mister jelly roll by alan lomax

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  • By Alan LomaxDrawings by Bond Stew Martim
















  • LOUISIANA TOWN 1My Folks Was All Frenchmans 3Really Tremendous Sports 11Money in the Tenderloin 22

    Family 27


    Where the Birth of Jazz Originated from 41Uptown-Downtown 49Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhytibm 61

    UDE--The Boys in the Bands 67

    ALABAMA BOUND 111Half-hand Bigshot 113Those Battles of Music 120The Lion Broke Down the Door 127Jack the Bear 134Can't Remember All Those Towns 142Jelly Roll Blues 147

    I TOOK CALIFORNIA 157The Cadillac in Bloom 159Diamonds Pinned to My Underwear 170Mama Nita 177

    INTERLTOE H#Ho, Central, Give Me Doctor Jazz 179

  • THE BITTERS WITH THE SWEET 199Mabel 201Red Hot Pepper 207It Like to Broke My Heart 223Till the Butcher Cut Him Down 243

    End Matter 263

  • In foreign lands across the sea,

    They knight a man for bravery,Make him a duke or a count, you see,Must be a member of the royalty.

    Mister Jelly struck a jazzy thingIn the temple by the queen and king,AH at once he struck a harmonic chord.

    King said, "Make Mister Jelly a lordT

    No one could have guessed that Jelly Roll Morton wasdown on his luck that soft May day in 1938. His conservativehundred-dollar suit was as sharp as a tipster's sheet. His watchfob and his

    rings were gold, and the notoriety diamond, setin gold in his front incisor, glittered like gaslight . . .

    Mister Jelly Lord,He's simply royal at the old keyboard , . .

    The quiet of chamber-music auditorium in the Library of

    Congress and the busts of the great composers sightless in tiheirniches disturbed Jelly Roll not at all. He felt at home with

    great men and with history. He knew that his music had rolledaround the world. If he never actually played at Whitehall, if

    it was only in fancy that the king said, 'Make Mister Jelly a

    Lord/ he knew that his New Orleans jazz had warmed up the

    atmosphere all the way from Basin Street to BuckinghamPalace . , .

  • xii FRELUDE

    You should see him strolling down the street,The man's an angel with great big feet!With his melodies,Have made him lord of ivories . . .Just a simple little chord.Now at home as well as abroad,They call him Mister Jelly Lord . . .

    His diamond-studded grin lit up the sombre haH as hefeathered his barrel-house rhythms out of the concert grand."You hear that riff* he said.

    "They call swing that today, butit's just a little thing I made up way back yonder. Yeah, I guessthat riffs so old it's got whiskers on it. Whatever those guysplay today, they're playing Jelly Roll."

    Creole child of New Orleans in the last days of her glory.Jelly Roll grew up to become the first and most influential

    composer of jazz. He and his Red Peppers put the heat inthe hottest |azz of the '20*s, but the Depression generation, for-got Jelly Roll and his music. He had to pawn his diamond sock-

    supporters and 1938 found him playing for coffee and cakesin an obscure Washington nightspot. Years of poverty and

    neglect, however, had neither dimmed his brilliance at the

    keyboard nor diminished his self-esteem, He came to the

    Library of Congress to put himself forever on record, to carve

    his proper niche in the hall of history and, incidentally, to

    lay the groundwork for his fight to climb back into bigtime.This lonely Creole, without a dime in his pockets or a friendin the world, began by outlining his plans to sue The Music

    Corporation of America and the American Society of Com-

    posers Authors and Publishers.There was something tremendously appealing about the old

    jazzman with his Southern-gentleman manners and his sport-ing-life lingo. I decided to find out how much of old NewOrleans lived in his mind. So with the microphone near the

    piano of the Coolidge Chamber Music Auditorium I set out

  • PRELUDE xiii

    to make a few records of Jelly Roll, little knowing that I hadencountered a Creole Benvenuto Cellini.The amplifier was hot The needle was tracing a quiet spiral

    on the spinning acetate. "Mister Morton," I said, "How aboutthe beginning? Tell about where you were born and how yougot started and why . . . and maybe keep playing piano whileyou talk. . . ."

    Jelly Roll nodded and his hands looked for soft, strangechords at a lazy tempo. . .

    "Well, as I can understand. . .... a gray and ohve chord. . .

