Obit of the Day (Historical): Jelly Roll Morton (1941)
Jelly Roll Morton invented jazz. At least that’s what he would tell folks. And no one could prove him wrong. A prodigy at the piano, young Morton (born Ferdinand Joseph LeMothe) was playing brothels in his hometown of New Orleans by the age of fourteen.
While playing in whorehouses, Morton was living with his great-grandmother, a fervent Christian. He told her that he was working nights as a watchman. In order to hide his identity he took on the name “Jelly Roll” Morton. “Jelly roll” was slang for the female genitalia. True story. It didn’t work anyway and Morton was found out and thrown out of his grandmother’s house.
Morton would wander the south for the next decade-and-a-half honing his skills on the piano, and arranging and writing songs that would become the foundation of jazz. Combining ragtime and blues, Morton developed his singular sound with songs like “Jelly Roll Blues” (when the sheet music was printed in 1915, 11 years after it was composed, it became the first jazz song ever published), “New Orleans Blues,” and “King Porter Stomp.”
It wasn’t until Morton arrived in Chicago in 1923 that he had the opportunity to record any of his music. The recordings he made with his now-famous band, “The Red Hot Peppers,” for the Victor label are considered classics of early jazz.
In the 1930’s, like so many during the Great Depression, Jelly Roll Morton suffered set-back after set-back. By the end of the decade he was playing piano, serving as the bouncer and bartending at a dive bar in Washington, D.C. (Luckily for us, folklorist Alan Lomax took the opportunity to interview Morton for over eight hours while they were both in D.C. and placed the entire recording in the Library of Congress.)
After suffering severe stab wounds during a bar fight in D.C., Morton was convinced by his wife Mabel to leave the nation’s capital. Unfortunately his health never quite recovered and he died on July 10, 1941 in Los Angeles at the age of 55.
Sources: wikipedia.org, redhotjazz.com, and jazzstudiesonline.org
(The song I selected in unusual in that it is not just straight music but features Morton talking about the difference between St. Louis ragtime, created by Scott Joplin, and New Orleans ragtime, as arranged by Morton himself. The song “Maple Leaf Rag” is one of the classics of ragtime music. The song is part of the Library of Congress’ collection, the whole of which can be found here.)