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.
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.