Jelly Roll Morton and the gritty origins of jazz


At some point in 1938, while employed by the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song to record and preserve regional American music being put at risk by popular music like jazz, music archivist Alan Lomax found himself at a Washington, DC club by the name of the Jungle Inn, one of the few venues in the area at time that welcomed both black and white patrons. Legendary jazz pianist, composer and band leader Jelly Roll Morton was on stage. He was, by all accounts, on the down side of his career, which had begun in New Orleans some 23 years earlier, when his song Jelly Roll Blues became the world’s first published jazz composition. (By the late ’30s, traditional jazz was moving out of favor, as audiences were gravitating toward swing.)

So there Lomax was, the man charged with protecting and preserving American folk music against the rising tide of jazz, listening to the hard-drinking Morton play the piano and spin yarns about the Storyville brothels of New Orleans where the genre was born at the turn of the century. Thankfully, Lomax knew good oral history when he heard it, and, instead of turning away in disgust, like one might expect a folk purist to do, he approached Morton, asking the self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz” and accomplished raconteur if he’d sit down for an interview.

By the time the two men were done talking, nine hours had elapsed, and much whiskey had been consumed. And the results were amazing… Among other things, Lomax captured a 30-minute version of The Murder Ballad, an epic jazz tale of sex and murder in New Orleans at the turn of the century… Here it is in its entirety:

I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite Jelly Roll Morton songs, as I tend to prefer material that doesn’t include lyrics like, “I’ll cut your fucking throat and drink your blood like wine.” But I appreciate it for what it is… an accurate representation of the kind of early jazz story telling that was, for obvious reasons, never committed to vinyl.

If you’re interested, you can find all of the lyrics on the site of Louis Maistros. Here, though, is a sample.

…She said, I’m coming out, I’d like to see someone stop me
She said, I’m coming out, I’d like to see a bitch like you stop me
This ain’t no slavery time and I’m sure that I’m free

Yes, come on, bitch, your day has come
Yes, come on, bitch, your day has come
You fucked my man but you will never fuck another one

She pulled out a pistol and shot her right in her eyes
She pulled out a pistol and shot her right in her eyes
She said, open your legs, you dirty bitch, I’m gonna shoot you between your thighs…

[I’m going to keep this bookmarked so that I can refer to it the next time I feel an itch to launch into a tirade about how gangster rap is ruining America.]

If you’d like to hear more, the entire Alan Lomax session with Morton was released a few years ago on a seven CD box set titled Jelly Roll Morton: Complete Library of Congress Recordings, which I hear is incredible.

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  1. Posted June 4, 2014 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    The Jungle Inn was apparently on U Street in DC. The following comes from the site of a place called Black Fox Lounge.

    …Even though, pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton came from New Orleans, he made history when he took up residency in Washington in 1935 at The Jungle Inn.

    The Jungle Inn was on DC’s historic U Street. During its heyday, U Street was called Black Broadway due to its bustling club scene. Just one block away was The 7th & T club, another major venue that provided opportunities for jazz artists like pianist and singer Shirley Horn.

    Horn played at some of the finest venues in Washington and became internationally known when she played in New York, opening for stars such as Miles Davis. Washington was a major tour stop for jazz musicians. Some players like saxophonists Charlie Parker and Lester Young and trumpeters Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie made significant recordings in DC.

    DC is not associated with a particular style or sound with jazz like New Orleans, Chicago, or Kansas City, but it is known for it’s tradition of producing great saxophonists like Frank Wess, Buck Hill, Andrew White, Ron Holloway, and Charlie Rouse.

    One of Washington’s most famous jazz clubs is The Bohemian Caverns. R&B legend Ruth Brown was discovered at the club and it was where pianist Ramsey Lewis’ recorded his top-selling The In Crowd album, and the inspiration for the Earl Hines composition “Cavernism.”

    The U Street strip was devastated by the 1969 riots that ensued after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Rioters destroyed all the jazz clubs as well as other businesses on U Street and Georgia Avenue…

  2. XXX
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    I believe “jelly roll” was slang for a certain part of female anatomy.

  3. Kim
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    And he looks like such a nice young man in the photo.

  4. Meta
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    From a British website for kids.

    He was a bit of a rascal! He liked gambling. He also liked hanging around places and people that weren’t very respectable.

    When he first started playing jazz he was living with his great-grandmother. She was very religious. When she found out that Jelly Roll Morton was playing jazz, she threw him out of her house! She said he had disgraced the family!

    He was called Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe when he was born, but changed his name later on.

    Surprisingly, they don’t link to the Murder Ballad.

    Read more:

  5. 734
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    The tie to gangster rap goes even deeper. According to this, he was a pimp with a diamond in his tooth.


    But more than all these things, he was a real character whose spirit shines brightly through history, like his diamond studded smile. As a teenager Jelly Roll Morton worked in the whorehouses of Storyville as a piano player. From 1904 to 1917 Jelly Roll rambled around the South. He worked as a gambler, pool shark, pimp, vaudeville comedian and as a pianist. He was an important transitional figure between ragtime and jazz piano styles. He played on the West Coast from 1917 to 1922 and then moved to Chicago and where he hit his stride. Morton’s 1923 and 1924 recordings of piano solos for the Gennett label were very popular and influential. He formed the band the Red Hot Peppers and made a series of classic records for Victor. The recordings he made in Chicago featured some of the best New Orleans sidemen like Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, Johnny St. Cyr and Baby Dodds. Morton relocated to New York in 1928 and continued to record for Victor until 1930. His New York version of The Red Hot Peppers featured sidemen like Bubber Miley, Pops Foster and Zutty Singleton. Like so many of the Hot Jazz musicians, the Depression was hard on Jelly Roll. Hot Jazz was out of style. The public preferred the smoother sounds of the big bands. He fell upon hard times after 1930 and even lost the diamond he had in his front tooth, but ended up playing piano in a dive bar in Washington D.C. In 1938 Alan Lomax recorded him in for series of interviews about early Jazz for the Library of Congress, but it wasn’t until a decade later that these interviews were released to the public. Jelly Roll died just before the Dixieland revival rescued so many of his peers from musical obscurity. He blamed his declining health on a voodoo spell.

