Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West

Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West

by Phil Pastras, Phil Pastras




When Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton sat at the piano in the Library of Congress in May of 1938 to begin his monumental series of interviews with Alan Lomax, he spoke of his years on the West Coast with the nostalgia of a man recalling a golden age, a lost Eden. He had arrived in Los Angeles more than twenty years earlier, but he recounted his losses as vividly as though they had occurred just recently. The greatest loss was his separation from Anita Gonzales, by his own account "the only woman I ever loved," to whom he left almost all of his royalties in his will.

In Dead Man Blues, Phil Pastras sets the record straight on the two periods (1917-1923 and 1940-1941) that Jelly Roll Morton spent on the West Coast.
In addition to rechecking sources, correcting mistakes in scholarly accounts, and situating eyewitness narratives within the histories of New Orleans or Los Angeles, Pastras offers a fresh interpretation of the life and work of Morton, one of the most important and influential early practitioners of jazz. Pastras's discovery of a previously unknown collection of memorabilia—including a 58-page scrapbook compiled by Morton himself—sheds new light on Morton's personal and artistic development, as well as on the crucial role played by Anita Gonzales.

In a rich, fast-moving, and fascinating narrative, Pastras traces Morton's artistic development as a pianist, composer, and bandleader. Among many other topics, Pastras discusses the complexities of racial identity for Morton and his circle, his belief in voodoo, his relationships with women, his style of performance, and his roots in black musical traditions. Not only does Dead Man Blues restore to the historical record invaluable information about one of the great innovators of jazz, it also brings to life one of the most colorful and fascinating periods of musical transformation on the West Coast.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520215238
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/02/2001
Series: Music of the African Diaspora Series , #5
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Phil Pastras is Assistant Professor of English at Pasadena City College and coeditor and cotranslator of The New Oresteia of Yannis Ritsos (1991).

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Prelude to a Riff


Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton could brag almost as well as he could play piano—and, as the world knows, he played piano very well indeed. His most famous boast was provoked by a broadcast of Robert Ripley's Believe It or Not radio program, which introduced W. C. Handy as the originator of jazz and the blues. "W. C. Handy is a liar," Morton announced in a long letter addressed to Ripley and published in the Baltimore African-American and Down Beat magazine. The letter goes on to claim, "It is evidently known, beyond contradiction, that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz and I, myself, happened to be the creator in the year 1902." That was not the only time he made that claim or something like it. The guitarist Danny Barker recalls that Morton would announce, "I created jazz and there's no jazz but Jelly Roll's jazz." According to the musician and entrepreneur Reb Spikes, "[Jelly] would hear a piece and say, 'They're stealing that from me. That's mine.' Or 'That guy's trying to play like me.'" The trumpet player Lee Collins remembers going to see Morton in his hotel room: "He asked me to come work with him. 'You know you will be working with the world's greatest jazz piano player ... not one of the greatest—I am the greatest.'"

    But if in his boasting Morton appeared to pass fool's gold off as the real thing, he was actually passing along some golden nuggets. Comments by the bassist Bill Johnson echo what many musicians have saidover the years: "You could go by a house where Jelly would be playing and you'd know it was him because nobody did and nobody does play just like him. He wasn't afraid to admit it, either.... 'Nobody playing I can't cut,' he used to say. The thing was he could really do what he said. He was the best, the very best." Even his seemingly outrageous claim that he created jazz, surprisingly enough, has the faint but golden ring of truth to it. Of course, his statement to Ripley is at the very least an exaggeration; no one person "created" jazz—it evolved out of a long tradition, and there were many people involved in its development. But in another, more considered statement, made during the same year (1938), Morton suggests where the truth might actually lie: "All these people play ragtime in a hot style, but man, you can play hot all you want to, and you still won't be playing jazz.... Ragtime is a certain type of syncopation and only certain tunes can be played in that idea. But jazz is a style that can be applied to any type of tune. But I started using the word in 1902 to show people the difference between jazz and ragtime."

