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Mister Jelly Roll The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and "Inventor of Jazz", Updated, with a New Afterword by Lawrence Gushee

Read the Preface


As far as I know, this was the first recorded biography to be made into a book. Earlier, in my field work, as I had taken down the repertoires of Leadbelly, Molly Jackson, Woody Guthrie and others, asking them to fill in the background for the songs with stories of their lives, I had come to realize that what these people had to say and their way of saying it was as good as their songs. Editing aimed to transfer the surge of speech into the quieter flow of type could, I found, sometimes produce prose as graceful and finely-tuned as the best of written literature. Its originality in music and point of view was boundless—co-equal with the varied experience and culture of the people themselves. In those days I dreamed of recording an oral portrait of the American working class—the mule skinners, the truckers, the sandhogs, the lonesome housewives—turning over the mike to them, letting them have their say for a change, reversing the direction of our so-called "communication" system, which really has only one direction: from the establishment down.

This was thirty years ago when radio and the schools were stifling the rich dialects of our country with their flattened out and devialized "standard American" accent. I hoped that the recording machine and the records and books of folk speech and music spun out of it would be a counterforce, a way to tap into the wild currents of word slinging that Americans are so good at. On my recording trips I had never heard the refined and tightlipped, essentially grey and monotone sentences of Hemingway that have since become (unfortunately) the admired prose model. The people I met at the end of the line (urban and rural) spoke sentences that wound across the page like rivers or mountain ranges. Jelly Roll spoke like that.

When he came barreling into the Music Division of the Library of Congress to set the record straight about the origin of jazz and his part in it, he spoke a prose new to my ear, but as ironic, as charming, and as full of surprises as his compositions. (It took me four years of rewriting to render his prose on the page so that at times you can almost hear him talking.) Moreover, Jelly Roll was on fire with his story—of a great city and of one of those rare moments in human time when something genuinely new begins. New Orleans is, thus far, America's Florence, her Paris, the place that gave rise to the most original thing America has contributed to the arts of mankind.

Jelly Roll was an intellectual and a wit as well as a fine (perhaps our first good) composer. He had thought out and organized his story before he came to the Library. Listening to him was like being present at the birth of the new music that has since become the first international music. It was also seeing it in perspective. This Creole of mixed, lower-class origins understood that his music was also a Creole gumbo of African, French and Spanish Creole, Mississippi black, middle American, with a touch of American Indian. He perceived that jazz was the product and resolution of painful class tensions between "lower" American blacks and "upper" French-speaking mulattos. In New Orleans, old timers interviewed after his death also took the black-mulatto conflict as their main theme. But Jelly Roll's story is more than social and local history, it is a legend in which he uses the facts to bring the past into life.


In foreign lands across the sea,
They knight a man for bravery,
Make him a duke or a count, you see,
Must be a member of the royalty.
Mister Jelly struck a jazzy thing
In the temple by the queen and king,
All at once he struck a harmonic chord.
King said, "Make Mister Jelly a lord!"

No one could have guessed that Jelly Roll Morton was down on his luck that soft May day in 1938. His conservative hundred-dollar suit was as sharp as a tipster's sheet. His watch fob and his rings were gold, and the notoriety diamond, set in gold in his front incisor, glittered like gaslight... Mister Jelly Lord,
He's simply royal at the old keyboard... The quiet of chamber-music auditorium in the Library of Congress and the busts of the great composers sightless in their niches disturbed Jelly Roll not at all. He felt at home with great men and with history. He knew that his music had rolled around the world. If he never actually played at Whitehall, if it was only in fancy that the king said, 'Make Mister Jelly a Lord,' he knew that his New Orleans jazz had warmed up the atmosphere all the way from Basin Street to Buckingham Palace... You should see him strolling down the street,
The man's an angel with great big feet!
With his melodies,
Have made him lord of ivories...
Just a simple little chord.
Now at home as well as abroad,
They call him Mister Jelly Lord... His diamond-studded grin lit up the sombre hall as he feathered his barrel-house rhythms out of the concert grand. "You hear that riff" he said. "They call that swing today, but it's just a little thing I made up way back yonder. Yeah, I guess that riff's so old it's got whiskers on it. Whatever those guys play today, they're playing Jelly Roll." Creole child of New Orleans in the last days of her glory, Jelly Roll grew up to become the first and most influential composer of jazz. He and his Red Peppers put the heat in the hottest jazz of the '20's, but the Depression generation forgot Jelly Roll and his music. He had to pawn his diamond sock-supporters and 1938 found him playing for coffee and cakes in an obscure Washington nightspot. Years of poverty and neglect, however, had neither dimmed his brilliance at the keyboard nor diminished his self-esteem. He came to the Library of Congress to put himself forever on record, to carve his proper niche in the hall of history and, incidentally, to lay the groundwork for his fight to climb back into bigtime. This lonely Creole, without a dime in his pockets or a friend in the world, began by outlining his plans to sue the Music Corporation of America and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

