Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton
Howard Reich and William Gaines
Howard Reich and William Gaines make an eye-opening understatement in their preface to Jelly's Blues. Speaking about a treasure trove of long-lost correspondence hoarded by jazz collector William Russell, they note that
If a Gulf Coast hurricane had blown into the French Quarter before Russell's death, the documents that reveal what really happened in [Jelly Roll] Morton's life might have been swept away forever, leaving the true story of Morton's noble journey unknown and the myths forever in place.
In fact, Hurricane Andrew did blow into Louisiana the year of Russell's death, and it would've flooded the French Quarter (and who knows how much more) if it had shot up the Mississippi River as predicted. I know: I was there. I was the proverbial stupid tourist, drinking Dixie beer and munching on cornbread with my new girlfriend (and hundreds more like us) while the citizenry boarded up their homes and shops and headed for higher ground. Weirdly, Andrew missed the delta and instead plowed through southwestern Louisiana, flinging off tornadoes until it died out. Days later, driving to Lafayette, the two of us witnessed the kind of tornado carnage a California kid dismisses as hokum. Three cottages had once stood alongside the road. Now one was nothing but a concrete foundation and ragged plumbing pipes. The second was much the same with the important exception that its kitchen floor was leaning against the third which, otherwise, had suffered no damage.
The point is, some might find Reich and Gaines' worry overblown. I'm here to back them up. As for the remainder of their book, I am enthusiastic with some reservations.
The book's backstory is worthy unto itself. William Russell, an academically-trained composer of classical music, forsakes the European tradition in 1929 after hearing a recording of Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers. Russell throws himself into the world of jazz, collecting memorabilia and even seeks out Morton himself. He amasses a gargantuan depot of jazz documentation, including correspondence between Morton and one Roy Carew, an IRS employee who had taken a liking to the New Orleans bandleader as well. It's from this amateur library that Reich and Gaines fashion their narrative of Morton's life.
It's a pretty wild ride. Morton seeks his fortune up and down the Gulf Coast, out to Los Angeles and back, up to Chicago during its pre-Swing heyday, and then to New York City. In jazz histories, Morton's name is invariably linked with drugs, pimping, and extravagance, usually as proof that jazz was not always a model of respectability. Reich and Gaines avoid such tell-all sensationalism. Here they stick to a straitlaced tale with an underlying theme of, well, Morton's search for respectability. This Jelly Roll is not a raconteur and libertine, but a misunderstood genius and tireless reformer. The latter they argue convincingly. Whether Jelly Roll is, to use Mamet's phrase, "a bust-out humanitarian" is not exactly wrestled down.
Consider this, Morton's own words penned for Carew and the most touching prose in the entire book:
There are only two, & the other is stone blind & has been blind quite a few years now. These two was responsible for my little musical education, & is just the same as my mother & father. Of course there have been sickness in my family & death in the last five years to drive one crazy. ... It seems that I cannot get things to roll as I have in past years. This is God's work & no one can do anything about it.
Poignant, especially considering Morton's wife will never see him after he departs to Los Angeles for the funeral, the city he too will be buried in. The poignancy is lost when Morton picks up an old girlfriend on the way, a married woman who assumes control of Morton's estate after wringing a deathbed will out of the poor man. Ludicrously, Morton's royalties revert to the woman's husband upon her death, an Oregon lumberjack. Reich and Gaines don't have to condemn Morton for this sorry set of circumstances, but certainly we're allowed to question the composer's basic judgment. None comes from the authors.
But Morton's personal life — whether romanticized or demonized — is not half as interesting as his feud with the music industry. It's an all-too-familiar tale, a black performer robbed by white publishers and plagiarized by white musicians. What's unique here is the 800-pound gorilla in Morton's life, ASCAP, the music royalty distributor. ASCAP was a pyramid scheme of the worse kind: legal. Morton penned tunes that defined a decade, including "King Porter Stomp", "Wolverine Blues", "Kansas City Stomp", "Milenberg Joys", "Dead Man Blues", and more. Yet at the end of his life, he was receiving a paltry $185 per annum in royalties, and that only after years of petitioning for ASCAP membership. Reich and Gaines document Morton's attempts to bring legal action and, finally, regulation to this abusive company. More than anything else, Morton's crusade against ASCAP elevates him above the status of a street-wise thug history has yoked him with.
Still, the authors overreach: "By documenting ASCAP's abuses, Morton helped set the stage for reforms that were nearly two decades away." But even they admit the Justice Department was conducting a wide-ranged investigation, interviewing scores of musicians about ASCAP's practices, prior to approaching Morton. And elsewhere they seem overly defensive of their subject, such as their complaint of a Library of Congress folklorist plying Morton with whiskey during his famous recordings. The authors do little to shake the impression that Morton was a man who turned down a free drink.
The most glaring shortfall is a question of trust. Morton's letters to Carew, no matter how intact, represent a correspondence with a doting fan who later becomes Morton's business partner. This alone suggest objectivity problems with the authors' primary source.
Perhaps Jelly's Blues sheds new light on Jelly Roll the Genius. Or, maybe Jelly Roll the Con Man has struck again, rewriting history from the grave. I wish the authors had taken some time wrestling with the question of subjectivity rather than let it nag me to the last page. Otherwise, Morton's story is ably told. His is a colorful life that will never be repeated.