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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,630

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This is the grave of Jelly Roll Morton.

Perhaps born in 1890 in New Orleans, Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe grew up in the mixed race community of that city, which was still quite large and different than the rest of the South in so many ways, including the openness of it and the size and the relative economic prosperity. But that prosperity was most certainly relative. His father played the trombone and was a bricklayer and his mother was a domestic. The father walked out in 1893. His mother remarried a man named William Mouton and our young future musical legend adopted his stepfather’s last name, but anglicized too. Also, the perhaps issue on the birthdate comes from the fact that Americans did not require birth certificates until 1914 and so there’s not a lot of hard evidence. I’d say the date on the gravestone is proof, but as we know from this series, those are wrong with surprising frequency.

In any case, Morton was a prodigy on the piano and he got a job in a brothel playing the instrument in 1904, when he was only 14 years old. Must have been quite a scene for a kid. He went all-in on the brothel scene too. He wrote sex songs all the time and Jelly Roll became a nickname, which was also an euphemism for the vagina at that time (can’t as say that’s one I’ve heard before). His family was horrified and basically disowned him. He could live with that.

By 1904, Morton was touring the South and writing songs. The music industry began to develop around him. Ambitious and smart, he started writing down these compositions. In 1915, he published “Jelly Roll Blues,” one of the first published jazz compositions. He would spend basically the entire first three decades of the twentieth century writing, playing, scamming, possibly working as a pimp, gambling, hustling, and protecting his music, all while traveling around the U.S. and even Canada. He was also quite defensive over his compositions, making sure that he got credit for them instead of someone stealing from him. He released recordings on piano rolls as well.

By the mid-20s, commercial recording had become possible and Morton was there for it. He signed with Victor in 1926 and brought his red hot band to Chicago to put down some of his best numbers. That band included Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr, and Johnny Dodds, among other legends of early jazz. He then moved to New York, but that wasn’t the best for him. While he did end up recording with a lot of people, his style of jazz was less popular there and so he didn’t have the kind of success he really wanted.

The Great Depression was rough for musicians. People didn’t have the money to shell out for music. Many of the great early musicians, regardless of race, disappeared during these years and only a few, such as the Delta blues guys and a few of the country musicians, would ever record again. Even though Morton was pretty close to a musical star, Victor dropped him in 1931 and he spent the next few years quite poor. What money he made over the years wasn’t exactly responsibly invested, plus what did responsible investment even mean in the context of the 20s? He made money, he spent money on clothes and women and booze. That was his life. Well, that was a lot harder in the 30s. He had a radio show for a bit in 1934 but that didn’t go anywhere. He was reduced to playing burlesque shows by 1935, which certainly he could do since that’s how he got started, but I doubt he was too happy about ending up back there. Then, in 1935, Benny Goodman recorded Morton’s old song “King Porter Stomp,” arranged by Fletcher Henderson. But Morton received no royalties from this huge hit. Must have driven him nuts.

Morton never did really return to fame. In 1935, he moved to Washington to manage a music club called The Music Box. It was a disaster, largely because the owner just let her friends drink for free and she had a lot of friends. However, one good thing happened here. Alan Lomax, the legendary folklorist, saw him play and decided to record him. Lomax was only a kid at this time, just 23 years old, but his dad had trained him in the ways of folklore and also Alan was a lot more understanding and sympathetic to Black musicians than his father, who was pretty racist and could be very condescending, even on the recordings (see John’s recordings of Blind Willie McTell in 1940 as an example of wanting him to shut up). When Lomax recorded Morton, they got along real well. This was only supposed to be a brief recording, but they ended up going for 8 straight hours. Lomax was particularly interested in the dirty songs of Morton’s New Orleans days, but he also asked Morton to narrate his own life. Much later, this became key to Mister Jelly Roll, which Lomax published in 1950, part autobiography and part Lomax’s own reserach. In fact, Robert Gottlieb’s gigantic compendium of jazz writing called Reading Jazz opens with an except from Morton’s transcribed stories from these sessions and thus that book.

Morton claimed he invented jazz in these interviews and I mean, he didn’t. He was one of the inventors and early innovators, sure. But there’s no reason to accept such claims at face value and honestly, it doesn’t really matter. It’s still a fun read.

Unfortunately, the thing about running a club in the 1930s in Washington is that drunken people do stupid and violent things. In 1938, a friend of the club owner went after Morton and stabbed him several times. Then a whites-only hospital nearby refused to treat him. He finally made it a hospital that would take him, but it was a poor one and the doctors just put ice on his wounds for several hours before finally getting around to him. He never really recovered from this attack. He had asthma that got a lot worse after that too. His wife Mabel told him that they had to leave Washington. He was in New York again for awhile, but much of that time was in the hospital. So they moved to Los Angeles, both for the climate and for Morton to try and restart his career. But he was so unhealthy and he died out there, after 11 days in the hospital. He was approximately 50 years old.

Morton was such an asshole personally that most of the musicians in LA at that time, including Duke Ellington, refused to attend his funeral.

Jelly Roll Morton is buried in Calvary Cemetery, East Los Angeles, California.

Let’s listen to some Morton.

If you would like this series to visit other legends of the first decades of jazz, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Sidney Bechet is in Garches, France, outside of Paris, if anyone is feeling particularly generous. More realistically, Willie “The Lion” Smith is in East Farmingdale, New York and Sonny Greer is in The Bronx. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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