Published in Jazz Improv, V 4, No. 3 (12/2003)
Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton, by Howard Reich and William Gaines. 304 Pages. Published 2003 by Da Capo Press.
Review by Virginia A. Schaefer
While widely respected as a founding performer and composer of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton is still popularly known as the rakish character who spun fantastic tales of the road, as the outrageous egotist who bragged that he invented jazz in 1902 (while a baptismal record put his birth in 1890). In Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton, jazz journalist Howard Reich and investigative reporter William Gaines set out to redeem Morton’s reputation from, in the authors’ estimation, the unfair appraisals that started well before Morton’s death in 1941.
Reich and Gaines portray Morton as a dedicated musician who because of the time, place, and circumstances into which he was born, had to play the part of a fast-talking, hard-living entertainer. They describe his compositions, some still unperformed or unrecorded, as refined and innovative. The authors contend that contrary to other biographical accounts, Morton accepted and took pride in his identification as a black musician. While the authors recount Morton’s career start as a brothel entertainer and concede that he had lots of short-term liaisons, they give much more attention to the women who influenced him: his mother, aunt and other female relatives, the beloved wife of his later years, and one enterprising, temperamental, on-and-off girlfriend. The authors highlight Morton’s intense struggle with music publishers and other industry figures for recognition and fair compensation, and they draw on newly available sources to describe his late-in-life activities.
A Life in the New Music
Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe in New Orleans to an extended family that was French-speaking and Creole, a Louisiana term for light-skinned people of mixed European and African ancestry. Regarding the issue of Morton’s birth year, the authors cite supporting evidence for 1885. When his mother married Willie Mouton, young Ferd was given the name of the straitlaced stepfather he never liked. Morton’s mother, by contrast, was lighthearted and musical, and the family attended performances of French opera. Morton excelled at classical piano study, and he also took lessons in blues and ragtime. On the streets of New Orleans, Morton heard the bands at parades and wakes play syncopated rhythms and emotive, improvised solos – the music that was becoming jazz.
After the death of his mother, the teenaged Morton gravitated toward his aunt Eulalie Hecaut, who served as “voodoo practitioner” to prostitutes in the red-light district Storyville. Morton started sneaking visits to Storyville, where he absorbed the music of the hottest barroom pianists and street bands. With the ability to play both popular and classical piano, Morton landed a lucrative job playing in the parlor of an upscale “sporting house”. But every night after his clandestine gig, the slightly-built youngster slipped away from the dangerous Storyville streets and headed home. Inevitably found out, Morton was expelled from the family home to protect his half-sisters from corruption. Unready to survive on his own, Morton went to stay at his Aunt Eulalie’s summer home in Biloxi, Mississippi, a Gulf Coast town with a reputation for vice second only to that of New Orleans. There he honed his professional skills, which in addition to musical astuteness and an engaging stage manner, included gambling (often crookedly), handling a pistol for protection, trading boasts and insults, and dressing sharply.
Around 1904, Morton set off to play piano in the saloons and brothels of Southern cities such as Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida. In a time when many black musicians learned their craft informally and couldn’t read music, Morton enjoyed an advantage in his formal musical training afforded by his relatively privileged upbringing. He quickly found, however, that away from New Orleans, his Creole origin did not protect him against racial hostility from whites. Morton occasionally returned to New Orleans to perform in Storyville and to look in on his family. Whether to avoid the nickname “Frenchy”, as he claimed, or to distance himself from his stepfather, he changed his name from Mouton to Morton.
Key to Morton’s success was keeping up the high-roller’s image of silk shirts, gold jewelry, and wads of cash to wager. He even had a diamond set into a gold front tooth, to literally dazzle the audience with his smile. To stay flush, he sang and did vaudeville (sometimes in blackface) and in tight times, resorted to sidelines like selling patent medicine. In an onstage bragging routine, Morton dubbed himself “Jelly Roll”, a standard nickname connoting a womanizer, on which the authors concur, and possibly a pimp, about which they’re inconclusive.
Around 1905, Morton composed one of his first originals, “Jelly’s Blues”, with its jazz breaks and tango-like rhythm. Another early composition was the classic “King Porter Stomp”, which had a rag-like form but also a swing feel and call-and-response passages. Morton didn’t yet notate his compositions, for fear they might be stolen by rival pianists in the cutting contests where Morton reigned.
