My pop introduced me to early jazz through his large collection of 78s. From those thick, heavy, swiftly spinning disks emerged the crackling sounds of such greats as Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller,
Bessie Smith, known in her day as Empress of the Blues,
and of course, Louis Daniel Armstrong, otherwise known as Pops, Satch, or Satchmo.
These giants of jazz and blues present a pretty normal array of names, especially if you take away the nicknames. But the jazzman that stacked up highest (literally) in my dad’s 78 collection was none other than Jelly Roll Morton, born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe.
According to some, especially himself, Jelly Roll’s contribution was so fundamental to jazz that he invented it. That’s a big claim, but there seems to be some justification, and even if people in the know about jazz history don’t exactly endorse that line, they don’t really seem to dispute it. Jelly Roll developed some of the first, maybe the first, and definitely the most prolific early jazz arrangements.
I can’t verify this for myself, but Dad told me that when Jelly Roll made his famous Library of Congress recordings, he opened with the following words:
Jazz started in New Orleans, and I will no doubt show you how it was played.
That definitely sounds like Jelly Roll: arrogant, confident, whimsical, mock pedantic. The Library of Congress recordings are a real treat, anyway:
Jelly Roll was born of Creole parents and was a native of New Orleans. As a teenager, he started singing and playing piano in a house of ill repute, called a “sporting house.” (The house musician was called a “professor.”)
When my grandmother found out that I was playing jazz in one of the sporting houses in the District, she told me that I had disgraced the family and forbade me to live at the house. … She told me that devil music would surely bring about my downfall, but I just couldn’t put it behind me.
A lot of jazz emerged from such sporting houses, and the word jazz itself, like “rock and roll,” was at one point a slang term for . . . the . . . uh . . . act of . . . er . . . carnal . . . um . . . information acquisition. “Jelly roll” itself was a slang term that had certain . . . er . . . connotations of an . . . uh . . . anatomical nature. At any rate, Jelly Roll may have changed his last name to Morton in order not to bring further disgrace upon the family.
Jelly Roll was playing, writing and publishing before the emergence of the recording industry. He toured extensively, and stationed himself in various music hubs including Vancouver, Chicago, New York, and Washington. In Washington, he was the victim of a knife attack in the club he was managing. After being refused admittance by a segregated hospital nearby, he was treated very poorly at a black hospital further away. He never completely recovered from this attack and died from complications three years later in Los Angeles, in 1941.
Jelly Roll left behind a massive musical output, and eventually earned great honor and acclaim, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Long may the Jelly Roll legacy endure!