder in the latter year. Since Morton was more of a tenor in those days, it’s possible that the Miller version was the one that influenced him; I doubt that he heard the Hyde cylinder. You can hear the Miller recording at the Discography of American Historical Recordings by clicking here.
So don’t come down on Morton too harshly. Just sit back, listen, and enjoy an oral history of early New Orleans—as well as Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles and the other cities he traveled to—and the way jazz traveled around America. The Benvenuto Cellini of jazz, indeed.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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