Jelly Roll Morton

Early Influences

A true giant of jazz.

He did not, as he claimed, invent jazz, but there’s no denying that he was a major influence on the genre. Jelly Roll Morton was a master composer, arranger and pianist who blended genres in an early form of jazz.


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Jelly Roll Morton is a seminal figure in the birth and development of jazz in the early decades of this century.

A multi-talented pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader, he has been called “one of the handful of Atlases upon whose shoulders rests the entire structure of our music” by jazz historian Orrin Keepnews. Morton wove disparate musical strands—blues, stomps and ragtime, plus French and Spanish influences—into the fabric of early jazz.

A native of New Orleans, he played on the streets and in the honky-tonks of that wide-open city, helping to give birth to the jazz idiom as it took shape in the infamous red-light district known as Storyville. Morton recorded solo and with small groups, and the festive stamp of his hometown was evident in every note he played. He was the driving force behind Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, which recorded and toured in the late Twenties. Their performances combined ensemble work in the New Orleans style with space for soloing, which was the rage on Chicago’s jazz scene. Morton’s pioneering work with the Red Hot Peppers was contemporaneous with the innovations made by Louis Armstrong with his Hot Five and Hot Seven. It is doubtful that the Jazz Age or the Swing Era could have happened without either of them.

In the words of music historian David McGee, “What Elvis Presley’s Sun recordings are to rock and roll, the Red Hot Peppers’ canon is to jazz.” During a four-year span of small-band sessions for RCA Victor, especially the milestone recordings from September 1926 through June 1927, Morton cut a series of ebullient stomps and forceful blues. His band included such jazz legends as cornet player Kid Ory, clarinetist Johnny Dodds and drummer Baby Dodds. Morton fell on hard times during the Depression and labored in obscurity as his kind of music fell from favor. He was found tending bar in 1938 by musical archivist Alan Lomax, who thereupon documented him playing piano and telling stories. Although Morton died three years later, he was rediscovered again in the Nineties via a Broadway tribute to his life and times, entitled Jelly’s Last Jam.

Morton heads a lineage of groundbreaking jazz pianist–bandleaders that includes Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Thelonius Monk. In his high-spirited blues, stomps and ragtime pieces from the Twenties one can also detect what would become the foundational sound of rock and roll. On a personal level, Morton was “just about the most flamboyant, colorful and exasperating personality imaginable,” according to the liner notes of a 1953 reissue, which would seem to make him a rock and roll forebear as well.

Inductee: Jelly Roll Morton (piano, vocals; born October 20, 1890, died July 7, 1941)

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