    "My folks were in the city of New Orleans. . ?... a whisper of harmony like Spanish moss. . .

    "Long before the Louisiana purchase. ."

    ... a chord of distant bugles. . ."And all my folks came directlyI mean from the shores of FranceAnd they landed in this new world years ago. .


    ... a gravel voice melting at the edges, not talking but spin-ning out a life in something close to song . . each sentencealmost a stanza of a slow blues . . . each stanza flowing out ofthe last like the eddies of a big sleepy Southern river wherethe power hides below a quiet brown surface. ...

    * That hot May afternoon in the Library of Congress a newway of writing history began history with music cues, themusic evoking recollection and poignant feeling history in;*toned out of the heart of one man, sparkling with dialogueand purple with ego. Names of friends long dead and of

    honkey-tonks quiet for a half century, songs and tunes and:

    precise musical styles of early New Orleans musicians foe1"

    gotten by everyone but Morton he recalled these things asif they were of the day befoi'e, smoothly filling in uncom-fortable gaps in his own story with the achievements erf hjfe

    friends, building a tegeacL

  • xiv PRELUDE

    As the legend grew and flowered over the keyboard of that

    Congressional grand piano, the back seats of the hall filledwith ghostly listeners figures dressed in Mardi Gras costumes,fancy prostitutes in their plumes and diamonds, tough sportsfrom Rampart Street in pegtop trousers and boxback coats,cable-armed black longshoremen from the riverfront, octo-roons in their brilliant tiyons giggling at Morton's tales, old

    ladies framing severe parchment faces in black shawls, jazz-men of every complexion playing a solid background on theirhorns for this was their legend that Jelly Roll was weaving atthe piano, a legend of the painful and glorious flowering of hot

    jazz in which they had all .played a part.

    In New Orleans, in New OrleansLouisiana Town . . *

    Something came along there where the Mississippi Deltawashes its muddy foot in the blue Gulf, something that bulliesus, enchants us, pursues us out of the black throats of a thou-sand thousand music boxes. This something was jazz, whichtook shape in New Orleans around 1900 and within a genera-tion was beating upon the hearts of most of the cities of theworld.A half century later the lineage of every fine jazz musician

    can still be traced back to the handful of half-caste Creoles,who performed the original act of creation. As Jelly Roll isthe "father" of hot piano, so black Buddy Bolden opened theway for otter hot trumpet players, and Papa Tio taugjbt "usafl how to play clarinet" All these men knew each other. Asboys they followed the parades together or, split into neighbor-hood gangs and fought bloody rock fights in the alleys. Laterthey wove together the complex fabric of hot jazz, an Americancreation at first scorned by the aesthetes and banned by themoralists. Meantime the fox-trot became our national dance.Today jazz lends its color to most American music and to agreat deal of the popular music of the world, as well.

  • PRELUDE x?

    Maybe nothing quite like this ever happened before. Maybeno music, no fresh emmanation of the spirit of man ever spreadto so many people in so short a time. Jazz, in this sense, is oneof the marvels of the century a marvel that has spawned amonstera monster entertainment industry, feeding upon jazz,growing gigantic and developing a score of interlocking colos-sal bodies whose million orifices pour out each week the stuffof our bartered dreams.

    Jelly Roll's life story spans the whole of the "jazz age," fromthe street bands of New Orleans to the sweet bands of NewYork. With him we can leave behind the marketplaces ofHollywood and Tin Pan Alley and return to the moment of

    germination in New Orleans. In his sorrows and his fantasieswe can find the very quality which distinguishes jazz from the

    many other forms of American music rooted in Africa fromthe

    spirituals, from the work songs, from the blues and rag-time.

    "We had every different kind of a person in New Orleans,**Jelly said, "We had French, we had Spanish, we had WestIndian, we had American, and we all mixed on an equalbasis. . .** So tolerant New Orleans absorbed slowly over thecenturies Iberian, African, Cuban, Parisian, Martiniquan, andAmerican musical influences. All these flavors may be foundin jazz, for jazz is a sort of musical gumbo. But the taster, thestirrer, the pot-watcher for this gumbo was the New Orleanscolored Creole. There were 400,000 free colored Creoles inLouisiana at the time of the 1860 census. Their capitol wasNew Orleans, where for a hundred years they raised the mostbeautiful girls, who cooked up the tastiest dishes and werecourted with the hottest music of any place in the MississippiValley.