Jelly Roll Morton
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Ferdinand "Jelly Roll Morton" LaMothe (1890), a flamboyant black (but very light-skinned) Creole pianist who stands out as the first major jazz composer, blended blues and ragtime styles, a fusion that perhaps represented the origins of jazz music better than anything else. His Jerry Roll Blues (september 1915) was the first published piece of jazz music. Morton left New Orleans in 1908, played in California from 1917 until 1922, then in Chicago and moved to New York City in 1928.
Discovered by publisher Walter Melrose, Morton was launched in a sextet fronted by cornet, clarinet, trombone and alto saxophone, that recorded Big Foot Ham (june 1923) and Muddy Water Blues (june 1923), and coupled with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in performances of three of his pieces (the first inter-racial records of jazz music): Mr Jelly Lord, London Blues and and Milenberg Joys (july 1923). Both recordings displayed Morton's skills in devising a variety of tonal and dynamic solutions.
He laid the foundations of his ensemble music with a handful of early gems, mostly for solo piano, such as Wolverine Blues (published in february 1923, solo version recorded in july) and several ragtime-like pieces: The Pearls (july 1923), Kansas City Stomp (july 1923), King Porter Stomp (july 1923), Shreveport Stomp (june 1924), Froggie More (may 1924), later renamed Shoe Shiner's Drag (1928) in the band version. Emblematic is also King Porter Stomp (december 1924) with King Oliver, one of the earliest piano-trumpet duets.
Morton perfected his style on the anarchic Chicago recordings with his Red Hot Peppers, a band created solely for studio recordings out of musicians (of different races) who were familiar with the "hot" New Orleans style (some borrowed from Louis Armstrong's Dreamland Syncopators), such as trombonist Edward "Kid" Ory and clarinetist Johnny Dodds: Black Bottom Stomp (september 1926), his masterpiece, that packed a lot of action around three themes, two tempos and seven instruments, the touching Dead Man Blues (september 1926), that was another showcase of jazz polyphony (with a clarinet trio), Sidewalk Blues (september 1926), that was a rewrite of his Fish Tail Blues (1924), Steamboat Stomp (september 1926), Grandpa's Spells (december 1926), Jungle Blues (july 1927), Mournful Serenade (july 1928) for a quartet of piano, clarinet, trombone and drums, etc. The band's style was basically orchestrated ragtime, although rich in "decoration" (tonal variety, creative dynamics). No less creative was Shreveport Stomp (june 1928), one of the earliest piano-clarinet duets.
While in New York, he still delivered some influential numbers, such as Freakish (july 1929), that was one of his most daring solo piano pieces, as well as, with the Red Hot Peppers, Mint Julep (november 1929), Ponchartrain (march 1930) and Fickle Fay Creep (october 1930).
Basically, Morton liberated ragtime music from its own limitation: the clockwork geometry of melody and rhythm. The syncopation of ragtime could be applied only to some themes, while Morton's kind of syncopation could be applied to virtually anything. The secret was in a rhythmic invention that knew no boundaries, at times reminiscent of the blues, of the march, of the square dance, even of Latin-American dances. Nonetheless, Morton's art was still a clockwork art, in the sense that the performance was carefully planned and very little room was left to improvisation. His orchestra was basically an extension of the piano. No other orchestra of the time reached the same level of sonic and rhythmic sophistication. Morton's band arrangements created the stereotype of the three-pronged jazz attack (cornet, clarinet and trombone), although, ironically, the achievement of that line-up was largely due to a calculated studio strategy.
Morton was also the musician who changed the very purpose of jazz music. His recordings were just that: jazz music meant to be recorded. It was conceived and advertised as a recording of jazz music. Thus the careful architecture of group and solo parts. Thus the limit on improvisation: Morton wanted to record the sound that he wanted to record, not the unpredictable sound that improvisers could produce. Thus the studio-driven nature of his band, that basically did not exist outside the studio. There were at least two reasons for Morton's preference for the recording rather than the live performance. The first one was Walter Melrose, one of the first white businessmen to understand that there was a market for such recordings. The second one was Morton's troubles with the mobsters who ran the nightlife of Chicago: Morton's band was only a studio band because he was not welcome in the city's clubs.

He died in 1941.

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Ferdinand "Jelly Roll Morton" LaMothe (1890) comincio' a suonare il pianoforte a Storyville all' eta' di diciassette anni. Dal 1904 decise di portare in giro per il Sud il suo stile barrelhouse. Per vent' anni fu quindi un vagabondo della musica. Compose "Frog-I-More-rag", "The naked dance", "Kansas City stomp", "King Porter stomp", "Wolverine blues" e (forse) "Tiger rag". Poi vennero i classici che lo imposero come il primo vero compositore di jazz. Fu certamente uno dei primi a saper scrivere la musica.
(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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