    A rather extraordinary and revealing statement, to say the least: it shows an intellectual bent in Morton that few writers have discussed. Unlike most other musicians of his generation, he could not only perform the music, but he could also discuss the performance analytically, as he did at some length in response to Alan Lomax's questions during the recording of his interviews at the Library of Congress in 1938. In Lomax's Mister Jelly Roll, based largely on those interviews, Morton spells out with great precision his view of the essential elements of jazz. The statement above is musically, etymologically, and historically accurate with respect to the words ragtime and jazz. When the ragtime compositions of writers like Scott Joplin became popular in the 1890s and 1900s, everyone wanted to cash in on the fad, and all kinds of tunes were labeled "ragtime" that were nothing of the sort: Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," for example. Also, early jazz orchestras were often called ragtime bands, for lack of a better term. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first appearance in print of the word jazz to describe the music was in 1909; however, the term was not in general use until about 1917. In the Library of Congress statement, Morton does not claim to have invented jazz but to have been the first to use the term to distinguish the new music from ragtime—a credible if unprovable claim, especially credible because of its accuracy: the difference between the two does lie in jazz's greater range of tempos, styles, and emotional textures, just as he says. And it would have been just like Morton to choose a term that, in its original manifestations (spelled jass), meant sexual intercourse. But more about Morton's sexual persona later.

    It is tempting to compare Morton's bragging to that of Benvenuto Cellini, the great Renaissance artist, and indeed Lomax does just that when he says that in Jelly Roll he "had encountered a Creole Benvenuto Cellini." Like Morton, Cellini could both talk the talk and walk the walk. More to the point, however, would be to compare Morton's bragging to ancient epic traditions that expect heroes like Odysseus to proclaim their virtues loudly and clearly. Comparing Morton to figures in epic traditions may seem far-fetched, but actually it's not: Morton was a good storyteller, and storytelling strengths like his are evident elsewhere in oral tradition; his story can be read as an American odyssey, with its particularly American brand of near misses and narrow escapes, of Sirens, Circes, and monsters, of far-flung travels and homecomings. And, as we shall see, Jelly Roll faced his own death with a degree of courage that can only be described as heroic. We should remember, too, that the African American oral tradition allows mock-epic heroes like Stagolee the same privilege as Odysseus when he shouts out his true name to the Cyclops, having tricked him first with the phony name Noman. That kind of verbal one-upmanship has always been an essential ingredient in the black linguistic experience, from the ballads of Stagolee to blues lyrics, from street talk to rap and hip-hop—even in such forms as "playing the dozens," in which the combatants try to outdo each other by insulting the opponent's mamma, starting with something as simple and straightforward as "Your mamma don't wear no drawers." Morton mastered those traditions, just as he mastered the musical forms of blues, ragtime, and jazz. In New York City, one of his favorite spots for practicing his verbal skill was the street corner outside the Rhythm Club on West 133rd Street, as clarinetist Barney Bigard recalls:

Jelly was kicks. He was never a bitter person right up to the end. He always loved to fuss and argue with somebody. He knew it all. He was a big shot at that time [circa 1930] and could always talk a good fight. He and Chick Webb would stand on a street corner and argue so bad you could have become rich selling tickets. Chick would just rile him to get him going. Jelly would tell Chick he was the greatest and Chick would tell him[,] "Yeah? Well come around to see my band tonight. We just got a new arrangement on so and so," and Chick would hum him the whole thing out of his head. Top to bottom. Jelly would say: "That ain't shit. Listen to this one," and he'd go to humming his stuff. People would all gather around. They thought there was a fight going on I guess. It was a show, those two guys, Chick with his little crooked back and Jelly with that damned great diamond stuck in his teeth. I guess ordinary people had never seen nothing like that before.

