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Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West by Phil Pastras

A great artist, pianist, pool shark, pimp, composer, con man, Catholic, voodoo believer, vain, insecure, brave, a transparent liar whom nobody believed when he told obvious truths, a compulsive braggart whose logorrhea drove away most of the people who might have befriended or helped him: At the very least, Jelly Roll Morton was a most extraordinary individual. Over the years, readers of Alan Lomax’s popular 1950 biography Mister Jelly Roll, based largely on Morton’s 1938 Library of Congress interviews, were left perplexed by the blank spaces, ambiguities and contradictions in his story. Bill Russell’s Oh, Mister Jelly: A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook, published just two years ago, at last offered a wealth of color and new information, and now Phil Pastras’ Dead Man Blues has many revelations; in fact, Pastras goes further than anyone else to illuminate the secret places in Morton’s life.

This book is, on the face of it, a painstaking study of Morton’s two West Coast periods, 1917-22 and 1940-41: first his rise, when he became a committed musician and composed some of his greatest works, then his last nine months of tragic decline and his death. Lomax glossed over both periods, while Morton’s heartbreaking letters from Los Angeles, where he at last settled “for his health,” are among the most terribly moving pages in the Russell collection. Mostly Pastras tells about events of Morton’s in chronological order, but the story here is also his painstaking detective work, as he examines each newfound piece of evidence and weighs its veracity and value and how it fits into the portrait and history that he constructs. What begins as scholarship becomes, as the pieces fit together, an intriguing tale.

This story has a heroine. In a two-page autobiography among the Russell papers Morton wrote, “I married Anita Gonzalez in 1909,” but Pastras discounts those autobiographical writings and questions whether Jelly ever married anyone at all. Gonzalez, born Bessie Johnson, was the sister of pioneer jazz musicians Bill and Dink Johnson, and first met Morton when he was about 12 years old and she 19. Like Morton she was a light-skinned Creole, and she passed for white for much, perhaps most of her life. For five years, beginning in 1917, she and he were together. They were a volatile pair, operating a Los Angeles hotel, then a San Francisco nightclub together; she also ran a Las Vegas saloon, and a boarding house and a restaurant in Arizona at various times in that period, while Jelly’s musical gigs took him as far as Vancouver, Canada, and Tijuana, Mexico. Publicly she played the role of an obedient wife, on display by the bandstand while her master played; privately she argued and manipulated him imaginatively. During one of their several separations, when he gambled away all his money in Denver and Wyoming, she enticed him back to Los Angeles with the lie that his godmother was dying. “She managed me like she always did,” he grumbled; actually, he depended upon Anita and her money, until he finally tired of their bickering and fled to Chicago in 1923. Years later, while ostensibly married to Mabel Morton, he said that Anita was the only woman he’d ever loved.

I say “ostensibly” because Pastras’ circumstantial evidence disputes the legality of Mabel’s and Jelly’s wedding. Mabel was his New York wife, who joined him at the height of his fame and stuck with him through most of his decline. She too sat obediently by the bandstand while her master played; after he left her in the mid-1930s, she traced him to Washington, D.C., where he had hooked up with a woman named Cordelia; even after Jelly nearly died in a 1938 brawl in Cordelia’s nightclub, Mabel had to beg him to return to New York with her. Pastras’ story makes Mabel seem fantastically naïve, but actually Jelly was hardly the man to choose such a woman, and other sources hint that Mabel too may have been a strong individual.

Like most jazz artists of his generation, Morton was devastated by the Depression; unlike most others, he at least began to ride the traditional jazz revival to renewed success. The major revelation of his letters in the Russell collection was the effects of a 1938 stabbing: Jelly endured progressively declining health for nearly three years, while his attacker-actually his murderer-spent just 30 days in jail. Sickness, more than anything else, prevented his comeback. One of Pastras’ major revelations is how Jelly lied to Mabel in order to move back West where Anita could care for him once again.

The old maxim is wrong. You not only can con a con man, his imagination may make him the easiest of all people to con. Jelly was always falling for quick-buck schemes, especially his own. He grew up in a milieu of vice and violence and throughout his life he gravitated naturally to the company and attitudes of small-time crooks, gamblers, con artists; he himself pimped (though Pastras has no information about Jelly’s “Pacific Coast line”) and managed some bad prizefighters. Lomax and the Russell collection make clear that Morton never showed any financial sense. Pastras says the only exceptions to this rule were the periods when Anita took charge of his affairs. Here’s an example: Unlike Ellington and all the other jazz composers who’d been ripped off by music publishers and ASCAP, Jelly had the courage and imagination to sue the bastards. His suits might have revolutionized the way songwriters conducted business, but following his instincts, he hired a shyster New York lawyer who took his money and did nothing. By contrast, in his last nine months of life, Anita found a skillful, well-respected lawyer to handle his affairs in Los Angeles.

Most importantly, Morton definitely composed two great works, “The Pearls” and “Kansas City Stomps,” while he was out west, and Pastras thinks “Dead Man Blues” (for which Anita wrote lyrics), “The Crave,” and many of the works in his first recordings also date from 1917-23. Pastras goes on to note pieces Morton composed late in life, for big bands that he rehearsed in New York and Los Angeles. Two of them, which surfaced in the Russell collection, were fine, utterly uncharacteristic scores: “Oh, Baby,” which sounded like Morton’s impression of Fletcher Henderson; and “Gan-Jam,” which may have been Morton’s response to Ellington’s “Reminiscing in Tempo”: it’s a flowing line that, harmonically and in terms of mobile orchestral colors, is certainly as advanced as Ellington. These two pieces imply that Morton, had he lived, could have transformed himself into a major big band composer.

Pastras dismisses Anita’s tale to Lomax: that Jelly believed that his godmother had sold his soul to the devil so that when she died, he would soon follow. True, he feared spells, and true, the godmother practiced voodoo and died in 1940, a year and a half before Jelly. But Pastras points out that by 1940 Jelly already knew he was terminally ill; a doctor had told him he would soon die unless he gave up playing music, and Jelly bravely chose to continue playing. It’s also typical of Pastras’ care that he insists upon differences between hoodoo, a kind of diabolical magic, and voodoo, a religion. He’s befuddled, though, by the strange sex life of this man with a smutty stage name, especially Jelly’s lack of physical desire for Mabel. Maybe Jelly’s conflicts about sex started from a belief that all women were divided into two classes, good and bad, Madonna or whore; support for this derives from his strict upbringing by his grandmother, his teen-age venereal disease and his protective feelings toward his wives and sisters.

Can we ever know the real Jelly Roll Morton? Yes, we can, if we accept that all of this heroic, nearly mythological artist’s secrets and lies are as much a part of him as are the beauty and joy of his composing and playing and his vivid, immensely perceptive history of the beginnings of jazz.

Originally Published