Sunday, 21 July 2013

4. Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton

While details of Bolden and Keppard’s lives are sketchy, Morton’s was genuinely shady. He was a professional gambler, snake oil salesman (one concoction he made by boiling down Coca-Cola and adding salt), a con man, an occasional small-time pimp, and was known to carry a knife and use it. If there was a dodgy deal he could get in on, he would. The name he went by was a black New Orleans euphemism for female genitalia (c/f, for example New Orleans guitarist Lonnie Johnson’s lyrics: Jelly Killed Old Sam - video link), and he had a diamond tooth. (The great pianist Mary Lou Williams remembers being frightened of him, and finding his smile and that tooth sinister).

Jelly Roll Morton

Morton began his professional career as a pianist at the age of 14, playing in the brothels of New Orleans’ Storyville district. By 1904 he had left New Orleans, and took his music – and con routines - all over America and even Canada, including Chicago, Kansas City, St Louis, Detroit, and New York, where he was heard by what was to be the first generation of stride players. James P Johnson remembered hearing him in New York in 1911. He was probably one of the earliest artists to spread the New Orleans style to other urban centres.

Jazz Educator

Morton picked up bands as he went, and found he had to write out parts for local musicians not used to the New Orleans ensemble improvising. He is also known to have demonstrated for non reading musicians their parts on his piano. By this means, Morton was an early jazz educator, helping to spread the New Orleans ideas in the first decade of the 20th Century.

Morton’s playing uses distinctive right hand voicings, with the harmonies placed above the melody, and often using flattened 5th intervals. This was adopted as the New Orleans piano style.

The side we’re listening to is Morton’s own Blackbottom Stomp, recorded in 1926 by Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. It was originally called Queen of Spades, but he renamed it for the session, in order to cash in on the Black Bottom dance craze of the time.

What we hear is great bit of ensemble playing, which you might expect from players like Kid Ory on trombone (in wonderful “tailgating” form), Johnny St Cyr on banjo, and Omer Simeon on clarinet. But it is also clear that while there are ensemble and solo improvisations, there are also a lot of arranged passages. Listen to the descending ensemble riff at about 0:48 seconds to change key, for example. The piece is packed with tricks and dynamics, from the stop time passages, to the trumpet calls and ensemble responses. Many of these were dictated by Morton, rather than spontaneous inventions of improvisers. It’s also very “raggy”, with its collection of themes, and shift from Bb to Gm and back, and up to Eb.

Overlaid time signatures

And for once we can actually hear the rhythm section fairly well. We get a good flavour of the way a New Orleans rhythm section would play a 4/4 piece with a 2/4 feel, but slip back to 4/4 when emphasis is needed. It’s an effective technique. Earlier recording had been unable to capture the excitement of a New Orleans rhythm section, and now we get an idea of how we had been told they sounded: the light and shade, dropping out for certain passages, the barnstorming final chorus, the overlaid time signatures, and so on.

But overall, while there are solo breaks, this is an ensemble piece, in the old New Orleans mould; shaped and corralled by Morton, sculptured in his unique and demanding way, but it is not a vehicle for showcasing solos.


You can hear Morton’s solo piano playing on the Library of Congress recordings made by Alan Lomax in 1938, or you could try to get this tune on the CD recommended by Brian Morton and Richard Cook, on the (Chronological) Classics label, CD number 612, Jelly Roll Morton 1926 -1928. The French company went bankrupt, and their Jelly Roll CDs, with the famous typo (“Chronogical”), are hard to find, and getting more and more expensive.

You’re better opting for the 4-CD Proper Box, Dr Jazz, which gives an excellent overview of his career, both solo and ensemble:

Another good option for the Red Hot Peppers is the Bluebird CD, Birth of the Hot:

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