I’m listening to the latter recordings of Jelly Roll Morton available from Alan Lomax archives - now belong to the Library of Congress. I want to cry to the rare beauty of these songs and tales. Jelly Roll coughs, he curses and he rambles through one of the most amazing tunes I ever heard on the record: The Murder Ballads. “I killed that bitch ‘cause she had ma man” he sings. It’s like Georges Bataille’s Histoire de l'œil, when obscenity becomes poetry. Jelly distills haunting images of sexual desire and death. When he was waxing these sides he was so down and out. Whisky had ruined his stomach. His skin was grey. His eyes, like the lights of the ‘red light district’ - where he spent most of his life- were dim and fading.
Jelly Roll Morton, from New Orleans, was a pianist, composer, pimp, billiard player, tailor, minstrel-show entertainer, hustler and more. Began recording in Chicago in 1923, then leading a band called Red Hot Peppers and recording some of the most influential recorded music ever. Arrived in New York in 1928, but the town was captivated with the new sounds and new names like Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. He tried a few come backs but it didn’t work. By the 1930s he was finished and for him, the Alan Lomax proposal was a relief; to record the story of his life and the story of jazz, free from any commercial (and of course language!) concerns. Three years after the Lomax sessions he died in Los Angeles, bitter and unrewarded. There are so many legends about him but the truth about Jelly Roll lies in the music that he has left for us and in his absolute mastery of piano.
These four Lomax records (May and June 1938) are: Kansas City Stomp, Anamule Dance, The Pearls, and Winnin’ Boy Blues ('Rounder' label). In my view these recordings (with exception the last one which I haven’t heard yet) are priceless treasures of Jazz music. Let’s read a few lines from The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, by Mr. Cook & Mr. Morton about these dates:
“Lomax realized the opportunity he had in his hands he got Morton to deliver a virtual history of the birth pangs of jazz as it happened in New Orleans of the turn of the century. His memory was unimpaired, although he chose to tell things as he preferred to remember them, perhaps; and his hands were still in complete command of the keyboard. The results have the quality of a ling, drifting dream, as if Morton were talking to himself. He demonstrates every kind of music which he heard or played in the city, re-creates all his greatest compositions in long versions unhindered by 78 playing time, remembers other pianists who were never recorded, spins yarns, and generally sets down the most distinctive (if not necessarily the most truthful) document we have on the origins of the music.”
He plays that piano like nobody else; every single note is so lyrical and so luminous. Although he’s a pimp, he is too wasted to watch out his bitch; and now this ‘prick’ is talking to himself in Lomax’s portable waxing tool and showing the prophet side of himself; the holy Jelly Roll. He tells stories about love and betrayals, jails and dumpy joints, heavens and hell, like those stories of Faulkner. I know our man, William Faulkner, must have listened a lot to Jelly Roll – a year after these musical illuminations, Faulkner wrote The Wild Palms, his ultimate statement about the strangers and strangeness in the heartland of the united states.
I’m writing these lines, behind my desk in my boring office in a holy city of Mashhad, far away from Jelly’s Storyville. The tunes and the waves of music that are coming from my iPod break me into pieces but I stand still. I feel sorry for everyone in the office who is not listening to this now, and I'm sure everyone feeling sorry for me whom in their eyes look like a madman with my Jelly Roll!