Ferdinand 'Jelly Roll' Morton was first and foremost a great musician and composer. A good starting point for the new listener is his 1926 masterpieces recorded with the Red Hot Peppers, with whom he remained until 1930. Then maybe listen to the earlier solo recordings and piano rolls, before turning to his late solo sessions, the tracks made with Sidney Bechet, and finally his Hot Six and Hot Seven recordings. Jelly Roll was ‘the true connecting link between ragtime and jazz’ (Blesh R and Janis H, 1950) or as Morton put it ‘... I myself figured out the peculiar form of mathematics and harmonics that was strange to all the world but me’ (Reich H & Gaines W, 2003).
Pictures about a musician, as presented here, might seem paradoxical as the images remain forever silent. And yet music has been a recurring theme in the history of western narrative painting. As well as the symbolic and allegorical meanings to be found in musical pictures, within each viewer resonates a world of imagined sounds, evoking the musicality of silence.
The relationship between narrative, music and history interested Morton, who accompanying himself on piano and later guitar, left us a strange and dreamlike account of his life in over eight hours of recorded interviews made in 1938 by Alan Lomax, Folk Music Curator at The Library of Congress. Morton’s detractors have accused him of self-aggrandisement and braggartry in these recordings and yet his testimony remains ‘the first significant attempt at constructing a history of the music’, and Morton himself emerges as the first theorist and intellectual of jazz (Schuller G 1968).
Despite valuable scholarly research and subsequent attempts to impose chronology and establish the facts of Morton’s life (Lomax A 1950, Wright L 1980, Pastras P 2001, Gushee L 2001, Reich H & Gaines W 2003, Shafer 2008), the most comprehensive account we have, other than Morton’s own, is the huge rambling scrapbook compiled over forty years by William Russell, which was finally published in 1999. It is full of vivid, often contradictory stories by Morton’s contemporaries, photographs, official documents, letters and musical scores.
The painstaking work of historians in discovering evidential fragments of Morton’s life is presumably a finite project, ending when the furthest recesses of the archives have been trawled and when chance is through with its offerings. But new generations will continue to make new interpretations of this material for as long as Morton’s music has cultural value and continues to move us. Culture has to be constantly renegotiated and renewed if it is to remain vital. If art has a role to play in this process regarding Morton, it will not be as illustration, but by a leap of the imagination - something Jelly Roll was himself adept at.
Another element in the biographical equation is surely the presence of the biographer. Inevitably the subject will be seen through the prism of their life and experience. A dialogue ensues between the subject and commentator as between the music and the listener. This dialogue can take many forms, even spilling over into the vicissitudes of the unconscious. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion made a distinction between ‘knowing about, and knowing’, believing that alongside established facts other forms of knowledge are necessarily engaged with in our attempt to 'know' (Bion W. 1962).
From this author's perspective, Morton’s personality and worldview can best be described, in the Bakhtinian sense, as carnivalesque. Whether in Mardi Gras or Vaudeville, the Wild West Show or Minstrelsy, whether through Catholicism or Voodoo, the dividing line between rational life and the teaming unconscious seemed porous for Morton. Rather than interpreting his exaggerations and fabrications as signs of an immoral and unstable personality, as many critics have, the aim here is to take a creative and imaginative approach, informed by psychoanalysis, to the possible meanings behind his daydreams and tall stories.
In this respect Phil Pastras has made some interesting observations about Morton’s uncertain sexual orientation, and the disturbing effect on a young mind of witnessing the nightly floorshows in New Orleans brothels, where Morton earned his living as a pianist (Pastras P 2001). Laurie Wright (Liner notes Piano Solos Retrieval RTR 79002) commented that ‘Morton would have been a wonderful subject for psychoanalysis’ whilst Morton’s contemporary, Volly De Faut, believed ‘Jelly suffered inwardly from an inferiority complex’ (Russell W, 1999). Gunther Schuller argued that Jelly Roll was ‘led by his musical and personal frustrations to embellish the truth’ (Schuller G 1968). If we agree that great artists draw upon all aspects of themselves in the making of art, including their dark and troubled sides, then none of this should surprise us. Inner turbulence does not preclude a work from having high moral value; on the contrary it might be a prerequisite.
