by Robert Wilkinson
Today we celebrate the great Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, composer and performer of some of the greatest "hot jazz" and blues ever to have hit the streets!
A brief bio: Ferdinand LeMatt, aka Jelly Roll Morton (October 20, 1890 – July 10, 1941) was one of the original creators of what became American Jazz. From Wikipedia, “Morton is perhaps most notable as jazz's first arranger, proving that a genre rooted in improvisation could retain its essential spirit and characteristics when notated. His composition "Jelly Roll Blues” was the first published jazz composition, in 1915.”
From another bio, “In 1923 he cut 6 labels for Gennett of Richmond, Indiana and in 1924, made 24 piano rolls for Vocalstyle. His Red Hot Pepper recordings for Victor in '26-'27 set the standard for jazz. Morton fell on hard times during the depression and was cheated out of a huge sum of royalties by his Chicago publisher and a racist ASCAP. He moved to LA out of outrght disgust with the East Coast and died in an LA hospital in 1941 at age 50 from heart problems.”
It is said that Morton's recordings have been the musical basis of many of today's jazz styles. While some musicians stayed within this format, others evolved into swing and the many facets of the modern jazz. So welcome to the world of "hot jazz" in the roaring 20s as done by one of the true originals! If you've ever liked Fats Waller, Louie Armstrong, or Scott Joplin, you're in for a treat. For your enjoyment, Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers!!
We'll begin with some great piano work by the man himself, sometimes with the Peppers backing, sometimes just solo:
Here's an extraordinary rendition of the famous "Maple Leaf Rag." It starts with Jelly Roll talking about the St Louis scene in the first decade of the 20th century. As he says, he plays Maple Leaf Rag "better than all the rest because the boys couldn't finger so good."
If you're interested, the Red Hot Peppers were composed of Morton leading on the piano, Kid Ory, Andrew Hilaire, John Lindsay, Omer Simeon, Johnny St. Cyr, and George Mitchell. Here they are in September 1926 performing the rousing "Blackbottom Stomp."
From December 1926, composed by Walter Melrose and King Oliver, "Dr. Jazz."
Also from 1926, "Steamboat Stomp."
Here's a little backstory from one of the recordings. "Jungle Blues" was recorded for the Victor label on 7-4-27. In the mid-20s Victor was getting into what were called "race records" and was looking for talent, so in 1926 Morton put together a group who could play the New Orleans "Hot Style" from Lil Hardin's disbanded Dreamland Syncopaters who had headlined at the Dreamland Cafe in Chicago. These '26 and '27 tracts are considered the first of the hot style jazz records and historian David McGee states that these recordings are to jazz what Elvis Presley's Sun recordings were to rock and roll.
The next song has some great history! Jelly Roll Morton composed "Pretty Lil" for one of the great women of jazz, and recorded this version in Camden for Victor July 1929.
Lil Hardin was Louis Armstrong's second wife from 1926-1938. Lil and Louis met about 1921 while both played in King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong had collaborated on "Wildman Blues" in 1926 and Morton recorded the song on the Bluebird label in Chicago in 1927 while Louis Armstrong and His Hot 7 recorded "Wildman Blues" in May 1927 for Okeh in Chicago. The pianist for that Hot 7 session was Lil Hardin. From what I suspect is a bit later, here’s another version, a bit slower, by Satchmo of “Wildman Blues”
Lil was the most famous woman of early jazz who got her start playing jazz piano at age 17 playing in the men's world of tough and seedy clubs in Chicago. Lil met Jelly Roll as a teen while she was working at a Chicago music store. Morton frequented the store and played his style for her which she came to adopt and for a while Lil was known as the female Jelly Roll Morton.
Over the years she not only held her own but had 8 different orchestras of her own from 1925-1950 and remained active as a jazz musician until her death in 1971. Lil appeared on Broadway in "Hot Chocolates," cut 26 records as a vocalist, was a fashion designer in the 1940s, then returned to music where she had 4 successful years of engagements in Europe in the 1950s and held a post graduate degree in music from NY College of Music. She was certainly a female pioneer and pace setter in the world of jazz!!
Anyway, back to Morton and the Red Hot Peppers!
Here they are playing James Scott's "Climax Rag."
From 1929, here are a couple of "Hot Style" jazz tunes recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden NJ.
From 1938, one of the few boogie-woogie numbers Jelly Roll Morton ever did. “Honkey Tonk Music”
Here we have the Jelly Roll Morton Seven “cuttin’ the rug” with their great swing dance number, “Panama”
From the 1943 movie “Rug Cutter’s Holliday,” here’s movie footage of some great dancing to the Jelly Roll Morton Seven (with Henry Red Allen) with their 1940 hit coming out of the radio! “Panama”
Written to prove a point, here’s Jelly Roll Morton taking it to the early NY Ragtime stride pianists with his version of “Finger Breaker”
We'll close today with Jelly Roll Morton's early venture into blues, an uncensored 8+ minute version courtesy of the Library of Congress of "Whinin' Boy Blues. Here's a shorter version of “Whinin’ Boy Blues” which has some lyrics that were quite risque' for the times. This song has been a standard across the years, with many other artists covering it. I found a few versions from some major performers, so for your enjoyment,
A young Janis Joplin doing a live version of "Whinin' Boy." She obviously loved Jelly Roll Morton's tunes! I found this gem, live in the studio, of Janis in a great performance of Hesitation Blues." From June 1964, here’s Janis with Jorma Kaukonen (of the Jefferson Airplane before that band existed) doing “Hesitation Blues”
The Grateful Dead Live at Mickey Hart's Barn in August 1971 doing "Whinin' Boy"
Hugh Laurie live in Berlin doing "Whinin' Boy Blues"
Here's the legendary Dave Van Ronk in 1965 doing his version of "Whinin' Boy Blues"
And there you have it, jazz fans! Jelly Roll Morton was one of the first and best, a true American original who gave us tunes and a style that influenced countless musicians through the rest of the 20th century to the present day. A very big Happy Birthday indeed!
© Copyright 2013 Robert Wilkinson