For two years I lived with a lively but elusive ghost and a vast train of his phantasmal baggage. I was researching and writing a short life of Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, known universally by his vaudeville nickname, Jelly Roll Morton, an acquaintance-by-proxy of mine over some 50 years. I thought I understood everything about him from listening to his music in many forms and from an endless supply of books, articles and archives. But as I dug in, I uncovered more facts, lies, myths, legends and 3-D Technicolor gossip about the man and his music than I believed could exist.
The conclusions I reached about Morton and his amazing career differed from my first assumptions. Morton was an astoundingly diverse, many-sided personality, as elusive as a phantom and as inscrutable as the sphinx, despite his endless gift of gab. Without summoning all the details in my book, I can summarize conclusions that challenge received wisdom about the man and his music. I found that many of Morton's statements dismissed over the years as vain bragging and hyperbolic self-promotion were, in fact, true. Morton was a surprisingly accurate, organized speaker, and he exhibited total recall for music, incidents and people in a professional career jam-packed with travel and replete with adventure.
The big, bold statements critics and historians laughed off or dismissed as wildly improbable, egocentric ravings contained much truth. As I wrote, I added a few ideas to the Morton catalogue. (Morton was often modest and understated some accomplishments and talents, despite the spirit of Baron Munchausen shaping his tale.) Here are controversial claims about his career Morton made and a few others I make in his name:
"I invented jazz in 1902 . . ." This boast from the feud Morton instigated in print with W.C. Handy in 1938 earned him the most scorn from literal-minded and limited jazz journalists and musicians. But in following Morton's versions of this idea, I found he has a complex definition of "invention" worth understanding. As he discusses the early years of his career in New Orleans and then on the road in vaudeville and other forms of improvised show business along the Gulf Coast and in Texas, he describes a self-education and musical development of absorbing, investigating and reshaping a wide variety of music.
He was a voracious autodidact who learned every scrap of music that crossed his horizon and who filed it away in a computer-like "database," to be summoned up (sometimes decades later), combined with other music, reshaped, revived, improved, broadcast to the world. He was a walking encyclopedia of musical materials and processes who thought long and hard about style and personal invention as components of a new music emerging from a mix of ragtime, blues, Tin Pan Alley, minstrel tunes, vaudeville standards and other musical forms. Of course, Morton didn't single-handedly "invent jazz," and he never really said that: he was one of a generation of inventors, and by 1938 a fairly rare survivor who witnessed the Big Bang from which jazz emerged as a whole new musical universe.