How did a man of Morton’s considerable talents, a man who recognized the ways that popular music evolved and changed, a well-dressed dandy with all the canny instinct of a carny, come to end his days in this way? Did he really invent jazz, as the now-infamous business cards he carried claimed? What exactly is the truth behind this enigmatic and fascinating figure?
by Marshall Bowden Original publication at Jazzitude
The year is 1938. In the quiet, well-lit environment of the Coolidge Auditorium, housed within the United States Library of Congress, a lone man sits at the piano, comping as he tells his life story. It is the story of a hustler, pool player, cardsharp, fight promoter, pimp, and musician, and it is peppered with outrageous claims, ribald tales, and remembrances of events that stretch the credulity of even the most generous listener. Periodically he punctuates his stories with full-fledged songs, the piano ringing out with knuckle-busting stomps, joined by high-spirited vocals singing often-bawdy lyrics. The recording machine that runs continuously, tended by the only other person present in the auditorium, captures all of this. The performer is Jelly Roll Morton, once one of America’s most popular performers and songwriters, down on his luck and mostly forgotten. Now, as a desperate act, he performs the songs he’s written over the years and tells the tales he remembers for the tape recorder of Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress, a document that will become the most comprehensive record of Morton’s contribution to music.
The Early Years
Jelly Roll Morton was born in either 1890 or 1885, depending on whom you believe. Morton claimed to have been born in 1885, and many believe that this was so that his claim to have invented jazz in 1902 would seem more plausible. Morton’s version would have made him 17 in 1902, by which time he had already played piano in whorehouses in Biloxi and New Orleans. However, it is equally possible that he merely lied about his age to make it easy to obtain whatever work was available, be it in a brothel, saloon, or minstrel show. Research by Larry Gushee of the University of Illinois points to an 1890 birth. It also established Morton’s given name as Ferdinand Lamothe rather than the more generally accepted Ferdinand La Menthe. More recent research suggests that Morton was indeed born in 1885 as he always claimed. In any case, he changed the name to avoid being identified as being of French descent, from Lamothe/La Menthe to Mouton, which became corrupted by pronunciation and poor spelling into Morton.
Morton’s father, one Ed La Menthe, was virtually non-existent, and his mother, Louise Monette, died when he was fourteen years old. He had already shown interest in music, having played a variety of instruments other than piano because he believed that the instrument was for sissies. That notion was cleared from his head by the teaching of Tony Jackson, composer of the song “Pretty Baby”. Jackson was an educated Creole, and had an incredibly trained ear that made him able to play any tune he heard, whether it was a show tune, opera, folk song, or any other type of music.
After the death of his mother, Morton lived with his great-grandmother, a woman by the name of Mimi Pechet. Pechet was rather strict and did not believe that musicians could be anything other than evil, so she disowned Ferdinand when she discovered that he had become one. Morton left and went to Biloxi, where his godmother, known as Eulalie Echo (again, research suggests that her name was actually Laura Hecaud) lived. It was in Biloxi that Morton took the job of pianist at a whorehouse, carrying a pistol and drinking whiskey for the first time. Though he didn’t much care for liquor then, he learned to enjoy it later in life. From there, he began a whirlwind tour of the United States that didn’t really stop until 1923. What he did in those years is indeed the stuff of legend; it appears he did some of pretty much everything. In New Orleans, he played in the “sporting house” of Hilma Burt, located in the city’s mythical Storyville district. He later told Alan Lomax:
Buddy Bolden would play at mostly the rough places, for instance the Masonic…Masonic hall on Perdida and Rampart, which was a very rough section…sometimes they’d play in the Globe Hall, that’s in the downtown section on St. Peter’s & St. Paul…very, very rough place. Very often you could hear of killings on top of killings…many, many a time myself I went on Saturdays and Sundays and look in the mall…and see 8 and 10 men was killed over Saturday night…”
He moved on to Mississippi, where he got sentenced to a chain gang in a case of mistaken identity-he was supposed to have robbed a mail train. Though he received a sentence of 100 days, he managed to escape. He ended up back in New Orleans, playing piano and beginning, for the first time to write music, a skill that he had learned largely because of his Creole heritage. Creoles were generally well educated in the arts, and enjoyed classical music and opera as well as more popular types of music. Unlike dark-skinned African Americans, Creoles in New Orleans often had formal musical training and could write and read music as well as play it by ear.