    They thought there was a fight going on I guess. Bigard implies that, really, there was no fight, just verbal jousting and good acting. In fact, though, the two men really were rivals: in 1930 Morton represented the older generation of New Orleans pioneers, Webb the younger generation that created the swing era; Morton's fortunes were about to take a nosedive; Webb's were about to soar. Hard to imagine there was no real venom in the verbal darts the two aimed at each other, just as it's hard to imagine that the exchange of cutting insults about "your mamma" in playing the dozens never draws blood. But to play the game means to pay the price, and that means maintaining the fiction that it's just a game. Only sore losers get angry. Morton's bragging occasionally had the bitter overtone of jealousy or even of defeat, especially toward the end, but its basis was the sweet babble of black street talk, the poetic license that allowed the combatants to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable, like the Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear, whose comic persona gives him license to tweak the king with the truth. In his autobigraphy, the trumpeter Rex Stewart remembers a typical Jelly Roll performance:

Sometimes one of the guys would needle Jelly just for the fun of it. Then he would really perform, pulling out his clippings, his contracts and his photos of himself with the greats of that era. He always had an audience, and, to our uninitiated ears, his pronouncements and declarations were way out. "You little pipsqueak," he would yell, "who the hell do you think you're talking to? I'm the 'Jelly Roll.' I invented this music ... See these diamonds? My music bought 'em. There's enough dough in these stones to buy and sell your whole damn family! Don't you try to tell me nothing about my music, you little no-blowin', hardshirt-wearin' sapsucker." And the crowd would roar.

    Stewart and Bigard quite rightly portray Morton's street-corner oratory as a performance tailor-made for a specific context and audience. In both anecdotes, someone "needles" or "riles" Jelly to get the game going. Stewart's comment—"Then he would really perform"—suggests that Morton was already performing and that goading him would merely kick him into high gear. And, in both instances, the crowd reacts with delight and fascination. However, outside of that context, minus that audience, Morton's bragging could come off as abrasive self-aggrandizement. Kenneth Hultsizer, a fan who wrote a brief reminiscence of his conversations with Morton in Washington, D.C., astutely warned Lowell Williams, a young man taking notes for an article on Jelly Roll, that "it was fun to listen to Jelly Roll talk but that he was given to exaggeration. That his conversation was enjoyable and amusing to listen to but if reproduced in impersonal print without Jelly Roll's warm personality it was certain to make Jelly Roll sound like a paranoiac." Viewed in the wrong light, the distortions of the comic persona can make it appear as a grotesque rather than as a caricature.

    Morton was a man of many masks, especially at the beginning of his career: pool hustler, card shark, pimp, vaudevillian, pianist, composer, bandleader. He did not focus exclusively on music until after his five-year stay on the West Coast, from 1917 to 1923. When he left Los Angeles for Chicago in 1923, he was thirty-two years old; he had less than twenty years to live, but for the first time his focus was clearly on music. The reasons for that rather dramatic shift make up the main theme of this book, but the years before his stay on the West Coast provide valuable insights into Morton's complex personality, into the personae that preceded the great shift and in some ways laid the groundwork for it.

    Before 1917-23, music served either as a front for Morton's various illegal activities, as we shall see, or as an adjunct to his work in vaudeville. Lawrence Gushee's chronology of Morton's early years shows that Jelly Roll served a fairly long apprenticeship in vaudeville, where, among other roles, he performed as a blackface comedian—a persona if there ever was one. As onerous as the blackface stereotype seems by today's measure of political correctness, it actually involved a highly ironic interplay of racial identities: it began among white minstrels as a racial caricature of blacks, but it was quickly picked up by black minstrels as a caricature of white people's stereotyped notions about blacks. The irony implicit in that kind of manipulation would not have been lost on Morton, as sensitive as he was about the issue of race. For him, the experience must have been a kind of initiation into the role or roles he was expected to play as a black performer. His performance as a comedian received mixed reviews, though. It was evidently not his most successful role. His old friend Reb Spikes once spoke of this period: "I met Jelly in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1912[,] and we had a show. He thought he was a funny man and, my god, he was as funny as a sick baby. He never made nobody laugh. He'd black up (he was very light, you know) and come out and sit at the piano and tell jokes and play some rags and nobody ever laughed and so one day I told him to cut out the funny crap and stick to the piano crap and he'd do all right." Morton was much funnier in his role as street-corner braggart than he was as Stepin Fetchit.