Successes, Losses, Reinventions
Morton expanded his range to Chicago in 1910 and to New York the next year, in both cities among the first New Orleans musicians to perform. He settled in Chicago, managing a club where he headlined with his group, The Incomparables. He successfully published “Jelly Roll Blues”, which the authors call the first publication of a “bona fide jazz composition”. On a foray to Detroit, he wrote “The Wolverines”. He toured with a vaudeville act and played piano in smaller cities like Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. In 1914, after a particularly acrimonious cutting contest left him barred from Saint Louis jazz venues, the resourceful Morton found some oompah-band musicians in the city’s German quarter and taught them to perform his compositions. In writing out the players’ parts, he pioneered the notation of jazz music.
As the Chicago jazz scene grew, Morton faced increased competition from fellow New Orleans transplants, such as spectacular trumpeter Freddie Keppard. In 1917, he moved on to Los Angeles, where the jazz was gaining popularity, particularly among the growing black population. Morton prospered in L.A. for a couple of years, updating his wardrobe, buying an automobile, and opening a roadhouse. Morton’s composition “The Crave”, with its chromatic melody, dissonant chords, and Spanish rhythm, entranced his audiences, which included Hollywood actors. In 1918 he registered “Frog-I-More-Rag” with the copyright office, one of the first copyrighted jazz pieces.
In Los Angeles, Morton reunited with Bessie Johnson, whom he’d dated in Biloxi and who was the sister of jazz musicians from New Orleans. Johnson was running hotels around the West, where in order to avoid racial prejudice, she posed as a Cuban under the name Anita Gonzalez. In 1919, Morton and Gonzalez moved to San Francisco, where they opened a club in the Barbary Coast section. When the club foundered from a lack of competent players plus the increased police raids that came with Prohibition, Morton followed Gonzalez to Seattle, Denver, and several smaller Western towns, where they both worked until she decided to pack up again. Back in Los Angeles in 1921, Morton published his song “The Wolverines” with the Spikes brothers, former vaudeville acquaintances. The works sold well, but the Spikeses wrote unauthorized lyrics so they could claim coauthorship and thus cut into Morton’s royalties. They further cheated him by selling “Wolverines” to the Chicago publisher Melrose Brothers Music, which published the piece as “Wolverine Blues” without paying Morton. Incensed by the double-dealing and tired of quarrels with Gonzalez, Morton returned alone to Chicago in 1923.
Jazz was thriving in Chicago, particularly in the largely black South Side. On the day of Morton’s arrival, at one South Side club the Creole Jazz Band, led by cornetist Joe Oliver and featuring his young protégé Louis Armstrong, included Morton’s “Wolverine Blues” on their playlist. Walter and Lester Melrose, non-musical white “farmboys” with a knack for business, had recently opened a South Side sheet music and record store, which was attracting the crowds who frequented the jazz clubs and the huge movie theatre near the store. Morton arrived at the Melrose establishment ready to do battle, but seeing the prominent storefront display of “Wolverine Blues” scores put him more in the mood to compromise. Morton charmed the Melroses with his playing and his tales of old Storyville. Eager to publish more Morton compositions, the Melroses offered flattering words and complimentary rehearsal space, which Morton was happy to accept. Morton was satisfied when the Melroses corrected their edition of “The Wolverines” to list his own name first, even though the gesture brought him no money.
Realizing that sound recording was now essential to a successful jazz career, Morton went into a studio with a small ensemble and recorded “King Porter Stomp” and “New Orleans Joys”. Over the next two years, he made many more ensemble and solo recordings of his older tunes, as well as recent ones like the hit “Milenberg Joys”. Morton’s flashy, swaggering style was a good fit with Roaring Twenties Chicago. He played the top clubs around Thirty-fifth and Calumet, garnering admiration for his virtuosity and his compositions. In 1924, he astounded the young jazz pianist Lil Hardin with his playing and later made the acquaintance of her husband, Louis Armstrong. In 1926 and 1927, Morton was at his “zenith”, and his income from clubs, piano rolls, sheet music, and recordings totaled thousands per week. With the Victor label he made the biggest records of his career, including the hit “Black Bottom Stomp”. His recording group, the Red Hot Peppers, included some of the day’s top jazz musicians, such as trombonist Kid Ory and clarinetist Omer Simeon.
