Jelly Roll Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe in 1890 and later became a pioneer of modern American jazz. Growing up in New Orleans, he played piano in saloons and brothels when he was still a child. As an adult, he formed a band, the Red Hot Peppers and also played on his own. Morton is renown for his ability to bring traditionally black musical styles to the mainstream and he was heavily influenced by his New Orleans upbringing. Morton is particularly remembered for a series of recordings he made in Chicago for RCA Victor in the 1920s, and Morton is credited as being one of the first to mix individual improvisation with more structured group arrangements. Although he claimed to have invented jazz, this is not strictly true; instead, he is credited as the first jazz composer. After Morton, improvisation became a staple of jazz. His best-known tunes included “Jelly Roll Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” and “Black Bottom Stomp.” Jelly Roll Morton was not only a jazz legend, but he helped shape all of American popular music during his life and after his death.
Jelly Roll Morton grew up in New Orleans and started to learn piano at the age of ten. By 1902, he was playing French quadrilles, ragtime and some operatic classics in the bars and bordellos of Storyville. Around 1904, Morton went on the road, playing in Southern states such as Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. While he remained based in New Orleans, he went on to play in Memphis, St. Louis, and Kansas City, and he frequently worked in the popular minstrel shows of the time. He eventually broadened his travels, playing in New York and as far west as Los Angeles in 1917. Using his travels as inspiration, Morton brought together a variety of black musical styles, including ragtime, blues, hollers, religious hymns, and spirituals, and incorporated Caribbean music and white pop songs.
This melting pot of style and substance was akin to a new musical genre being developed: jazz.
Hitting his stride
Morton remained in Los Angeles that he remained there for five years, and in 1922 he moved to Chicago, which was the center of jazz activity at the time. His first recordings were made there in 1923: two performances with a sextet (“Big Foot Ham” and “Muddy Water Blues”) and a series of solo piano renditions of his own works. But while other musicians embraced the orchestral style of the Big Band era, Morton remained true to his improvisational roots. By 1930, Mortons style was seen as antiquated.
Still, some of his compositions, such as “Wolverine Blues,” “Milenberg Joys,” and especially “King Porter Stomp,” were performed regularly even after Mortons work largely fell out of favor.
“In the early 1930s, Morton drifted into obscurity. He settled in Washington, DC, where he managed a jazz club and also played intermittently” (World Book Online). The Library of Congress recordings renewed public interest in Morton, eventually leading to further recording sessions in 1939-40 and a brief career revival. This was cut short when Morton became ill in 1940, and he died of heart failure in July,1941.
Jelly Rolls musical roots were Midwestern ragtime and blues, as performed in the less reputable joints of New Orleans. He mastered this piano style, and although ragtimes structure and form remained with Morton throughout his career, he transcended its limitations to expand his skill. To judge from his accomplished first recordings, his style must have developed well before he arrived in Chicago in 1923; and, although his claims to have invented jazz were at best, an overstatement of the case, he was certainly an important early influence in the genre. Mortons compositions stand head and shoulders above the work of his contemporaries. Mortons attention to detail and structure solidify his.