Updated: May 4
The Stories Behind the Songs
April is Jazz Appreciation Month, also cleverly called as "JAM."It was founded at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History twenty years ago in 2001 to recognize and celebrate the heritage and history of America's original art form, jazz. The intention behind JAM is "to stimulate and encourage people of all ages to participate in jazz—to study the music, attend concerts, listen to jazz on radio and recordings, read books about jazz, and more."
To celebrate JAM at Perennial Music and Arts, we are going to take a listen and a look at some influential jazz songs that have become standards and learn a little about their composers/performers too. In this first post of two, we are going to focus on three "jazz fellas," Jelly Roll Morton, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington, plus an encore with Billy Strayhorn's Lotus Blossom. Next time, we will focus on the jazz "ellas," including Nina Simone, Toshiko Akiyoshi—and the "first Ella" herself—Ella Fitzergerald.
Jelly Roll Morton's Jelly Roll Blues
American ragtime and jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (September 20, c. 1890 – July 10, 1941) was known professional as Jelly Roll Morton. Morton was jazz's first arranger, meaning that he showed that a genre of music that relied highly on improvisation could retain its character when it was written down in notation.
Morton was born in 1890 (or early as 1885) in New Orleans, LA. He was the son of Creole parents He eventually took his step-father's last name of Morton. He learned to play piano at age 10 and within a few years he was playing in the red-light districts. Blending ragtime with dance rhythms, he was at the forefront of a movement that would soon be known as "jazz." Although he went by the name "Jelly Roll" to prevent his family from finding out where he was spending his nights, eventually his grandmother discovered the truth, and Jelly Roll left home while still a teenager. He began touring the United States as a pianist, vaudeville comic, and an-all-around entertainer, as well as a hustler and gambler. He claimed that he had invented jazz, which is untrue, however, he is noted as the first published jazz composer.
Under the name Ferd Morton, he first published his his most famous song, the "Original Jelly Roll Blues," also known as "Jelly Roll Blues." It is an early jazz song with a fox-trot beat, a popular dance rhythm of the time. He also included an Argentine tango-like rhythm in the melody, which Morton claimed was essential to "real jazz." It was published in 1915 though he claims to have written it as early as 1902. (The now public domain sheet music is posted above. Click to enlarge the pages.) He recorded it as a piano solo in Richmond, Indiana, in 1924, and then again with his band Red Hot Peppers in Chicago two years later.
The Red Hot Peppers became nationally known with such hits as "Black Bottom Stomp" and "Smoke-House Blues."They played in a New Orleans or "Dixieland" style using the standard New Orleans ensemble of cornet, trombone, banjo, drums, bass, guitar, and, of course, piano. They performed arranged passages, solos, and carefully worked-out breaks.
Jazz music is a style, not compositions; any kind of music may be played in "jazz" if one has the knowledge.
—Jelly Roll Morton
In the late 1930s, Morton was managing a Washington D.C. jazz club when he met folklorist Alan Lomax. Lorax recorded a series of interviews for the Library of Congress in which Morton offered an oral history of the origins of jazz and demonstrated early styles on the piano. The recordings helped rekindle interest in Morton's music but poor health prevented him returning to performing. He died in Los Angeles, CA, on July 10, 1941.
Morton may not have been the inventor of jazz as he claimed, he was one of jazz's greatest innovators. For his accomplishments, he was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, underscoring the far-ranging impact of his influence as a musician.
Listen to Jelly Roll Morton and the Red Hot Peppers play the "Original Jelly Roll Blues."
George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm
George Gershwin was born as Jacob Bruskin Gershowitz (September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937). He was an American composer, songwriter, and pianist whose music spanned across popular, theater, and classical genres. He was also an accomplished painter, painting portraits, including self-portraits. Many of his songs with lyrics by his brother (Dec. 6, 1896 – Aug. 17, 1983) have become jazz standards, including "Summertime" from their opera Porgy and Bess (1935), "Someone to Watch Over Me" from their musical Oh, Kay (1926), and "I Got Rhythm" from their musical Girl Crazy (1930). His jazz-infused concert music for orchestra works include 1924's Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra (unfortunately known to many listeners from airline commercials) and 1928's An American in Paris for orchestra (known to many from the 1951 film of the same name).