The approach taken here prompts questions about the compatibility of the disciplines of Psychoanalysis and History. Histories of psychoanalysis are common enough, but in their approach shed little light on the workings of the unconscious. Psychoanalytic case histories, on the other hand, seem altogether more promising. Freud’s accounts of his patients offer durable models, as do the insights to be found in Franz Kafka’s fictions. When Kafka wrote America he drew on travel books and family accounts of his namesake and nephew, Franz, who had emigrated to the New World. The book is an imaginative tour-de-force, full of slippages and inaccuracies that only add to its hallucinatory quality.
Like Kafka, the maker of these pictures has not been to America. The settings are instead constructed using virtual world technology, which itself has a discorporate and dreamlike quality. The strategy of using new technology to frame an historical subject opens up a necessary dialogue between past and present, fact and fiction, reality and virtuality, the conscious and unconscious worlds. Similarly the inclusion of documentary alongside anachronistic and prochronistic elements, emphasises the speculative nature of this enquiry.
The final series was first be exhibited in the UK at the Freud Museum, London, from 28 June-16 September, 2012. See installation photographs of the exhibition and listen to Goto's gallery talk here.
Please click on the images below to enlarge.
WOMEN OF THE FAMILY
MORTON EMPHASISED THE FRENCH SIDE of his Creole heritage. ‘My folks were in the city of New Orleans long before the Louisiana Purchase…all French, and as long as I can remember those folks, they never was able to speak a word in American or English.’ The Morton family’s genealogy was complex and even within the family different accounts emerged. Jelly Roll’s youngest sister, Frances, claimed their 'grandmother Mimi, was a German Jew - Felice Schmidt, so, of course, we are Jewish.’
The women of the family brought Morton up after his father, a trombonist, abandoned his mother. Seen here in front of the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans are from left to right - Edward Joseph Lamothe (father); Jelly Roll Morton; Louise Hermance Monette (mother); Frances Mouton (youngest sister known as Mimi); Laura Hunter (aka Eulalie Hécaud,
godmother and voodoo priestess); and Laura Péché (grandmother, a slave at birth she was manumitted in 1855).
MORTON IN MOSCOW
JELLY ROLL MORTON WAS INVITED TO TOUR RUSSIA IN 1930 according to Mabel Morton, or more likely 1935 as Down Beat magazine reported. The project fell through when the musicians realised that they could not exchange their wages for foreign currency. The location seen here is before Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square. From left to right - Leonid Utesov, the most popular Soviet jazz musician of the pre-war period, who satirically claimed that jazz originated in Odessa. Utesov appeared as a black-faced minstrel named John Johnson from Brazil early in his career; Joseph Stalin and his daughter Svetlana; Maxim Gorky who wrote an influential article disparaging jazz entitled ‘The Music of the Gross’; Boris Shumiatsky, the much feared boss of the Soviet film industry, who wrote a defence of jazz in the pages of Pravda; Barney Bigard, New Orleans clarinetist and one of the musicians Morton had lined up for the tour according to Mabel; Lazar Kaganovich, nicknamed ‘The Wolf of the Kremlin’, the purger of the Soviet railways. A jazz fan, he wrote a pamphlet with Utesov entitled ‘How to Organise Railway Ensembles of Song & Dance & Jazz Orchestras’; Jelly Roll Morton; Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophonist and another of the musicians reportedly recruited for the tour; Kasimir Malevich, avant-garde artist and the subject of Goto’s Commissar of Space series; General Kliment Voroshilov, Civil War hero and keen jazz dancer; Alexander (Bob) Tsfasman, pianist, arranger, bandleader and dandy, whose musical achievements and cosmopolitan outlook gained him recognition beyond the Soviet Union.
