Celebrating the 20th Annual Jazz Appreciation Month - Fellas Edition
Updated: May 4, 2021
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.