[Reich and Gaines] have rescued the real man from the dustbin of
It is satisfying to at last have Morton's whole life documented in
a single comprehensive volume.
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.
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.
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.
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)