Revisionist jazz

A new biography questions the role of native Austinite Alan Lomax, who wrote the book on Jelly Roll Morton


Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton

Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole, and “Inventor of Jazz”

In 1938, Alan Lomax, a native of Austin, was “assistant in charge” of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress when he recorded on acetate disks the voice and piano virtuosity of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, the self-declared inventor of jazz. The Library’s folk song archive had been established in 1928, and from 1936 to 1943 its curator and consultant was Alan’s father, John Avery Lomax, who helped found the Texas Folklore Society and traveled more than 200,000 miles throughout the United States to document and record American folk music. The Lomaxes are famous–or infamous, depending on one’s perspective–for their promotion and/or exploitation of the career of folk singer Huddie Ledbetter and their publication of Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly, which, at the time of its publication in November 1936, was praised by Black poet James Weldon Johnson as “one of the most amazing autobiographical accounts ever printed in America.” Studs Terkel, the nonagenarian master chronicler of American society, has credited the work of Alan Lomax as an inspiration for his own pursuit of oral history. If the Lomaxes have had their avid champions as well as those who have questioned some of their materials and collecting methods, no one has denied them their place in the sun as dedicated documenters and preservers of some of the most important music America has yet produced.

Despite the fact that Alan Lomax’s father did not approve of jazz, the son was determined to explore further the genre of oral biography, established with their Leadbelly volume, by interviewing Jelly Roll Morton, widely considered the first great jazz composer. Even though Duke Ellington, acclaimed by most aficionados as the greatest jazz composer of all time, dismissed Morton as nothing more than a big mouth, Jelly Roll has long been compared to Mozart in classical music, primarily, as critic William Russell asserted in 1944, for his “wealth of melodic invention and skill in variation” and “the tremendous swing, which made him a veritable one-man band.” All his classic jazz qualities, as well as his penchant for claiming in his colorful recollections that he had invented jazz and swing, were captured by Alan Lomax in May 1938 when he recorded Jelly Roll at the Library of Congress, only three years before Morton’s untimely death in 1941. On this occasion, while Morton exhibited his formidable prowess at the keyboard, Lomax elicited from him a rich oral record of the early period of the musician’s life and also the beginnings of New Orleans jazz, which Morton proclaimed that he had invented in 1902. In 1949, Lomax published Mister Jelly Roll, a biography-autobiography of Morton, based on the interviews he had conducted both with Jelly Roll and with his contemporary musicians, his wife Mabel, his relatives (including a great-grandmother), and the Melrose brothers, Morton’s Chicago publishers. Lomax’s interviews and his insightful understanding of Morton’s contributions to jazz resulted in a unique volume in the history of the music–one that was reprinted in November 2001 to the same encomiums that greeted it on its first appearance more than 50 years before.

Alan Lomax died in July of 2002. Last spring a new “definitive” biography of Jelly Roll Morton appeared, coauthored by Howard Reich, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, and William Gaines, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative reporter who now teaches journalism at the University of Illinois. Their book is based on a series of articles that they wrote for the Tribune in 1999. Jelly’s Blues is a well-researched book, praiseworthy for once again broadcasting Morton’s major artistic achievements, and valuable for unearthing facts unavailable to Lomax. Through FOIA requests, for example, they uncovered correspondence between Morton and the Attorney General regarding the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Nevertheless their book is also disingenuous, verges on the unethical, and is ultimately downright shameful. To compete in the bookselling market, they seem to have gone out of their way to utilize different sources for the very same information found in Mister Jelly Roll, even as they purposely ignore, unjustly denigrate, and even at times plagiarize Lomax’s book. Seeking to appear the first to present accounts already contained in Mister Jelly Roll, they provide scanty notes in Jelly’s Blues and avoid making clear the connection between Lomax’s interviews at the Library of Congress and Lomax’s Mister Jelly Roll, which they occasionally quote without bothering to give credit. Not until we come to the footnotes for the fourth chapter do we find a reference to Lomax’s book. (Many of the quotes in the first three chapters of Jelly’s Blues are simply identified as “interview, Library of Congress, 1939,” without the co-authors ever disclosing that almost all of their information exists word for word in Mister Jelly Roll.) Only in their final chapter do they at last inform the reader that “Alan Lomax turned his Library of Congress interviews with Morton into Mister Jelly Roll, his oral biography of Morton.” This is at the very least subterfuge.