In the late 1920s, Chicago musicians were hurt by the political shift that brought crackdowns on Prohibition violations and other nightclub infractions. To make ends meet, Morton put together a small band and went on the road, accompanied by Mabel Bertrand, a dancer from his home neighborhood in New Orleans. In 1928, he and Bertrand married and set out for New York, where jazz was thriving. Unfortunately for Morton, his bluesy, laid-back Southern style was largely passé in New York, where James P. Johnson and Fats Waller played “faster, harder” piano and where bands like those of Chick Webb were developing a bigger, slicker sound. Morton wound up at a dime-a-dance dive, struggling to lead a band who didn’t understand or care much about his music. He also continued to go on the road to small towns where his earlier Chicago reputation still held sway.
When it was acquired by RCA in 1930, the Victor label dropped Morton while keeping younger musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Morton made a few other recordings, appraised by the authors as harmonically innovative but marred by weak sidemen. Morton sought a radio show where he could perform and tell his stories, but none of the Depression-strapped broadcasters wanted to risk it. Morton kept up the high-style hustler’s image, entertaining out-of-work young jazz musicians with pronouncements on bygone jazz glories and his role in creating them. Most potential clients and sidemen, however, found Morton’s trash talk more annoying than amusing, as dated as his diamond-studded tooth.
Struggles for Royalties and Respect
While Morton was scuffling, popular musicians of the 1930s were playing his tunes. For instance, Fletcher Henderson and then Benny Goodman put out top-selling records of their swing-band arrangements of “King Porter Stomp”. But performances and broadcasts of his works brought Morton virtually no income. All along, the Melrose brothers had accrued the vast share of royalties from the Morton scores they published. The Melroses also set up Morton’s recording deals so that all record-sales royalties went to them, another unfortunately common industry arrangement. In 1925, the Melroses had joined ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), which collected royalties for them on uses of their musical properties, while at the same time the Melroses dissuaded Morton from applying for his own membership. When Morton recorded some songs for rival Southern Music in the late 1920s, the indignant Melroses responded by illegally cutting off Morton’s royalty payments altogether. In 1934, no longer feeling obligated to the Melroses, Morton applied for membership to ASCAP, only to learn that applicants had to be sponsored by a current member. That requirement excluded most jazz and blues composers, non-white composers – just about everyone outside a small circle of songwriters and publishers.
In 1935, while his wife stayed in New York, Morton moved temporarily to Washington, D.C., to pursue a sideline as boxing promoter. That idea fizzled, but he got work as bandleader and manager at the hole-in-the-wall Jungle Club, where he could present his own music. Although most clubgoers ignored him in favor of the swing bands, a complimentary newspaper review in 1938 drew the notice of Roy Carew, an IRS agent who as a young man had heard and admired Morton’s playing in Storyville. Carew found his way to the Jungle Club and after hearing Morton’s account of his life and current straits, vowed to help him defend his musical reputation and collect the royalties owed him.
When a radio broadcast celebrated W.C. Handy as a founder of blues and jazz, Carew helped Morton reply with a long letter explaining that Handy’s work was largely derived from that of musical creators such as Morton. They copied the letter to Down Beat, which made it a cover feature and drew a spirited defense from Handy. Morton also wrote to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, asking for assistance with his copyright plight, and then to James Roosevelt, the President’s secretary and son, who promised to look into the matter. Morton and Carew started a music publishing company, Tempo-Music, and published four new Morton pieces. In 1939, the young folklorist Alan Lomax interviewed Morton and recorded his comments and playing for the Library of Congress archives (in 1949, Lomax published a book based on the interviews). The authors fault Lomax on several counts, most notably contending that Lomax prodded Morton to elaborate on his most sensational experiences while he discouraged Morton’s attempts to seriously describe his music.
After being knifed by a drunken customer, Morton heeded his wife’s pleas and returned to New York in fall 1938. He recovered from the stabbing, but in spring 1939 he started becoming short of breath and suffering chest pains so severe that Mabel finally rushed him to the hospital. He was diagnosed with hardening of the arteries, for which contemporary medicine had little to prescribe other than rest. Morton faced the life-threatening condition by working even harder, resting only when overcome by exhaustion, as he composed new works, looked for gigs, and tried to recoup some of the royalties due him. From a distance, Carew loyally continued help him fight for his due from the music publishing industry. Morton again applied for membership to ASCAP and was this time accepted, but his elation turned to anger when he discovered that ASCAP now relegated jazz composers to a lower rank of membership, with a pay rate of pennies compared with the dollars paid to the Tin Pan Alley songwriters.
