Jelly Roll Morton, 1923-1926

Charles Farrell

By Charles Farrell

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Between 1923 and 1926, New Orleans born composer/pianist Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton managed to both define what jazz was and to set a blueprint for what it would become. Morton, a self-promoter of the first order, claimed to have actually invented jazz; even if that's not quite true, he was its first great architect, codifying the music, meticulously putting it down on paper and seeing to its proper execution.

Simply put? No one has played blues (or jazz) piano better before or since.

On 1923-1926 everything is in place — the unequalled compositions, the melding of idioms unique to the region's music, and the comprehensive style that combined the rawness of early jazz with a marvelous blues feel, added elements of European concert music, and topped in all off with “the Tinge” — the Latin American influence (in particular, the habanera rhythms of Cuba) central to all New Orleans-based music. This may be early jazz, but Jelly Roll was no primitive. He was a sophisticated pianist with a formidable and elegant technique.

It's difficult to recommend any one tune — each of them is brilliant. And because of Morton's catholicity, there's a great range from which to choose. There's the finger-busting “Grandpa's Spells” or the dolorous, tango-influenced “Mamanita.” “Shreveport Stomps” has lines that are even by today's standards dizzyingly difficult. And there are the blues — “New Orleans (Blues) Joys” or “Jelly Roll Blues.” No one has played blues (or jazz) piano better before or since. Jelly Roll would have been the first to tell you that.