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Jelly Roll Morton - Complete Library of Congress Recordings

  by Andrew Hare

published: 12 / 2 / 2007

Jelly Roll Morton - Complete Library of Congress Recordings
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In the latest in our 'Re : View' series, in which our writers re-evaluate records from the past, Andrew Hare takes an academic look at the self-proclaimed founder of jazz Jelly Roll Morton's 'Complete Library of Congress Recordings' which was re-released as an 8 CD box set last year

Constructing histories, methodologically speaking, is a highly dubious but necessary task. Histories are prone to be easily distorted with unsubstantial evidence, the influx of ideology, and conflicting accounts. Nevertheless, without history we see the past as a blank page erased by time itself. So the goal of the historian has always been to attempt a reconstruction and understanding of the past while consciously taking the inherent difficulties into account, and trying to minimize them with through scrupulous adherence to the best methods possible. Above all, the naturally preferred sources would be those who lived the histories themselves. Due to the amount of contestation surrounding the advent of jazz, in order to begin to form a history it is imperative that we listen to the creators of the music. The history of jazz can be thought of as a history of narratives revolving around a group of individuals whose ingenuity and brilliance shaped the rapidly competitive and evolving art form. The stories of innovators like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington have taken on a mythology that seems to inhabit an idealized American space. One where creativity could trump racism, and the will could crush economic determinism. Similarly, when Alan Lomax decided to record Jelly Roll Morton’s story for the Library of Congress in 1939, he would forever etch another version of the jazz story into the annals of music history. However, Morton’s story not only dispelled many long running beliefs about the origins of the music itself, it also brought forth a complicated pluralism that jazz historians have been trying to reconcile ever since. I will attempt to investigate points of difference and parity in the Jelly Roll story by comparing his often polemic first person narratives to more traditional third party accounts with references to the invention of jazz, the definition of jazz, the role of New Orleans to the development of jazz, and finally the racial dimension. By sifting through a number of texts with different expository styles, ideologies, and explanations, perhaps a synthesis can be reached and a clearer, or more complicated, understanding of what that mysterious music we call jazz really is all about. Jelly Roll Morton can be considered one of the most controversial of figures in early jazz for a number of reasons. Foremost among them, his oft contested claim to being the creator of the music himself. In 1938 it seemed Morton was on a quest to redeem, or mythologize, his name and became actively involved in writing himself into a history that had all but forgotten him. He made the epic recordings with Alan Lomax, as previously mentioned, threatened record companies and music publishers with lawsuits, and, perhaps more cantankerous, wrote letters to music magazines claiming that he himself created the music known as jazz. Such a statement must be examined carefully, and the possibilities that Morton was vindicated in some way must be taken into consideration. In Lomax’s recordings, Jelly Roll immediately complicates his own declaration as the one true originator of the music that would come to be called jazz. For one, Jelly Roll is quite aware that he had come from a lineage of talented musicians in New Orleans who are often also associated with early jazz. He shows his indebtedness to people like King Porter, Tony Jackson, Buddy Bolden. (Note: From here on when I refer to Morton I will be referring to these recordings). Morton had argued that at the beginning of jazz, “Most everybody had a different style. Sammy Davis played ragtime and Tony Jackson was the greatest entertainer in the world.” (Morton, CD1 Track 9) This view of early 20th century music suggests that everyone was an innovator, not just Morton. This viewpoint would seem quite contradictory to any letters where he suggests architectural superiority over his fellow musicians. Many traditional reconstructions of early jazz point to either Morton, or Buddy Bolden as the first important figure in the music. Ken Burns’ critically acclaimed documentary on the history of the music is one such example. Burns’ places Bolden ahead of Morton in the chronology and states explicitly that Bolden can be thought of as the first musician celebrated for playing jazz music. Similarly, others have latched on to this idea, some portentously noting that it was the blending of African and European styles in a peculiar syncretism that gave Bolden a legitimate claim to be justly called the first jazzman. However, the glaring fact that he was never recorded nor written about in his time, seems to