There was something tremendously appealing about the old jazzman with his Southern-gentleman manners and his sporting-life lingo. I decided to find out how much of old New Orleans lived in his mind. So with the microphone near the piano of the Coolidge Chamber Music Auditorium I set out to make a few records of Jelly Roll, little knowing that I had encountered a Creole Benvenuto Cellini.

The amplifier was hot. The needle was tracing a quiet spiral on the spinning acetate. "Mister Morton," I said, "How about the beginning? Tell us about where you were born and how you got started and why. . . and maybe keep playing piano while you talk. . . ."

Jelly Roll nodded and his hands looked for soft, strange chords at a lazy tempo...

"Well, as I can understand. . . 
. . . a gray and olive chord. . . 
"My folks were in the city of New Orleans. . . "
. . . a whisper of harmony like Spanish moss. . . 
Long before the Louisiana purchase. . . "
. . . a chord of distant bugles. . . 
"And all my folks came directly
I mean from the shores of France
And they landed in this new world years ago. . . " . . . a gravel voice melting at the edges, not talking, but spinning out a life in something close to song . . . each sentence almost a stanza of a slow blues . . . each stanza flowing out of the last like the eddies of a big sleepy Southern river where the power hides below a quiet brown surface. . . .  That hot May afternoon in the Library of Congress a new way of writing history began—history with music cues, the music evoking recollection and poignant feeling—history intoned out of the heart of one man, sparkling with dialogue and purple with ego. Names of friends long dead and of honkey-tonks quiet for a half century, songs and tunes and precise musical styles of early New Orleans musicians forgotten by everyone but Morton—he recalled these things as if they were of the day before, smoothly filling in uncomfortable gaps in his own story with the achievements of his friends, building a legend.

As the legend grew and flowered over the keyboard of that Congressional grand piano, the back seats of the hall filled with ghostly listeners—figures dressed in Mardi Gras costumes, fancy prostitutes in their plumes and diamonds, tough sports from Rampart Street in pegtop trousers and boxback coats, cable-armed black longshoremen from the riverfront, octoroons in their brilliant tiyons giggling at Morton's tales, old ladies framing severe parchment faces in black shawls, jazzmen of every complexion playing a solid background on their horns—for this was their legend that Jelly Roll was weaving at the piano, a legend of the painful and glorious flowering of hot jazz in which they had all played a part.

In New Orleans, in New Orleans
Louisiana Town . . .  Something came along there where the Mississippi Delta washes its muddy foot in the blue Gulf, something that bullies us, enchants us, pursues us out of the black throats of a thousand thousand music boxes. This something was jazz, which took shape in New Orleans around 1900 and within a generation was beating upon the hearts of most of the cities of the world. A half century later the lineage of every fine jazz musician can still be traced back to the handful of half-caste Creoles, who performed the original act of creation. As Jelly Roll is the "father" of hot piano, so black Buddy Bolden opened the way for other hot trumpet players, and Papa Tio taught "us all how to play clarinet." All these men knew each other. As boys they followed the parades together or split into neighborhood gangs and fought bloody rock fights in the alleys. Later they wove thgether the complex facric of hot jazz, an American creation at first scorned by the aesthetes and banned by the moralists. Meantime the fox-trot became our national dance. Today jazz lends its color to most American music and to a great deal of the popular music of the world, as well.

