Sixty years ago, the man who claimed to have invented jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, died at age 50, in Los Angeles, California. Although not the sole inventor of jazz, Morton helped spread the music's appeal to a commercial audience. Jelly Roll's real claim to fame came as jazz's first great composer, arranger and improviser.
Jelly Roll Morton wrote one of the most popular songs of the swing era, "King Porter Stomp." Ironically, when the song hit its peak in the 1930s, Morton's career had already waned. It was the Depression and his music was considered outdated by younger, up-and-coming swing musicians. When he returned to playing small clubs in Washington D.C. and New York, audiences didn't realize the man playing piano was a jazz legend. Despite his reputation as a gambler and a pool hustler, Morton insisted that music was always his first love.
Jelly Roll Morton was born in New Orleans on October 20, 1890. He was only a teenager when he found work playing piano in the city's infamous bordellos. Morton soon took his music on the road, performing in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. His years in Chicago, especially with his band the Red Hot Peppers, are considered his best. He mixed ragtime, gospel, blues and Creole, setting the stage for swing and modern jazz. His friend and publisher Roy Carew later explained that Morton really meant to say he invented piano jazz, since there were very few competitors experimenting with new styles.
Jelly Roll Morton's music continued to thrive during the heyday of the big band era in the 1930s. His song "Wolverine Blues" was a favorite of bandleaders Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Morton rose from relative obscurity to record with Sidney Bechet and Red Allen in 1939, but his health declined and Morton died in Los Angeles on July 10, 1941.
Seven years after his death, the Library of Congress released an extensive interview with Jelly Roll Morton recorded in 1938, by historian Alan Lomax. In the interview Morton summed up his career with a description he often used on his business cards: "World's Greatest Hot Tune Writer."
Morton was inducted into Down Beat Magazine's Hall of Fame in 1963. The musical "Jelly's Last Jam," based on the life of Jelly Roll Morton, opened on Broadway in 1992, ran for 569 performances and won three Tony Awards.