extinguish the possibility of an unequivocal jazz inventor in Bolden. Furthermore, Morton, who claimed to know Bolden, says that he was a mythical figure, but one who played only ragtime. (CD 3, Track 12) While it would appear that Morton gives ample credit to many of his New Orleans colleagues and the great musical mix surrounding the scene, it would be too much say that Morton had therefore exonerated himself from his previous claims as the first jazz player. Morton is quite quick to point out throughout the recordings that he himself went through many of the late 19th century phases of proto-jazz and survived the music, working until for almost 40 years. Morton claims to have played in many New Orleans funeral bands as a kid, and understood the developments and indebtedness jazz had to forms like the blues, and ragtime. (CD 7, Track 6) It was in this environment that would lead Morton to transcend a restricting formalism, unlike Bolden, and go on to develop jazz itself. Today the dominant view seems to be that Morton’s arguments hardly merit serious debates which I can link to three important points. The first suggests that the ‘invention,’ or ‘creation,’ of jazz is highly suspect because it is often full of alternative ideological stories that work to undermine a clear definitive answer . The history of jazz is after all a construction, and one that is highly pluralist in nature, often making the story more a reflection of the writer than actual reality. Secondly, the autobiographical narratives of Bunk Johnson, Nick La Rocca, and Morton appear to the discerning critic as tainted by the desire the authors had to enshrine themselves as major protagonists of early jazz. The fact that their narratives and subsequent recordings all come years after jazz was established in the mainstream, points to a dubious authenticity. Finally it appears to me that the story of the origin of jazz appears to suffer from what some could call a Christ complex. The notion that histories need specific saviors, or one critical figure despite contradictory evidence, is an often alluring idea, but one that all historians and critics most be highly suspect of. Perhaps no where is this idea better presented itself than in the origins of jazz. Morton’s own erroneous logic became clear after investigating his seemingly incongruous claims about the inventor(s) of jazz. However, his definition of jazz as a technical music was far less ambiguous and is useful to consider as we work through the possibilities, meanings, and origins of jazz. Jazz, despite its rich cultural, sociological, and ideological mythologies, is above all a musical form. For Jelly Roll Morton this would provide the ultimate point of differentiation in classifying what is and is not jazz. Nevertheless, a dominant critical view of early jazz is much more wary in pinning down intrinsic qualities of the music. Early jazz has been so difficult for many musicologists to gain a comprehensive understanding of due to a technological gap that made recording from this time period impossible, and because variants of the early form like blues and ragtime appear to share many of the same musical characteristics and commonalities. Immediately we will find a striking opposition between Morton’s precise technical view of the musical language of jazz, and a more inchoate picture that has come emerged traditional historical understanding in jazz scholarship. 'Tiger Rag' a tune long associated with New Orleans musicians in the early 20th century will provide a musical text through which Morton’s argument will become clearer. Morton claims that jazz actually started with this tune he himself penned, a highly dubious claim others including Nick La Rocca would also make. (CD 2, Tracks 8, 9) For Morton the song represented not only where jazz came from, but how it his innovations to the tune formed a musical vocabulary never before explored. The song itself was a dance song according to Morton, which featured a number of different musical styles, tempos, rhythms, time signatures, and required a knowledgeable pianist to deliver each phrase effectively. Most importantly, the song could be easily traced to a European tradition as it featured many of the popular European high society musical tropes. The waltz, mazuka, and half-time strains were for Morton the basis on which the hot jazz player would work from. His ‘jazzed up,’ tempo adds syncopation and transformed typical European modes into something altogether faster, easier to dance to, and more virtuosic. Jazz was a musical creation that reflected a slight cultural break from the classical tradition into a more thoroughly modern mold. This view seems to correspond with Morton’s view that jazz music was not a freeform movement of innovation and liberation, but a style that is based on a strict European vocabulary and taking ideas from symphonies, operas, and other music of the highest order. (CD 2, Track 13) This strict reading of the technical qualities and characteristics of jazz seems to be omitting a key component to the music, mainly the two other distinctly American forms from which it derives: the blues and ragtime. Ken Burns