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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.

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