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Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings

The recordings that Jelly Roll Morton made for the Library of Congress in 1938 have long been recognized as a unique documentation of the life, times, opinions, pretensions and music of the first great jazz composer. It seems amazing that this release marks the first time that this material has been presented in its entirety, and Rounder has certainly done quite a packaging job. Seven CDs devoted to the interviews are supplemented by another disc featuring reminiscences by other New Orleans musicians, like Johnny St. Cyr and Alphonse Picou. Also included is Mister Jelly Roll, the biography written by LOC folklorist Alan Lomax based in large part on these interviews, as well as a handsome 80-page oversized booklet.

To say that Morton was a complex character hardly scratches the surface. His claim to have invented jazz probably hindered the campaign for recognition that, from his point of view, was the prime motivation for these recordings; his insistence on maligning virtually every non-New Orleans jazz musician certainly didn’t help. It takes a fair bit of knowledge of early jazz history to sift through Morton’s account of things, and unfortunately the new notes by John Szwed are a disappointment, in this and other regards.

But there is good news. Listeners who know the vinyl versions of these recordings will be pleased at how much better these transfers sound. The old LPs played at too slow a speed, a defect that couldn’t obscure Morton’s phenomenal sense of swing but didn’t exactly help either. His monologues also sound considerably less pompous at the right speed, though he still manages to beat his own drum fairly loudly. Once the listener has gotten inured to Morton’s self-promotion, there is a hypnotic quality to these reminiscences, usually delivered as the protagonist taps his foot and plays chords on the piano.

Much valuable information about the early years of New Orleans jazz musicians, musical styles and local history is contained in these interviews. But, like most early jazz figures, Morton spent more of his career outside the Crescent City than in it, and he revisits places like St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as Biloxi, Gulfport and Memphis, reliving his triumphs, trials and tribulations and holding forth about how the music he invented should be played. He is a valuable witness about musicians he admired, like Tony Jackson and Fred Keppard, and nearly worthless as a commentator on later stylists. Some of the most interesting moments involve his re-creations of obscure blues and barrelhouse musicians who would have been long forgotten otherwise. A great deal of fascinating detail is also provided about the inhabitants of the shadowy world in which jazz was incubated: pool hustlers, card sharks, pimps, ladies of the night. Morton was immersed in this world until his musical star began to ascend in the mid-1920s.

Like most early recording artists, Morton’s career went on the skids during the Depression. He blamed this on the swing fad and saw Ellington, Henderson, Basie, etc. as usurpers. When he met Lomax his fortunes were at a nadir, and he had already begun a letter-writing campaign to magazines and radio stations to regain what he saw as his rightful place in the jazz world. For his part Lomax saw in Morton’s reminiscences the validation of many of his ideas about music and culture. He guided the interviews to areas a jazz specialist might not have gone, with mixed results.

Morton’s performances of his own material on these recordings are riveting. He had developed his solo style greatly over the years, adding a penchant for rapid-fire melodic abstractions to his sophisticated harmonic and structural conceptions. One needn’t share Morton’s views about later jazz history to appreciate how brilliantly he makes the case for his own approach. These performances stand among the greatest in a great career.

The previously unheard material is largely a matter of off-color songs that Lomax wanted to record (such material delighted folk collectors of the time, as posthumous works by Vance Randolph certainly prove) and recordings made on an inferior instrument that are certainly harder to listen to, though Morton’s desultory guitar backing is interesting to hear. There are also other tracks that seem new to me; I can’t believe I had forgotten Morton’s line about the time in his life when he had everything he ever wanted except “a yacht and a cow.” The interviews of Morton’s peers are the icing on the cake; St. Cyr in particular makes a strong impression.

One must note the faults in the presentation, however, most of which stem from the Lomax Foundation’s apparent aim to seize on every opportunity to inflate its founder’s reputation. Lomax’s name now appears in the title, and his picture on the back of the biography is nearly as big as Morton’s on the front. Does anyone see anything wrong with this? Moreover, the flaws in the book are not at all addressed by annotator Szwed, who instead contributes to the adulation, going so far as to call Lomax “America’s greatest folklorist.” I gather that Szwed is working on a Lomax biography; that would be the place to present this dubious claim (it might not concern jazz readers, but the names of such collectors as Randolph, Bronson, Bayard and Brown are not to be dismissed out of hand in this fashion).

Lomax was a complex character who did a lot of great things and some that weren’t great at all. His analysis of Morton and early jazz is spotty, as Lawrence Gushee indicates in his excellent afterword in the book. Gushee would have seemed an obvious choice for the notes here, since what is needed is an early jazz scholar who can balance both Morton’s self-aggrandizing and Lomax’s occasional myopia. Szwed isn’t up to the job, often opting for long-winded digressions that call in an abundance of facts that have little bearing, as when he constructs a doubtful hypothesis about dance forms based on Morton’s comments about “Tiger Rag.”

Originally Published