  6. Meta
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    I had no idea about the voodoo.

    In the early nineteenth century, Jelly Roll Morton (born Ferdinand La Menthe) imbibed the music of Storeyville’s bordellos and took it to a higher plane, blending a “Spanish tinge” with the black marching tunes of his hometown. During the 1920s he was one of America’s most respected bandleaders. As the self-styled inventor of jazz, he wore diamonds in his teeth and owned over two hundred tailor-made suits. His showy style and musical razzmatazz were always a sure-fire crowd puller. His bands attracted some of the best musicians of his day. Many of his compositions such as the King Porter Stomp, Milenburg Joys and The Pearls became big hits. Jelly Roll Morton, bandleader, composer and pianist was undoubtedly a genius of great originality and influence. Then came the depression years – and the mysterious forces which linked Morton to his spiritual home of New Orleans took hold.

    Juju, the West African magical practice which the slaves brought to New Orleans, gradually mutated into “voodoo” during the eighteenth century. Jelly’s godmother, Eulalie Echo, a French speaking Creole, purportedly sacrificed Jelly’s soul to Satan as part of a black-magic ritual.

    Throughout the 1930s, Morton was working in his own office, trying to break into the music publishing business. A West Indian office boy suffering from jealousy, surreptitiously stole his music scores and sold them to another firm. Jelly promptly sacked him. Next day strange coloured powder was found sprinkled around the office door. Convinced the West Indian had put a voodoo curse on him, Jelly’s luck began to fail. His music scores, money and notorious collection of diamonds were stolen. The work he had been promised was offered to Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Jelly revealed to Alan Lomax, the jazz historian, that:

    “I decided to quit the music business and start a cosmetics company which lost me the few pennies I had.”

    In desperation Morton visited a voodoo woman who told him the only way to break the curse was to destroy all his clothing:

    “I always had a lot of clothes and the stack I made in my backyard was way over the top of my head. I poured on the kerosene and struck a match. It like to broke my heart to watch my suits burn.”

    Was it voodoo or his refusal to adapt to the modern ‘swing’ style that devastated Jelly’s luck?

    Perhaps the voodoo woman’s advice worked, because at the end of the 1930s the jazz world developed a fascination with traditional New Orleans music; “authentic jazz”, as the young white journalists described it. Jelly Roll Morton, who had been playing for “coffee and cakes” in a Washington nightclub, his music all but forgotten, was suddenly considered to be an attraction. White college students armed with notepads began to filter into his seedy Washington night club to gawp at this living museum piece. Jelly Roll was perplexed. He felt his music was very much alive; he could easily out-swing the modern swingsters such as Chick Webb and Count Basie. When Alan Lomax, the jazz historian, invited Morton to the Library of Congress to record his life-story in 1938, Jelly was down to his last dime. Lomax, in his moving book, Mister Jelly Roll, describes Morton as:

    “an intellectual and a wit as well as a fine (perhaps our first good) composer.”

    In 1939, the record company, Victor, in an effort to cash in on the New Orleans Jazz revival, offered Jelly a recording contract. Along with Winin’ Boy Blues Morton decided to record, Oh Didn’t He Ramble, a New Orleans funeral march, I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say, and High Society; each number a collector’s treasure. At long last Morton was coming from seclusion, rightfully taking his place as the most supreme figure in America’s greatest musical art-form. Two years later, the old voodoo godmother, Eulalie Echo was dead. Jelly’s girlfriend, Anita Gonzales explained to Alan Lomax:

    “Jelly always knew she’d sold him to Satan and that when she died, he’d die too – she would take him down with her.”

    Two months after Eulalie’s death, in 1941, Jelly Roll Morton, the most creative figure in the history of jazz, passed away. He was forty six years old.

    Read more:

  7. Meta
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    A photo of Jelly Roll Morton likely taken at the Jungle Inn at around 1938.

  8. XXX
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Going down to Memphis to get my ham bone boiled.

  9. Anonymichael
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Permalink


  10. Krit
    Posted June 10, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Giving tongue to fierce sexual rawness.

  11. Gary Debussy
    Posted June 24, 2021 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    Indeed, the Library of Congress Recordings are incredible, as are his Victor Records sides from 1926-’27. The Library recordings from ’38 took place over the course of a few weeks and were compiled into the roughly eight hour set. And though some whiskey was imbibed during the sessions (brought by Lomax), Morton was not a hard drinker. In fact, he rarely if ever drank (and never took drugs by any account I’ve heard or read). He did gamble though, often to great losses.

    Regarding drink though, there’s a story of some of the guys playing on one of his sessions passing the bottle around. They convinced Jelly to take a sniff, but this ended up delaying the session, as Jelly had to open up an window and spend a half hour reviving himself after just a couple shots, much to the amusement of his musician friends.

    All accounts of Jelly from the musicians who played with him stated that he was a swell guy, and an excellent band leader. And of course a singular talent at the piano. The biography “Jelly’s Blues” is a great read if you want to learn more about this musical genius.

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