ALISTAIR COOKE the BBC broadcaster met Jelly Roll Morton in Washington, D.C. in 1938. ‘London?’ Morton said, ‘Why sure, I was through that section in nineteen and thirteen (1913)’. Extensive research, however, has failed to find evidence of Morton ever having travelled beyond continental North America.
Seen here from left to right are - Walter Sickert, a painter whose subjects included music hall scenes and prostitutes; Jelly Roll Morton; Marie Lloyd, a music hall singer renowned for her use of innuendo; unknown woman; George V, King of the United Kingdom and British Dominions, Emperor of India and avid stamp collector; woman with dog; Mark Sheridan, music hall comedian; Edward, Prince of Wales, occasional jazz fan who asked Sidney Bechet to perform for the King at Buckingham Palace in 1919; Vesta Tilley, male impersonator; Eugene Stratton, American black-faced minstrel working in London.
NICKELODEON JELLY ROLL CLAIMED TO BE A SHARPSHOOTER and to have known ‘Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and all that crew’. As the hey-day of the Wild West Show coincided with that of ragtime in the first decade of the twentieth century, it is not implausible that their paths crossed during Morton’s travels. The division between the popular entertainment forms of Circus, Medicine Show, Fairground, Minstrel Show, Vaudeville, Mardis Gras and Wild West Show often blurred with performers working in a number of contexts. Great Expositions also attracted all manner of entertainers. An account of the Colombian Exposition in Chicago (1893)
records that ‘Cody’s Show Indians…on occasion rode the merry-go-round by the hour…’ In the Library of Congress recordings Morton describes his youthful encounters during Mardis Gras with members of tough street tribes, which had been formed following Buffalo Bill’s visit to New Orleans
Morton occasionally found employment accompanying silent films in Nickelodeons. In the early days of cinema the Western soon established itself as a genre. Bill Cody’s last entrepreneurial project was to direct a movie, ‘The Indian Wars’ (1913), which failed at the box office. From left to right - Indigenous Americans; Jelly Roll Morton; Annie Oakley; Buffalo Bill Cody.
BERLIN OLYMPICS NAZI GERMANY WAS on Jelly Roll’s mind. In his open letter to radio presenter Robert L. Ripley, he ends with ‘Lord protect us from more Hitlers and Mussolinis.’ From left to right - two Hitler Youths; two German jazz fans known as ‘Swings’, a sub-culture harshly suppressed by the Nazis; Siegfried Wagner, Director of the Bayreuth Festival, who vilified jazz’s ‘nigger rhythms’; Jesse Owens who thwarted Hitler’s aim to use the Olympics as a demonstration of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals; Kurt Weill, composer of the jazz influenced ‘Threepenny Opera’; on the podium are musicians Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Goodman and Django Reinhardt. Nazi racist ideology placed Jews above Romanies, and Romanies above people of indigenous African descent; Benito Mussolini holding his son Romano who grew up to become a prominent Italian jazz pianist; Kurt Gerron, who played the role of Tiger Brown in
the original version of ‘The Threepenny Opera’. Later
deported to Auschwitz, he walked into the gas chambers
singing ‘The Canon Song’ from Weill’s opera; Pery Broad, Auschwitz camp guard, war criminal and accomplished jazz accordion player; Lutz Templin (crouched), leader of ‘Charlie and His Band’, a Nazis propaganda jazz band. Their records were broadcast from Berlin by William Joyce (behind Templin), known as Lord Haw-Haw; D.C. Stephenson, Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon, convicted rapist and murderer. Morton had witnessed several lynchings during his early travels; Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda; Leni Riefenstahl, director of ‘Olympia’, an acclaimed film about the Berlin Olympics; finally the idealised figures are by Georg Kolbe, one of Goebbels’ honoured ‘List of Immortals’.