understands the blues as one of the most essential aspects to jazz, in its combination of improvisational feeling, profane transgressive ideals, and representative of abject people, mainly African-Americans. Interestingly many of the songs Morton plays in the Library of Congress recordings are 12-bar blues that he encountered working in the brothels in New Orleans. Morton seems to recognize blues as being a developed and influential form at the time of the advent of jazz, but a form that is ultimately separate from the more complicated jazz music that he would become famous for. Then what of ragtime? Morton also addresses this style in the recordings when he plays Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” (CD 3, Track 3) He proceeds to clearly demonstrate the technical differences between the music by endowing his jazzed up version of the song with a slower pace, stronger beat, and a strong melodic line that would become characteristic of Morton’s playing style. His belief that the melody must always go against a background riff in perfect harmony set out a strict guideline of what could be called jazz and what could not. Furthermore he found distaste in ragtime’s incredibly fast tempos, preferring a much slower tempo that gave his jazz a particular feeling or flavor that could be linked to something more inherent in the blues. For the untrained ear ragtime and early jazz might seem indistinguishable, but for the classically trained Morton the differences were obvious and formed a wide gap between the two styles. While Morton makes a strong argument for early jazz as having an autonomous musical language with specific qualities and characteristics that appear closer to high European styles than either ragtime or blues, alternative narratives have a much more difficult time classifying what it is that separates the music. Sidney Bechet, like Morton a Creole from New Orleans, did not see the fundamental characteristic of jazz as musical technicality, but instead an essence. Bechet also often adamantly refuted the name jazz as a white creation which meant nothing at all. Jazz then for Bechet can be likened to a spiritual awakening or understanding that had to be felt to be experienced; a far cry from Morton’s dogmatic understanding of the term. Similarly, Louis Armstrong interpreted the term in equally ambiguous, albeit non-musical terms. He said jazz is a quality called ‘oomph,’ and you either had it or you did not. The vagaries of early jazz musicians like Bechet and Armstrong have found favour with critics and historians who had difficulty in confining a word like jazz to mere musical terminology. Jazz after all seemed to mean much more and encompass something altogether ephemeral and transcendent, inhabiting a realm beyond just notes or solos. Other views tended to give more credit to blues and ragtime as musical pre-cursors that could be found within jazz. This common perception appears to almost always tie jazz to a more cultural and racial environment that propagated the idea of a symbiotic relationship between America and jazz. The issue of musical origin, and the task of defining what jazz means is a hotly debated one. It has led some critics to view the diverse opinions as a celebration of jazz itself, instead of choosing to side with one perspective on the topic. It appears in the historian’s worst interest to say jazz is and nothing else. However, we must remember Morton is not a historian but merely a man trying to make sense of a musical ontology that proved to be much greater than him. Until this point I have examined ways in which the jazz narrative seems to correspond or divert from Jelly Roll’s own in terms of musicology. Morton’s claims to inventing the jazz genre with a staunch musical definition have mostly been dismissed in other jazz narratives as largely egoistic and shallow minded views. I will now switch gears and broach subjects of a more cultural, sociological nature. As pointed out earlier jazz is indeed a music first, but without an understanding the context of early jazz any attempt to construct a historical study of the music would futile. Morton is a particular appropriate character to focus on in regards to the development of jazz and its relation to the American south. He was born and raised in New Orleans, the city that according to him gave birth to the jazz with the tune “Tiger Rag.” (CD 2, Track 8) While this at first seems like another one of Jelly’s highly subjective and polemical declaration, it has hardly been outright denied in alternative criticisms that New Orleans did in fact give birth to the music. Morton’s argument holds up all the more because of the fact that he was one of the first traveling jazz performers, and was able to witness the development of the music throughout the country. It could be argued that the Lomax’s recordings of Morton provide, above all else, an unequaled first person look into the city of New Orleans at the dawn of the 20th century. Morton truly sets the stage impeccably. He talks of a golden age of New Orleans jazz, where a pianist had an easy time finding work in one of the innumerable clubs in the city. He claims that it