Morton, Jelly Roll

Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe (20 September 1890 - 10 July 1941), professionally known as Jelly Roll Morton, was an American jazz pianist, bandleader and composer. Morton was the first jazz arranger to prove that a genre based on improvisation could retain its essential qualities when recorded.
Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe was born in a Creole community in the Faubourg Marigny area of New Orleans, Louisiana. Baptismal certificate was issued in 1894 and his date of birth was listed as October 20, 1890. Hence, Morton claimed in the stories to his sisters that he was born on September 20, 1885. Known for his arrogance and self-promotion, Jelly Roll claimed to have invented jazz in 1902. It is considered that this ambition made him to add 5 years to his life. This provoked derision from the junior musicians and musical critics. Jelly was acceptive to music. He was a child prodigy - at the age of 7, his guitar playing was extremely deft. Jellу tackled to playing the piano, violin, trombone and drum kit. At the age of 14, he started working as a pianist in a house of ill repute. He often sang obscene lyrics and used the nickname 'Jelly Roll', which in African-American slang meant female genitalia. While working in the house of ill repute, he lived with his religious grandmother and convinced her that he was working as a night watchman.

His best works “Jelly Roll Blues”, “New Orleans Blues”, “Frog-I-More Rag”, “Animule Dance” and “King Porter Stomp” were written during this period. After his splitting from the family, he moved to Chicago. Between 1923 and 1939, he made about 175 records and an ample quantity of paper music rolls for mechanical musical instruments. Morton prefigured the development of musical trends of the time in his arrangements of the 1920s. The musician was a job-hopper – he was a gambler, a vaudeville comedian and squire of dames, hence he always returned to music.

In 1926, Morton managed to get record deal with “Victor” -- the largest and most prestigious recording company in the United States. His success with the public and acknowledgment by fellow-musicians was due to the recordings he made during those years, mainly with “Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers”. These pieces are considered jazz classics of the 1920s. The compositions by Morton included elements of ragtime, blues, folk songs, brass band music, Irish and French music – in other words, all origins of New Orleans jazz. Ultimately, it was less as New Orleans jazz than as jazz by Morton himself. Every musical piece was made up of two or three tunes’ development.

In November 1928, Morton married dancer Mabel Bertrand in Gary, Indiana, and moved to New York, where he continued recording for “Victor”. By the late 1920s, Jelly Roll had reached the pinnacle of his musical career.

During the Great Depression in the USA, the music by Morton was to more highly sought. People quitted buying records and his orchestra performed far less frequently. During the 1930s, his popularity and fame declined with the advent of the swing era. During this time, Morton was co-owner of unrenowned club in Washington DC and in 1938, The Library of Congress decided to record his stories and music for memorialization in jazz history. These interviews were published in various forms over the years and were released on the eight-disc CD boxed set in 2005, “The Complete Library of Congress Recording”. The collection won two Grammy awards. The same year, Jelly Roll Morton was personally honoured with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The musician spent the last year of his life in California. Jelly Morton died on July 10, 1941. Large prayer beads are depicted on his last resting-place, rather than any musical attribute. According to jazz historian David Galley, "Morton's arrogance and pompous nature alienated so many musicians that few attended his funeral".

Whole books have been devoted to the life of Morton, such as “Mister Jelly Roll” by Alan Lomax (1950); probably more words have been said about this man of marked individuality than about any other musician in jazz history.
He was an odd mixture of jazz genius, poet, snob and braggart, but if there had been a more dignified Morton, without his aplomb and 'Jelly Roll' moniker, without the bravado and self-promotion of a 'jazz creator', such a man could hardly have written 'King Porter Stomp', 'The Pearls' or 'Wild Man Blues'.