Jelly Roll Morton was flat broke.
Playing piano in a dive in Washington, D.C., the first composer of jazz -- the New Orleans genius who was writing hits when Louis Armstrong still was learning how to talk -- considered it a great night when he pulled down $10.
But in that desperate year of 1938, three years before his tragic death at age 55, Morton sat at the keys in Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress and rhapsodized on the story of his life, the birth of jazz and the ways in which blacks and whites and Creoles like him lived and died in old New Orleans.
All the while, a pair of crude, battery-operated disc-recording machines captured his precious reminiscences on several dozen acetate plates, his gravelly voice singing tunes that the rest of the world had long since forgotten, his still-dexterous fingers re-creating the piano styles of earlier New Orleans pianists who had faded into oblivion.
In unsparing detail, he recounted the way the music unfolded in brothels and on street corners in Storyville, New Orleans' fabled vice district, the way it erupted in rambunctious parades that often turned into bloodbaths.
As Morton sang and talked and laughed and lamented, he not only mapped out precisely how and why a new American art form had appeared in the city of his birth, he also demonstrated his role as one of its two principal architects (the other being Armstrong). For if Armstrong, who was about 15 years younger, was the first great solo improviser in jazz, Morton was its groundbreaking composer, the first man to publish a jazz tune ("Jelly Roll Blues" in 1915), the first artist who cracked the code of putting to paper this seemingly unruly music.
Until now, the only way to hear those recordings in full was to travel to the Library of Congress in Washington, don a set of headphones and listen to nine hours of Morton's half-sung, half-spoken soliloquies. Though some of this material had been produced as a series of LPs in the late 1940s and again in the '50s, it was severely edited, omitting the often racy song lyrics that Morton recalled from his early days in New Orleans.
On Tuesday, when Rounder Records releases "Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax" (an eight-CD boxed set that lists for $127.98), an international public will begin to discover what some experts have known for years: That the composer-pianist not only penned such jazz masterpieces as "King Porter Stomp" and "Jungle Blues" but, equally important, that he built the intellectual framework for understanding jazz through his Library of Congress recordings.
Specifically, by explaining how the music emerged and detailing its central techniques and practices, Morton in these sessions effectively shaped the way listeners thereafter have perceived the art form.
The very notion, in fact, that jazz -- a music that dared to draw inspiration from both the church and the whorehouse -- could be considered an art form owed a great deal to Morton's breakthroughs as composer in the early part of the 20th Century and his explication of them several decades later, on these recordings.
A phenomenal first
"What you have in the Library of Congress recordings is the first musician-intellect of jazz addressing himself to the music he knew and helped create," says Richard Wang, professor emeritus of music at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lecturer in jazz at the University of Chicago.
"This is the first great oral history of this music.
"From Jelly Roll, we get a sense of history and analysis that we don't get from Armstrong, because Armstrong didn't comment with such critical insight and evaluation on this music and the way it was shaped and formed.
"Jelly Roll did."
Indeed, as Morton spoke to Lomax -- a young folklorist whose questions revealed a lack of familiarity with the art form -- Morton illuminated the meaning of "riffs" and "breaks," the jazz rituals of the classic New Orleans funeral, the backdrop of French Opera and Spanish dances and carnal songs that formed the pre-history of jazz. With unmistakable authority and knowledge, he explained why certain tempos are used in particular song forms, how melodies are to be embellished in the course of an improvisation and other rudiments of making bona fide jazz.
Yet none of this material -- which in this remastered set sounds better than it ever has -- becomes pedantic or dull. On the contrary, Morton emerges as the quintessential New Orleans entertainer, punctuating even the most intricate musical discussion with vivid anecdotes, typically accompanying them with a gently rolling piano accompaniment, his foot tapping audibly all the while.
Even his speech sounds like song, his Louisiana cadences undiluted by his years in Chicago, when he recorded triumphantly in the mid-1920s, or his period of defeat in New York and Washington, throughout the 1930s.