Morton next headed to Chicago, a town where he would eventually make a name for himself, but where nothing was happening upon his first visit. He also traveled to Houston, and finally out to California before returning for his last visit to New Orleans, where he took up with a gentleman named Jack the Bear. The two lit out across the South selling a unique tuberculosis cure: Coca-Cola spiked with salt. All the while, Morton was playing piano when he could, and no doubt absorbing all the music he encountered along the way. He encountered Hispanic music on his trips into Texas and to California (not to mention Tijuana), and he later told Alan Lomax that it was impossible to play jazz without any Latin flavor. He played in minstrel shows, turning up in Chicago again, and St. Louis. Then it was back to California, arriving in Los Angeles in 1917, where he and a woman named Anita Gonzalez ran hotels and nightclubs. Some say it was Gonzalez who bought Morton the large diamond he wore in his front tooth, pawning it whenever he desperately needed money. Next, Morton was in Denver, playing with bandleader George Morrison.
Years later, there were plenty who doubted Jelly Roll’s accounts of all the placed he had been and the things he had seen. However, his accounts have largely proven to be true, as have some of his more verifiable claims. Though he may or may not have “invented” jazz, he certainly was instrumental in moving music from the rather mechanical two-step feel of ragtime to something approaching swing. Many saw him as an anachronism, an embarrassing holdover from the distant days of New Orleans when what would become jazz music was inextricably bound up with brothels, card cheats, and the tall tales of the carny. It would be wrong to deny that he had a very strong sense of self and a pretty good dose of self-esteem, even that he was a braggart. But so much of what he claimed for himself has turned out to be true that it is sad to see how much he suffered because of what others took to be outright lying.
The fact is that he wrote tunes such as “New Orleans Blues” and “Jelly Roll Blues” around 1905, “King Porter Stomp” in 1906, and “Georgia Swing” in 1907, as he took pains to point out in a 1938 letter to a Baltimore newspaper, a letter that was also printed in Downbeat magazine. As guitarist Lawrence Lucie said of Morton:
“Jelly was a walking encyclopedia, and he was very entertaining. He always smiled after he said something outrageous. He knew exactly what he wanted in his music, and he believed in his style. Some people thought he was old-fashioned, but he was greater than we all thought he was. He’d been ahead of his time for a long time before times caught up to him.”
Indeed, by 1923, when Morton arrived in Chicago, times had changed. Sheet music was becoming a large industry, and for those who composed popular tunes, like Morton, there was money to be made. Previously, musicians had been scared of publication (and sometimes recording, too) fearing that other musicians would be able to steal their best riffs and tricks. But now there was simply too much money to be made to ignore, and Jelly Roll Morton was sitting on a goldmine of musical compositions.
Red Hot Pepper Man
It’s hard to believe that Morton didn’t come to Chicago with a plan in mind-he had scored a hit with “Wolverine Blues”, a tune he’d written and which had been published by Chicago’s Melrose Publishing, a local operation run by two brothers, Walter and Lester. Now he appeared at their South Side music store, announcing himself and beginning a two-hour monologue that mostly concerned how great he was and the number of songs he’d composed over the years that could now make a lot of money as sheet music. He proved that what he said was true the way he always had: he sat at the piano and played, song after song, songs to go with his many stories, songs that could only have come from a man that had been everywhere in the country and seen everything there was to see.
The unique sounds that were embedded in his treasure trove of music were a virtual history of the birth of jazz, everything from vaudeville and theatre music to marches, opera, blues, ragtime, and anything else that was in the air. Needless to say, the Melrose brothers were impressed.
