Oh, Mister Jelly: A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook
Any fair assessment will place Jelly Roll Morton at the very highest level of the jazz pantheon. For my money he’s a no-discussion “10 greatest” entry and I wouldn’t argue with the notion, first posited by Morton himself, that others usually get credit for his contributions. Yet, literature about him has been lacking. That no biography has presumed to follow Lomax’s classic Mister Jelly Lord is understandable, but there was always room for more research. It’s not as if Morton was a quiet, retiring type who didn’t make an impression, after all. The anecdotes about him in the anthology Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya and elsewhere leap from the page. As it happens, William Russell has been working on this book for decades, collecting a mountain of firsthand information that not only fills the gap, but paints such a vivid picture that it seems impossible when reading to realize that the Jelly Lord hasn’t walked this earth since 1941. Russell, who was a significant modern composer before hearing New Orleans jazz and abandoning “serious” music, has been called the father of jazz scholarship for his great contributions, and it’s a pity he didn’t live to see his biggest project in print.
Actually, several intended books are contained here. The first section is an elegantly written memoir of turn-of-the-century New Orleans by Roy Carew, followed by various autobiographical and other writings from Morton himself. Especially riveting is the correspondence between these two, dating from the last years of Jelly Roll’s life, when Carew was associated with him as publisher and trying to help in any way he could. Morton, the man, comes alive on these pages, detailing his hopes, plans and day-to-day travails—painful reading when we know ahead of time what it all came to. In contrast, the more than 70 interviews with musicians that knew Jelly show that he enjoyed plenty of high times. The accepted view of Morton being on the outs with the New York musicians is modified by much of the testimony here, like Albert Nicholas’ wonderful story about Willie the Lion and others baiting Jelly into a sort of cutting contest—not out of animosity but mostly to get a rise out of him, and also just to hear him play. The New Orleans contingent give predictably sympathetic accounts, but there are other, less obvious chapters in the story, like Jimmie Rushing’s description of working an Italian wedding in Los Angeles in 1921 where he played piano and Jelly Roll played drums! Also included are several pieces and orchestrations in Morton’s hand, and a wealth of spectacular photos.
Benny Waters points out that while everybody sneers at Jelly Roll’s claim to have invented jazz, no one can name a significant earlier jazz composer. In light of the fact that Ellington is being touted as the jazz artist of the century, Morton’s continued neglect is really astounding. Compare “King Porter Stomp” with any Ellington piece as jazz composition, or Jelly’s mind-bending solo on “Beale Street Blues” to any Ellington solo, and what possible conclusion is there? Not that I expect even this magnificent volume to affect prevailing views. It will, however, be a source of continuing delight to those who value this great artist’s work, and stand as a monument to his genius.