The city of New Orleans has the distinction of being the ‘birthplace of jazz’ so its appropriate that in New Orleans in or around 1885 to 1890 would be born the self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz”.
Ferdinand Joseph Lemott (Lamothe) and his story is one of mystery, legend, genius, with an incredulous outcome, and original musical score.
Being considered a Creole in the Crescent City had its advantages in the fact that he was exposed to the fine arts and music as a child. He would undertake formal piano lessons with one Tony Jackson who was considered a wunderkind piano professor with exceptional musical ability, mirrored by the young student, who demonstrated an elevated level of talent, and the confidence to perform it.
We pick up on his trail as he moved to Biloxi, Mississippi to stay with his godmother, and so begins life on the road. He became a professional pianist at this time, playing in the brothels in Biloxi, then back to New Orleans where he played in the red light district of Storyville, learning and absorbing the styles of the famous ‘professors’, who were known for their vast repertoires and dazzling technique. This would prove to be an invaluable experience as he would also absorb classical, vaudevillian, theatrical, opera, marches, blues, stomps, ragtime, French and Spanish music. The Spanish would be a factor as he mentioned in coining the phrase “Latin tinge”. New Orleans was a conduit for the music that was coming out of Cuba since before the turn of the century, and the habaneras were all the rage in the early 1900’s.
Sometime along the way, he changed his name to Morton, and then added Jelly Roll as a stage name. The pianist known as Jelly Roll Morton went on a cross country tour that literally covered most of the U.S. He was quite the bon vivant, and pianist extraordinaire becoming very adept at ‘cutting heads’ where he would boldly challenge the local piano players, and wind up as the house pianist until he moved on, which from what we can gather, was continually. He can be verified as turning up in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Colorado, Missouri, Houston, California, Texas, and in New York. We are privy here to a live witness account by the stride piano player James P. Johnson, who saw him play in New York in 1911, first describing his flamboyant dress and entry with two beautiful women, then his elaborate ritual at the piano before sitting down, striking a first sustained chord then “he’s gone”!