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Jelly Roll Morton

by Robert L. Doesch



He was larger than life, even by the standards of a time known for its romance and adventure. In the pool halls and whorehouses of the Storyville district in New Orleans, he cut a flashy figure: $200 suits, a tiny diamond embedded in his front tooth and a hustle ready for any occasion. To some, he was a fierce billiards shark. Others allegedly knew him as procurer of sexual favors (in other words, a pimp). History, however, remembers him as Jelly Roll Morton, a man of flamboyant step and many words, most of which he could back up when working his magic at the piano.

Morton, who advertised himself as the man who invented jazz, was in fact one of its most crucial early practitioners. Like his New Orleans compatriot Louis Armstrong, he defined an exacting standard by which future performers might be measured. But where Armstrong's contribution was as an improviser, Morton played crucial roles both in jazz composition and piano performance. His compositions, which included "Black Bottom Stomp," "Grandpa's Spells," "Milenbeg Joys" and "Mr. Jelly Lord," streamlined ragtime into a compositional form that would inform the work of De Ellington and Charles Mingus in future years. As a pianist, he played a critical role in loosening the right hand, freeing the left hand to play with greater spontaneity, and introducing the blues elements that remain the basis for jazz piano performance to this day.

Whether or not he actually did invent jazz one fabled day in 1902, as he claimed, the fact remains that without Morton, the evolution of this music would have followed dramatically different paths. From his earliest recordings in 1923 to his magnificent farewell document—a collection of interviews and solo piano performances recorded for the Library of Congress over a month-long period shortly before his death in 1941—Morton established an undeniable legacy. Yet, people as astute as critic Leonard Feather and the jazz immortal De Ellington maintained that Morton's artistry was all smoke and no fire.

Perhaps those who knew him had trouble getting past his swaggering ego and, in his last year, cynical bitterness. But countless enthusiasts who never had the privilege or the burden of dealing with him personally have been able to appreciate his genius without being distracted by his personality.

Bob Greene is one such person. Once a fixture in the radio and television industries in America, this Columbia University graduate harbored a secret passion, one that finally grew too strong to deny. It was 1968 and Greene, then drafting speeches for Lyndon Johnson, had decided to jump ship and join Bobby Kennedy's campaign.

"But when Bobby got shot, I realized that the time had come for me to get into music full time," he recalls. "Certainly if he had lived, I wouldn't have devoted myself to Jelly the way that I have." Call it irony tinged with tragedy, but by the following year Greene was on his way to establishing himself as the world's foremost authority on Morton's art and life.

Greene actually had been fascinated with this material since the '40s, when he first heard a Morton recording while at Columbia. "There's such a vitality to his music," he says. "Yet it's not wild—it's contained by the forms in which Jelly wrote the limited harmonies, the very formal three-part structure of his songs, the fact that each song could only last about three minutes. That's the beauty of this music: It can get very hot, yet it never explodes because it's locked into these restrictions. Within these imposed boundaries, it's almost Mozartean in its magnificence." A self-taught pianist, Greene has spent decades mastering the nuances of Morton's sound. "It's still a struggle," he admits. "The main thing is the sound itself. What makes that sound? What give that quality? Part of it is the touch, part of it is the voicing, part of it is the turnarounds he played while going through diminished chords. The intricacies are endless. On the Library of Congress interviews that he recorded with Alan Lomax, he plays this stuff, this magnificent stuff, while he's talking! It's fascinating. And it's very humbling."

Before the end of the '60s, Greene already was playing recitals of Morton material in New Orleans. In the years since, he has taken this music around the world, from New York's Alice Tully Hall to England's Festival Hall, from South America to almost every state in the Union. Curiosity often draws his listeners, whose awareness of Morton may be limited to familiarity with the glitzy Broadway hit Jelly's Last Jam."

In one town in Ohio, we even saw a big sign over the street: 'Welcome, Jelly Roll Morton,'" Green says, laughing. "People weren't sure whether he was alive or dead, but his name still could draw a crowd."But why work so hard to resurrect a music whose time passed generations ago? Jazz has always drawn energy from modern energies;. The innovators, from Morton in his time to today's avant-guardists, generally respect the past without feeling compelled to exhume it. If jazz is, by nature, plugged into the current of modern thought and emotion, what is the point of recreating work done in an era long passed?

"If it was once done so perfectly, why do it again?" Greene asks. "I can only say: Because there's beauty there, there's excitement, there's love. If that can be transmitted to a live audience, some of the aroma of the original happens again. It almost becomes a spiritual thing. To bring this music to life for people today, that's our challenge. And who knows? We may do that surprisingly well."


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