    His most successful and most carefully crafted persona was the one called Jelly Roll Morton. The bragging was a part of that, but there was a good deal of onstage showmanship too, which he must have picked up in vaudeville. In Mister Jelly Roll, Morton's wife, Mabel, describes a typical performance with the Red Hot Peppers, as his 1920s band was called: "The band all wore black tuxedos, but Jelly Roll wore a wine-red jacket and tie to match, white pants and white shoes. He directed the band himself, used to cut a lot of capers, then sit down at the piano with that great big smile of his, and, I'm telling you, he was a sensation.... He took the solos on piano[,] and then the rest of the band ... would just stop dead and all the people would gather around the stand to hear." Even in his heyday, when he was performing before mostly white audiences, his sense of stage presence came straight from the same tradition that has informed the work of black artists from vaudevillians to Cab Calloway to James Brown and beyond. (See fig. 1.) The great pianist James P. Johnson once recalled a solo performance by the great Jelly Roll in a New York nightclub during the 1920s:

I've seen Jelly Roll Morton, who had a great attitude, approach a piano. He would take his overcoat off. It had a special lining that would catch everybody's eye. So he would turn it inside out instead of folding it, he would lay it lengthwise along the top of the upright very solemnly as if that coat was worth a fortune and had to be handled very tenderly.

Then he's take a big silk handkerchief, shake it out to show it off properly, and dust off the stool. He's sit down then, hit his special chord (every tickler had his special trademark chord, like a signal) and he's be gone! The first rag he'd play was always a spirited one to astound the audience.

Morton approaches the piano here with an air of solemn ritual, like a priestly celebrant approaching the altar for a High Mass.

    Certainly, the priestly persona would not have been foreign to Jelly Roll, born and baptized a Roman Catholic, like most New Orleans Creoles. The phrase priestly persona fits the previous scene particularly well because of its associations with myth, ritual, and drama. In "Remembering Jimmy," a lovely, nostalgic, elegant essay on singer Jimmy Rushing, Ralph Ellison writes,

Rushing, along with the other jazz musicians whom we knew, had made a choice, had dedicated himself to a mode of expression and a way of life no less "righteously" than others dedicated themselves to the church. Jazz and blues did not fit into the scheme of things as spelled out by our two main institutions, the church and the school, but they gave expression to attitudes which found no place in these and helped to give our lives some sense of wholeness. Jazz and the public jazz dance was a third institution in our lives and a vital one; and though Jimmy was far from being a preacher, he was, as official floor manager or master-of-the-dance at Slaughter's Hall, the leader of a public rite.

The writer Albert Murray confirms Ellison's insight into the ritual basis of the tradition: the "mission" of performance "is not only to drive the blues away and hold them at bay ... but also to evoke an ambiance of Dionysian revelry in the process"; and, Murray adds, even though performers like Morton worked mostly in dance halls, nightclubs, and vaudeville theaters, "they were at the same time fulfilling a central role in a ceremony that was at once a purification rite and a celebration the festive earthiness of which was tantamount to a fertility ritual." Symbolically, the performer becomes the hero of the myth, the priest of the ritual, the protagonist of the drama—in Ellison's phrase, "the leader of a public rite." What we know of Morton's approach to performance confirms the insights of both Ellison and Murray into the ritual basis of music and dance in the African American tradition, and the persona known as Jelly Roll Morton was his response to the demands that the role placed on him. Even his performance as street-corner braggart was a kind of miniature ritual, with definite roles assigned to both the congregation and the celebrant.