The Gerswhin family bought a second-hand piano for Ira in 1909, and it was George who proved his musical ability immediately. One of George's piano teachers, the well-regard Charles Hambitzer (c. 1878 – 1918), was so impressed by George's talent that he wote to his sister, “I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius.” George's talent and determination for music were so strong that at the age of 15 he dropped out of school and started work as a "song plugger,"a musician employed by department stores, music stores and song publishers to promote and help sell new sheet music. His employer was Jerome H. Remick and Company, a Detroit-based publishing firm with a branch office on New York City's Tin Pan Alley with a salary of $15/week. Tin Pan Alley was an area famous for the plethora of song pluggers that created so much ruckus from all of the pianos playing at once that people described it as sounding like people beating on pots and pans.
Gershwin's "big break" into show business came in 1919 when popular singer of the day Al Jolson heard Gerswhin play his song Swansee with lyrics by Irving Caesar (July 4, 1895 – Dec.18, 1996) at a party and chose to make it part of his repertoire. During this time, Gershwin had met composer and music director William Daly (Sept. 1, 1887 – Dec 3, 1936) with whom he collaborated. The two jointly composed the score for Our Nell (1923). Daly help George learn his way around Broadway, advocated for his music, and gave him musical advice. During the 1920s, George grew as a composer and wrote both "concert" music or music for the orchestral hall and popular music for the stage. His Preludes, a series short solo piano works, are dedicated to Daly. (Of the seven preludes that George performed in 1926 and 1927, only three have been published.)
Outside of music and theater, George also painted. His cousin the modernist artist, Henry Botkin (1896-1983) coached him as a painter, while George collected Henry's art. At the time, many people described Botkin's art as reflecting the mood of Gershwin's painting. After Gershwin’s death, Henry arranged an exhibition of his cousin's work at Avery Fisher Hall (now David Geffen Hall) in New York City.
“Life is a lot like jazz - it's best when you improvise.”
George's song I Got Rhythm is not only a jazz standard but was also a key part of the genre of jazz. The repertoire of highly improvised forms of jazz, such as bebop, includes many songs that began as the "rhythm changes,"a common 32-bar jazz chord progression based on the chord progression from "I Got Rhythm". It's in bar form or AABA. The B section features a circle of fifths progression. See a "chart," jazz term for a lead sheet or sheet music, of Rhythm Changes above. Songs built from the rhythm changes include "Anthropology" by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, "Cotton Tail" by Duke Ellington, "Rhythm-A-Ning" by Thelonius Monk, and "The Theme" by Miles Davis.
Unfortunately, George's life and shooting star-like career ended too long. In early 1937, he began to experience troubling symptoms such as severe headaches and noticing strange smells. Doctors eventually discovered that he had a malignant brain tumor. At the age of only 38, Gershwin died during surgery to remove the tumor on July 11, 1937.
Listen and watch George Gershwin perform "I Got Rhythm" in the video below. You can view the
Duke Ellington's It Don't Mean A Thing
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was born in Washington, D.C. in 1899. As a child, Ellington would rather play baseball instead of the piano. He sold peanuts, popcorn, and candy at the games of the Washington Senators. (The Senators were Washington's baseball team from 1901 to 1960.) He also had early ambitions to be a painter. His parents started him with piano lesson at the age of seven or eight, and it's a great thing for music history and American culture they did!
By 1920, Duke was performing at the Howard Theatre, playing small shows. In 1923, he moved to New York, but called his band "the Washingtonians" after his hometown. Not long after, they were recording, and in 1927, Ellington's band was hired to play regularly at the Cotton Club. They remained the house band for five years. The Cotton Club performances were broadcast almost nightly, so by 1930 Ellington and his band were famous.
