“The first day, I walked through the District sharp as a tack with my cigar in a fancy holder. Lulu Knowles, the colored landlady in Mobile, had a very beautiful girl by the name of Lila Holliman in her house. And Lila was making a play for me. She called to me. She says, ‘Come here a minute, where do you get them clothes at? We heard about you from Skinny Head Pete. Come here and play us some piano.’” —Jelly Roll Morton
One could reasonably argue that Jelly Roll Morton, born October 20, 1890 in New Orleans, was the first great composer and piano player in jazz. Morton took it a step further and proclaimed himself the “Inventor of Jazz and Stomps.” Once, in a rare moment of humility, Morton confessed that his innovative sense of ‘swing’ resulted from his inability to play ragtime pieces properly. He had to ‘fudge’ the notes and his improvisations led him to create loose, swinging rhythms that were more informal than ragtime, and sounded a lot more fun.
Jelly Roll Morton had an eye for the ladies and the charm of a snake oil salesman. To tide himself over from time to time he put these talents to use as a card shark, a pool hustler, a pimp and a sharpshooter in a Wild West show. He played the vaudeville stage in blackface, worked as a boxing promoter, a bartender and a bouncer, but most often as a piano player.
Jelly Roll Morton’s genius outshines his eccentric personality in his 1923-24 piano solo recordings for Gennett Records and his 1926-28 recordings on the Victor label with his Red Hot Peppers. Featuring some of the best New Orleans sidemen—Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, Johnny St. Cyr and Baby Dodds—the early Chicago Red Hot Peppers sessions are considered classics of New Orleans jazz by critics, historians and record collectors.
Jazz scholar Alan Lomax commented on Morton’s Red Hot Peppers recordings, “There may be more deeply emotional and moving jazz records, but none are more subtly designed and brilliantly executed, none with such a rich harmonic texture, none touched with such true fire.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz Vernel Bagneris joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band for Wild Man Blues, a musical biography based on stories from the personal diaries of Jelly Roll Morton, compiled by the late William Russell, the first curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University in New Orleans, and published in the book Oh, Mister Jelly.
A native New Orleans Creole, Bagneris authored and starred in his award-winning production Jelly Roll. The Library of Congress described Bagneris as "a master of the American vernacular,” The New York Times hailed his portrayal of Jelly Roll Morton as "dazzling." The Jim Cullum Jazz Band offers rarely-performed Jelly Roll Morton compositions, “My Home Is In A Southern Town” and "Exit Gloom," a piece written by Jelly Roll Morton late in his career and recently rediscovered by jazz historian and bandleader Vince Giordano.
Photo credit for Home Page: Flyer for Jelly Roll Morton 1927. Courtesy Historic New Orleans Collection.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Pick ©2011