    Ironically, the only photograph of Morton performing on stage shows him in his Stepin Fetchit mode with a light-skinned woman partner. In later years, Jelly Roll's publicity posters and ads would extend the connection between his performances and blackface imagery, though most often it is his sidemen, tiny in comparison to Morton's large, smiling face, that wear the blackface. In the 1930s, Morton managed a Washington, D.C., nightclub called the Jungle Inn, and ads for the club in the local papers have as a kind of logo a cartoon of a piano player in blackface. Oddly enough, in many of his regular publicity photos of the 1920s he looks somewhat formal and even solemn. Only in the informal photos taken by Danny Barker and others on the streets of Harlem in the 1930s does Jelly Roll look relaxed and at ease with the camera.

    Anyone who has ever posed for a photo or taken one gets a sense of posing as a kind of miniperformance, as a presentation of a persona. Morton's photos show him to be light-skinned, his nose long and straight and just a hint of a dimple on his chin. Two small creases between his eyebrows suggest a permanent frown, but, as if to offset that impression, he has two sets of doubled smile lines framing his mouth and making his broad, warm smile seem even broader and warmer—though in some photos, when he forces a smile, they make it seem even more forced. In the 1920s photos, his hair looks straight and slick. In the 1930s (hard times must have taken hair treatments out of the budget), his hair looks to be something between curly and kinky.

    As his appearance suggests, Morton lived his life in the no-man's-land of color and race in America. In 1923, when the famous New Orleans Rhythm Kings, an all-white band, brought him to Richmond, Indiana, to record with them, they passed him off as Cuban to get him lodgings in the rooming house where they were staying. Born and baptized Roman Catholic, he died having been anointed with oil consecrated by a Roman Catholic priest; but there was fear gripping his failing heart because he believed his bad luck and ill health had come from a voodoo curse. He thought of himself as Creole, and, as with most Creoles, that meant he did not think of himself primarily as a Negro. Lomax claims that "Jelly Roll's whole life was constructed around his denial of his Negro status," and at the end of the Broadway hit musical Jelly's Last Jam, George Wolfe has Morton carried off to hell for that denial. In Lomax's book, Mabel Morton says, "Really, Jelly Roll didn't like Negroes. He said they would mess up your business. And Negroes didn't like him." But Mabel, too, was a Creole, and Creoles have good reason to consider themselves a distinct ethnic group: their French (sometimes Spanish) names, their Creole brand of the French language, their cuisine, their particular blend of French, Spanish, and African ancestry and culture all distinguish them from other African Americans as well as from whites. Jelly complained loudly about some of his musicians, calling them "niggers acting rowdy" who messed up his gigs by drinking on the bandstand. But he certainly knew he was not white and must have heard himself called "nigger" on many occasions. In fact, he once had to leave a small Mississippi town in a big hurry because rumor had it that he was sleeping with the white woman who ran the roadhouse where he was playing piano; and more than once in his travels through the Southeast he heard about lynchings. His ambivalence on the subject of race and color is not so much a "denial" as it is a recognition that, in America, the color of your skin is a kind of destiny.

    At this point it may be tempting to ask, "Can we ever know the real Jelly Roll Morton?" But that is the wrong question. For one thing, masks have a reality of their own, just as dramas do. People who ask, "Is Oedipus Rex a true story?" miss the point: in one sense it is a fiction; in another, more important sense, the story is more "true" than the headlines in today's newspapers. For another thing, if by "the real Jelly Roll" we mean the private as opposed to the public person, the evidence is too scanty. Even the Library of Congress interviews are a public performance, with the persona fully formed and in place. The mask slips only on occasion—for instance, saying that he only "half believed" in voodoo, Jelly admits "in a confiding moment of weariness" his belief that the decline of his career in the 1930s was brought about by a voodoo curse. If he really only "half believed" in voodoo, the half that believed was far stronger than the half that did not. Lomax presents the story as an extraordinary moment of self-revelation, but neither he nor subsequent writers have given the subject of voodoo in Morton's life the attention it deserves. The story Morton tells about his attempts to exorcise those demons helps to put his bragging and his brash self-confidence in a surprisingly poignant light.

