Jelly's Blues: The Life and Music of Jelly Roll Morton

Overview

Jelly's Blues vividly recounts the tumultuous life of Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941), born Ferdinand Joseph Lamonthe to a large, extended family in New Orleans. A virtuoso pianist with a larger-than-life personality, he composed such influential early jazz pieces as "Kansas City Stomp" and "New Orleans Blues." But by the late 1930s, Jelly Roll Morton was nearly forgotten as a visionary jazz composer. Instead, he was caricatured as a braggart, a hustler, and, worst of all, a has-been. He was ridiculed by the white ...

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Overview

Jelly's Blues vividly recounts the tumultuous life of Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941), born Ferdinand Joseph Lamonthe to a large, extended family in New Orleans. A virtuoso pianist with a larger-than-life personality, he composed such influential early jazz pieces as "Kansas City Stomp" and "New Orleans Blues." But by the late 1930s, Jelly Roll Morton was nearly forgotten as a visionary jazz composer. Instead, he was caricatured as a braggart, a hustler, and, worst of all, a has-been. He was ridiculed by the white popular press and robbed of due royalties by unscrupulous music publishers. His reputation at rock bottom, Jelly Roll Morton seemed destined to be remembered more as a flamboyant, diamond-toothed rounder than as the brilliant architect of that new American musical idiom: Jazz.In 1992, the death of a New Orleans memorabilia collector unearthed a startling archive. Here were unknown later compositions as well as correspondence, court and copyright records, all detailing Morton's struggle to salvage his reputation, recover lost royalties, and protect the publishing rights of black musicians. Morton was a much more complex and passionate man than many had realized, fiercely dedicated to his art and possessing an unwavering belief in his own genius, even as he toiled in poverty and obscurity. An especially immediate and visceral look into the jazz worlds of New Orleans and Chicago, Jelly's Blues is the definitive biography of a jazz icon, and a long overdue look at one of the twentieth century's most important composers.

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Editorial Reviews

Baltimore Sun
A biography-with-attitude.
Chicago Tribune
Reich and Gaines use a wide-angle lens on the melding lines of creation and betrayal in what is a brilliant morality tale, a meditation on the sacred and profane.
Gambit Weekly
Reich's descriptive treatment of the music imbues the narrative with lyrical finesse...Gaines' reporting provides a moral anchor...A brilliant morality tale, a meditation on the sacred and profane.
New York Sun
It is satisfying to at last have Morton's whole life documented in a single comprehensive volume.
San Francisco Chronicle
[Reich and Gaines] have rescued the real man from the dustbin of history.
Publishers Weekly
There has been a resurgence of interest in Jelly Roll Morton (1890- 1941) in recent years, much of it highlighting the unattractive characteristics of the legendary Creole jazz pianist, composer and bandleader, such as his flashy clothes, diamond-studded tooth, boastfulness and denial of his race. In their sympathetic biography, Reich, jazz critic of the Chicago Tribune, and Gaines, an investigative reporter who retired from the Chicago Tribune in 2001, play down these aspects of Morton's personality and concentrate on his musicianship, keyboard virtuosity, innovative compositions and ingenuity in devising a way to set improvisational music down on paper. The authors also highlight the redemptive qualities of Morton's last years, basing their discussion on letters, documents and scores from the voluminous archive of Morton material in the collection of New Orleans jazz historian William Russell that became available after Russell's death in 1992. They show that at the end of his life Morton composed revolutionary new works, though he couldn't get anyone to play or record them. At the same time, he kept up a running battle with his publishers, who had exploited him for years, and launched a crusade against ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), which collected royalties for composers and robbed black songwriters of what was due them by denying them membership. Morton's correspondence with the Justice Department concerning his case against ASCAP and his music publishers is included in the book (though not seen by PW), as is an annotated discography. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Chicago Tribune journalists Reich, a longtime jazz critic, and Pulitzer Prize winner Gaines, who retired from investigative reporting in 2001, drew on the recently opened archives of a New Orleans memorabilia collector to chronicle the career and music of famed Creole jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941). They bring to life Morton's early career as a brothel pianist and do an outstanding job of exposing the shabby treatment he received at the hands of music publishers and performance licensing agencies. In addition, they go a long way toward explaining why Morton, the darling of the Chicago jazz community through his live performances and recordings of 1926, was viewed as a has-been in New York City less than a year later. Also described are Morton's performance and compositional style, including some of the infrequently heard last compositions of the 1930s, which were found in the archives-though at times the authors could have gone into a bit more musicological detail. Still, through skillful use of their sources, Reich and Gaines offer much insight into their complex subject-in many respects the father of written jazz-which is missing from earlier Morton biographies (e.g., Phil Pastras's recent Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West and Alan Lomax's classic Mister Jelly Roll). Highly recommended for public libraries and for academic libraries with jazz-related collections.-James E. Perone, Mount Union Coll., Alliance, OH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Aided by a trove of uncovered historical documents, two veteran Chicago Tribune journalists sweep aside demeaning caricatures regarding the great jazz composer and pianist. Many of the 65,000 pieces in a New Orleans collector's stash of jazz memorabilia, made public after his death in 1992, pertained to Jelly Roll Morton (1885-1941). In particular, they shed light on the period from 1930 until his death, during which Morton was in popular eclipse but busy on two fronts: trying to secure some of the royalties due him and writing plush, pressing ensemble music full of radically dissonant chord progressions. Jazz critic Reich and retired investigative reporter Gaines make good use of this and other material to present a thorough and considered account of Morton's life. Starting out as a piano player in New Orleans brothels and honkytonks, he was the first jazzman to put his music down on paper, innovating a complex, contrapuntal music inflected with a Spanish tinge that evolved into a rhythmically free style defying a sense of steady meter, with plenty of breaks and surprises. His reputation as a flamboyant egotist was well earned, say the authors; a cocky-talking hustler, Morton had led a life to make any storyteller proud, and his virtuoso piano playing backed up the bravura. He was abrasive and demanding, for sure, but the notion that he was passé by 1930 was primarily due to a white popular press obsessed with perpetually discovering new talent, and to a white music industry happy to denigrate the achievements of a man whose royalties it had pocketed. But Morton kept playing and composing until he died, introducing "astringent chords, bizarre key changes, and exotic scales of a sort thatwould not be heard in jazz until at least the early 1950s." An important, vindicatory contribution to music history, restoring Morton to the high station he deserves in American jazz. (16 pp. photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780306812095
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 4/24/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.22 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Howard Reich is the veteran jazz critic of the Chicago Tribune and winner of the Deems Taylor Award, two William Jones Investigative Reporting Awards, and three Peter Lisagor Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, among other honors.William Gaines retired from the Chicago Tribune in 2001, and is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2003

    marvelous

    A remarkable book about a remarkable man. Morton's claim to have invented jazz was often dismissed out of hand, especially in view of his early years as an all-around rascal. Reich and Gaines make a good case that's exactly what he did. On the way, they call up the early years of jazz and music recording in all their grittiness, and bring out the courage, creativity - and gentle humanity - in an unlikely pair: Morton, himself, and his last professional friend, an IRS auditor who went into the music publishing business with him. (My copy's subtitled 'The life, music and REDEMPTION of Jelly Roll Morton.') They also manage a healthy swat at two of the biggest cheats in the publishing business. Best read with the right music nearby: King Oliver, Morton with his Red Hot Peppers, and Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, all recorded in the early 20s, most on CD; and, if you can find it, Gunther Schuller's album 'The Road from Ragtime to Jazz'. Check out 'Grandpa's Spells', especially, before and after Morton.

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