Whenever they acknowledge Lomax’s precedence they do so begrudgingly–then charge the author with having “codified many of the myths that had long gathered around Morton’s name.” One of these so-called myths involves Morton’s pride in claiming to be a Creole with almost no Negro blood. They claim that Lomax fostered the myth and the 1993 Broadway musical Jelly’s Last Jam perpetuated it. If Lomax contributed to the notion that Morton suffered from a type of racism, which apparently was a commonplace among New Orleans Creoles with more white blood than black, he did so by relying on Morton’s own words. In his Library of Congress interviews Jelly averred that his people had come straight to America from “the shores of France.”

Moreover, a decade before Jelly’s Blues was published, Lomax was openly critical of Jelly’s Last Jam in the 1993 introduction to a third edition of his Mister Jelly Roll. He observed that, among other inaccuracies and shortcomings, the play neglected Morton’s “innovative compositions” and substituted “supposedly sophisticated formulas,” such as white Chicago jazz recorded in New York in the 1930s. (This was my own principal disappointment with the play, rather than its dramatizing Jelly’s having been rejected by his Creole grandmother Mimi Peché for playing in the bordellos and his resultant desire to be known as Creole rather than Black.)

Time and again, Reich and Gaines try to make the case that only they have truly appreciated Morton’s integrity, his artistic accomplishments, and his deserved place as the first great composer in jazz. An example of the authors’ handling–or mishandling–of Lomax’s material occurs in the second chapter of their book, where they quote one of the most impressive statements ever made by Jelly Roll Morton. The context is a discussion of the composer’s discovery of a method for notating jazz, which had not existed prior to his 1915 written score for his “Jelly Roll Blues.” They quote Morton as saying “I myself figured out the peculiar form of mathematics and harmonics that was strange to all the world but me.” There’s no source for the quote in the notes at the back of the book. But a version of the same quote appears in Lomax’s book, in his chapter appropriately entitled “Jelly Roll Blues”: “So around 1912 I began to write down this peculiar form of mathematics and harmonics that was strange to all the world.” In their third chapter, Reich and Gaines allude to the fact that “Morton was studded with diamonds, literally pinning them to his underwear for safekeeping.” Lomax entitled one of his chapters “Diamonds on his Underwear”; once again, the fact that Lomax had reported Morton’s phrase in Mister Jelly Roll goes unmentioned in Jelly’s Blues.

A most curious quote by Reich and Gaines concerns Joe “King” Oliver, who the authors say was termed by one of the Melrose brothers–the Chicago music publishers–as being “the old Southern-type nigger.” Lomax supplies this same information but his quote from Walter Melrose, who published both Oliver and Morton, reads in Mister Jelly Roll as: “Joe was more the old Southern-type.” Did Reich and Gaines discover that Lomax had dropped the N-word when he transcribed his interview with Melrose? Unfortunately, once again, there’s no note to identify their source. They rightly wished to underscore, through the quote, what a disreputable character Morton’s publisher became after he had boosted the composer’s career by publishing his ragtime tune “The Wolverines” in 1923. Copyrighting Morton’s music in both the composer’s and the publisher’s names, Melrose would collect royalties from Morton’s music for decades without paying the composer his fair share. The authors trace the history of Morton’s struggle with Melrose and cite the publisher’s claims that without him the composer would have been nothing. But none of this is new. Lomax had already covered the ground thoroughly and had seen the “Melrose boys” for exactly what they were: greedy racists full of “myopic self-importance” who had “comfortable homes and fat bank accounts” while “the Negroes who created jazz [had] mostly died broke or had to leave jazz to keep them from starving to death.”

In 1941, Morton was in California, broke, and in very poor health, having been stabbed in the back in 1938 in Washington, D.C., by a disgruntled patron at the Music Box where he had been performing. Reich and Gaines quote a letter from Morton to his wife Mabel back in New York, reporting that “I haven’t made any money since I’ve been gone, although I received the ASCAP check.…But this town takes money to live, so that is about all gone.” This is straight out of a letter reproduced in Lomax, but no source is given in the notes to Jelly’s Blues. This kind of casual use of Lomax’s materials is in some ways the authors’ least egregious practice. More disheartening is the way they vilify him. They allege that Lomax used liquor “to keep the bawdiest anecdotes flowing,…and as he did,…the stories became more colorful, raunchy, and exaggerated. The composer didn’t realize that by giving Lomax the dirt he wanted, he was helping to soil his own reputation for generations to come.” The authors further charge that Lomax did not pay Morton for the recording sessions. These are valid issues–precisely the kinds of disturbing procedures that historians and musicians should be questioning. But Reich and Gaines make no real attempt to address such issues. Instead, in almost every reference to Lomax, they fault both the man and his book through hyperbole and innuendo.