"I don't intend to say anything unless it's real facts," Morton drawls to Lomax during the first session, on May 23, 1938, as a kind of preamble for the great discourse yet to come.
Then Morton proceeds to speak -- sometimes seriously, sometimes whimsically -- about his early years in New Orleans, his ascent as one of its most sought-after piano professors and everything else under the Southern sun.
"I myself was inspired by going to the French Opera House once," he says, recalling his initiation into music.
"Because the fact of it was I liked to play piano, and the piano was known at that time to be an instrument for a lady.
"So I had it in my mind that if I played piano," he adds mischievously, "I would be misunderstood."
When Lomax asks if a solo "break" and "swinging" are the same thing, Morton chides his interlocutor: "No, no, that's not what swinging is. Swing don't mean that. Swing means something like this," he says, illustrating the distinctly swaying approach to rhythm on the piano.
During the course of these sessions, which ran through June 12, plus a final set on Dec. 14, Morton pours out his heart, remembering the vast amounts of cash that fell his way in the houses of New Orleans, confessing the tough times he was facing now in Washington. With relish, he retraces his journeys playing the vice districts across the Gulf Coast in the first decade of the 20th Century, the fortunes he made and lost in California and elsewhere from 1917 to 1923, the sense of freedom and possibility that he and others of color felt in Chicago, in the anything-goes Roaring '20s.
New Orleans sound
But New Orleans remains at the center of Morton's identity, the composer returning to it like a refrain, marveling at the merging of cultures that distinguished it from any other spot on Earth and made possible the hybrid art of jazz.
"Of course, it was a free and easy place," he says. "Everybody got along just the same. . . . There wasn't no certain neighborhood for nobody to live in, only with the St. Charles Avenue district, which is considered the millionaire district....
"Why, everybody just went anyplace they wanted. Many times you would see some of those St. Charles Avenue bunch right in one of those honky-tonks. They was around -- they called theirselves slumming, I guess, but they was there, just the same. Nudging elbows with all the big bums."
Musically, on these recordings Morton becomes a chameleon, his pitch-perfect aural memory enabling him to re-create at the keyboard the piano styles of long-lost New Orleans musicians and to conjure up a seemingly bottomless repertoire of songs. He unleashes glittering cascades of sound to impersonate the pianism of Sammy Davis (no relation to the famous entertainer of later vintage); he knocks off age-old blues and ribald sex songs and narrative ballads like a human jukebox; he describes the work of other early New Orleans musicians such as cornetist Buddy Bolden, bandleader Joe "King" Oliver, trumpeters Freddie Keppard and Manuel Perez and Bunk Johnson with the unimpeachable credibility of someone who knew them and heard them.
The exercise carries authenticity not only because of the persuasiveness of the performances and the breadth and depth of the information conveyed but also simply because of who is speaking -- Jelly Roll Morton, born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, a founding father of jazz who in these sessions also becomes the first great analyst-journalist-critic of the music.
But Morton, it turns out, was both blessed and cursed by these sessions, Lomax giving him a kind of immortality but also at times demeaning him in the landmark book based on the recordings, "Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and `Inventor of Jazz'" (Pantheon Books, 1950, also included in this boxed set).
Carry his legacy
Were it not for these recordings, Morton -- today nearly forgotten by the general public despite the stature of his compositions -- might be underappreciated by the jazz public, as well. For although it's universally agreed that the recordings Morton made with his Red Hot Peppers in Chicago in the mid-1920s represent the finest recordings of early New Orleans jazz ever made, his profile as raconteur, jazz champion and history maker owe largely to the Library of Congress recordings and Lomax's poetically written, often magical book.
Unfortunately, Lomax in the text of "Mister Jelly Roll" also portrayed Morton as a liar, writing that Morton pushed his birth date back to 1885, because this was "a date that puts in him Storyville earlier than most other jazzmen and gave him plenty of historical elbow room."
