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The World of
"Jelly Roll" Morton
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Jelly Roll Morton Portrait
"Jelly Roll" Morton (born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe in New Orleans, Louisiana, 1890-1941) is hard to distinctly categorize, so he is often just a category unto himself in music. Being a Creole, or Mulatto, he grew up in a wonderful musical environment, but one that did not initially foster those who were neither clearly white nor black. Prejudice came from both ends of the spectrum. He battled back with his natural musical abilities, and even though he did not "invent jazz" (as he has been quoted as saying, though not reliably) or fathered the blues before W.C. Handy, he did invent a "Jelly Roll" style all his own.
Much of what we knew about Morton until recently was from the biography penned by Alan Lomax based on interviews he had with Morton in 1938 and 1939 under the auspices of the Library of Congress. Over a couple of sessions, Morton recalled much of his past, and punctuated the dialogue with musical interludes. All of this material is still available on CD with a little searching. Lomax penned a biography with some added research, although much of it has since been questioned for accuracy. More recently, others have been doing more detailed analysis of Morton's doings, culled from contemporary accounts and advertisements in newspapers, along with long-forgotten interviews of his contemporaries. One of the best sources for this currently is the website of the late Mike Meddings which is still kept active, and covers Morton and other artists involved with Hot Blues and Jazz. The research there, some of which is incorporated into my own biography of Morton, provides a more complete and accurate picture of Morton's life and when and where he performed. The Lomax book is in and out of print, but still recommended for perspective if you can locate a copy.
There are three major genres of his style, which include his Blues, Stomps, and Spanish Tinge pieces. The Morton blues were often simply stated, but still complex in their construction. The stomps, which are advanced ragtime pieces, are aptly named for the reaction they elicit from performers and listeners alike. Since there was a lot of Latin influence, primarily from Mexico, in New Orleans as Morton grew up, it is only natural that he would lay down some of the tango or habanera-influenced Spanish Tinge pieces, although all of them have his signature clearly on them.
The pieces here cover all of the genres over much of his professional life, and more will be added as time permits. I also encourage you to discover some of the marvelous collections of his original recordings in the form of piano rolls, solo piano discs, and sessions with his Red Hot Peppers, all of which are still widely available in retail outlets and web CD sites (see the bottom of the page for a quick link).

mp3 fileMamie's Blues
Mamie Desdunes Dugue and
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton
Mamie's Blues
In his 1938 recordings at the Library of Congress, sessions that were implemented by historian Alan Lomax, Jelly Roll Morton spoke of his early influences, one of which was described as thus:
…among the first blues that I've ever heard, happened to be a woman, that lived next door to my godmother's in the Garden District. Her name was Mamie Desdunes [Dey-doon or Des-doon]. On her right hand, she had her two middle fingers, between her forefingers, cut off, and she played with the three. So she played a blues like this all day long, when she first would get up in the morning…
Then Morton proceeded to play what is the basis for this track. Her full name was actually a New Orleans Creole, Mary Celina Mamie Desdunes Dugue, the last appendage courtesy of her common-law husband, warehouse worker George Dugue. According to a 1949 interview with trumpter Bunk Johnson:
… She was pretty good looking — quite fair and with a nice head of hair. She was a hustling woman. A blues-singing poor girl. Used to play pretty passable piano around them dance halls on Perdido Street. When Hattie Rogers or Lulu White would put it out that Mamie was going to be singing at her place, the white men would turn out in bunches and them whores would clean up.
There is no indication that Mamie was actually a prostitute, and given her known history and address, it seems unlikely that she worked in the Storyville district in any capacity other than as a performer. She died in late 1911 at age 32, and would have been largely forgotten if not for Morton. At best, this might be a paraphrase of the simple blues pattern she played, owing to her disfigured right hand, with some of Morton infused into. The lyrics are typical of the time for New Orleans, with some portions common to a number of blues songs. This performance looks to take the subtle aspects of the blues piece - successfully exploited by pianist Butch Thompson in his Daring 88 recording of the work - and combine it with a reading of the lyrics in my best attempt to put some desperation into them, the final result also released on my 2011 album Bluz.
