Jelly Roll Morton at the Library

Jelly Roll Morton, seated at piano, a microphone in front of him

Jelly Roll Morton. Photo: Unknown. American Folklife Center.

This is a guest post by Stephen Winick, folklore specialist at the American Folklife Center. It first appeared in the Library of Congress Magazine. He has also discussed Jelly Roll Morton’s work at a Library seminar. 

In the early history of jazz, no figure looms as large as Ferdinand LaMothe, better known as Jelly Roll Morton.

The New Orleans native, who claimed to have invented jazz itself in 1902, was a bandleader and pianist on numerous recordings in the 1920s but fell into relative obscurity in the 1930s.

Then, in the spring and summer of 1938, Alan Lomax, the assistant in charge of the Library’s Archive of American Folk Song, recorded over nine hours of Morton’s singing, playing and boasting — the first extensive oral history of a musician recorded in audio form.

The sessions were born when BBC radio journalist Alistair Cooke advised Lomax to seek out Morton at the Music Box, a small Washington, D.C., nightclub where he played piano, regaled the audience with tales of his glory days and expressed his strong views on jazz history.

Lomax visited the Music Box and chatted with Morton, who suggested the recording sessions as a way to cement his place in history as the inventor of jazz. This suited Lomax, who had his own agenda for the sessions: in his words, “to see how much folklore Jelly Roll had in him” and capture it for posterity.

Seated at a grand piano on the Coolidge Auditorium stage, Morton filled disc after disc with blues, ragtime, hymns, stomps and his own compositions. He embedded the music in a series of swinging lectures on New Orleans music history and its influence on his style — everything from 19th-century opera to formal French dance music to the chants he sang as a “spyboy,” or scout, for a Mardi Gras Indian krewe.

Jelly Roll Morton, in a tuxedo, seated on a piano bench with his left arm draped on top of the piano, looking down at the keys.

Morton, posing in formal wear for a publicity shot. Photo: Unknown. American Folklife Center.

The recordings not only documented Morton’s playing and his stories, they were the first — and last — significant documentation of Morton as a singer.

Shortly after the Lomax interviews, Morton was stabbed by a Music Box patron and never fully recovered. He left for New York and then Los Angeles, intending to restart his career, but died in 1941. Lomax used the interviews to write a 1950 biography, “Mister Jelly Roll,” which still is considered a classic of jazz literature.

The Library’s Morton recordings were released as a piano-shaped box set by Rounder Records in 2005 and won Grammy awards for best historical album and best liner notes. Today, the recordings are a priceless document of American musical history, rightly enshrined by the Library in the National Recording Registry.

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