Black History Month and New Orleans - The Beginnings
While it is disputed whether or not Jelly Roll Morton invented Jazz, some of that having to do with not knowing for sure when he was born as well as how one defines Jazz, what we do know is Morton was the first Jazz musician to think about the music in terms of set arrangements and the first to write out his music. Up until this time the music was played in an all out jam setting and Jelly Roll knew exactly what he wanted musicians to play to create specific musical textures in his music for which an individual could solo over. Morton believed that Jazz could be well rehearsed and arranged and still contain the spontaneous improvisation that makes it what it is. This line of thinking led to great arrangers to come such as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and so many others and is Morton's greatest contribution to the music and changed the perspective of how one could approach it.
Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe or Jelly Roll Morton was born sometime around 1890 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Morton had a love of music from a very young age, learning guitar and banjo, and began playing piano at ten years old. By the time Jelly Roll was twelve we was performing professionally in Storyville and making a name for himself. Morton left New Orleans in 1904 and performed all over the country in the following years. In 1915 'Jelly Roll Blues' was possibly the first Jazz composition ever published as many musicians were afraid to do so out of fear of others stealing their ideas. In 1923 Morton went back to Chicago to claim the rights of his popular song 'Wolverine Blues' and made his first recordings on piano rolls and then on record.
In 1926 Jelly Roll received a record contract from Victor and his recordings with his group Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers and considered classics. Morton went to New York City in 1928 but there he did not have the community of New Orleans musicians as he did in Chicago and he had trouble finding sidemen who could play the way he liked. Things became very difficult for Jelly Roll after this as the Great Depression hit and while bands of Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman were playing his songs, Morton did not receive any royalties.
Jelly Roll moved to Washington D.C. in late 1930s and held a gig at a small local club. After suffering serious knife wounds one night, Morton was first taken to an all white hospital where he was denied and then to another where they put ice on what would turn out to be fatal wounds and hours later gave him the medical care he needed. He never fully healed from those wounds and would be often ill after that incident. Jelly Roll Moved back to Los Angeles with new tunes and arrangements hoping to revive his career but finally these wounds combined with an asthma problem proved to be more than he could handle and Morton passed away in 1941.