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Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton by Howard Reich & William Gaines

This book presents itself along the following astonishing lines: the great pianist-composer Jelly Roll Morton, whose music fell from popularity in the early ’30s, has ever since been relegated to a position of undeserved obscurity from which this new “definitive” biography now purports to redeem him. Careful examination of documents collected by an eccentric archivist named William Russell, which, one gathers, were unknown to almost everyone before the authors, reveals unknown late compositions of such brilliance that Morton’s importance is now seen to be far greater than had ever been imagined.

Were this the outline of a quasi-fictional novel it would be one thing. But that a serious publisher would parade such twaddle unabashedly before the public, with glowing quotes by some very big jazz names embellishing the sleeve, is downright depressing. Morton has in fact never been forgotten at all, any needed redemption of his reputation having been accomplished by his Library of Congress recordings and the book based on them, Alan Lomax’s Mister Jolly Roll, both of which have been before us for more than half a century. Russell’s archives were hardly unknown to scholars; one reason that his own monumental book on Morton (which Reich and Gaines barely acknowledge) was delayed for years was the amount time given to people making use of his materials.

Shall we believe the statements that Morton’s late works were “visionary,” and perhaps even more important than his early masterworks? Many musicians and scholars have examined these pieces without making such claims, and before those made in Jelly’s Blues are taken at face value we need to see how well Howard Reich (music critic with the Chicago Tribune) and William Gaines (retired from the Tribune and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting) understand their subject.

Well, the first chapter alone contains more technical inaccuracies and misleading statements about music than I have ever seen in an entire book, an outstanding example being the description of blues-based boogie piano as “gaining momentum every 32 bars.” Perhaps some math major can enlighten Reich and Gaines about the divisibility of 32 by 12? At least this gaffe is amusing. The depiction of the music Buddy Bolden played in marching bands as if it were full-blown jazz isn’t. Indeed, a total confusion about the history of ragtime, blues and early jazz permeates the atmosphere until the informed reader feels that the brain can’t get enough oxygen.

Assessments of Jelly’s contributions are consistent with this slippery grasp of his musical context. He gets credit for innovations he never claimed (the “radical” step of modulating by a fourth before the third strain was enshrined in Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and was hardly revolutionary even then) and his word is taken where no one else has paid any mind, an example being his claim to have written “Alabama Bound.” The authors do find time to lambaste W. C. Handy for copyrighting such folk themes, however.

One thing Reich and Gaines do well is to generate an engaging narrative. They succeed in bringing the characters, times and places to life. The only trouble is that it isn’t real life, as the errors are certainly not limited to the music. They interpret the story however they like, and when details are lacking they make them up. On top of it all, they are quite cavalier toward previous Morton scholarship, as when they condemn Lomax for eliciting risque stories during his interviews. These same fastidious fellows pounce on the opportunity to fill the chapter on New Orleans with tiresome, lurid details that make Laurie Wright’s bio-discography Mr. Jelly Lord read like a Sunday school lesson. They treat Lawrence Gushee’s important work as if it were amateurish, selectively quoting correspondence from him to make it look as if he has retreated from his position about Morton’s date of birth (he hasn’t).

Presumably the point in attacking earlier scholarship is to make these Lilliputians of the research world appear to be Gullivers. The one area in which they have done some real work is in documenting the extent to which Morton was ripped off by his publisher.

Many of us have long recognized that Morton needs to be viewed as the first great jazz composer, and that some of the credit given to Ellington, for one, should be diverted in his direction. But books like this only muddy the waters and, apart from generating some revenues, do no good to anyone.

Originally Published