Morton was certainly busy that first year in Chicago; he recorded more than thirty sides in that single year, including solo piano works and duets with King Oliver, as well as trios with Oliver and clarinetist Volly de Faut. And there were five tunes with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, a white band playing the New Orleans style favored by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Morton recorded with the Rhythm Kings for Gennett Records. Interestingly, Gannett was located in Richmond, Indiana, a headquarters for the local Ku Klux Klan. Morton passed himself off as being of Italian descent to avoid any trouble while he was in town. Jelly was absolutely everhwhere. Earl Hines was around too, and he told jazz critic Stanley Dance:
“Jelly Roll Morton…was the most popular underworld pianist around…He had written any number of tunes and everybody thought a lot of him. Whenever he needed money, he’d write a tune and sell it to one of the downtown publishers like Melrose for fifty or seventy-five dollars.”
The Melrose brothers were not always a “downtown publisher”. When Morton entered their music store in 1923 it was located on South Cottage Grove Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. The store had never done particularly well, but Walter was focused on the music publishing business as a way to success. Walter fancied himself a songwriter, though the songs that he copyrighted in his name, including “Since I Lost You”, were uniformly dreadful and completely unheard and unrecorded. Morton’s arrival changed all that, of course, and by the end of 1923, Walter was able to move the music publishing business to downtown Chicago, while his brother, Lester, continued to run the music store with a new partner. Two years later Lester quit the store and Walter closed the store and bought Lester’s interest in the publishing business.
Walter Melrose advertised that Jelly Roll Morton was now Melrose Publishing’s staff writer, and published such classic Morton tunes as “Grandpa’s Spells”, “London Blues”, “The Pearls”, and “Wolverine Blues”. Morton was unhappy that Melrose changed the title of his “The Wolverines” to “Wolverine Blues”, particularly since the song is in no way a blues number, but the incident passed. Within two years of Morton’s first appearance at the Melrose music store, Melrose publishing had become a major music publisher, putting out compositions such as “King Porter Stomp” and “New Orleans Blues”-tunes Jelly Roll Morton had first composed two decades previous. Morton also claimed to have helped the company to success in other ways, such as recommending that the company acquire rights to songs by W.C. Handy (whom Morton had met back in 1908) and Louis Armstrong.
By 1926, Walter Melrose had another bright idea. In order to bolster the popularity (and therefore sales) of Morton’s music, he helped put together a contract for Morton with Victor. In the nine months that followed Jelly Roll Morton recorded sixteen sides with a group that went by the name of Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers. The group was composed of a variety of New Orleans musicians, and Morton used two separate lineups on the records: George Mitchell played cornet, either Omer Simeon or Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Kid Ory or George Bryant on trombone, Stump Evans playing alto sax on several sides, Johnny St. Cyr or Bud Scott on the banjo, John Lindsay playing bass or Quinn Wilson on tuba, and Andrew Hilaire or Baby Dodds on drums. Morton meticulously arranged the numbers for the group and taught the musicians how to play the songs exactly as he had written them. These recordings are arrangements that focus on the ensemble, doing for contrapuntal New Orleans group dynamics what Louis Armstrong had done for the soloist. To put it simply, Morton arrived at much the same place that a youthful Duke Ellington was arriving at and would demonstrate only a few months later.
While Gary Giddins has claimed that such early Ellington works as “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” dated the Morton recordings, placing them forever in the past, that is a bit of an overstatement. Giddins is also suspicious of the fact that Morton’s Red Hot Peppers sides are held up as one of the premier examples of recorded New Orleans jazz at its height even though they were recorded in Chicago. But the same might be said of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings. The availability of work had helped relocate many New Orleans musicians to Chicago and now the record companies were finding that they had an audience for the work of these artists. Besides, Jelly Roll Morton had been travelling the country for twenty years, never settling in one place for long. The music of the Red Hot Peppers is New Orleans music by virtue of Morton’s ear, memory, and ability to arrange music for the ensemble rather than by virtue of the location of its recording.
