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This Week On Riverwalk Jazz: Tango, Opera And The Blues: Jelly Roll’s Recipe For Jazz

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Jim Cullum Jr.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band welcomes singer Vernel Bagneris and the piano duo of Dick Hyman and John Sheridan for a concert of Jelly Morton’s music, and a discussion of key elements in his compositions.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.

Jelly Roll Morton had a tendency to exaggerate. On his business card he gave himself the title, ‘Inventor of Jazz.’ There was, at least a kernel of truth behind his claim. Not only was he among the first important composers and recording stars in jazz, he appears to have been the first jazz musician to write down his compositions in musical notation. Morton’s body of work remains at the core of many classic jazz bands’ play lists.

It doesn’t take long to recognize the distinctive voice of a Morton composition. His genius was to combine a playful, improvised spiritwith the formal musical elements of the ragtime that surrounded him as a young piano “professor" employed in New Orleans bordellos in the early 1900s.

By the time he made his Red Hot Peppers recordings in the 1920s, Jelly Roll’s compositions embodied both high and low American music. Brass marching bands, ragtime, Italian opera, country blues, spirituals, tangos, New Orleans jazz and Caribbean rhythms—all rolled around in his brain and influenced the music he wrote. Morton was a “walking treasury of the nation’s musical byways,” as jazz writer Gary Giddins put it. The result was a distillation and summation of traditional New Orleans jazz—and also, in many ways, a band sound that foreshadowed Duke Ellington.

Except for a few of his tunes like “King Porter Stomp” that were adapted for swing bands, Jelly Roll and his music were largely forgotten by the 1930s. He spent the rest of his life struggling to get by, writing letters to publishers, ASCAP and periodicals to recover his lost royalties and reputation. In 1938 he wrote an article which appeared in Down Beat magazine, “I Created Jazz In 1902, Not W.C. Handy.”

Shortly after he died in poverty in Los Angeles in 1941, the worldwide Classic Jazz Revival got under way, and Morton’s status as a key pioneer of jazz was restored.

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