mp3 fileGrandpa's Spells
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton
- 1923
Grandpa's Spells Reportedly composed as early as 1918, this is one of the best known Ragtime pieces by Morton, and certainly the most memorable. He was proud of its versatility, as it could be performed as a rambunctious piano solo in a brothel, yet turned into a smooth traditional band rag at a society ball. Grandpa's Spells is indicative of a musician's application of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). The initial melody in the A section is not at all complicated, and barely even syncopated. The B section is even less involved, where most of the musical changes occur in the left hand, with the exception of a fun-to-play break of ascending chorded octave. The sparseness of the A section begs for all types of improvisation possibilities when it is returned to. Then comes the part that is hard to forget. The printed directions, which I assume are meant to create the "spells", call for the performer to "smash the lower keys with the left hand." I have seen a large variety of methods to accomplish this effect, including elbows, shoulders, knees, heads, rear ends, and feet (the latter of which is my preference, and visually stunning in my opinion - most piano owners are certainly stunned by it). The title reminds me of my own grandfather, who used to quiz me with things like "What's R A Y I E N N E?" "I dunno, Grandpa!" "Why it's the worst spell of rain I've seen in a long time!!!" Grandpa's spelling!
mp3 fileLondon Blues
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton
- 1923
London Blues Jelly Roll Morton at one point boldly proclaimed himself as the inventor of jazz, and was able to even pinpoint the date he thought it up. In spite of this mildly inflated ego condition, he was both prolific and consistent in his work, although he often recorded the same piece with minor variations and major name changes. London Blues was also known as the London Cafe Blues in one incarnation and Shoe Shiner's Drag in another. This particular blues of Morton's is unique in that each phrase ends with the same four bar riff, in spite of there being three distinct sections. It also falls outside of the usual expected chord sequence for a blues for some of the iterations, but is nonetheless comprised of a consistent 12-bar pattern. As a result, there is a marked difference in feeling between the first and second halves of the piece. I prefer a laid back tempo on this style of blues, in spite of the brisk tempo of his many recordings. My performance influence here is a bit less Jelly Roll and a bit more Paul Lingle, based on his take of the piece included on his well-known 1952 album for Good Time Jazz.
mp3 fileStomp De Low Down
Ollie "Dink" Johnson - c.1920s
cover not available - not published Dink Johnson was one of Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton's brothers-in-law through Morton's first wife, Anita Gonzalez. Dink and his older brother Bill Johnson performed often with Morton during his years in Los Angeles at the Melrose Café. Dink was usually a drummer, and both brothers were readily influenced by this talented giant of jazz. Johnson was among the first black musicians to be recorded, and made possibly the first jazz recording produced in Los Angeles. It is reported that Morton was likely staying with Dink in L.A. when he passed away in 1941. The exact year of origin of this piece is unknown, but its roots are not hard to trace. It is derived from an old New Orleans street song that was the basis of I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate and Gaitmouth among others. On the street it was simply known as the cruder K.M.F.A., which could account for some of the obvious attitude conveyed in Stomp De Low Down. There are three sections, all in the same key, and all have the same ending chord progression, common with many of Morton's pieces as well. I first heard this played by the gregarious Butch Thompson on A Prairie Home Companion many years back, and have not been able to resist it since.
mp3 fileSidewalk Blues
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton
and Walter Melrose (L) - 1926
Sidewalk Blues One of a series of blues that Morton wrote, this was never recorded as a piano solo. His band did it considerably faster than I, and threw in some street effects to gag up the title a bit. Publisher Walter Melrose added lyrics to this as with some other Morton pieces to make it more palatable to the buying public in song form, but it leaves out the wonderful trio. Sidewalk Blues is still a staple of Dixieland and Traditional Jazz bands. The first return to the A section is often played with the left hand emphasis on the second and fourth beats only. The C section is a through-composed full 32 bar theme, not as unusual for this time as it would have been just a few years earlier. My interpretation is based on the Good Time Jazz recording of Paul Lingle, made in 1952. If you listen to his, you can actually hear him humming (a bit out of tune) in the background, a trait that once caused a radio station to disassemble its entire transmitting system to locate the source of the odd noise.
