Aided by a trove of uncovered historical documents, two veteran Chicago Tribune journalists sweep aside demeaning caricatures regarding the great jazz composer and pianist.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 that would 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)