A smart and engaging exploration of an inventive jazzman’s lost years.
Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton (1891–1941) claimed, against evidence well known even in his day, to have invented jazz: “New Orleans,” he wrote to the believe-it-or-not radio host Robert Ripley, “is the cradle of jazz, and I, myself, happened to be the creator in the year 1902.” Whatever the merits of that boast, Morton certainly invented his own past, carefully concealing certain details, conjuring others, and “sticking to a policy of not telling his current mate about any of his previous loves unless he absolutely had to.” In all of this, Pastras (English/ Pasadena City Coll.) suggests, Morton resembles no one so much as the legendary Greek traveler Odysseus, right down to his last storm-dogged passage from New York to California in 1940. He was no stranger to the West, having lived in and around Los Angeles from 1917 to 1923, but his first long sojourn there has been something of a mystery to jazz historians. Drawing on Morton’s diaries and scrapbooks, and reading between the lines of interviews with Morton conducted by Alan Lomax and other musicologists and journalists, Pastras guesses that Morton went West for several reasons, not the least of which was his four-decades-long relationship with Anita Gonzalez, a woman as complicated and mysterious as he. (He may also have been on the run from criminals he had crossed, as well as from a voodoo curse.) The author teases out the facts of Morton’s tumultuous romance with Gonzalez (whom Morton called “the only woman I ever loved”) while chronicling Morton’s work in southern California, which ranged from playing piano in mixed-race clubs to composing and recording some of his best-known tunes (including “Someday, Sweetheart,” “Kansas City Stomps,” and “Mamanita”).
A well-written contribution to jazz history, and fine tribute to Morton’s life and work.