Thanks to Steve Sienkiewicz who provided the cover for this piece
mp3 fileJungle Blues
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton
- 1927
Jungle Blues One of the interesting hallmarks of many Morton compositions is that he would find an idea and hang on to it throughout most of the piece. It might be a particular phrase used at the end of each section, or a rhythm. In this case, it is a relentless bass line that is only broken up after almost three minutes into the piece, but is effective in conveying what might be people's perception of the title. Pushing an idea that was most widely used that same year by Duke Ellington in The Mooche and similar "jungle" pieces, Morton gives us the never-ending rhythm that, in this instance, also does not change harmonically in the left hand, with several blues variations in the right hand. It is also a refined hint of the more vivacious barrel-house boogie that was just emerging. The opening harmony is used only in those first four measures. Then the first section breaks convention by adding a couple of measures before moving to the variations, one of which also has an extra measure. The first break we get from the rhythm is a theme that would subsequently also be used as the opening verse of Basin Street Blues (which was actually composed by Glenn Miller to compliment the Spencer William chorus). Then it's back to the jungle rhythm. The only truly recurring pattern is a jungle yodel of sorts, but also a plaintive theme with the only harmonic content that breaks from the unending stream of C/C6/C7 chords. This style of rhythmic "jungle chant" was used almost exclusively by black artists, who were constantly being very inventive in this regard, staying just ahead of their white counterparts for quite some time in the fields of ragtime and jazz. This piano version is more based on his 1938 Library of Congress solo recording, as the original incarnation of this was with his Red Hot Peppers.
mp3 fileBilly Goat Stomp
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton
- 1927
Billy Goat Stomp A relatively simple piece in structure, this was one of the only stomps that Morton composed but did not record as a solo, arranging for its publication through Melrose Brothers, his primary publishing outlet at the time. Billy Goat Stomp consists of two separate sections, in the relative major and minor of C, which are made up of short eight bar patterns. These patterns primarily echo the call and response technique so prevalent in black music history, and therefore allow for a great deal of improvisation. Many of the melodic riffs could be termed as breaks, since they were used as such in other Morton pieces. It is not until after eight iterations of the eight bar pattern that the stomp portion of the piece actually begins. The published version ends at the conclusion of the A minor stomp section, but I have gone back to the beginning for balance and to create a more affable C major ending. The origin of the title is unclear, although in this instance it may actually have been named by Walter Melrose instead of Morton.
mp3 fileMaple Leaf Stomp
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton
- 1938
Third Edition Maple Leaf Rag After having almost disappeared from view in the 1930's, Jelly Roll Morton was rediscovered by historian Alan Lomax. He was working in a Washington D.C. dive run by his girlfriend of the time (for which he wrote Sweet Substitute). Lomax recognized the potential fount of information contained within the mind of this icon of early jazz. He arranged a series of recordings in 1938/39 that were sponsored by the Library of Congress and eventually released by Circle Records. On these, Morton talks about his life and loves, and particularly about his music. At one point, when asked about Joplin, Morton noted that he knew some of his pieces, and that the two had met at some point. He then talked about the Maple Leaf and played it "St. Louis style" as he remembered it from 1904. He then noted that (paraphrasing) "it's a fine tune, but now if I had written it, I would have done it a bit different. Something like this..." He then proceeded to play a very Mortonesque variation of the well known standard. Mine is an expanded interpretation of Morton's recording, and is not intended as a direct quote as such, but it still keeps to the spirit of the Jelly Roll style. Just the same, the underlying Joplin tune from 1899 is still at the core of this work.
Note: A transcription of this work is among the items most requested from me. I do not have one available and may not for some time yet. For further information, please read my FAQ on this topic.
mp3 fileThe Crave
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton
- 1938
The CraveIn spite of the listed copyright date, there are indications that Morton was playing this "Spanish tinge" piece as early as 1910, even though it was first recorded in 1938 at the Library of Congress sessions with historian Alan Lomax. It is one of the best of that genre of his pieces, and even trumpeter Herb Alpert picked up on it in the mid-1970s (possibly influenced by his pianist, Dave Frishberg). The primary rhythm used is a modification of the African habanera, a four beat syncopated rhythm that is often confused with the Latin Tango. The A section is similar to Abe Olman's Egyptia from 1911, though which composer borrowed from the other is unclear. It is the only minor section, and in one recording it is repeated after the B section, but more often is not in modern performance. The B and C sections are similar in construction, but in different keys. Both start with a short melodic run, then have either a fill pattern or silence. The C and D sections are played in sequence before they are repeated. There are patterns throughout that are indicative of the fusion of Spanish and French influences found in the New Orleans of Morton's youth.

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