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Jelly Roll Morton Plays the Library of Congress
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Jelly Roll Morton Plays the Library of Congress


Jelly Roll Morton Plays the Library of Congress
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Jelly Roll Morton was a genius of jazz, a composer and pianist extraordinaire, a man given to sartorial splendor, all of which he'd be the first to tell you. As it turns out, Jelly Roll Morton had much, much more to say, eight entire CDs' worth, released as a set for the first time by the Library of Congress: interviews conducted with the jazz great nearly 70 years ago.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. JELLY ROLL MORTON: When I was down on the Gulf Coast in 1904 I missed going to the St. Louis Exposition to get in a piano contest which was won by Alfred Wilson of New Orleans. I was very much disgusted because I thought I should have gone.

MONTAGNE: Jelly Roll Morton is speaking and playing here in 1938, sitting at a piano in the marbled halls of the Library of Congress. He was recorded by a young Alan Lomax, who had just embarked on a career as a folklorist, aiming to capture the soul of America on disc recording machines. Alan's daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, along with Jeffery Greenberg, produced this boxed set for Rounder Records. She says her father came across Jelly Roll Morton when his career had faded.

Ms. ANNA LOMAX WOOD: Jelly Roll was in Washington playing at the Music Box, and...

MONTAGNE: Little club, though, that he partly owned.

Ms. WOOD: It was a very little club--It was also called The Jungle Inn at other times--where he was kind of the host and the entertainer, and a lot of people who were future great jazz critics and writers and so on were coming in, dropping in to hear him. And at a certain point Alan was there at the time in DC, working at the Library of Congress.

MONTAGNE: Interested not so much in jazz.

Ms. WOOD: No, not at the time terribly. But, you know, he was focused on documenting American traditions and also Caribbean. By then, he'd been to Haiti and the Bahamas and done major collections there. And he kind of felt that jazz had been co-opted, I guess, by the entertainment industry, and he felt that also jazz was drowning out the regional American music, and it was causing people to kind of drop their own culture in favor of jazz.

MONTAGNE: Well, I--how did it happen, Anna Lomax Wood, that your father, Alan Lomax, ended up recording Jelly Roll Morton?

Ms. WOOD: When he saw Jelly Roll at The Jungle Inn, he, you know, obviously, recognized a real--an extraordinary talent. He found a man extremely appealing and charming. He apparently would offer people champagne, his personal guests, when they came into the club. And he would--he had elegance and grace.

(Soundbite of recording)

Ms. WOOD: Alan sat down on the floor, but he really didn't have to do very much besides turn on the microphone and ask every now and then a quiet, guiding question in the background because Morton was fully prepared for this, apparently.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. MORTON: Home day ha(ph). That's the sign of the ending. That would be some of the boys when they would be traveling in the city of New Orleans and it's during the Mardi Gras.

MONTAGNE: African-Americans dressed up, as Jelly Roll puts it, like the Indians did in days gone by.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. MORTON: They would dance and they would sing and they would go on just like the regular Indians. They would be armed with fictitious spears and tomahawks and so forth, and, incidentally, sometimes some of them would break the rules and have some real material to fight with, with steel and so forth and on. Some even had pistols. And I have known many cases where there have been killings in the city of New Orleans with the Indian bands. Now here's the way they would sing when they would be dancing.

(Sings) Too-way-bop-kuwana(ph).

The whole bunch would answer back.

(Sings) Hoo-ton-bay, too-way-bop-kuway, hoo-ton-bay. Too-way-bop-kuway, hoo-ton-bay.

See? They would--they'd have a kind of a rhythm with their heels, like this.

(Soundbite of tapping noise)

(Sings) Too-way-bop-kuway-boop-tom-day, too-way-bop-kuway-boop-tom-day. Too-way-bop-kuway-boop-tom-day.

(Soundbite of clunk)

MONTAGNE: That clunk you just heard was the sound of a disc ending. Alan Lomax had to quickly switch to the next one on his back-up recorder as Jelly Roll talked on and on.

It feels from listening to it, as if these pent-up stories just poured out of him almost like it was his--parallel to his music, his great work.

Ms. WOOD: Yes, and it is just mesmerizing, and Alan had just thrown him a challenge. He asked him to play "Alabama Bound" to see what--how he would do with folk material, and Jelly just began that way, and never stopped.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. MORTON: ...and the frequent saying was any place that you was going, why, you were supposed to be bound for that place. So in fact, this "Alabama Bound," and when I got there I wrote this tune called "Alabama Bound." It goes this way.

(Sings) I'm Alabama bound, Alabama bound. If you like me, see, baby, you got to see this town.

Mr. JEFFERY GREENBERG: Alan got a lot more than he expected going in.

MONTAGNE: Co-producer Jeffery Greenberg.

Mr. GREENBERG: I think he went in to work on an oral biography and make some records and see what kind of folk songs the jazz player knew, and realized what he was getting, and he, you know, ran upstairs to his boss and asked for more discs. He knew this was going to be something special, and he ends up at the end of the sessions getting--the oral biography and, in effect, the history of jazz and the history of New Orleans told by Jelly Roll Morton.

(Soundbite of recording)

MONTAGNE: Jeffery Greenberg and Anna Lomax Wood produced "Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings By Alan Lomax." The boxed set and bound liner notes were released by Rounder Records, and you can hear more from Jelly Roll Morton at our Web site,

(Soundbite of recording)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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