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Celebrating Black Artists in Black History Month: Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941)

Mills College Weekly

The self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz” will not be forgotten.

There’s no better time to remember Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890 – 1941) than the beginning of Black History Month.

Known as one of the most remarkable jazz pianists of his time he was incredibly precise and demanding when playing and composing music. Morton used his conducting and compositional skills to form his successful band the Red Hot Peppers.

As demanding as Morton was he also knew how to have a good time. He often ostentatiously displayed his money, gambled heavily and participated in much of the jazz scene nightlife. His tremendous ego, both on the piano bench and off, and his diamond studded smile made him an unforgettable figure in the premier of jazz music.

Born Ferdinand Lamothe, Morton grew up in New Orleans. He lived in a small house on Frenchmen Street with several other families.

As a teenager, he worked as a pianist in various whorehouses in Storyville. During the years between 1904 and 1917 Morton tried out careers as a pool shark, pimp, and vaudeville comedian. He continues to be considered one of the most important musicians in the period when ragtime ended and the first smooth, rhythmic notes of jazz began to hit music fans’ ears.

Morton headed for California in 1917 where he focused solely on piano playing. His career really took off when he moved to Chicago in 1922. During this time his recordings were extremely influential among jazz musicians. Morton had no trouble summoning these musicians when he decided to form his band, the Red Hot Peppers. Morton worked with Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, Johnny St. Cyr and Baby Dodds to produce a series of records for Victor that are now considered classics.

After moving to New York in 1928 and changing the line-up of musicians in the Red Hot Peppers, Morton continued to record for Victor.

After 1930, the depression affected Morton as it did many musicians. He was even forced to give up the diamond in his front tooth. He struggled and continued to survive playing piano in a Washington D. C. bar.

Morton died in 1941 before he could find solace in the Dixieland revival. Before he passed away, he recorded several interviews with Alan Lomax. These interviews are available through the Library of Congress Web site. Through these interviews, Morton was able escape obscurity and has become an important figure in African American history and jazz culture.