was rare that he did not take home at 100 dollars a night working brothels, late night parties, and card parlors. (CD 1, Track 8) The cities exuberant nightlife, combined with brass band marches, parades, carnivals, weddings, and funerals brought the city alive through music. The fact that New Orleans also boasted countless theatres and three opera companies suggests a musical ‘gumbo,’ or mix, that would mirror the diverse tastes and demographics of the city. This widely accepted view, perhaps because it can be proven through city business records, is echoed in Morton’s narrative as well when he claims that New Orleans had every type of tune in the world. (CD 1, Track 9) Jelly Roll’s New Orleans was quite different from the one that might be suspected of a classically trained Creole. Morton talks at length throughout the recordings of the honky tonks packed to the brim every night with prostitutes, gun slingers, and gamblers. (CD 1, Track 12) For perhaps 5 years Morton worked in these depraved places, often playing the blues. The songs were often as dirty as the bars, filled with lyrics of sexual promiscuity and underworld violence. (CD 2, Track 1) This material is an early jazz historian’s gold because books written from the first person about working in these houses were nonexistent, therefore Morton’s tales of life in the Storyville district shed a new light on the development of jazz. Perhaps the music was not born in the streets during a Sunday parade, but instead in the darkest, and dirtiest dens of sin. Though this view has been accorded some suspicion as other early jazz men like Buddy Bolden and Pops Foster denied playing in brothels, and Johnny St. Cyr and Kid Ory suggested that the church was the biggest influence on the music. This is not to say that all jazz narratives seem to place New Orleans on a pedestal, as the place where the music was born. Views seem to be mixed on where to exactly place New Orleans in jazz history, and narratives often place the city in a more complicated place than Morton’s idyllic musical garden. Morton’s fixed idea of New Orleans being the birthplace is upheld for the most part in Ken Burns’ documentary, and scholars like Ted Gioia substantiate Morton’s claim that music and dance style of all types permeated New Orleans by the dawn of jazz. Meanwhile, Burton Peretti assets that New Orleans is indeed crucial to the understanding of the cultural nature of jazz, but protojazz developments in the Mississippi delta contributed much to the jazz culture of the 1920s. Furthermore Peretti goes on to suggest that many northern areas developed their own indigenous jazz movements unaided by New Orleans. Cities like San Francisco, New York, and Chicago all appeared to have a distinct jazz music style before many musicians migrated away from New Orleans to those places. However it is important to realize that unlike Morton’s musical claims about jazz, which can easily be refuted by subjectivity and faulty logic, New Orleans appears to be the predominant city of early jazz in nearly every jazz reconstruction. The reason for this goes beyond the large number of clubs, parades, or church influence. For many scholars the underlying force of this diversity and cultural affluence was the unique racial situation that separated New Orleans from the rest of the United States, an aspect that would be forever intrinsically tied to the music itself. Of all the issues that revolve around early jazz music, the issue of race is perhaps the least understood and yet most commented upon. If the racial tensions and cultural heterogeneity are absolutely vital to the understanding of early jazz, it would be natural to assume Jelly Roll Morton was in a large affected by this. Such an assumption, although true in many ways, needs to be examined and compared with how his story is compatible with the countless number of books on the subject. After conducting such research it is clear that Morton’s narrative diverges wildly from other historical opinions on racial issues. In the Library of Congress recordings Morton brings up the topic of race many times, but often in surprising contexts. On his own Creole background, he describes himself as coming from French lineage, and furthermore from a family of very early settlers to New Orleans. (CD 1, Track 5) Morton appears very defensive about his heritage and mentions that while music was a staple in his home. Although he grew up in a musical household, his family did not want him to be a professional musician because of the low ‘tramp-like’ status associated with traveling musicians. He speaks about his early childhood and receiving classical training on the piano after being influenced by a pianist during a concert at the local French opera house. (CD 1, Track 6-7) Despite scorn from his family, including being disowned by his grandmother, Morton spent his formative years in the brothels of Storyville, a far cry from the upper-middle class French home and culture he claims to have sprung from. Arguably the most surprisingly recollection Morton has throughout the whole of the recordings is his view of the race relations in New Orleans. He calls the city