In addition, Lomax charged Morton with being ashamed of his race, claiming that "Jelly Roll's whole life was constructed around his denial of his Negro status" and referring to his "race prejudice," though without evidence.
These two assertions -- that Morton was a liar and a racist -- eventually rippled out into the culture, embellished in subsequent books and celebrated in the Broadway musical "Jelly's Last Jam" (of 1992).
Subsequent research has shown both claims to be dubious, at best. No birth certificate has been found to disprove Morton's claim of his birth year, while the chronology Morton presents in the Library of Congress recordings -- as well as other documentation -- support the 1885 date. To its great credit, John Szwed's liner notes to the new boxed set reaffirms the 1885 date, while acknowledging some dissent.
As for Morton's alleged racism, the Library of Congress recordings and other sources show Morton showering his most lavish critical praise on musicians such as pianist Tony Jackson (who wrote "Pretty Baby"), trumpeter King Oliver and ragtime genius Scott Joplin, all men "black as coal," as Morton once noted.
Considering the low regard in which Lomax held Morton's character, one wonders why he wanted to make the Library of Congress recordings in the first place.
"He didn't want to," says Szwed, observing that Lomax was more interested in folk traditions than in jazz at the time.
"He was pushed by the people he was hanging with to make the recordings. He admits that he started negatively. He thought this was a guy who was not going to tell him anything."
But even Lomax was seduced by Morton's way with words.
"I realized that Jelly was telling me the history of jazz, because jazz was a neighborhood project," Lomax once said.
"There was as yet no serious jazz criticism or jazz history. Jelly Roll was attempting to find a basis for such criticism and history."
Morton, however, did not reciprocate admiration for Lomax, who at the time worked as Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress.
Virtually penniless in the last three years of his life, Morton begrudged the amount of time he was asked to spend on the recordings for no pay.
"I wonder how Lomax think that I don't need money to live just the same as anyone else," Morton wrote in a letter to his friend Roy Carew in 1940. "I worked for months doing the [archives] & it meant nothing to me financially."
A one-man forum
On balance, however, the recordings gave Morton a forum in which to be heard, not simply as composer but as intellectual, as personality, as flesh-and-blood human being.
Thanks to the release of the boxed set -- more than half a century later -- listeners can hear him speak for himself, without interpretation from Lomax (who died in 2002 at age 87) or anyone else.
He never has sounded more impressive.
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Library of Congress recordings excerpted
Jelly Roll Morton on:
- Why he became a musician:
My father wanted me to be a hard-working boy. He wanted me to work in the bricklayer trade. He wanted to pay me $2 a day as a foreman. I decided after I learned to play music that I could make more money.
- Life as a brothel pianist:
I never made, never, no night, as I remember, under a hundred dollars. It was a very bad night when we made a hundred dollars. It was very often, men would come into the houses and hand you a twenty, or hand you forty, or $50 note. It was just like a match. Wine flowed much more than water did during those periods.
- On funeral parades that erupted into violence:
Everything was sad when they'd be playing the dead march. There would be no fights, no trouble. But on the way back, [the gangs] had boundary lines. The boys had knives, baseball bats, pickax, shovel handles, ax handles -- everything in the form that they was supposed to try to win a battle. When they got to a dividing line, which was not supposed to be their district, they'd better not cross. If they do, they would be beaten up. And sometimes they were beaten up so bad that they had to go to the hospital. That's the way it always ended in New Orleans.
- On what jazz is:
Somehow or another it got into the dictionary that jazz was considered a lot of blatant noise and discordant tones, that is, something that would be even harmful to the ears. . . . There's nothing finer than jazz music. . . . Jazz music is to be played sweet, soft, plenty rhythm. When you have your plenty rhythm with your plenty swing, it becomes beautiful.
Tribune arts critic Howard Reich is co-author, with William Gaines, of "Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton" (Da Capo Press).
Read more about Jelly Roll, and hear more from Howard Reich at chicagotribune.com/jellyroll.