Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, known famously by his stage name “Jelly Roll Morton”, was an American jazz and ragtime pianist, bandleader, and composer. He is widely known as the first Jazz ‘arranger’, and for his contributions for the Red Hot Peppers and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
Jelly Roll Morton was born on October 20, 1890 in Downtown New Orleans, Louisiana, to a Creole of Color family. There is some debate over his date of birth, as his half-sisters claimed that he was born on September 20, 1885. His death certificate lists a different date altogether (September 20, 1889); however, the October 20 date from his baptism certificate is more widely accepted. The last name from LaMothe’s stage name was inspired by his step-father, who was named Mouton. Morton started playing piano as a child, and by age ten, he knew how to play quite a handful of songs.
Morton lived with his fairly religious great-grandmother when he was fourteen years old. He would tell her that he was working as a night watchman at a barrel factory, when instead; he’d be making money playing the piano for a brothel, or a sporting house. It was during these days that Morton adopted the nickname “Jelly Roll”. Soon, Morton’s grandmother kicked him out of her residence once she found out that he was playing music for a local brothel. The banishment by his grandmother actually helped kick start his career, and soon Morton was touring alongside Minstrel Shows, playing his pieces titled “King Porter Stamp”, “New Orleans Blues”, “Animule Dance”, “Jelly Roll Blues” and “Frog-I-More Rag”. His single, “Jelly Roll Blues”, was said to have been the first jazz composition that was ever published.
In 1917, Morton, together with William Manuel Johnson and Anita Gonzalez, wrote a great Hollywood hit titled “The Crave”. Another one of Morton’s pieces, “The Wolverines”, also garnered great fame in Chicago, upon which Morton took to recording both pieces. The success of both pieces led to Morton earning a prestigious contract agreement with ‘Victor’, which was a recording industry giant at the time. This marked the start of the Golden Age of Morton’s career. With Victor, Morton released plenty of records, most of which are now considered to be some of the greatest jazz classics. These included the legendary records which were released by the name “Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers”, which was a historical collaboration between Morton and other Jazz Legends, including Omer Simeon, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, and Andrew Hilaire. However, this ‘Golden Age’ could only survive up to 1931, as due to the Great Depression and the crash of the recording industry, Morton’s contract with Victor was not renewed.
Morton’s next formal appointment was at a music bar at Shaw, Washington DC, in 1935. The bar, which was also known as “Blue Moon Inn” or “The Music Box”, provided an opportunity for Morton to play for the Library of Congress. Morton’s pieces for the Library of Congress were released posthumously in their complete form in 2005, and the collection went on to win two Grammy Awards.
In 1938, Morton was stabbed while working at The Music Box. He was rushed to a hospital where he was refused treatment as the hospital was for whites-only, and then when he was finally brought to a hospital that would treat him, a lot of damage was already done. Morton died due to worsening asthma on July 10, 1941.