In the fall of 1925, Okeh Records began a program of recording black musicians in Chicago, particularly Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. Early in 1926, Vocalion released its recordings by King Oliver’s Syncopators, and by July of the same year, Columbia Records was putting out sides by Lil Armstrong’s group under the name “New Orleans Wanderers.” The trend clearly pointed to the commercial possibilities of recording New Orleans music by native musicians who had migrated to Chicago. The principal audience for these recordings were blacks from New Orleans and nearby who had also moved North and now populated Chicago in large numbers, but the music was also catching on with white audiences. King Oliver made a splash in Chicago with his band that included Louis and Lil Armstrong, and now Louis was releasing significant recordings under his own name that were selling to black and white audiences alike.
Walter Melrose’s idea of recording Jelly Roll Morton was of interest to Victor Records, who had recently hired one Ralph Peer to assist them in finding suitable “race” and “hillbilly” performers to record for these specialty markets. Music publishers and record companies often collaborated to ensure that artists and songs received the most exposure possible via both records and published sheet music, so there was nothing unusual about this arrangement. This was Morton’s big chance to connect with a wide audience and provide ensemble recordings of some of his best material for posterity. Jelly was up to the challenge: he created arrangements so skilled and complex that they are really more like whole new compositions when compared to the original solo piano versions. To play them, he assembled musicians who were both very familiar with the New Orleans style of playing and able to read music with facility. Although Morton was meticulous about the playing of ensemble passages, intros, and endings, he was open to the suggestions of his fellow musicians as well as willing to allow them freedom in their solo passages. The results are a unique balance of composed ensemble work and free ranging solo expression generally not found in jazz music. Only the compositions/arrangements of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus come anywhere near the balancing act between soloist and ensemble demonstrated on the Red Hot Peppers recordings.
There were rehearsals at Morton’s South Side apartment where he ran the group through the ensemble passages, transitions, and other sections of his meticulous arrangements. The first recording session was held on September 15th in the Webster Hotel on the city’s north side. This location was used because Victor did not yet have its own studio in Chicago. Three takes of three seperate tunes were recorded during the four hour session: “Black Bottom Stomp”, “The Chant”, and “Smokehouse Blues”. “Black Bottom Stomp” and “The Chant” immediately mark these recordings as something special. The ensemble passage that begins “Black Bottom Stomp” is clean and crisp, followed by a bridge that features nice contrapuntnal work between clarinet and trumpet, followed by Omer Simeon’s jaunty clarinet solo and Morton’s own very hot piano statement. Many of the Red Hot Peppers sides equal this performance, but none surpass it.
“The Chant” was composed by Mel Stitzel, a Melrose Publishing staff writer, but Morton’s arrangement provides a sense of utter modernity that was most likely missing from the original version of this Charleston-sounding number. Simeon again sparkles, and the spiraling swoops of some of the ensemble passages will make you catch your breath like a rollercoaster.
Three more tracks were recorded a week later: “Sidewalk Blues”, “Dead Man’s Blues”, and “Steamboat Stomp.” All contained dialogue or sound effects that have usually been dismissed as hokey, and they have even been deleted from reissues of the recordings from time to time. Such detractors fail to take into account two things. First, Morton had a long and extensive background playing minstrel shows and the vaudeville circuit, which meant that he was perfectly capable of using slapstick humor even in a “serious” muscial number. He had been exposed to so much music of various types that he likely never distinguished between “high” and “low” music or humor–ragtime, showtunes, marches, opera–it was all one in the gumbo that was New Orleans early in the twentieth century. Second, in the case of a song like “Dead Man’s Blues”, which is meant to evoke the joyous sounds of a New Orleans jazz funeral, it was intended to help audiences with no familiarity with New Orleans and its culture (meaning most of the rest of the country) understand the intent of the song and its arrangement. “Sidewalk Blues” and “Dead Man’s Blues” are noteworthy because Morton brought in two more clarinet players to realize his vision of a clarinet trio, a hitherto unknown device that works to great effect.
