Morton, aka Ferdinand La Menthe, has been mystifying, aggravating and delighting music lovers since he cut his first discs in l923. His life packed it all in: bravura success, diamond teeth, endless travel, a shitstorm ending. No other performer symbolizes the magical, tawdry world of Storyville; Satchmo was just getting started when it shut down and Tony Jackson didn't leave any recordings. It was Morton's milieu, one of his many.
Jelly Roll was a noted gambler, pimp and pool shark -- everything you might want from a character of the turn-of-the-century demimonde. He bragged. His most famous taunt was, "I invented jazz in l902." He made enemies, Duke Ellington famously among them. As a New Orleans Creole he had classist prejudices, though this didn't stop him from hiring darker-skinned blacks or working with the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings in one of the first interracial recording sessions. Like so many musicians of the era, Morton was badly ripped off (a story detailed in Howard Reich and William Gaines' recent biography, Jelly's Blues). His vagabonding led, not surprisingly, to woman problems.
So his life was a tumult. Thank God he found time to record about 175 tracks. Nobody single-handedly invented jazz, but Morton came closest. He took the ragtime piano music of his day and loosened it up, absorbing and transforming elements of the blues, brass bands, Afro-Cuban rhythms (which he called the "Spanish Tinge"), opera, and minstrelsy. While there were many great players in this era, Morton is credited as the first great jazz composer. The 1926-1930 sides with the Red Hot Peppers (hold the Chili, please) are marvels of multi-thematic construction, dynamics and timbre, and are considered the apex of classic New Orleans jazz.
Morton fell on hard times in the 1930s but was somewhat resuscitated, or at least well recorded, at the end of the decade. A young Alan Lomax taped 10 hours of material for the Library of Congress, just Morton plaintively singing, playing and reminiscing about forgotten piano professors, celebrated whores and District ditties -- the Rosetta Stone of the Storyville era.
Pianist Steve Pistorius will play Morton at this year's Jazz Fest tribute, which was organized by Dr. Michael White. They might not be able to answer the question, "How did Morton do what he did?" but how do you explain a genius?The Danza Quartet featuring Evan Christopher and Tom McDermott performs 12:30 p.m. Sunday, April 24, in the Economy Hall Tent.