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Feature [Issue #17]
Jelly Roll Morton: Complete Library of Congress Recordings
By Scott Yanow
The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax (Compilation Rounder)

Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) was one of the most important pioneers of jazz history.  Arguably jazz’s first major composer, arranger, and piano stylist, Morton was writing future jazz standards as early as 1905..

For years his place in jazz history has been clouded by the negative reaction to his bragging, which was symbolized by his claim in 1938 that he had invented jazz in 1902. As usual, there was some truth in his statement because he had been an important transition between ragtime and jazz, but cornetist Buddy Bolden preceded him by several years and no one person actually invented jazz.  Morton’s bragging was part of his makeup and also a reaction to being ripped off by music publishers (receiving virtually no royalties for his songs including the swing era hit, “King Porter Stomp,”) and being neglected after 1930 by the jazz world.

After a colorful life spent in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and throughout the West, Morton’s heyday was spent in Chicago in the 1920s.  His best recordings are from that era and are available from Milestone (his 1923 piano solos) and RCA Victor (an often-stunning series of band performances with his Red Hot Peppers). Morton tried to repeat his successes in New York in 1928-30, but his personality rubbed many musicians the wrong way.  When the Depression hit and work dried up after 1930, Morton discovered that he had few friends. He struggled during the next eight years, eventually becoming the house pianist at a rundown dive in Washington D.C.

In 1938, Alan Lomax, who was conducting interviews for the archives of the Library of Congress, met Morton and decided to document the pianist’s memories of early New Orleans. Lomax actually had no idea what he was in for.  Jelly Roll Morton was so interesting, talking about the old days and the current swing scene, that the sessions were quite extensive. And not only did Morton reminisce, but he played piano (both his hits and long forgotten songs) and proved to be a superior singer. The latter was a skill that had only been captured on record before during a single chorus of “Doctor Jazz.” He even played background piano behind some of his storytelling.

Morton’s Library Of Congress recordings, which have been reissued through the years in different ways (including an earlier Rounder four-CD series that mostly just featured his piano playing,) are now available in complete, chronological, and pitch-corrected form in a magnificent eight-CD box set. The first seven discs have all of the Morton sessions. His storytelling is purposeful and well organized, with Lomax barely being necessary. Morton pays tribute to some of the early pianists, particularly Tony Jackson, and talks about what life was like in New Orleans in the early part of the century. He discusses the importance of having the “Spanish tinge” in his music, dissects the styles of several pianists, and makes a few outrageous claims including that he had written “Tiger Rag” and been important in inventing scat singing.  But with the advantage of hindsight, it turns out that most of what Morton said is true.

Musically there are many great moments including a definitive “King Porter Stomp,” a demonstration of “Tiger Rag” as both a quadrille and as a stomp, Morton showing how “Maple Leaf Rag” sounded as ragtime and later as jazz, a rather obscene version of “Winin’ Boy Blues,” and his recreation of the styles of several pianists who never recorded. The recording quality is listenable and better than ever before, although not up to the technical standards of a commercial record from the period.  But the contents are priceless.

The discussions on the eighth disc will be unfamiliar to even the most avid collectors for it has excerpts of interviews conducted by Alan Lomax in 1949. Guitarist Johnny St. Cyr (who takes a couple solos,) Leonard Bechet, Alphonse Picou, Paul Dominguez, and Albert Glenny discuss both Morton and early New Orleans.  Best are some fascinating tales about Buddy Bolden.

In addition to the eight CDs, this box includes Alan Lomax’s book, Mister Jelly Roll, which is based on the interviews and augmented by other details of Morton’s life. And, as if that were not enough, the box has an 80-page booklet discussing many aspects of the recordings and of Jelly Roll Morton’s career, including excerpts from his never published autobiography and Morton’s colorful letters to Downbeat.

Quite typically, Jelly Roll Morton was never paid for his Library of Congress work and these recordings were not released while he was alive. However, the project uplifted his spirits and he was inspired to venture back to New York, determined to make a major impact on the Swing Era. Morton had a few more record dates (his first as a leader since 1930), which included band sides, piano solos, and vocal numbers. But many critics, fans and, musicians regarded him as an ancient, historic figure or a novelty, and the song publishers continued to deny him adequate payment for his earlier songs. Disappointed, Morton took all of his possessions and drove cross-country, settling in Los Angeles and hoping for a fresh start. But a weak heart caused his death in 1941.

Ironically, the pianist died just as the New Orleans jazz revival was beginning.  A couple of years later, his music was being recorded again and he was hailed as one of the greats of New Orleans jazz. It is tragic that he never lived to see that happen. The Library of Congress recordings add to the legacy of the unique and immortal Jelly Roll Morton.


The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax

Complete Library of Congress Recordings Jelly Roll Morton The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax

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