Doctor Jazz: Jelly Roll Morton

Posted: June 20, 2012 in Jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, John Szwed

Author: John Szwed


“Jelly Roll Morton’s life had all the makings of tragedy: born shortly after the chaos of Reconstruction in the racially ambiguous Creole community of New Orleans, he turned against the wishes of his family and crossed class and racial lines to become a leading pianist in Storyville, the sporting district of New Orleans that provided the laboratory for the generation of musicians who invented jazz. But being a piano player, acclaim escaped him because trumpeters and clarinetists, and not pianists, were the recognized stars of early jazz, and it took years for his importance as a composer and bandleader to be appreciated. Then came what the fans of early jazz would later regard as the Fall: the closing of the district by the U.S. government, and the music Morton had helped create scattered across the earth, taken up by the forces of commerce, diluted and refined. Worse yet, Morton had the bad fortune to record his finest work in the mid- to late 1920’s, when the fashion in music was turning away from the complex, multi-thematic forms Jelly originated to embrace the much simpler 32 bar, AABA popular songs that the popular younger musicians like Louis Armstrong were playing and singing. Morton resisted this trend for as long as he could, but it cost him an audience and dated him prematurely. Finally, just when a revival of New Orleans music was underway in the early 1940’s and Morton was being rediscovered, death deprived him
of a second chance at fame.”



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