Wynton Marsalis & The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: The Fantastic Mr. Jelly Lord - New York City Article
Wynton Marsalis & The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: The Fantastic Mr. Jelly Lord
Special guests include two of the most outstanding younger piano virtuosos of the contemporary era, Aaron Diehl and Sullivan Fortner, and two even younger piano prodigies who are still ensconced at Juilliard, Micah Thomas and Joel Wenhardt.
"The Fantastic Mr. Jelly Lord: 30th Anniversary Landmark Concert"
Wynton Marsalis & The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
Broadway at 60th Street, 5th Floor, (212) 721 6500
Thursday (September 14) through Saturday (September 16)
As a special preview of what promises to be an exceptional concert, these are the program notes for "The Fantastic Mr. Jelly Lord":
It was Wynton Marsalis who once articulated what made Jelly Roll Morton so special, and put it in terms that followers of 21st century politics could relate to. Most of the early jazz giants from New Orleans, such as Joe “King” Oliver, as the JALC artistic director put it, were all about “states rights.” Morton, contrastingly, represented the musical equivalent of a “strong federal government.” What Wynton means was that the first jazzmen rarely thought to give the music any form beyond a simple playing of the blues or popular songs, with brief solos strung together. Morton, on the other hand, was the first to give the music a larger sense of form, and thus became jazz’s first great composer and bandleader.
Morton’s detractors, and there are many, would argue that it would hardly be surprising that he created a music in which one figure - the composer / arranger / bandleader - was at the center, because Morton has an unshakable reputation as perhaps the biggest egomaniac and one least lovable individuals in the history of jazz. Even a century after his first inarguable breakthrough - the publication of “Jelly Roll Blues” in 1915 - Morton’s self-centeredness, and his ego are as much a part of his legend as his remarkable music.
Still, the music speaks for itself: as jazz’s first great “auteur,” he can lay claim to having been the spiritual inspiration for a huge part of the music’s history, from Fletcher Henderson (who re-orchestrated Morton’s music for the swing era) and Duke Ellington to Gil Evans (who re-worked Morton’s music for the modern era) and Maria Schneider. Yet, as it’s also been pointed out (by Martin Williams among others), Morton himself remains sui generis: he showed the world how to capture lightning in a bottle when he proved that the music could be written down, annotated, and played by ensembles of virtually any size; yet no one ever dared to try and sound like him, whether in his own time or since.
Morton’s achievements are a continual source of controversy: he spent the second half of his life exaggerating what he had done in the first half. He proclaimed loudly to everyone who would listen (most famously on a legendary series of oral history recordings made at the Library of Congress in Spring 1938) that he was the sole creator of jazz, blues, stomps, all of hot music - apparently he wasn’t willing to share credit with anyone.
Even his birthdate is a source of controversy, since he claimed to have invented jazz in 1902, he had to make himself out to be at least five years older than he was in order to help substantiate the claim. However, he is now believed to have been born in New Orleans 1890; he was a Creole of Color, and as such bragged that “My folks were all Frenchmen” rather than Americans, and regarded themselves as several steps higher on the social ladder than Negroes. The Creoles considered themselves a cultured and privileged class, and as such, music education was de rigeur for their young, although it was somewhat shocking when, at the age of 14, Morton (born Ferdinand Lamothe), he took his education in classical piano and went to work playing blues and jazz in the Crescent City’s infamous red light district.
The young Ferd was working in “sporting houses” under the name “Morton” to shield his family from scandal, he said, but when they found out they kicked him out of their house. It no longer mattered; even by his teens, Morton was already one of the founding fathers of the new music, and he was one of the first New Orleans musicians to travel widely, even to the West Coast. He played in touring minstrel shows, he played for blues singers and vaudevillians, and he led his own bands; he was a literal superstar in Chicago at the height of the jazz age. To describe “Mr. Jelly Lord,” as he referred to himself, as “highly competitive” would be an understatement: he bragged about being a pool shark and a pimp as well as as nothing less than a piano predator, the musical equivalent of a marksman and sharpshooter, who relished not only being able to outplay virtually all of his fellow keyboardists, but humiliating them in the process. You go up against Jelly Roll at your own risk.
The recordings he made, especially the legendary Red Hot Peppers sessions from Chicago and then New York, are among the greatest jazz sessions ever, comparable with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives or the best of Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker. Morton’s classics, like “King Porter Stomp,” which went on to become a virtual national anthem during the swing era, “New Orleans Bump,” a longstanding favorite of Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, the piano tour-de-force “The Pearls,” “Wild Man Blues,” which inspired one of Louis Armstrong’s greatest solos, and the blues-drenched wit and humor of “Sidewalk Blues” and “Dead Man Blues” are all an unimpeachable part of the American musical canon.
Like the hero of an ancient Greek tragedy, Morton was ultimately brought down by his own arrogance - what the Greeks called hubris - as well as changing tastes in music, the Great Depression, the deeply entrenched biases against people of color (Creole and Negro alike), and the inability of Americans to take their own culture seriously. He died broke and alone in Los Angeles at the age of 50 in 1940. Yet what he gave to music, the systems he created and the foundation he laid for the future, make him nothing less than the Alexander Hamilton of Jazz.
Author: Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, VANITY FAIR and PLAYBOY magazine and reviews current shows for THE CITIVIEW NEW YORK. He also is the author of nine books, including the award-winning A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS, SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU, STARDUST MELODIES, TONY BENNETT: THE GOOD LIFE, LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, and JAZZ SINGING. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music.
SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU - NEW REVISED EDITION (Chicago Review Press, May 2018)