AT THE TIME OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS RECORDINGS in 1938, Jelly Roll was running a down-at-heel club in Washington DC called ‘The Jungle Inn’. Despite the dispiriting reality, he had big plans for the place, including enticing back the Hollywood set he had know on the West Coast in better times.
From left to right - heart-throb Rudolph Valentino had been a nightclub dancer at Baron Long’s in Watts before his breakthrough into movies; Thelma Todd, Hollywood starlet found dead in her carbon monoxide filled garage; Todd’s ex-lover, gangster Lucky Luciano, who was suspected of
involvement in her death, believing that she was about to blow the whistle on the mob’s growing involvement in Hollywood; actress Olive Thomas, ex-Ziegfeld Follies queen, whose life ended in uncertain circumstances in a Paris hotel room; her husband Jack Pickford, screen idol and brother of Mary Pickford, was thought to have supplied the drugs from which Olive died; Virginia Rappe, aspiring movie actress died after a party at the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco; Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, famous screen comedian, was charged with the first degree murder of the actress, but cleared after two mistrials; Al Jolson, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, is best remembered for his leading role in the first full length talkie, ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927). Jolson played the racially complex role of a Jewish cantor’s son who performs on stage as a jazz singer in blackface makeup; proprietor Jelly Roll Morton was stabbed by a customer whilst seated at the piano in ‘The Jungle Inn’. Morton’s composition ‘The Crave’ had caused a sensation in Hollywood back in 1917 when it was a great favourite of Jack Pickford and Fatty Arbuckle.
BATTLE SCENE JELLY ROLL WAS BY NATURE COMBATIVE. His artistry made him the clear favourite in cutting contests, which pitched one pianist against another, with the aim of outplaying and humbling the opponent. The build-up to such battles often involved insults and jibes, accompanied by boasts of prowess. Aside from these ritualistic rucks, Jelly Roll was quick to give and take offence, and over time accrued some powerful enemies.
It was said of Morton that he would sit down and play a piano anywhere he found one. He was required to register for the draft in September 1918, but as the war ended in November, he was never inducted into the US Army.
Seen here from left to right are some of his rivals and critics; Earl Hines; Chick Webb; WC Handy; James Reese Europe; Pops Foster; Duke Ellington; Fletcher Henderson; Paul Whiteman; Fats Waller and Cab Calloway.
JELLY ROLL & THE SIRENS JELLY ROLL TOLD ALAN LOMAX that at the height of his fame, “There was nothing under the sun that I ever wanted that I didn’t get during that time but two things. And those two things - one was a yacht, and the other was a cow.”
On account of his extensive travels as a young man throughout the United States, Morton has sometimes been compared to Odysseus. The Sirens seen here from left to right are; Mabel Bertrand, his devoted companion from 1928, who told Lomax after Morton’s death, “I have been loved by a great man, I have watched a genius at work in the cold, lonely hours”; Rosa Brown his girlfriend around 1913 and stage partner in the Vaudeville act Morton and Morton, in which Jelly Roll appeared in blackface; ‘The Pearl’, a waitress Morton was infatuated with in Tijuana, and named a composition after; Anita Gonzales, the most important and controversial woman in his life, from his teens through to his deathbed. She inspired at least two of Morton’s compositions: “Sweet Anita Mine” and a tango entitled “Mama ‘Nita.” Morton sometimes referred to Gonzales as wife, though no documentary evidence has emerged to support this claim.
THINGS TO COME IN A LETTER TO THE BROADCASTER ROBERT R. RIPLEY written in 1938, Jelly Roll declared, “I guess I am 100 years ahead of my time”. Were these the words of a man whose career was in decline, pinning his hopes on posterity, or did they simply express the commonly held notion that the artistic avant-garde would lead society forward into the future? A little of both maybe.
