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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.

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