Jelly Roll Morton: Biography, Songs & Music

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will articulate the historical significance of Jelly Roll Morton in the development of jazz. The important events of his life will be detailed and his most famous compositions will be listed.

Jelly Roll Morton: New Orleans Jazz Pioneer

Jelly Roll Morton as a teenager, around 1906.

Jelly Roll Morton was one of the most significant figures in the development of early New Orleans Jazz. Although his date of birth is something of a mystery, he was probably born sometime between 1884 and 1890. His birth name was Ferdinand Lamothe, but he acquired his professional nickname, Jelly Roll, while playing in local brothels as a teenager. Morton was of Creole ancestry and drew his musical inspiration from the French, African-American, Spanish, Caribbean, European classical, and sacred traditions that were audible to New Orleans Creoles around the turn of the century. It was this distinctive hybrid of influences that came together into the creation of jazz.

Early Life and Career

The details of Jelly Roll Morton's early life are obscured by time and myth. Much of what is known about the life of Jelly Roll Morton comes from his own account given to the famous folklorist Alan Lomax in 1938. Lomax had intended to simply record some of Morton's songs and his recollections about them for the Library of Congress, but this modest project eventually transformed into more than eight hours of recordings. We have no way of knowing how accurate Morton's recollections are, but these recordings give us a fascinating glimpse into a poorly recorded moment in American history, as well as into Morton's personality.

Morton said that he began playing ragtime, minstrel songs, and other popular tunes in the honky tonks and brothels of New Orleans' red light district Storyville as a teenager. At the time, he was living with his grandmother, who was a devout Christian. Morton recalled that he had to lie to his grandmother about where he was going at night, as she would not approve of his place of employment. When his deception was discovered, Morton's grandmother threw him out of her house and his life as a wandering musician began.

During the early part of the 20th century, the term jazz had not been coined yet. The combination of styles and techniques that Morton employed drew from numerous ethnic, classical, and popular styles, which he hybridized to create his version of early jazz. Although Morton would claim that he personally invented jazz, this is an exaggeration. Jazz was the product of numerous musicians combining numerous styles over several decades.

Life as a Traveling Musician

Jelly Roll Morton around 1917.
Jelly Roll Morton, around 1917.

During his interviews with Alan Lomax, Jelly Roll Morton paints a picture of life on the road as a musician during the first two decades of the 20th century as romantic, but often violent and chaotic. He describes his skills as a pool shark. He used his piano playing to win over his prospective marks, before winning all of their money at pool. He also describes one of his early mentor's Porter King, who inspired one of Morton's most famous compositions, 'King Porter Stomp' written in 1905. Morton explains that he does not quite know why songs of the era where called 'stomps' except that audiences would often stomp their feet to accompany the tunes.

Beginning around 1904, Jelly Roll Morton traveled around the Deep South playing his tunes, soaking up influences from other musicians, and apparently hustling people at pool. He eventually made his way further north to Memphis, St. Louis, and Kansas City. During these years, he composed other classic tunes like 'Jelly Roll Blues' and 'New Orleans Blues.' Jelly Roll Morton began notating and publishing his songs, a practice that was not standard for early jazz musicians of the era.

Around 1917, Morton traveled to the West Coast, living for several years in Los Angeles. In 1922, he relocated to Chicago where many of his most significant tracks were recorded. Assembling a band called the Red Hot Peppers, Morton recorded historic tracks for the well-known record label Victor. Significant tracks from his era include, 'Wolverine Blues' and 'Grandpas' Spells.'

Cover of Sheet Music for Jelly Roll Blues, 1915.
jelly role

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