On December 16th, the group reconvened to record five more tunes. These include “Someday Sweetheart” (generally despised as “syrupy”, but interesting for its use of bass clarinet), “Grandpa’s Spells” (one of Morton’s more difficult-to-play piano pieces given an energetic arrangement), “Original Jelly-Roll Blues”, “Cannon Ball Blues”, and “Doctor Jazz”. “Doctor Jazz” is interesting because it features Morton’s singing which was seldom heard on recordings. On the Library of Congress recordings Morton apologizes for his voice at one point, saying he could sing better when he was younger. This raises an interesting question: why didn’t Morton record more vocal numbers, a move that would almost certainly have increased his popularity. Only on the Library of Congress recordings and some very late record dates does he vocalize despite his clear ability to do so.
No further recordings were done by the group until June of 1947, this time taking place in the new Victor Talking Machine Recording Laboratory. Here we get two novelty sound-effects numbers “Hyena Stomp” and “Billy Goat Stomp” that feature the vocal “talents” of one “Laughing Lew” Lamar; it is possible that Lamar, an old vaudevillian, comissioned Morton to write these tunes. There is also “Wild Man Blues”, a song credited to Morton and Louis Armstrong and which had been recorded by Armstrong. The track went unreleased by Victor until 1939. “Jungle Blues” is a direct challenge to Duke Ellington, who had been crowned “King of Jungle Music”, a title that Morton felt he deserved.
From 1927 to 1930 Morton recorded around 58 more tunes for Victor in their New York studios, many of them with a larger band using three saxophones and sometimes three brass as well. Morton was continuing to explore new musical concepts, but he never had a group that was able to execute his arrangements as sympathetically as the Red Hot Peppers. In 1930, Victor failed to renew Morton’s contract, and he literally fell off the map for a time, even though his Victor catalog of recordings stayed in release throughout the 30s. Morton himself turned up in Washington D.C. and New York City, destitute and dishevelled. Until recently this was a mystery–how could a performer as popular as Morton simply drop out of public sight so quickly, and how could he be broke when his music continued to sell so well and be recorded by popular swing artists like Benny Goodman? As recently as 1998, Gary Giddins wrote in Visions of Jazz: The First Century:
“The 30s were years in which Armstrong, Ellington, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and Ethel Waters enjoyed unprecedented success. A man with the performing abilities of Morton as a bandleader, pianist, and singer should have been able to negotiate his way through that crest in black entertainment. The success of ‘King Porter Stomp’ alone ought to have revived his fortunes to the point where he could at least finance a band and get decent work. By all accounts, the problem seems to have been one of character–his and that of onlookers wh enjoyed seeing him brought low. The stubborn, loudmouthed dandy with diamond tooth and stickpin was due for a comeuppance. Jelly was temperamentally unsuited to the era, and no one helped him turn the corner.”
But recent evidence uncovered by Chicago Tribune writers Howard Reich and William Gaines show that sadly, not only did no one help Morton, many were actively seeking to do him harm an helping themselves to money that was due him. And no one helped himself to more than Walter Melrose.
For almost the full time of his association with Jelly Roll Morton, Walter Melrose was skimming money off the top by finding ways of obtaining money that should have gone to Morton. Jelly didn’t realize this for some time, because in the mid-1920s he was flush with money, and he showed it, covering himself with diamonds that covered his fingers, watch, and his famous front tooth. He was the Elton John of the roaring 20s.
When Walter Melrose submitted the copyright claims for Morton’s tunes, he added lyrics to the tunes that Jelly had written. This made him a collaborator and he could claim songwriting royalties even though he had never written a decent song in his life. When added to the publishing royalties he already collected for the sheet music, this amounted to a nice chunk of change. But that wasn’t all. Melrose also arranged the recording contract for Morton with the Victor Talking Machine Company. The contract, signed in December of 1926, specified that all monies would be paid to Melrose Brothers Music rather than to Morton. Morton never saw or signed a contract for these recordings. As far as Melrose and Victor were concerned, Morton had no claim on the artist royalties for some of the greatest recordings in the jazz canon. He was entitled to composer royalties, but even those were going partially to Walter Melrose.