    Another moment of self-revelation comes in the excerpts from letters he wrote to his friend Roy Carew at about the time of the Lomax interviews. Sick and at times dispirited, Morton somehow found the courage and energy to forge ahead in spite of the odds stacked against him. Perhaps the most touching passage occurs in a 30 May 1939 letter, which describes the moment he learned just how sick he was: "I went to the hospital for my check up and tried to explain all I could concerning myself, well, I was examined again, hardening of the arteries of the heart and was told that it was incurable, but that if I did not exert myself I would ... do all right. I was very sad over the report at first[,] 'but' [sic] after a second thought, I had a different decision. I was not expecting to live when I went there, and I am at least living yet. Then again we have a much greater power that has something to say about those things—that's the Supreme Power above." Mabel Morton's version of the story supports Jelly's: the doctors told her that he could live another ten or fifteen years if he stopped performing—in other words, if he stopped playing the piano. But Morton could not accept life on those terms. This courage and intense dedication to his art in his final years have been sadly overshadowed by the persona of Jelly Roll the braggart.

    But if Ellison and Murray are right, wearing the mask is not simple masquerade: if the performer's role is as vital as Ellison says it is, it can perhaps tell us more about the "real" Jelly Roll than a mere recitation of facts and historically verifiable dates and figures. The real question is not "Can we ever know the real Jelly Roll Morton?" but "What does the creation tell us about the creator?" Or, put another way, "What does the mask tell us about its maker?" To answer that question, we must first avoid a pitfall marked by Ellison in another essay, a review of Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, edited by Robert Reisner. After reminding the reader that the word legend originally meant "the life of a saint," Ellison remarks that Reisner "prefers to participate in the recreation of Bird's legend rather than perform the critical function of analyzing it." In other words, we should not confuse the mask and the man, but neither should we dismiss the mask as an artificial barrier to knowing the "real" man. To paraphrase Ellison, we should resist merely re-creating the legend of Jelly Roll and instead perform the critical function of analyzing the complex relationship between the mask and the man.

    Nothing expresses the complexities of that relationship better than the name itself: like the persona, the name "Jelly Roll Morton" was a deliberate creation. Jelly's "real" name was discovered only recently, in the 1980s, thanks to the diligent research of Lawrence Gushee. In Lomax's transcriptions of the interviews, Morton's last name is spelled La Menthe, but that was evidently a transcriber's guess at a phonetic spelling of what Morton said. His first name, Ferdinand, was bestowed upon him by his godmother, but he claims that he himself changed his last name because he didn't want to be called "Frenchy"; in fact, Morton got his last name from his stepfather, Willie Morton, a porter. And the name Morton itself is an anglicized version of Mouton. Until recently, no one was sure of the exact spelling of La Menthe or of his birth date, which he himself changed to suit the needs of the moment. When Lomax asked the family about these details, they claimed ignorance. Morton's sister Amide replied, "I don't know for sure.... We tried to find out, but the old parish church had burnt with all the birth records." More misinformation. The baptismal certificate turned up at another church, in another parish, the one where the Morton family had lived at the time of his birth. The document discovered by Lawrence Gushee in the early 1980s, establishes that he was born on 20 October 1890 and baptized on 25 April 1891. The name is spelled Ferdinand Joseph Lemott, but even that spelling was corrected by Gushee to Lamothe.


Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsxi
1.Prelude to a Riff1
2.Mamanita and the "Voodoo Witch"32
3.L.A. Jelly, 1917-192374
4.The Scrapbook146
5.Last Days172

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