Saturday, 4 February 2012

9. Jelly Roll Morton: Birth Of The Hot. The Classic Chicago Red Hot Pepper Sessions 1926-1927

"I invented jazz in 1902" (Jelly Roll Morton in a letter to Down Beat magazine, 1938)

I first touched upon the life of Jelly Roll Morton in the early days of this blog. As with most of those early posts I was embarrassingly ignorant of the full story behind how much influence Jelly Roll Morton had over the "birth" of jazz. There are essentially two schools of thought. The first is that he was an out and out liar - claiming to have invented jazz and fabricating his age to place himself in New Orleans as a contemporary of Buddy Bolden. The other more contemporary view is that he was a major influence in putting jazz on the map. Certainly he was the first composer of jazz - "Jelly Roll Blues" being published in 1915. But his story begins almost ten years before that - touring the south around 1904 and writing "King Porter Stomp", which would become one of the biggest hits during the swing era 30 years later. The case for the latter viewpoint is argued in Howard Reich and William Gaine's book, "Jelly's Blues", which I highly recommend.

What is not in dispute however is the fact that the recordings Jelly Roll Morton made in Chicago in 1926-7, with his Red Hot Peppers, stand as some of the most important in jazz history. At the top of his game and with support of some of New Orleans' finest players (including Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, Johnny St Cyr and George Mitchell among others) Morton took Chicago by storm. The sound was distinctly his own - tight arrangements that allowed room for the requisite improvisational solos of the highest musicianship. Coming straight out of the blocks with the trio of "Black Bottom Stomp", "Smoke House Blues" and "The Chant", they never looked back.

Jelly Roll Morton led a, let's say, colourful life. His earliest musical experiences were playing in the brothels of New Orleans. His job was to entertain people and make them dance, though not in the restrictive way that ragtime music demanded. He soaked up the atmosphere and put onto paper the sounds he heard played by the marching bands that played on the streets. Check out "Dead Man Blues", a song with a sound as close as you will hear to the funeral bands that played in the first decade of the century in New Orleans.

Morton augmented the band for a bigger sound when they resumed recording in June 1927. Johnny Dodds clarinet is superb in "Wild Man Blues" but it's the song "Jungle Blues" that raised the most eyebrows. The song is basically utilises one chord for its duration. Reich and Gaines point out that the song was completely novel. It was a throwback to 19th century blues but also a look ahead to the modal jazz innovations of Miles Davis 30 years later.

Also included on the album are "Wolverine Blues" and "Mr Jelly Lord", with the Dodds brothers on clarinet and the traps. He may or may not have invented jazz but he is credited with inventing the jazz trio!

1. Black Bottom Stomp
2. Smoke House Blues
3. The Chant
4. Sidewalk Blues (take 3)
5. Dead Man Blues (take 1)
6. Steamboat Stomp
7. Someday Sweetheart
8. Grandpa's Spells (take 3)
9. Original Jelly-Roll Blues
10. Doctor Jazz
11. Cannon Ball Blues (take 2)
12. Hyena Stomp
13. Billy Goat Stomp
14. Wild Man Blues
15. Jungle Blues
16. Beale Street Blues
17. The Pearls
18. Wolverine Blues
19. Mr. Jelly Lord
20. Sidewalk Blues (take 2)
21. Dead Man Blues (take 2)
22. Grandpa's Spells (take 2)
23. Cannon Ball Blues (take 1)

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