Down and Out
In 1927, Morton met dancer Mabel Bertrand and the two began to see a lot of each other, eventually living together. Though Morton often referred to her as his wife, the two were never legally married. Though Morton is remembered as a hustler and carny, there is some evidence that his newfound fame as a bandleader and recording artist, together with his infatuation with Bertrand caused him to change his ways. When he decided to move to New York in 1928 because the music industry there was finally catching on to the hot music being played in Chicago, he took Bertrand with him. But when Morton arrived in New York, he discovered that he was not popular as he had been in Chicago. Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, two bandleaders whose sound and style show quite a bit of Morton’s influence, were the popular bandleaders in New York, and Morton was already regarded as something of an anachronism. He got a job at the Rose Danceland, a small club, leading the house band. Over the next few years he recorded sides for Victor until they dropped him in 1930, played in pick-up groups, and eventually ended up at the Red Apple Club, a seedy bar at 7th Ave. and 135th Street. By 1934, Jelly was “seedy and disillusioned” according to an unimpressed John Hammond, who saw him at the Red Apple. Morton was seen as a throwback to another era, and an unsavory one at that. No one would book him and no record companies, not even Gennett records, wanted to record him. Yet he knew that his music was being played everywhere. Benny Goodman recorded a version of “King Porter Stomp” that was an immense hit, and Fletcher Henderson had also had success with the tune a couple of years earlier.
In 1935, Morton left New York, moving to Washington, D.C., supposedly to become a fight promoter, but that didn’t work out, so he returned to piano playing, this time in a small second-floor club in the black district. He tended bar, seated what customers there were, and played. Over the next three years, he slowly became obsessed with obtaining the money he was owed, and the recognition as well. He realized that the music business had changed, and that he had somehow been written out of his own success. It was around this time that Alan Lomax, who worked at the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, heard Morton and persuaded him to record nearly eight hours of music and interviews between May 23 and June 7, 1938. These recordings were probably never meant to be released, and indeed many of the songs didn’t surface on record releases of the sessions because of their frankly obscene lyrics. Rounder Records released the best version around 1993, four seperate CDs that collect all of the musical performances from the sessions. Some of Morton’s monologues are also included if they are part of the song, but those that were unacompanied by music are cut off. This is unfortunate, since Morton’s remembrances hold historic importance, but there is also Lomax’s book Mr. Jelly Lord, which tells Jelly’s story utilizing transcripts from those sessions.
At the end of 1938, Morton decided to head back to New York, armed with indignation and what was left of his talent. He was going to make one last effort get back what was owed him, and show that he was still a relevant musician more than a decade after his heyday.
Upon returning to New York, Jelly immediately began to visit the various booking agencies and music publishers he was familiar with. He haunted the headquarters of the Musician’s Union, hoping to piece together a new band that would match the recorded glory of the Red Hot Peppers. He met with little success, and he was nearly broke, owning little more than a wardrobe that was a mere shadow of his dandy clothes of a decade earlier and the Lincoln that he had driven into town.
In Washington, Morton had met a man named Roy Carew, an IRS auditor who had grown up in New Orleans. He suggested to Morton that they form a publishing company to publish Morton’s music. The plan didn’t come to much, but Morton continued to write to Carew from New York, telling him about his efforts to revitalize his career, his attempts at getting money that was owed him, and even the last handful of scores he had written. Carew kept all of this material, leaving instructions for his wife to sell the whole lot to jazz archivest William Russell upon his death. Russell purchased them in 1967 and kept them in his New Orleans apartment until his own death in 1992. These documents then went to the Historic New Orleans Collection, where they were catalogued. Two scores for new compostitions surfaced that were completely unknown even to Morton scholars. These compositions, “Oh, Baby” and “Ganjam” were restored and finally performed in New Orleans in 1998. These compositions proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jelly Roll Morton was absorbing new music and styles until the very end of his life. He was not the Jazz Age anachronism from New Orleans that he had been made out to be. “Ganjam” sports a large band, chords and solos straight from Ellington and Mingus’ best work, and a sensibility that places it squarely in the 1940s–at least. Jelly Roll Morton’s place in jazz history would have to be drastically revised.