Lomax himself does not hide the fact that he provided Morton with liquor, and indeed the composer himself is quoted by Lomax as saying, “Lord, this whiskey is just lovely!” But the allegation that Lomax was only after “the dirt” is totally contradicted by the focus in Mister Jelly Roll on Morton’s music and the significance of his contributions to jazz history. As for the accusation that Lomax did not pay Morton, this is left for the reader to wonder about, since neither Lomax himself nor Reich and Gaines discuss the financial arrangement. In contrast, when they refer to Roy Carew, another white man, who, like Lomax, befriended Morton in Washington, D.C., they’re far more charitable. They offer a favorable explanation for the fact that Carew had reported to Morton’s estate that the composer “transferred his interest in [their jointly owned] Tempo-Music to Carew to cancel outstanding debts.” Although the authors find it “difficult to fathom why Carew told” this to the executor, they nevertheless suggest that perhaps Carew did not want to see the money go to John Ford, a man who inherited all of Morton’s ASCAP royalties without knowing or being any kin to the composer. The authors never suggest a similar motive for Lomax, whose research methods they are so quick to condemn.

Their accusation that Lomax “grilled Morton about sex, mayhem, and murders” when “Morton wanted to talk about music” distorts the contents of Lomax’s book. Moreover, the authors spend a good part of their first chapter describing the New Orleans redlight district in raunchier detail than anything offered by Mister Jelly Roll. In fact, most of what we know about Jelly’s views on his and others’ music is to be found in Lomax’s work, and much of this information has been silently plowed into the prose narrative of Reich and Gaines. For example, Morton’s famous dictum that “if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning,” was recorded by Lomax and has been repeated subsequently by every commentator on Jelly’s music, including R&G. It was Lomax who first revealed that “Jelly abominated jam sessions; they ran counter to his whole approach to jazz.” Morton’s discussion of tempo, melody, riffs, the break (“like a musical surprise which didn’t come in until I originated the idea of jazz, as I told you”), and the notion that “no jazz piano player can really play good jazz unless they try to give an imitation of a band” are fully elaborated in Mister Jelly Roll. Once again, Reich and Gaines pilfer the information without crediting their source.

While Jelly’s Blues has serious flaws, it does contribute something new to what we know about the history of American music. Through the records uncovered in their FOIA requests, the authors recount Morton’s efforts to make ASCAP compensate him for all the royalties which that organization had collected for performances of Jelly’s compositions, above all his “King Porter Stomp,” a tune recorded by almost every major and minor big band of the Swing Era. They also trace the relationship between Morton and Roy Carew, thanks to an archive compiled by William Russell, a classically trained musician whom Lomax described as the “most learned of jazz critics.” Lomax quoted at length from the article by Russell published in 1944, and throughout Mister Jelly Roll, he credits Russell and others who made his book possible, among them Thomas Cusack, who helped compile the Morton discography; Roy Carew, who provided music manuscripts; and musicians who testified to the fact that “Jelly could back his brags with plenty of money, plenty of red-hot piano and, when necessary, a ‘hard-hitting .38.'” But rather than acknowledge this fact, Reich and Gaines pretend that William Russell’s archive will revolutionize our understanding of Morton’s achievement, even though Lomax’s book had already covered the most important issues in the life and art of the pianist-composer-bandleader.

Reich and Gaines also provide a somewhat different take in their description of the most vital recordings of Morton’s music. An example is their rendering of the imagined scene in the Victor studio when Morton’s Red Hot Peppers immortalized his “Black Bottom Stomp”:

Between refrains, each of the players took a brief, improvised solo, Ory’s whinnying trombone riffs, Mitchell’s searing cornet lines, and Simeon’s elaborate clarinet phrases dispatched at a break-neck clip. St. Cyr, meanwhile, played comparably aggressive solos on banjo, his hand strumming faster than the eye could see. Morton, for his part, turned in a leonine solo, his buoyant left hand and fast-flying right producing a nearly orchestral burst of sound.

