By MATT BARTON
"Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax" (Rounder Records) won in two categories at the 48th annual Grammy Awards ceremony held on Feb 8. The Grammy for best historical album was presented to Jeffrey Greenberg and Anna Lomax Wood, compilation producers, and Adam Ayan and Steve Rosenthal, mastering engineers. The award for liner notes went to jazz scholar and folklorist John Szwed.
In the spring and summer of 1938, as the assistant in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, Alan Lomax recorded more than nine hours of the singing, playing and boasting of Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe "Jelly Roll" Morton (1885-1941), the New Orleans-born self-styled jazz pianist.
In 2005 Rounder Records released "Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax," the first-ever uncut, chronologically sequenced edition of these recordings. The piano-shaped, eight CD box set, part of Rounder's "Alan Lomax Collection" series, features cover art by Robert Crumb, a bonus disc drawn from Lomax's 1949 interviews with Morton's peers, Lomax's Morton biography, "Mister Jelly Roll," and an 80-page essay on Morton by Lomax biographer John Szwed.
In his essay Szwed explains that BBC journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke told Lomax to seek out Morton at the Music Box, a U Street nightclub in Washington, D.C., where the jazz legend occasionally played piano and regaled local devotees with tales of his glory days. There Morton would also expound on the history of jazz, which he claimed to have invented in 1902 and which, he said, few musicians born outside of New Orleans played well.
"He was thoroughly prepared," Alan Lomax said of Morton. "He'd thought about the whole thing. And we had a few minutes' conversation and I knew I had a winner, and I had my own plot and I knew he had his plot and I ran up the stairs [of the Library's Coolidge Auditorium] to Harold Spivacke [then head of the Library's Music Division and Lomax's boss], and I said, 'Harold, I want to have a guarantee of a hundred discs—we're going to do the history of New Orleans jazz!'"
Lomax's subsequent conversations with Morton, made from the stage of the Library's Coolidge Auditorium, produced the original 1938 recordings, which, indeed, amount to the first oral history of jazz.
Various editions of these sessions, some censored, some unauthorized, have been available over the years. For this edition, Library of Congress Magnetic Recording Laboratory Supervisor Larry Appelbaum and Lomax Collection restoration specialist Steve Rosenthal worked together for a week in the Library's sound lab to create the best transfers possible using Sony's Direct Stream Digital (DSD) technology for digital capture. Each fragile disc was first cleaned carefully by sound lab engineer W.B. Haley. Acetate copies made in the 1940s were researched and located by American Folklife Center staff. Reference staff in the Library's Recorded Sound section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division provided additional sources for performances on the more badly worn original discs.
"As a recording engineer, it's always a thrill to work with historically significant recordings," Appelbaum noted. "These discs are among the great legacy of recordings made here at the Library of Congress, such as the concerts given by the Budapest String Quartet, the readings by poets laureate and the 1944 premiere of Aaron Copland's 'Appalachian Spring.'"
Matt Barton is a studio engineer on contract to the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.