The reason these scores never came to light during the composer’s lifetime were twofold: he was busy fighting for his due, and he was in poor health. In 1939 Morton suffered what was probably a heart attack, and was taken by Mabel Bertrand to the hospital, where she gave a false address for him and signed as his wife in order to make sure he received the proper care. Morton suffered from hardening arteries, often barely able to climb the stairs to his New York apartment. His ill health couldn’t keep him from writing letters. He wrote to the Justice Department regarding Walter Melrose withholding royalties after letters to Melrose himself resulted in the arrival of a paltry $86.94 check. Shortly thereafter, Walter Melrose sold the music on which he owned copyright to Edwin H. Morris & Co. of New York. This made it impossible for Morton to sue Melrose since the company he had represented no longer existed. Morris & Co. did begin to send Jelly regular royalty checks, but they were very small due to the fact that Morton’s music no longer generated the kind of revenue it had a decade before.
At the same time, Jelly Roll Morton was fighting against ASCAP, the very organization that was supposed to be protecting him and other musicians. ASCAP was formed to collect royalties for public performances of musical compositions, and had been formed by songwriters, including John Phillip Sousa. The advent of radio enlarged ASCAP’s role so that it now collected large sums for its members. Unfortunately, Morton had asked Walter Melrose about joining ASCAP as early as 1925, but was told the organization would not help him. By 1934, when Morton did apply, the group required any application for membership to be seconded by an ASCAP member. The group was clearly discriminatory, with only two black members out of 200. Louis Armstrong was not accepted as a member until 1939 despite the fact that he was one of the biggest recording artists of the 1920s and ’30s. Morton was finally admitted in December of 1939, but was relegated to the lowest classification by which royalties were calculated. This made him eligible to receive $120 annually. Those in the highest classification (including Cole Porter and George Gershwin) received $15,000 annually. Ironically, Walter Melrose was an ASCAP member since 1927, and collected royalties on the unknown lyrics he added to Morton’s songs during the entire time of Jelly’s decline in Washington and New York.
Needless to say, the lack of interest in his music and the legal battles took their toll on Jelly Roll Morton. He was no longer the proud dandy he had once been, but a broken and bitter man. Toward the end of 1939 Victor recorded some sides of Jelly with Sydney Bechet and some other New Orleans jazz artists, but the label was interested in recording “oldies” and not in any new music that Morton was writing. He recorded a dozen band sides and a dozen piano sides in his very last sessions between December of 1939 and January of 1940. The band sides are poor–shrill and tinny, lacking any of the verve and innovation of the Red Hot Peppers sessions–but the piano sides show that Jelly was still a great performer. Ahmet Ertegun and his brother, Nesuhi drove regularly into New York on Sunday afternoons in 1939 to hear Bechet’s group, which included Morton, play at a club. Ahmet had this to say about those performances:
“Jelly talked a lot between numbers–about how he invented jazz and that sort of thing. He always looked dapper and had style. If anybody invented jazz, he did, because he predicted so much that was to come…Obviously, Jelly was the greatest person in jazz–with all due respect to Louis and Duke.”
In the Fall of 1940, Morton heard of the death of his godmother, Eulalie Echo, and went out to Los Angeles to ensure that some diamonds she had would not be stolen. The diamonds were gone by the time he got there, but Jelly decided to stay in L.A. “From the way I was treated in the east, I don’t care if I ever see it again” he wrote to Carew. He continued to write letters and joined the musicians’ union, but he was too ill to work. Even lying down, he could scarcely breathe, and he had few friends in the city. There was little for him to do but meditate on his career and the life that had been stolen from him.
Jelly Roll Morton passed away in Los Angeles on July 10, 1941.