Some of the references should recall musicians and theories fr
m the pages of Mister Jelly Roll, though Lomax does not
ngage in descriptions of specific recordings. Even so, Lomax frequently evokes Morton’s music in quite knowing terms, as when he considers Morton’s claim of having “personally originated jazz in New Orleans in 1902.” Lomax follows Jelly’s declaration with the following, well-considered observations:

He wished he had somehow copyrighted jazz and he groaned because he could not sue the white band leaders who were making their fortunes with “my ideas.”

The facts justify Morton to some extent. Although he neither originated jazz nor “composed” “Tiger Rag,” he was the first true composer of jazz, not only an original, competent, and prolific creator, but an aggressive organizer and self-advertiser. Jazzmen often disliked him personally, but always respected his talent professionally. What Jelly Roll did was to absorb the complex currents of the music of his hometown and, very early, to set about organizing and ripening them into a system of music. His compositions were inventions in the New Orleans style, reflections of what a whole musical community had to say: His “band piano style” brought together on the keyboard the polyphonic weave of voices in Storyville dance bands; his powerful left hand, with its constantly shifting riffs, reflected the polyrhythmic style of those bands; so, although it suited Jelly Roll to feel that he walked alone, actually a generation of inspired New Orleans musicians always marched by his side.

Elsewhere, Lomax provides firsthand accounts of the recording sessions through his interviews with Morton’s sidemen, Omer Simeon and Johnny St. Cyr. These accounts are invaluable evidence of Morton’s working methods, and have been a source for innumerable commentaries on the pianist-composer-bandleader and what some have labeled his “arranged jazz.” As clarinetist Omer Simeon recalled,

He was exact with us. Very jolly, very full of life all the time, but serious. We used to spend maybe three hours rehearsing four sides and in that time he’d give us the effects he wanted, like the background behind a solo–he would run that over on the piano with one finger and the guys would get together and harmonize it…

The solos–they were ad lib. We played according to how we felt. Of course, Jelly had his ideas and sometimes we’d listen to them and sometimes, together with our own, we’d make something better.

…Now Jelly was a very, very agreeable man to cut a record with and I’ll tell you why…he’d leave it to your own judgment, say, “You take a break here,”…and “Clarinet’ll take a break here.” That’s what cause his records to have more variety than you find on Joe Oliver’s records, for instance.

A further addition to the Morton story provided by Jelly’s Blues is the revelation that William Russell rescued a group of the composer’s later works. According to the authors, these compositions were “no longer elaborating in the ornate polyphonic style that had made him famous in the 1920s, no longer relying on the two-beats-to-the-bar stomps and lazy blues dirges that epitomized New Orleans-Chicago jazz. Instead, Morton’s music had become sleek and streamlined …” They single out a tune entitled “Ganjam” as venturing “into the kinds of unabashedly dissonant chords and exotic Eastern scales that were not to be heard in jazz for at least another decade, with the experiments of Charles Mingus in the 1950s.”

One can only hope that a qualified repertory jazz ensemble will soon record these compositions. But even if they prove that Morton was continuing to develop as an artist, it seems hard to believe that the recently discovered compositions will change the indelible image of a vital New Orleans creator whose personality, cultural roots, trials and tribulations, and contributions to jazz were first captured most fully in Alan Lomax’s Mister Jelly Roll.

Any reader who desires to hear this great jazz artist in his own words and to envision him in his milieu will still want to consult Lomax before and after any other volume that contends for the title of definitive biography. It is unfortunate that Reich and Gaines could not bring themselves, as Lawrence Gushee does in his afterword to the 2001 edition of Lomax’s book, to pay tribute to Morton’s first biographer, especially when R&G are so undeniably indebted both to Lomax’s interviews and to his book. Reich and Gaines would have established an ethos of trust and fair play had they echoed the tone of Gushee’s homage

Mister Jelly Roll makes Morton so interesting as a person that one can lose sight of the fact that he was an authentic genius whose music continues to mesmerize and charm. Finally, the book surely established Jelly Roll’s position in jazz history, which in 1950 was far from certain. For these and other reasons, our hypothetical hats should be doffed at Lomax’s pioneering achievement.

Dave Oliphant is a poet and writer in Austin. His most recent book is The Early Swing Era, 1930 to 1941 (Greenwood Press).