(ROUNDER RECORDS) By Tom McDermott In September 2005, Rounder Records put out maybe the most important CD reissue in our city's history. It went largely unnoticed here (as I recall, we had other things to worry about at that time), but the eight-CD set Jelly Roll Morton: the Complete Library of Congress Recordings did well elsewhere, quickly selling out its run of 7,500 copies.
Now Rounder has repackaged it in a less unwieldy format and at a lower price; for about $90 you can own one of the most priceless New Orleans documents around.
In 1938, Morton was near the end of his life, tending bar and playing piano in a Washington, D.C., dive. Somehow Alistair Cooke hipped the young archivist Alan Lomax to Jelly Roll. What was initially going to be a short interview turned epic as Lomax, who before encountering Morton was a folkie who disliked jazz, realized the importance of the subject matter. He eventually filled 54 12-inch acetates with Morton's singing, playing and reminiscing, and five years later produced a book, Mister Jelly Lord, as well. Except for the obscene cuts and a couple other things, most of the material was released on LP in the early '70s, and Rounder released a four-CD set in 1993 of the music without commentary. This is the first time that the whole caboodle has been released intact.
Why the fuss? Well, nobody, not even Louis Armstrong, embodies New Orleans music like Morton. He was a Creole, perched between black and white worlds, and wily enough to get the maximum out of this precarious position. He was the most famous musician to make a living in the city's most fabled neighborhood, Storyville, which closed when Armstrong was 16. He was the first great jazz composer, and remains the most important one in the city's history. He was the first New Orleans musician to integrate Cuban rhythms, which he called "The Spanish Tinge," into important compositions. He played piano with astonishing grace and swing, and could sing like a blue angel.
He wasn't, as he repeatedly claimed, the inventor of jazz, but he came as close as anyone to that title. Just as superb as his two dozen original tunes are the jazzy "transformations" in this collection. Morton loosens up pieces as diverse as Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," Verdi's "Miserere" from Il Trovatore, and Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," and demonstrates how he turned some French quadrilles into "Tiger Rag." In his words, "Jazz is a style that can be applied to any type of music," and growing up in New Orleans 100 years ago, he had a lot of styles from which to choose.
Apart from his music, Morton's life fascinates as few jazzmen's do: His travels, his hustling (he made money pimping, cardsharking and pool playing), his braggadocio, his decline and pathetic end. Sometimes the tinge of failure -- look at Mozart or Ernie K-Doe -- adds to an artist's appeal.
Listen to Jelly Roll talk about the New Orleans of 90 years ago and you'll see that some things haven't changed: anyone could carry a gun, much of the city was seedy, and the people loved to parade, listen to music and have a good time. The obscene tunes ("The Dirty Dozen," "The Murder Ballad," "Winin' Boy Blues" and others) have earned this project probably the only Parental Advisory sticker ever given a traditional jazz recording. The genteel piano accompaniment and avuncular tone of much of the surrounding material makes the references to bestiality, sodomy and throat-slashing in these cuts all the more shocking. It's good, however, to be reminded that Storyville was a pretty nasty place, and to have the past de-romanticized now and then.
In addition to Morton's fantastic music and speechifying, the project contains a bonus disc of interviews by Lomax with guitarist Johnny St. Cyr and other New Orleans luminaries tangential to Morton, who continued archiving all humanity's music for the next 50 years. There's a handsome 80-page accompanying book with terrific commentary and music analysis as well as probably every photo of Morton extant; and a complete transcription of all the dialogue with expanded liner notes in Adobe Acrobat PDF format. It's a project that was long overdue on CD, but now that it's out it's a wonderful thing, a reminder when we most need it of why we live where we live.