In fall 1939, Morton finally had the opportunity to perform and recount his life on a radio program, “We the People”, although without payment. Around the same time, RCA Victor hired Morton to record some “old-time New Orleans” jazz for its Bluebird imprint, with stellar musicians such as soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet. In January 1940, Morton made his last recordings, playing solo and with an ensemble in the studio of General Records. Morton sometimes dropped in on popular New York jazz clubs, listening to the music of the day and occasionally playing. He was often applauded and sometimes offered payment, which despite his impoverishment, he accepted only when he felt his music was given appropriate respect.
To pursue back royalties, Morton hired a couple of top lawyers, who reported that Walter Melrose had again pulled a clever trick, transferring the company to new management so that its old debts were uncollectible. Morton wrote to the U.S. Justice Department antitrust division, laying out his grievances against ASCAP and the music publishers who had cheated him. Finally, Morton received serious attention, as the Justice Department was investigating music industry abuses and wanted to add Morton’s account to their evidence. He gladly obliged with a detailed history of grievances, summaries of which appeared in Down Beat. Readers were incredulous and amused at Morton’s claims of being cheated of millions over decades, and even Carew thought Morton was carrying his case too far. Reich and Gaines, however, defend Morton’s claims as accurate and reasonable.
In fall 1940, Morton received word that his Aunt Eulalie had died in Los Angeles and her elderly husband was ailing. Feeling obligated to help out and also eager to peddle his latest scores to Hollywood, Morton drove off alone for the West, telling his wife he wanted to spare her the trip. Miraculously, he rolled into Los Angeles about a month later, after unsuccessfully seeking gigs across the country, narrowly surviving a snowstorm, and looking up his old love Anita Gonzalez in Oregon. She joined him in Los Angeles, even though, unknown to Morton, she was married to a lumberjack. Morton put together a band with some fellow New Orleans old-timers, who rehearsed his latest compositions, which the authors describe as bold and modern and unlike anything he’d written before. Morton started another music publishing company with Benjamin Spikes, who had published some of his work decades earlier. Morton took pleasure in using the new, ASCAP-defying organization BMI (Broadcast Music International) to collect royalties for other composers his company published.
In spring 1941, as Morton’s health deteriorated, he was cared for by Anita Gonzalez. She also had him sign a will, which he was likely too ill to read, leaving most of his musical properties to her and nothing to his wife. In July, Jelly Roll Morton died of heart failure. His Los Angeles funeral was sparsely attended; Mabel Morton couldn’t pay for the trip from New York, and Roy Carew couldn’t leave his job. Until her death in 1952, Gonzalez collected a trickle of royalties from the former Melrose company, but nothing from ASCAP, which held onto Morton’s royalties while Mabel Morton asserted her right to collect them. Mabel ultimately lost her case because she couldn’t produce a marriage certificate, and in 1958, ASCAP released the money to the estate of Gonzalez. Roy Carew also continued to try to help Morton’s case.
In 1960, the Justice Department succeeded in forcing ASCAP to abolish its discriminatory classification system and start paying composers strictly on the frequency of their works’ performances. With all the performances and recordings of Morton’s music, his estate has made a healthy sum since then. However, the grasp of Anita Gonzalez seems to reach beyond the grave, as the beneficiaries of Morton’s estate are the heirs of Gonzalez’s lumberjack husband, whom Morton never knew. When Carew died in 1967, jazz collector William Russell retrieved the Morton correspondence that Carew had saved, and he also tracked down Morton’s last compositions. When Russell died in 1992, these materials went to historical archives in New Orleans, where Reich and Gaines drew on them for their book.
Jelly’s Blues includes a discography of current reissues of Morton’s recordings, with a brief description of each but without listings of sidemen and other original details. There’s also a list of all Morton’s published compositions with dates and publishers. The book cites the sources for quotations, although it doesn’t include a bibliography. For more career details and musical analysis, the interested reader can consult several other books on Morton, some fairly recent. Whether or not Reich and Gaines have represented Morton life more fully and fairly than other scholars and critics, they have written an absorbing and thought-provoking book.