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Jelly Roll Morton
Joe Kennedy
June 02, 2014

A lot of you probably haven't heard of Jelly Roll Morton because he doesn't have any VEVO music videos and he hasn't recorded any singles with a washed out rapper or a dubstep bass line. In fact, the dude died well before any of those things were even close to being created. If you have heard of Jelly Roll Morton, likely it's because you played one of his ragtime standards when you were eight and your Mom forced you to take piano, or you googled "jelly roll piano". Jelly Roll Morton was a ragtime and early jazz pianist in the early 1900s, and he was the original cocky frontman.

 

Jelly Roll Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, which sounds like the name of an inbred European prince, in New Orleans, Louisiana on... I don't know. His generally accepted birth date is October 20, 1890, but his World War I draft registration card listed his birth date as September 13, 1884, his death certificate listed it as September 1889, and he claims he was born on September 20, 1885. You might wonder, why claim to be five years older than you are? Actresses and Puerto Rican baseball players do the exact opposite. Well, Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented jazz in 1902, and it's hard to say that you created one of the most lasting and historic forms of popular music when you were twelve.

 

After his invention of jazz, a fourteen year old Morton, while living with his great-grandmother, took a job as a piano player in a sporting house. Oh, is that like the early twentieth century equivalent of a sports bar? Nope, it's a brothel, also known as a whorehouse, and further known as "that place where daddy goes when mommy is nagging him". It was there that he earned the nickname "Jelly Roll", which was slang for vagina at the time. Why he received that nickname in a house full of prostitutes, no one will ever know. Eventually his great-grandmother found out what Jelly Roll was up to instead of working as a night watchman in a barrel factory and promptly kicked him out of the house.

 

Morton then moved around the country, traveling with minstrel shows for almost a decade, during which time he composed some of his most well-known pieces, like "King Porter Stomp" and "Jelly Roll Blues", because obviously he needed to name at least one song after himself. I assume that Jelly Roll Morton always referred to himself in the third person: i.e. "Jelly Roll Morton will name this song after Jelly Roll Morton." Finally, in 1914, Morton settled in Chicago, and started writing down all his compositions. In 1915, his self-titled blues number was arguably the first jazz composition ever published. So did he actually invent jazz? Probably. So why lie and say he did it much earlier? Dudefest, that's why.

 

Jelly Roll Morton left Chicago in 1917 to do things not important enough for Wikipedia, and eventually returned some time in the 1920s and signed with Victor Talking Machine Company. Hilarious name aside, this was the biggest "record" company at the time. Morton recorded with some New Orleans jazz musicians as Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers, a clever play on the name of the famous 90's California rock band. A fair number of the songs recorded around this time ("Winin' Boy Blues", "Mr. Jelly Lord") were musical tributes to himself. Who did Jelly Roll Morton think was the greatest pianist of all time? Surprisingly, not Jelly Roll Morton. He was of course second to the legendary Tony Jackson, who's essentially considered the Chuck Norris of ragtime piano. Seriously.

 

After a move to New York and a dismissal from Victor, Morton eventually made his way to Washington, D.C., where, in the year 1938, arguably the best and worst things of his eventful life occurred. To keep you on your toes I'll let you figure out which is which. First, Morton was invited by famed folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax to record music and interviews for the Library of Congress, and the sessions ended up with almost nine hours of Morton speaking and playing the piano. The recordings were eventually released in 2005 in their entirety (8 CDs) and earned two Grammy awards, allowing Morton to join the likes of Milli Vanilli, Baha Men, and Afroman as a Grammy-winning artist. Second, Morton was stabbed in the head and chest.

 

After either the best or worst thing in his life happened, Morton never seemed to fully recover and his health continued to decline. In 1941, Morton passed away in Los Angeles, where he was buried. As of today, he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (I think he invented that too) and the Louisiana Hall of Fame. Although he'll always hold a special place in jazz history for writing half of the earliest jazz standards and claiming to have written the other half, he'll always hold a special place in dudefest history for being the cockiest son of a bitch this side of a piano and bowtie.

 

Joe Kennedy is a staunch technophobe and suffers from a debilitating fear of human hands. If for some reason you'd like to get in touch with him, send a letter to 463 Mass Ave Cambridge MA 02139.

4 Comments
06-07-2014 | 4:20 PM
don't you dare hate on the Baha Men
06-05-2014 | 1:28 PM
Yeah I imagine "Alfalfa" Morton would've been a more prudent choice.
06-02-2014 | 4:36 PM
You would think a guy named Jellyroll would be fatter
06-02-2014 | 1:17 AM
Did Jelly Roll Morton write "Maple Leaf Rag"? Because that one's my favorite rag.
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March 10, 2014
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Each week, the Dudefest dudes profile a dudefest dude who holds a special place in Dudefest history.
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