Jelly Roll Morton: Early Master of Piano Jazz

Jelly Roll Morton: Early Master of Piano Jazz

Written by Anne E. Johnson

If you love the up-tempo, jangly blues and stride piano of Fats Waller and Fletcher Henderson, don’t forget to give thanks to Jelly Roll Morton, who practically invented that sound. And he would have been the first person to tell you that.

Born in a Creole neighborhood in New Orleans in about 1890, Morton got the salacious nickname “Jelly Roll” when he was a teen playing piano and singing naughty songs in brothels. His family name was LaMothe, but reportedly he adopted his stepfather’s last name to save his mother from the shame of having a son who played jazz. In the first decades of the 20th century, that new genre was considered as dangerous as rock and roll would be in the 1950s.

He toured first in minstrel shows and then in vaudeville, composing constantly and wowing the audience with his tricky finger work and energetic style. His original tunes like “Jelly Roll Blues” and “King Porter Stomp” provided inspiration to a host of other musicians. Whether on his own or with a variety of ensembles that he put together or joined over the years, he made dozens of 78 RPM discs.

When Morton signed with RCA Victor and moved to New York, he thought he had it made. But not a lot of New York musicians were interested in blending with his particular sound, and his records didn’t sell well. Victor dropped him in 1931. After a few rough years, he moved down to Washington, DC. There he met ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who did a series of interviews and recordings with him in 1938. Later that year, he was stabbed nearly to death. He never completely recovered, and he died in 1941, just after relocating to Los Angeles.

Given his short life and his unusual style, we’re lucky to have as many recordings of him as we do. Enjoy these eight great tracks by Jelly Roll Morton.

  1. Track: “Big Fat Ham”
    Album: Jelly Roll Morton and His Orchestra
    Label: National Record Exchange
    Year: 1923

This is Morton’s earliest known recording; the poor technical quality is worth overlooking for its historical value. Jelly Roll and His Orchestra was a six-man band with varying personnel, and it’s not always clear who’s on which recording; we do know that those distinctive woodblocks, which make it sound like somebody’s dancing, are the work of Jasper Taylor, who was also known for playing washboard and xylophone on the minstrel and Wild West circuits. Morton provides piano harmony, although the brightness of the brass on this primitive recording tend to overwhelm his more mellow instrument.


  1. Track: “My Little Dixie Home”
    Artist:  Jelly Roll Morton Trio
    Label: RCA Victor
    Year: 1929

Every few months, Morton would make a handful of discs with whoever he could find to play with him. Thus the Jelly Roll Morton trio was not a well-established group, but a couple of guys (Barney Bigard on clarinet and Zutty Singleton on drums) who were willing to come into the studio. Other group names Morton (or the record companies) used in the 1920s included The Stomp Kings, Kings of Jazz, and the Steamboat Four.

The balance is still a long way from ideal on this 1929 recording, but you can get a much better sense of Morton’s stylistic effects – the syncopated accents, the little glissandi as decoration, the very separate roles of the right and left hands, as if they’re played by two different people.


  1. Track: “Strokin’ Away”
    Artist: Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers
    Label: RCA Victor
    Year: 1930

One group that Morton recorded with consistently for a few years was the Red Hot Peppers. This was a seven-piece band grounded by the rhythm section of Morton on piano, Bill Beason on drums, Bernard Addison on guitar, and Billy Taylor (not related to the famous pianist) on bass. The buoyant clarinet solo is courtesy of Albert Nicholas.

Besides tickling the ivories, Morton also composed most of their music. His solo starting at 1:40 is surprisingly restrained, limited to the upper registers, the perfect contrast to the full-band sound. The RCA Victor quality is immeasurably better than that of the smaller companies.


  1. Track: “Fickle Fay Creep”
    Artist: Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers
    Label: RCA Victor
    Year: 1930

Although it was still released as a Red Hot Peppers disc, this track is just a duo with Morton on piano and Bill Beason on drums. It’s a great chance to hear Morton’s expressive syncopation. A “creep” is similar to what was called a “crawl” in stride piano: an easy-going slower-tempo tune. Morton seems to have been particularly fond of this composition, since he recorded it several times, including once under the title “Soap Suds.”


  1. Track: “Never Had No Lovin’”
    Artist: Wingy Manone and His Orchestra
    Label: Special Editions Records
    Year: 1934

Always looking for work, Morton sometimes sat in with other people’s groups. Wingy Manone was a trumpeter and bandleader from New Orleans (he was called “Wingy” because he lost part of an arm when he was a kid, but he used his prosthetic so skillfully that many people never knew). He specialized in hot jazz, so there was a lot of crossover with Morton’s style. This is a top-notch group of musicians, including the great Artie Shaw on clarinet.

Morton provides background harmony, which you can hear best when the winds drop out during Frank Victor’s guitar solo at 0:49. Morton gets his own 32 bars starting at 1:53.


  1. Track: “Original Rags (Joplin)”
    Artist: Jelly Roll Morton
    Label: Vogue
    Year: 1939

Although Morton did play and compose many rags, this is his only recording of music by Scott Joplin (1868-1917), whose name is now synonymous with ragtime. This is a five-theme medley published in 1899; Joplin did not name the individual rags. Morton has an easygoing style when he plays these, quite a different energy from his jump and stride recordings.


  1. Track: “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”
    Artist: Jelly Roll Morton
    Label: General Records
    Year: 1939

Even in his earliest days performing in a brothel, Morton loved to sing while he played piano. Here’s a fine example from late in his career. (If you’re a serious ragtime fan, you might know Hugh Laurie’s recording of this song.) The tune is Morton’s tribute to cornetist Buddy Bolden, one of the founding fathers of New Orleans ragtime-based jazz back when it was still called “jass” at the turn of the 20th century.

Morton had a strong, clear baritone with the tight vibrato typical of his era. In the last verse he mentions Frankie Dusen, a trombonist who was also important in the New Orleans scene. The piano solo at the end sounds great, but there doesn’t seem to be a digital version of the whole thing. Here’s the longest excerpt available:


  1. Track: “Swinging the Elks”
    Group: The Morton Seven
    Label: General Records/Tavern Tunes
    Year: 1940

In the 1930s, Hazard E. Reeves was at the forefront of producing jazz and ragtime records in New York. He was a huge fan of Morton’s playing and composing, but he grew tired of the record business before he could release everything Morton had laid down at Reeves Sound Studios. (Reeves moved out to Hollywood, where he was the first to use magnetic stereophonic sound in film.) The “Tavern Tunes” jazz catalog of General Records acquired Morton’s recordings. Here’s one of them.

This band, besides Morton, is Henry “Red” Allen on trumpet, Claude Jones on trombone, Albert Nicholas on clarinet, Eddie Williams on alto sax, Wellman Braud on bass, and Zutty Singleton on drums. “Swinging the Elks” is a fun, high-energy romp.

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