Pete's Blog

Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe

I just got a great CD/book package out of the library: "The Complete Library of Congress Recordings" of Jelly Roll Morton. It's 8 discs of interviews and music, plus the complete text of Alan Lomax's biography "Mister Jelly Roll" with the original David Stone Martin illustrations. It is the portrait of a titanic American original. At the end of his life Jelly Roll Morton was washed up. Jazz, which he could legitimately claim to have invented, had passed him by, the old polyphonic style eclipsed first by the instrumental solos of Louis Armstrong and his followers, then by the rise of the big swing bands. In 1938 Morton was living in Washington, DC, managing a cheap nightclub. From May 21 to June 12, 1938, with a last single session in December, Alan Lomax brought Morton into the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium, sat him at the grand piano, and switched on two battery-operating Presto disc-recording machines. In a Joycean stream of concsiousness Morton played and reminisced about the glory days of Storyville and the wide-open life he had lived there, in Chicago, and elsewhere. The stories of bad men, madams, musicians, and the smelly French-speaking quarters of New Orleans turn into little movies, vivid soundtrack moving underneath. The voice on these recordings is orotund, full of itself, but not pompous. That is left to Lomax himself, the ultimate liberal aristocrat, whose condescending interjections can sound wincingly racist. But Morton's dignity cannot be lessened. He may have nothing left of his former greatness than a couple of trunks filled with out-of-date suits, but when he plays it's like hearing Mozart at a party. The music is so rich, so full of nuanced splendour, that intervening fashions fall away. And his stories of joints, clubs, and sporting houses bring back the mythic America whose music still inspires the world. I read the biography, transcribed by Lomax in part from these recordings, in Erik Frandsen's apartment in Greenwich Village twenty-five years ago. And of all the things I learned from Erik, that book's vision of a vanished American culture has stuck with me the firmest. For a young person in love with the quest for American roots music, this set is a permanent, ongoing revelation, on Rounder Records.

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