Duke primarily wrote instrumental music. He was an accomplished arranger and orchestrator. He often worked with his musical partner, William Thomas "Billy" Strayhorn (November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967) about whom Duke said, "Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!" Lyrics were sometimes added later. Some his best-known songs include "Mood Indigo" composed with Barney Bigard and lyrics by Irving Mills, "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (1931) lyric by Irving Mills, "Sophisticated Lady" (1933) lyric by Mitchell Parish, "In A Sentimental Mood" (1935) lyric by Manny Kurtz, "Prelude To A Kiss" (1938) lyric by Irving Gordon, "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" (1941) lyric by Paul Francis Webster, "Don't Get Around Much Any More" (1942) lyric by Bob Russell, and "Satin Doll" (1958) composed with Billy Strayhorn and lyric by Johnny Mercer).
"Music is mistress. She plays second fiddle to no one."
"It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" was composed and arranged by Ellington in Aug. 1931 during intermissions at the Lincoln Tavern in Chicago. Ellington and his orchestra first recorded it for Brunswick Records on Feb. 2, 1932. Frequent collborator and lyricist Irving Mills (born Isadore Minsky; Jan. 16, 1894 – April 21, 1985) added the lyrics, vocalist Ivie Anderso (Jan. 16, 1904 – Dec. 28, 1949) sang the vocal. Duke's band members, trombonist Joseph "Tricky Sam" Nanton (Feb.1, 1904 – July 20, 1946) and alto saxophonist Cornelius "Johnny" Hodges (July 25, 1907 – May 11, 1970) performed the solos. Ellington wrote that the song was inspired by the way in which performers would create "an extra lift above and beyond the basic beat" that became known as "swinging." He went on to explain that the lines "It don't mean a thing/If it ain't got that swing" were "the expression of a sentiment which prevailed among jazz musicians at the time." Due to the rich orchestration and instrumentations, this type of jazz was also known as "symphonic jazz." Because of their style, the bands of the era became known as "Swing Bands" and a new sub-genre of jazz was born. Although referring to jazz as "swing" did not become popular until the 1930s, the idea or feeling—the essence of what swing music is—was what Jelly Roll meant what he said, "Jazz music is a style, not compositions; any kind of music may be played in "jazz" if one has the knowledge." Listen to a monumental performance from "The Ed Sullivan Show" on March 7, 1965 featuring another jazz legend, who we will learn about in our next post, Celebrating the 20th Annual Jazz Appreciation Month - Ellas Edition, Ella Fitzgerald in the video below.
Swing Bands became the most popular style of music in the United States and in many other areas of the world. In 1931, Duke and his band (as the Duke Ellington Orchestra) were invited to the White House, and in 1933, they toured Europe. He was recognized as a "serious composer." As the popularity of Swing Bands waned due to World War II and cultural changes, Duke's career did as well. Although Ellington's band suffered financial hardships, he kept the band together through all the years that followed, subsidizing the band from his royalties as a composer. The band was together for 50 years! A tribute version of the Duke Ellington Orchestra continues to perform Ellington's music today.
In 1966, Duke was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1969, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and in 1973, the Legion of Honor by France, the highest civilian honors in each country respectively. He died of lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, just one month after his 75th birthday. He is buried in the Bronx, in New York City. His funeral, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, was attended by over 12,500 people. Many of his fellow musicians honored his memory with music, including Ella Fitzgerald who sang and described the service as "It's a very sad day. A genius has passed."
Billy Strayhorn is best known as the quiet man behind the scenes in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Inspiration struck him for one of the band's most famous songs, Take The "A" Train, during a train ride in New York and "Lotus Blossom" may have been inspired by the times he sought refuge from his tumultuous childhood in his grandmother's garden. Fellow jazz composer and pianist Donald "Don" Shirley (Jan. 29, 1927 – April 6, 2013) said, "Of all the things that Billy wrote, 'Lotus Blossom' was such an enigma for Duke. It got to a point that I began to realize that it bothered him - in the good sense - trying to figure, how did he do that? It's that kind of thing. But Billy had that kind of genius." Listen to this moving musical refuge in the video below. What story do you think it tells?
Duke Ellington's Rendition of Billy Strayhorn's Lotus Blossom (1967)
You can view and download the transcription of this performance by composer Albert de la Fuente here.
We'll be continuing to celebrate JAM 2021 throughout April. While this post focused on the "fellas," next time we will hear the music of three influential jazz "ellas," including Nina Simone, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ella Fitzergerald and more.
Jazz Appreciation Month
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Jelly Roll Morton
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Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.