Legendary jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton died in Los Angeles on July 10, 1941. His musical innovations accelerated the development of jazz.
Born Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe in New Orleans, Louisiana on October 20, 1890, Morton began playing piano as a child. At age twelve he worked nightspots in the city’s Storyville district. Between 1904 and 1917, Morton crisscrossed the nation playing minstrel and vaudeville shows. Billing himself as “Jelly Roll” Morton, by 1910 his style embraced a range of influences from ragtime and popular music to blues and spirituals.
After five successful years in Los Angeles, Morton moved to Chicago in 1923. Leading an ensemble called Red Hot Peppers, his recordings won national popularity. A master of composition, Morton disciplined jazz with careful rehearsal and arrangement while retaining opportunities for improvisation. The orchestral style he pioneered flourished, but by the 1930s, Morton’s sound seemed outdated and his popularity declined.
Down on his luck, Jelly Roll Morton moved to Washington, D.C., where he managed a jazz club. There, Alan Lomax, assistant-in-charge of the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center) encountered Morton and persuaded him to participate in a series of oral history interviews documenting the origins of jazz.
With Morton seated at the piano in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium, Lomax recorded over eight hours of Morton’s music and reminiscences. Immediately recognized as an invaluable resource for musicologists, folklorists, and jazz lovers, the Library of Congress recordings revived Morton’s career. Unfortunately, poor health curtailed his comeback on the music scene.
- The American Treasures of the Library of Congress exhibition contains Jelly Roll Morton’s “Frog-i-More Rag.” Morton probably wrote the “Frog-i-More Rag” in 1908 to accompany a fellow vaudevillian known as “Frog-i-More,” a contortionist who performed in a frog costume.
- The William P. Gottlieb Collection comprising over 1,600 photographs of celebrated jazz artists, documents the jazz scene from 1938 to 1948, primarily in New York City and Washington, D.C. During the course of his career, Gottlieb took portraits of prominent jazz musicians and personalities, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Stan Kenton, Ray McKinley, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Carter. This online collection presents Gottlieb’s photographs, annotated contact prints, selected published prints, and related articles from Down Beat magazine.
- The Performing Arts Encyclopedia has a rich diversity of performing arts materials. Search on Jelly Roll Morton in Jazz on the Screen for a filmography of Morton’s music. View the Ragtime section for essays, biographies, performances, and more on this uniquely American, syncopated musical phenomenon.
- Consult A Guide to Harlem Renaissance Materials to learn about other musicians, artists, and writers involved in the Harlem Renaissance era.
Consult the following music collections from the Archive of Folk Culture of the American Folklife Center:
- Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande: The Juan B. Rael Collection presents documentation of religious and secular music of Spanish-speaking residents of rural northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell presents materials from the WPA California Folk Music Project Collection.
- Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941 presents a collection of documentation of migrant worker camps in Central California in its entirety.