Jelly Roll Morton: 'His Best Recordings: 1926-1939'

The cover of His Best Recordings 1926-1939

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A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: We're listening to jazz from the cradle. That's Jelly Roll Morton from a CD called An Introduction to Jelly Roll Morton: His Best Recordings 1926-1939 on the Best of Jazz record label. Murray Horwitz, Jelly Roll Morton was famous for having written Down Beat magazine and proclaiming himself "the inventor of jazz." If that is so, then this CD seems to give him some pretty good credits as an inventor.

MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: I think so, and I'm glad to hear you say that. That made Jelly Roll something of a laughing stock when it happened, I think in the late 1930s, early '40s. But listening to this music, I think he maybe can make a case. I'm sure that he invented a lot of what became jazz. I'm sure that it came out of his head and out of his heart.

SPELLMAN: He seems to be the first one to really organize it and to ensemble sound that is professional and prepared.

HORWITZ: In the way that you would think of a composer, organizing music. Certainly there were band leaders like Buddy Bolden and King Oliver who organized the music in a way. But Morton is the first one to write it down, and to combine written music with improvisation, and especially that multi-voiced improvisation that as you say, was in the cradle, in New Orleans around the turn of the century.

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SPELLMAN: It's a very sophisticated sound to me. There's a lot more going on than you wouldn't find in much of today's music. There are a lot more textures and effects, so forth.

HORWITZ: I think that's very true. You know, there is that complexity and that depth to the music. Emotionally and intellectually, there's a lot of humor in this music. Not only is he poignant, and on this record there is a gorgeous piano blues called "Mamie's Blues," which he claims is the first blues that he ever heard, but also there's — this is laugh-out-loud music sometimes. And that means that the music, to me, is still relevant and still telling US something about modern life.

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SPELLMAN: There are some compositions on this CD that stood up for many, many years. A lot of people played some of Jelly Roll's compositions.

HORWITZ: The most famous is "King Porter Stomp," which has been done in almost every decade by somebody or other. And you know, the jazz critic Martin Williams said that Jelly Roll Morton may not have invented jazz, but he may very well had invented jazz piano. And when you do hear his two versions of "King Porter Stomp" recorded about fifteen years apart on this CD, you'll hear what he means.

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SPELLMAN: So, for your NPR Basic Jazz Record Library, we recommend An Introduction to Jelly Roll Morton: His Best Recordings 1926-1939. It's on an import label called Best of Jazz. For NPR JAZZ, I'm A.B. Spellman.

HORWITZ: And, I'm Murray Horwitz.

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