One of the ways in which the future was envisioned was through the popular genre of science fiction. Based on a screenplay by H.G. Wells, the 1936 film ‘Things to Come’ was set in 2036 and contains a special effects sequence by avant-garde émigré artist Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.
From our present perspective, how prescient was Morton’s statement? The global availability of his music through e-commerce would surely have surprised even Jelly Roll,and to a lesser extent the continued sales of his sheet music as legions of pianists still attempt to imitate his inimitable style. But the measure of a musician’s legacy is best judged by their influence on succeeding generations of creative musicians, and this aspect is less secured. The selection of musicians in this picture is based less on the quantity or duration of their engagement with Morton’s work, than on its quality. From left to right - Charles Mingus, Anthony Coleman, Sun Ra, Giorgio Gaslini, Mary Lou Williams and Art Hodes.
WHITE HOUSE AN INDEFATIGABLE CAMPAIGNER Jelly Roll wrote in 1938
to James Roosevelt, secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with a plan to get unemployed musicians back to work. Self-reliant as ever, he states “I intended trying to get it started without asking assistance, but knew it would only be like trying to swim across the Pacific Ocean in a storm. This was my reason for trying to get in touch with the proper authorities…” Set in the Oval Office of the White House, from left to right - British journalist Alistair Cooke, who introduced Morton to Alan Lomax; Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President; Jelly Roll Morton; Lucy Mercer, FDR’s longtime mistress; Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States; Roy Carew, Morton’s business partner and champion during his later years; folklorist Alan Lomax who recorded Morton’s account of his life on a Presto disc-recording machine in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, between May 21 and December 14, 1938.
BARON SAMDI IN HIS OPEN LETTER TO ROBERT R. RIPLEY, published in Down Beat magazine (1938) Morton states that ‘The only knowledge that anyone may claim today is strictly what history gives’. He goes on to claim that he will get in touch with three musicians he identifies as ‘from the early nineteenth century,’ to verify his claim that the blues existed long before W.C. Handy began publishing his transcriptions.
In the cemetery a group of eminent ragtime pianists and composers make up the funeral cortège. From left to right are - James Scott; Arthur Marshall; Joseph Lamb; Artie Matthews; Tom Turpin and Louis Chauvin. In the bishop’s vestments is Scott Joplin.
Catholicism and Voodoo were closely entwined in New Orleans’ culture, and both played a significant role in Morton’s life. Jelly Roll's mentor, the pianist and composer Tony Jackson, here wears a top hat and tails reminiscent of those of Baron Samdi, Voodoo head of the spirits of the dead.
HOUSE OF DREAMS
FOR THE PRESENTATION OF THIS EXHIBITION AT THE FREUD MUSEUM, John Goto created an Augmented Reality installation, in collaboration with Dr. Matthew Leach, in which Freud's home and consulting room are inhabited by virtual figures from Jelly Roll’s dreams.
Dr. Jazz http://www.doctorjazz.co.uk/
A great Morton resource and a fine example of an international research forum hosted on the internet.
