Who Was Jelly Roll Morton?
Jelly Roll Morton cut his teeth as a pianist in New Orleans' bordellos. An early innovator in the jazz genre, he rose to fame as the leader of Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers in the 1920s. A series of interviews for the Library of Congress rekindled interest in his music shortly before his death, on July 10, 1941, in Los Angeles, California.
Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe was born on October 20, 1890 (though some sources say 1885), in New Orleans, Louisiana. The son of racially mixed Creole parents — he was a mix of African, French and Spanish — he eventually adopted the last name of his stepfather, Morton.
Morton learned to play piano at age 10, and within a few years he was playing in the red-light district bordellos, where he earned the nickname "Jelly Roll." Blending the styles of ragtime and minstrelsy with dance rhythms, he was at the forefront of a movement that would soon be known as "jazz."
Morton left home as a teenager and toured the country, earning money as a musician, vaudeville comic, gambler and pimp. Brash and confident, he enjoyed telling people that he had "invented jazz"; while that claim was dubious, he is believed to have been the first jazz musician to put his arrangements to paper, with "Original Jelly Roll Blues" the genre's first published work.
After five years in Los Angeles, Morton moved to Chicago in 1922 and produced his first recordings the following year. Beginning in 1926, he led Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers, a seven- or eight-piece band comprised of musicians who were well-versed in the New Orleans ensemble style. The Red Hot Peppers earned national fame with such hits as "Black Bottom Stomp" and "Smoke-House Blues," their sound and style laying the foundation for the swing movement that would soon become popular. Morton's four-year run with the group marked the pinnacle of his career, as it provided a prominent platform for him to display his immense talents as a composer and a pianist.
Morton moved to New York in 1928, where he recorded such tracks as "Kansas City Stomp" and "Tank Town Bump." Despite making use of homophonically harmonized ensembles and allowing more room for solo improvisation in his music, he remained true to his New Orleans roots, producing music that gradually came to be viewed as old-fashioned within the industry. As a result, Morton fell out of the limelight and struggled to earn a living during the bleak times of the Great Depression.
Late Career, Death and Legacy
Morton was managing a jazz club in Washington, D.C., in the late 1930s when he met folklorist Alan Lomax. Beginning in 1938, Lorax recorded a series of interviews for the Library of Congress in which Morton offered an oral history of the origins of jazz and demonstrated early styles on the piano. The recordings helped rekindle interest in Morton and his music, but poor health prevented him from staging a legitimate comeback, and he died in Los Angeles, California, on July 10, 1941.
Although Morton may not have been the inventor of jazz, he is regarded by fans and experts as one of the art form's great innovators. He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, underscoring the far-ranging impact of his influence as a musician.
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