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Rights and Wrongs 

A new book sheds light on the musical genius of Jelly Roll Morton and the corrupt businessmen who took advantage of him.

Jelly Roll Morton was a genius of conflicted longings. Raised in New Orleans in the 1890s, he was a Creole of color, bred on classical music. Emotionally scarred by his father's desertion, Morton was disowned as a teenager for fusing his talent into new piano stylizations in the swank bordellos of the Storyville redlight district. There, musicians found venues for the hot, pulsing sounds later known as jazz.

By 1905, when Louis Armstrong was 4, Jelly had become a nomadic figure, crisscrossing the country before zeroing in on Chicago. He was a shooting star in the 1920s jazz firmament due to his association with Melrose Brothers Music, a store that sold sheet music and reaped great profits from the publishing rights to the songs that Morton (and other black artists) composed.

The systematic theft of Morton's copyright is a numbing theme of Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton (DaCapo). Portions of the book first appeared in a series for the Chicago Tribune by the paper's jazz critic and music correspondent, Howard Reich, and William Gaines, an investigative reporter who won two Pulitzer Prizes before his retirement in 2001. Coming from two journalists with such different backgrounds, the prose voice of Jelly's Blues is remarkably smooth.

Reich's descriptive treatment of the music imbues the narrative with lyrical finesse. "'New Orleans Blues' unfurled themes so intricate that they had to be shared by the two hands. As the piece progressed, the left hand occasionally fired off a series of driving octaves ... [Finally], the right hand burst forth with a series of flying octaves that defied any sense of steady meter or pulse. ... Nothing so rhythmically free ever had been heard on a piano."

Gaines' reporting provides a moral anchor -- the subplot of genius cheated by greedy businessmen -- that has rarely been documented in books on jazz or popular music. Musicians' complaints of being cheated are common; few historians have proved such claims. In 1923, as Morton generated a stream of songs that other musicians began to play, the copyright of "Froggie Moore" was registered by one pair of businessmen who soon sold it -- unbeknownst to the composer -- to Leonard and Walter Melrose in Chicago.

Jelly's record sales enriched the Melrose brothers. Yet by 1938, Morton was scraping for cash, ignored by the musical world he helped create. He found a sympathetic ally in the folklorist Alan Lomax, who recorded hours of his reminiscences at a piano in the Library of Congress and published a posthumous biography in 1950 titled Mister Jelly Roll that is a classic of jazz literature.

Jelly's Blues is every bit as industrious -- and a more compelling narrative. Lomax was a poetic writer who orchestrated the rhythms of Morton's spoken words with uncommon skill. But Reich and Gaines take Lomax to task for short-selling the integrity of Jelly's claims about culture, music and business losses and use a wide-angle lens on the melding lines of creation and betrayal. The result is a brilliant morality tale, a meditation on the sacred and profane. The rich musical writing and investigative scrutiny of corrupt business deals play off one another like a vintage jazz polyrhythm.

The recurrent passages on how the Melroses cheated Morton take the history to a new level. Most jazz books build on discography research -- how, when, where the records were made -- and oral history biographical work. Jelly's Blues tells how Morton gradually realized that the Melroses were stealing from him. Had he not instigated legal action there would have been no available documentation to reconstruct the damage. In that sense, we see Morton demanding not just money, but justice in the greater scheme. The intensity and intelligence of his letters to the Justice Department late in life draw the reader into a near-operatic saga.

In 1940, Morton made a final desperate cross-country trip, hoping for redemption in Los Angeles, where he had done well years before. "Morton was a stranger in these towns," the authors write, "his friends having long since moved away, his name no longer inspiring throngs to see the hot jazz musician from Chicago who carried an outsized roll of cash. ... The only sanctuary Morton found was in the cheap roadside motels he slept in and in the Catholic churches that dotted the landscape. He stopped in some of them to pray for deliverance from his dire situation and for forgiveness for the way he had spent his life -- or at least the sinful early parts of it."

The man who assembled the vital documentation on Morton's life was Bill Russell, a seminal jazz historian who settled in New Orleans in the 1950s. Russell produced a line of traditional jazz recordings on the American Music label and amassed a collection of discs, interviews and memorabilia. His archive was acquired by the Historic New Orleans Collection after his death. In the late 1990s, when Reich made the first of several research trips for the Tribune series, a wealth of material on Morton -- and by Morton, in unpublished sheet music -- was there to be tapped. Jelly's Blues is deservedly dedicated to Russell.

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