Maybe nothing quite like this ever happened before. Maybe no music, no fresh emmanation of the sprit of man ever spread to so many people in so short a time. Jazz, in this sense, is one of the marvels of the century—a marvel that has spawned a monster—a monster entertainment industry, feeding upon jazz, growing gigantic and developing a score of interlocking colossal bodies whose million orifices pour out each week the stuff of our bartered dreams.

Jelly Roll's life story spans the whole of the "jazz age," from the street bands of New Orleans to the sweet bands of New York. With him we can leave behind the marketplaces of Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley and return to the moment of germination in New Orleans. In his sorrows and his fantasies we can find the very quality which distingushes jazz from the many other forms of American music rooted in Africa—from the spirituals, from the work songs, from the blues and ragtime.

"We had every different kind of a person in New Orleans," Jelly said, "We had French, we had Spanish, we had West Indian, we had American, and we all mixed on an equal basis. . ." So tolerant New Orleans absorbed slowly over the centuries Iberian, African, Cuban, Parisian, Martiniquan, and American musical influences. All these flavors may be found in jazz, for jazz is a sort of musical gumbo. But the taster, the stirrer, the pot-watcher for this gumbo was the New Orleans colored Creole. There were 400,000 free colored Creoles in Louisiana at the time of the 1860 census. Their capitol was New Orleans, where for a hundred years they raised the most beautiful girls, who cooked up the tastiest dishes and were courted with the hottest music of any place in the Mississippi Valley.

It is within the folklife of these Creoles that the emotional character of hot jazz is to be found, for their music was not only an Afro-American offshoot, not merely a complex of many elements, but a new music of and by New Orleans—a wordless Creole counterpoint of protest and of pride. Thus New Orleans, in its own small, subtropical way, was a sort of Athens for the popular music of the world.

Why did the streets of Athens during one century throng with the brightest collection of souls that the world has ever seen? This must always be a matter for speculation for Athens is lost to us in time. But New Orleans and its time of creativity is close at hand. Some of the old men who watched the first awkward and charming steps of the infant jazz are still alive. In their recollections, in their story of the hot music of New Orleans we may come close to the magic and mystery of cultural flowering.

For Jelly Roll and his fellows were aware that they had participated in one of the rare moments of ecstasy by means of which cultural transmutations take place. They spoke of this experience with the special feeling of men who have lived through an earthquake or witnessed a dance of the elephants. They were, indeed, the children of a golden age, and, because they were part folk, they recalled the emotions of those bright days in vivid feeling. This volume is, I hope, a testimony to their eloquence and their sensitivity.

With Jelly Roll the days of the interview flowed on into a month; scores of records stacked up onstage at the Library of Congress in a rich evocation of underground America. [Twelve albums of these records have been beautifully published by Circle Records. See appendix 2.] It has proved vain to try to check or correct Jelly's story. Jazz musicians are strong on downbeats but weak on dates. There are almost as many versions of every happening as there were men in the band. The big outlines of his story are solid and true to life; if there is niggling about facts, there is unanimity among the feelings of Jelly and the other boys in the bands.

In fairness to Morton, I have tried to give his narrative as much inner consistency as possible, something he would certainly have done if he had been able to write this story himself. Otherwise Morton and the boys in the bands tell the story their own way. Sometimes they brag; sometimes they remember exactly what was said or how things looked; sometimes they remember it the way they wished it; but somehow out of the crossing of misty memories comes truth—comes a hint at great secrets—how music grows—how artists can be pimps when they have to be and still set the world dancing with fiery notes.

Mister Jelly Roll now bends close to the keyboard, his face saddened by a half smile, his soft and powerful hands stroking out tropical harmonies, and begins. . . 

In New Orleans, In New Orleans,
Louisiana town. . .