a "free and easy place", where segregation among race or class was never a factor. He says only the St. Charles Avenue district, which house many millionaires, had a separatist culture. (CD 1, Track 13) He does later mention the race riots that occurred in the city during 1900, but this seems to be an isolated incident in the racial utopia that was New Orleans. (CD 2, Track 4) In general Morton paints a picture of New Orleans as a city without racial segregation, as the drinking establishments Morton played in often housed the lowest and toughest caliber of men or women of all colors. (CD 4, Track 3) A popular opinion came out from none other than Lomax himself, who claimed that Morton’s whole life was constructed around the fact that he was not an African-American. However, listening to the recordings, Morton never makes any blatant racist remarks. In fact his musical hero, and the one man he said he could never top, Tony Jackson, was not only a black man but a homosexual as well. (CD 1, Track 10). Morton also credits the development of New Orleans rich musical culture to not only European parlor music, but Spanish and Native American Influences as well. (CD 6, Track 7-13) But for all the credit and admiration Morton gives to other cultures, it is undeniable that Morton does not attribute much to African-Americans, or for their matter their white counterparts. In fact there is no mention of whites influencing the development of jazz. Instead he often belittles their involvement in the music with claims of musical appropriation. (CD 2, Track 8,9) This is ironic to consider because Morton was the first artist to record interracially, with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in the 1920s. As for African-Americans Morton says relatively little about their influence on the music, but it can be inferred that the 12- bar blues numbers that Morton says he picked up in New Orleans, was probably culled from black influences. The reason Morton’s account is so controversial is more likely because jazz histories have a tendency to focus on race relations, in particular interpreting the development of jazz as a specific manifestation of the African-American experience in America. This grand narrative is not present in Jelly’s story. Burton Peretti argues that New Orleans was in fact highly segregated, and that the city presented a novel and oppressive system of racial strictures and tensions. He goes on to suggest that Morton perhaps was blind to this because he was a Creole and had different opportunities not afforded to blacks. Jazz historian Ted Gioia’s work also differs from Morton’s version. He claims the African-American underclass was the most forceful creative class in society, and it was through their particular social struggle that the music developed. Gioia’s race argument pervades the chapters on early jazz and he makes further claims that jazz was primarily an African-American contribution by the early 20th century, while duly noting the irony that a white group would record the first jazz record. Peretti and Gioia’s arguments seem highly subjective at times in their claims. They seem to brush off the developments of a poly-racial movement, in the same way that Morton seems to deny the large roles of blacks and whites in forging a new music. Both types of historical revisionism seem concerned with placing the hierarchy of jazz in terms of race as a means to make sense out of the music itself. Instead of risking being branded an apologist, or outright racist in their arguments, a third group of critics emerge that offer a conservative viewpoint that tries to focus on a diverse culture at work formulating a distinct American music, instead of isolated sub-cultures clashing for superiority. Likewise Ken Burns notes that the Creoles, and later whites, actually were forced to go into black communities and work together instead of separately. Either way the importance here is not determining which construction is the best or most truthful, but just to note the divergent viewpoints, while noting the fact that once again the narrative Morton provides appears unconventional if not also questionable and provocative. So what if anything is to be made of Morton’s recordings? At its best they catch glimpses of the life and music that surrounded an early art form. At its worst they are peppered with irrelevant subjective claims full of hearsay and conjecture. Despite the misgivings, there is something incredibly important behind this historical document. An essence pervades them, which can enlighten, amuse, and anger us all at once. A didactic tool that should be taken as supplementary information, not dogmatic truth. Despite the abundance of differing histories available, Morton proves to be one of the most thoughtful and accurate sources on early jazz. His is an incredibly important voice adding to a dialogue that is still being constructed one hundred years in the making.

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Jelly Roll Morton - Complete Library of Congress Recordings

Jelly Roll Morton - Complete Library of Congress Recordings

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