by Pat Hawes
(from the liner notes of The Compositions of Jelly Roll Morton 1923 – 1941 on Timeless Records)
Half a century after his death in 1941, Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton stands established not only as an outstanding jazz pianist who combined elements of ragtime, blues, vaudeville and hokum into a highly individual style, but also as the first truly significant jazz composer. This compilation presents a fascinating programme of Morton compositions recorded by both black and white groups.

Morton's earliest compositions were his best. Although he wrote tunes throughout his life, Original Jelly Roll Blues, Milenberg Joys, Black Bottom Stomp, King Porter Stomp, Wolverine Blues, The Pearls, etc. are truly outstanding and are unmatched by his later work.

Click Here To OrderIn May 1938, Alan Lomax, curator of the Folk Music Archive at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, invited Morton to the Coolidge Auditorium to play a little piano and talk about his life. Initially planned more or less as a "one-off" this project snowballed into a major enterprise, producing more than eight hours of music and talk. Using a battery-operated portable recorder, Lomax captured on acetate discs some of Morton's finest piano playing and singing. He also reminisced about other pianists, recalled their musical styles, talked about his travels in the early years of this century and had much to say about his own compositions and how they should be interpreted using his musical principles.

Morton stipulated that to be a good jazz pianist "you have to give an imitation of a band" which describes to perfection his methods used in writing his music. His compositions were conceived orchestrally, with a marvelous ability to create outstanding melodies. He also incorporated into his compositions, musical devices which he talked about in his famous Discourse on Jazz — riffs, breaks, introductions, key changes, etc. He also stressed the importance of choosing correct tempos for every tune with no speeding up. He considered the use of dynamics essential — "sweet, soft, but plenty rhythm; don't beat people's eardrums down; you got to go down to come up" — likening this process to filling a glass of water.

Jelly made it quite clear that these principles should be strictly adhered to by others when playing or recording his music, and complained that his compositions had sometimes been "loused up" by incorrect or unsympathetic performance.

Morton recorded all these compositions as solos or group performances under his own name during his career, with two exceptions. Milenberg Joys was cut as a piano solo for Gennett in 1924 but was rejected and not issued — the master has never been found. However, eleven months earlier, in July 1923, Jelly had been in the Gennett studios at the same time as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and had replaced pianist Kyle Pierce on three tunes, one of which was Milenberg Joys. Two takes were issued. Windy City Blues here performed by Joe Candullo and his Orchestra is jointly credited to Bob Peary, Charley Raymond, Jimmie Hudson and Fred (sic) Jelly Roll Morton. It is problematical how much Jelly contributed to it and this is the only issued recording of the tune.

The earliest titles of this compilation date from 1923. The greatest of all classic jazz bands led by Morton's good friend Joe Oliver, give spirited performances of Froggie Moore Rag, a composition of three themes incorporating a key change, and London (Café) Blues, based around a succession of breaks, a musical device which both Morton and Joe Oliver particularly liked. The same tune turns up later as Shoe Shiner's Drag played by a 1938 Lionel Hampton All Star group including Harry James, Benny Carter, Hershel Evans, Billy Kyle, et al. The Claude Hopkins version of Sweetheart O' Mine features the third theme from Froggie Moore Rag, has lyrics added and a dire vocal from Orlando Roberson. The baritone sax solo is played by New Orleans clarinetist, Edmond Hall.

In the twenties, Jelly Roll's tunes certainly got around, no doubt because of their availability through the medium of published sheet music. In the years 1925 and 1926, groups in locations as widespread as New Orleans (New Orleans Rhythm Kings/She's Crying For Me), Los Angeles (Sonny Clay/Chicago Breakdown), Kansas City (Bennie Moten/Midnight Mama), St. Louis (Charlie Creath/Grandpa's Spells), Chicago (Doc Cook/Sidewalk Blues), and New York (Henry Busse/Milenberg Joys) all recorded Morton compositions using their own arrangements.

Of particular interest is the performance of Shreevepoort Stomp (sic) by Gregoire Nakchounian and his Russian North Star Orchestra. Nakchounian played clarinet and saxophone and was probably of Russian/Armenian extraction. Shreevepoort is played at a cracking tempo but the complex second theme, which starts in a minor key and resolves to major, is left out. Morton recorded Shreveport Stomp in June 1928 with Omer Simeon (clarinet) and Tommy Benford (drums) on the same session as Shoe Shiner's Drag mentioned earlier, for Victor.

