Winter offers a speculative look at the life and musical career of jazz innovator Jelly Roll Morton.
Weaving a quasi-poetic text in the second person, an adulatory narrator addresses readers: “Here’s what could’ve happened / if you were born a way down south / in New Orleans, in the Land of Dreams / a long, long time ago.” Talented Morton played piano in bars as a boy; his great-grandmother threw him out for being a “LOWLIFE MUSICIAN.” Regarding this trauma, the narrator contends: “just one thing in the world, / could make the crying stop: // And this is why / and this is how / a thing called JAZZ got invented / by a man named Jelly Roll Morton. / Leastwise, that’s what / I thought I heard Mister Jelly Roll say.” Winter intersperses italicized lyrics from several songs in Morton’s repertoire, adding an invented verse to one. While the text pivots on Morton’s self-promotion as the inventor of jazz (which music historians both debate and dispute), the choice of an unreliable narrator arguably muddies still waters. Mallett’s acrylic paintings use red-golds and blue-blacks to evoke sunset and twilit tableaux filigreed with musical notation. Morton is mostly shown from behind or in silhouette; the cover portrait and one interior one, painted from different decades without attribution, don’t cohere.
Morton’s seminal role in jazz deserves both celebration and elucidation; this disjointed treatment mainly accomplishes the former. (author’s note, recommended listening, bibliography) (Picture book/biography. 5-10)