Jelly Roll Morton

BlackBottomStompLabelClick here to listen to Black Bottom Stomp

Recently in a post about Duke Ellington I touched on how 78-rpm record collectors often have one or more ‘first loves’ — artists who first attracted them to the music of the first decades of the last century. Ellington was one of the first, but not long after I fell for Jelly.

I was a grad student at the University of Montana at the time. One day my friend from the Journalism School, Karl Rohr, invited me and my girlfriend Jan over for dinner. Karl was raised in Georgia but his family had deep roots in New Orleans, so the food was gumbo — great — and the music was a shiny new boxed set, The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial: His Complete Victor Recordings.

I loved the music right away; I was used to Ellington’s elegance and sophisticated arrangements, but this was something different. Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers were a little wilder, a little crazier, a little hotter than the band the never-humble Morton considered a rival and imitator.

I wore out cassette dubs of Karl’s set, listening to them so many times in Missoula and on long road trips across the Pacific Northwest that this most New Orleans of composers is forever linked in my mind with Montana forests and Washington State basalt scablands. Later I got the superior JSP Jelly Roll Morton set with John R.T. Davies’s transfers, and eventually started picking up the original 78s. I’ve picked two of the best of them for this week, including Morton’s first Victor release, Black Bottom Stomp, and Dead Man Blues, the first take from the Red Hot Peppers’ second Victor session in September 1926.

DeadManBluesLabelClick here to listen to Dead Man Blues

Black Bottom Stomp, one of the all-time classic jazz sides, showcases Morton’s skill as an arranger, his faultless choice of talent — all the players here are home-run hitters — and wisdom in giving that talent space to shine individually within the three-minutes-and-change format of 10-inch records. Even after nearly 90 years, this recording is still breathtaking in its ensemble precision and hugely effective solo breaks. Dead Man Blues, which begins with some hammy vaudeville-type gags and the jazzed-up start of a New Orleans funeral procession, is famous for its hypnotic clarinet trio (though some say Omer Simeon was absent for this recording, making it a duo of Barney Bigard and Darnell Howard) and is also punctuated with killer solos.

Morton’s place in jazz history still occasionally provokes arguments but I think that even if we had nothing else to judge by, these two recordings alone would justify his famously lofty assessment of his own musical stature.

Black Bottom Stomp
Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers
Victor 20221
Chicago, Ill., Sept. 15, 1926
Jelly Roll Morton – p – v – speech dir. / George Mitchell – c / Kid Ory – tb / Omer Simeon – cl  / Johnny St. Cyr – bj / John Lindsay – sb / Andrew Hilaire – d

Dead Man Blues
Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers
Victor 20252
Chicago, Ill., Sept. 21, 1926
Jelly-Roll Morton – p – v – speech dir. / George Mitchell – c / Kid Ory – tb / Omer Simeon – Barney Bigard – Darnell Howard – cl  / Johnny St. Cyr – bj / John Lindsay – sb / Andrew Hilaire – d

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