The date and venue for Nakchounian's recording were orginally given in Rust's "Jazz Records 1897-1942" as December 1926 in Berlin, but recent research has suggested April/May 1928 in Leipzig or Berlin. In either case, the Russian North Star Orchestra predates the Morton performance. The original Vox 78 issue is extremely rare to say the least. Many years ago Belgian collector Albert Bettonville junked a copy and intrigued by the spelling "Schreevepoort" and no doubt unaware of its rarity or content, cut out the label and stuck it on the wall of his apartment. (My thanks to John R.T. Davies for this information!) The rest of the band were European musicians who contributed some good hot solos. Pianist Jean (John) Paques later became firmly established on the Paris jazz scene.

Morton claimed to have written Kansas City Stomp and Original Jelly Roll Blues in the early years of this century. Jelly explained that "The Stomp" did not come from Kansas City but was composed in Tijuana, Mexico and dedicated to the Kansas City Bar, owned by a friend "who was unfortunate and had to go to the penitentiary for twenty years." Jelly Roll Blues was originally known as The Chicago Blues and had lyrics added. Another early composition was King Porter Stomp named for Porter King, "a fine pianist now in the cold, cold ground. I turned the name backwards," Jelly commented.

It is interesting to compare the neat precision of Lanin's Redheads including Red Nichols and Miff Mole with the Fletcher Henderson version of King Porter Stomp. Henderson was later to arrange this tune with great success for both his own orchestra and that of Benny Goodman, but his performance features a head arrangement and a stunning sequence of ad lib solos from Bobby Stark (trumpet), Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax), Sandy Williams (trombone), Rex Stewart (cornet), and J.C. Higginbotham (trombone). Jelly spoke of his skills at "transformation" or his ability to interpret others' music in his own style. I don't know whether he was familiar with Mary Lou Williams' solo version of The Pearls, but Mary Lou, a forward-looking player, reshapes the tune with modern sounding harmonies, but remains faithful to the original. Morton must have been pleased with the way in which Bob Crosby molded Wolverine Blues to suit the big band Dixieland style he featured. Dismissive of other contemporary pianists, Jelly spoke favorably of Bob Zurke "who has the tendency to be on the right track."

Morton didn't understand record collectors. "Why would anyone be interested in those old things?" he asked. He regarded records as a way of making money, to be forgotton soon after their issue, but it is apparent that Benny Goodman's Boys (Benny Goodman, Jimmy McPartland, Tom Dorsey, etc.) had listened to the Red Hot Peppers' version of Jungle Blues.

Goodman appears again with the Venuti-Lang All Star Orchestra (Someday Sweetheart) featuring the Teagarden brothers, Jack and Charlie, as well as Joe Venuti (violin) and Eddie Lang (guitar). Their playing on this session is a clear indication that Swing was just around the corner.

By the time Lu Watters and his white band of jazz enthusiasts cut Morton's Original Jelly Roll Blues for the Jazzman label, America — after Pearl Harbor — was two weeks into World War II; Bebop, the new jazz, was being played in New York City and Jelly Roll Morton had died five months earlier on July 14, 1941 in Los Angeles. He was 56. The revival of interest in classic and traditional jazz, which would have undoubtedly restored Morton to a position of preeminence, was still a few years away.

Pat Hawes
Jazz pianist, reviewer and contributor
Jazz Journal International
February 1996


Footnotes:

The 1938 Morton Library of Congress recordings stand out as "a prime source of information about the pianist and his music," spoken in Jelly's own words.

In 1993, following an agreement between the Library of Congress and the Morton Estate, Rounder Records re-issued the musical part of these recordings on four compact discs:

CD 1091 Kansas City Stomp
CD 1092 Anamule Dance
CD 1093 The Pearls
CD 1094 Winin' Boy Blues


With access to the original acetates and use of modern digital techniques, the audio quality is a huge improvement on previous issues. Furthermore, Rounder Records included all previously unissued material, unedited; considered "sensitive" and "not suitable for issue" earlier because of bad language and obscene lyrics.

Unfortunately the Rounder set is far from complete, in that the valuable talking sides are omitted and, while there is some dialogue interposed in the piano playing and singing, a great deal, relevant to Morton's life, his playing and his compositions, has been left out.

At the time of writing no complete Library of Congress set is available. Classic Jazz Masters (Sweden) and Swaggie (Australia) both issued 8-LP sets re-edited by John R.T. Davies in the Seventies, which included both talking and music sides, but not the "sensitive" material which Rounder have now made available. Both sets have long since been deleted.

If you would like to order the Timeless Records' CD of The Compositions of Jelly Roll Morton 1923 – 1941 you can do so through Worlds Records or direct from Timeless Records.