Jelly Roll Morton was recorded by Alan Lomax in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress in 1938. These selections include Morton both playing his music and talking about its roots.
The Alan Lomax recordings revived interest in Jelly Roll Morton's career. Morton, seen in this undated photograph, died in Los Angeles in 1941.
The Alan Lomax recordings revived interest in Jelly Roll Morton's career. Morton, seen in this undated photograph, died in Los Angeles in 1941. Rounder Records
The box set was produced by Anna Lomax Wood (Alan Lomax's daughter) and Jeffrey Greenberg.
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton called himself the "originator of jazz, stomps and swing."
In 1938, at a low point in his career, he recorded a series of interviews and performances with the folklorist Alan Lomax. Now those recordings have been released in a new box set from Rounder Records called Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings.
It is believed Morton was born in Gulfport, Miss., in 1885. His family moved to New Orleans shortly afterwards. By 1904 he was so well known as a pianist that he began to travel the country performing.
By the late 1930s Morton's career was waning. That's when Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax found him at the Jungle Inn, one of the few clubs in Washington, D.C., that welcomed both white and black patrons.
Lomax was concentrating on recording the sounds of American folk music. He thought America's regional music was under threat of extinction from popular music like jazz.
But Lomax found Jelly Roll Morton an eloquent and compelling talent. He couldn't resist recording the jazz great's oral history.
Morton prepared well for the interviews. The result was nine hours of recordings that now fill seven CDs in the Rounder set. They capture the jazz raconteur spinning tales and playing music at his own pace.
"As I listened to it, I realized that this man spoke the English language in a more beautiful way than anybody I'd ever heard. He had a totally original style," Lomax recounts in the box set's liner notes. "A gravel voice melting at the edges, not talking, each sentence bowling along like a line from the blues, like an eddy of a big sleepy Southern river, weaving a legend…"