Books on Jelly Roll Morton; Dapogny, James (editor) Ferdinand 'Jelly-Roll' Morton: The Collected Piano Music (G Schirmer Inc.,1982)
Lomax, Alan, Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and ''Inventor of Jazz'' (Duell, Sloan & Pearce,1950). See also a new Afterword by Lawrence Gushee which appears in the University of California Press edition 2001
Pastras, Philip, Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West (University of California Press, 2001)
Reich, Howard & Gaines, William, The Life, Music and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton (Da Capo Press Inc, 2003)
Russell, William, Oh, Mister Jelly: A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook (JazzMedia ApS, 1999)
Shafer, William, Original Jelly Roll Blues: Jelly Roll Morton (Flame Tree Publishing Co Ltd, 2008)
Wright, Laurie, Mr Jelly Lord (Storyville Publications, 1980)
Books with significant chapters on JRM; Blesh, Rudi & Janis, Harriet They All Played Ragtime: The True Story of an American Music (Alfred A. Knopf, 1950)
Schuller, Gunther Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (Oxford University Press 1968)
Jelly Roll Morton on CD; Many compilations are presently available of Morton’s music, some of which might suit the listener better than those listed below which were, however, those consulted in the making of this series. Jelly Roll Morton JSP JAZZBOX 903 5CD,
Remastered by John RT Davies and contains all available recorded work 1926-1930 The Piano Rolls Nonesuch 79363-2 Digital reconstruction of Morton piano rolls by Artis Wodehouse Piano Solos Retrieval RTR 79002 Recordings of 19 piano solos made by Morton between 1923-1926 Jelly Roll Morton 1930-1939 Classic 654 The last of the Red Hot Peppers sessions, then eight years silence broken by new solo sessions and four sides with Sidney Bechet. Last Sessions: The Complete General Recordings Commodore CMD 14032 Morton’s Hot Six and Seven and solo recordings from 1939-40
Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax. Rounder 11661-1889-2 (8 CDs) Box set also contains Alan Lomax’s book Mister Jelly Roll with Lawrence Gushee's afterword, transcriptions of all dialogue, research notes, correspondence and additional New Orleans interviews by Alan Lomax. New Orleans Rhythm Kings 1922-1925: Complete Set Retrieval RTR 79031 Jelly Roll Morton made a small but significant number of recordings with NORK in 1923.
Jelly Roll Morton in Film;
The memory of Morton and his music is not well served by commercial cinema. Probably the best of a poor bunch is Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (1978).
Related Books; Anger, Kenneth Hollywood Babylon (Stonehill Publishing, 1975)
Abbott, Lynn & Seroff, Doug Ragged But Right, Black Traveling Shows (University of Mississippi Press 2007)
Bion, Wilfred R. Learning from Experience (William Heinemann Medical Books Ltd. 1962)
Bratton J.S. (editor) Music Hall: Performance and Style (Open University Press, 1986)
Curtis, Penelope Taking Positions (Henry Moore Institute, 2001)
Golomstock, Igor Totalitarian Art (Collins Harvill, 1990)
Gushee, Lawrence Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Kater, Michael H. Different Drummers, Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, 2003)
Starr, Frederick S. Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union 1919-1991 (Limelight Editions, 1994)
Related CDs; Coleman, Anthony Freakish Tzadik TZ7631, Coleman explores the 'anxiety of influence' through a set of Morton compositions Gaslini, Giorgio & The Ensemble Mobile
Jelly's Back in Town DDQ128020 Arrangements of Morton compositions within a suite of Gaslini originals Hodes, Art Pagin' Mr Jelly Candid CCD79037, Tribute to Morton recorded in London, 4th November, 1988
Mingus, Charles Blues & Roots Atlantic1305, 2 versions of My Jelly Roll Soul
Mingus, Charles Mingus Ah Um Columbia C3K065145, version of Jelly Roll
Ra, Sun Live in Paris at the 'Gibus' UniverseUV079, includes Sun Ra's version of King Porter Stomp
Visser, Joop (compiler) Swing Tanzen verboten! Swing music and Nazi-propaganda Proper Records, Box 56, 4CDs.
Williams, Mary Lou et al, The Compositions of Jelly Roll Morton Timeless CBC1-027 Jazz, contains Williams' version of The Pearls.
Acknowledgements I am indebted to Mike Meddings and Ate van Delden for their kind permission to use images from the Ate van Delden Collection, which can be seen in the Iconography Library on the Doctor Jazz website at http://www.doctorjazz.co.uk/iconavd.html
The project has also received support from the Digital and Material Arts Research Centre (D-MARC) at the University of Derby, for which I am grateful.
Kitchen table conversations with my wife, Celia Goto, about her work as a psychotherapist and mine as an artist, have been a great souce of inspiration in making this series.