“The more I get, the more I want – it seems.”
It seems so with my brief study of Jelly Roll Morton. As did Mr. Barker say previously: “I'll have to take a whole chapter on Jelly Roll.” Dear reader, while I have endeavored to roll deep with Jelly's journey – but for this month of May – I have been greatly distracted by my own issues of survival. Thus will I attempt to wrap up a few loose ends and hopefully make some constructive points which seem to loom in what Mr. Barker is holding up, to the Jazz student for scrutiny in the Jazz life of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton.
I do not promise that the wrap-up will be nice.
As of this posting, his house still
stands; 1443 Frenchmen Street – “walking distance” from Maison Musique in the downtown section of New Orleans (in my
neighborhood.) I would say that, not a great deal has changed on Jelly's block since August 29th, 2005 – or for that matter, since August 29th 1905, when the young Morton had already chosen a life on the margins of society. The area still is home to working class black families, of various standing within that large representation. There is also a long-standing so called “criminal element” (a frontline in the “war on drugs”) which pervades different pockets in the area. And as always, there are whites; a few have been in this neighborhood for a long time, some are newer younger arrivals... in the last three years. And, since the last three years, there is more than a tinge of spanish heard in the air. All in all, it's a neighborhood... with a “back of the tracks” feel to it.
Ferdinand Joseph Lemothe was a product of a “nice” up-bringing; that of the Creoles, a loosely defined culture descended from the gens de colour libre
– a strata of black New Orleans which dates back to the early 19th century. These “mixed-race” people had eventually struggled for and earned their own freedom from the harsher aspects of the system of slavery – either in New Orleans or, from other shores of the French colonial sphere.
Jelly is infamous for his declaration that his family came directly: “from the shores of... France.” He doesn't state when. This picture of history is made more opaque if you consider that his parents were not married at the time of his birth; the date which also has presented researchers with questions is now agreed to be October 20th, 1890. Four years later, his mother, Louise Monett, legally married William Mouton – hence, Morton. Hence, Jelly's first apparent conflict – He was the first-born son (a revered position of Creole life) yet, he was the bastard child.
“One day he came thru the place... called, Storyville.” The Red Light District was an officially sanctioned vice zone that prevailed on the margins of everyday New Orleans life from 1897-1917, and beyond. It was ostensibly a playground for well-off white men – who may have only been temporarily well-off. Nevertheless, it was “where you could have... anything...!” as I have heard it said from 2nd hand accounts, to this day.
Young Morton, who was initially classically trained, began playing in the sporting houses and eventually became a reigning 'King' of the New Orleans barrel-house piano. Tony Jackson, who was then widely understood as homosexual – apparently unapologetically so – also was Morton's mentor. Jelly himself was notoriously heterosexual and also took part in this sex industry, functioning at least as “protection” necessary to women who chose a young life of prostitution over that of a long life of toil.
Jelly Roll welcomed all of the opulence that he attracted. Consider this: with $20 bills routinely being stuffed in his vest, he was prevailing over a system that would have relegated him to a life of manual labor, albeit in the professional Creole trades of carpentry, masonry etc. But in the intense environment of The District, where many social boundaries were in the process of obliteration, Jelly Roll is working, providing the “sound track” in the last days of audio-free life – just at the dawning of the recording industry.
Jelly Roll applied his ample intelligence to the gaming arts as well, making a great name for himself and later boasting of the high stakes that he participated in – this as another means of his livelihood. All of this taking hold well before his 21st birthday.
Jelly worked the Vaudeville circuit as if it were a battlefield, at times going on in black-faced minstrel routines. It is worth pointing out that the concert hall (anywhere in America) was at best only a vague but dismaying notion for a pianist such as Morton, who did not identify himself as “Black.” Morton was no “ghetto child” as would Louis Armstrong a decade later begin to represent. According to Danny Barker, Jelly did not attribute his misfortunes to his skin color.
From his vast memory in “A Life In Jazz” –
I cannot recall one time when Jelly ever mentioned racial prejudice and discrimination.
Characteristically, Danny goes deeper.
...but not once did he brag that he was a Creole as most of the light-colored downtown musicians would do.
The music called “Jazz” was changing the way American society would look, sound, and feel – placing a pulse to an amazing epoch of mobility and growth, equal in its greed and excess. Jelly Roll Morton and his times shaped the very culture that we now know as Jazz and etched the blueprint for virtually every form of popular music which America has since made. Jelly was on the forefront of this movement in the 1920's and surrounded himself with much of everything that his earnings could buy. By 1930, this same turning of fate would recoil against him; amidst the restless cold of the Great Depression, Jelly's music was received as outdated. Still he fought on with a sense of authorship that would turn his world into a “Hot Jazz” cave in a mountaintop that was newly proclaiming, “Swing.”
A series of scuffles and comebacks ensued, and on one evening in Washington D.C. Jelly found himself at a critical disadvantage in a knife fight. He survived; although his convalescence was precarious as his health would slowly deteriorate resulting in death at the age of 51. Morton's infamy includes the legendary pronouncement that the downturn of his life was the effect of a Voodoo spell.
Danny's closes his chapter on Jelly Roll with a curious revelation. From, “A Life In Jazz” Barker recounts the last moments he shared with Morton, uneasy on a street corner in Harlem.
“Home Town, I have gone back to the Church; its a great thing.”
“That's wonderful,” I said.
[Morton's wife] Mabel smiled and said, “Come have dinner with us.”
I told them I had just eaten, but I went up to their third-floor apartment with them, where I sat for a couple of hours listening to Jelly speak sadly of all the misfortunes that he had been through, and how completely disgusted he was with New York City as well as the music business. He told me that he was spending most of his time at the church and the rectory with the priests. Mabel said nothing as she served dinner; she just looked sadly at Jelly and then looked at me. I don't think she realized she was shaking her head as she moved about the kitchen and dining room. When I left the apartment I was real shook up.
And this last glimpse.
A few days later I was standing in front of the Rhythm Club with the usual crowd of musicians. I looked down the street towards the church to see Jelly there, talking with two priests. That was the last time I saw Jelly.
The Church, where all is forgiven... Maybe.
Peace... to Mr. Jelly Lord.
Peace & Pops,
Maison Musique, New Orleans
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