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Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music, And Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton Paperback – 26 May 2004

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Product details

  • Paperback: 318 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (26 May 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306813505
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306813504
  • Product Dimensions: 15 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 849,131 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"A standout achievement...redeems a misunderstood invaluable record of Morton's brilliant rise and bitter fall."

About the Author

Howard Reich is the veteran jazz critic of the Chicago Tribune and the winner of many awards. A longtime correspondent for Downbeat magazine, he is also the author, with William Gaines, of the critically acclaimed biography Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton. He lives in suburban Chicago. William Gaines retired from the Chicago Tribune in 2001 and is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. He lives in Munster, Indiana.

Inside This Book

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First Sentence
On a steamy September day in 1904-the Louisiana air far too thick for a Midwesterner's lungs-a soft-spoken twenty-year-old from Grand Rapids, Michigan, showed up for his first day of work and was stunned at what he heard. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By W. A. Wolfenden on 10 Mar. 2010
Format: Paperback
I think the previous reviewer is harsh in his or her criticism of sections of this book. As a lifelong admirer of Jelly's music and follower of his fascinating life, I found the book totally absorbing. It is well written and contains much information both new, and some which has been well documented previously. I found it difficult to put the book down once I had picked it up. There are some gaps in the research on some recording sessions, and sometimes facts are blurred by speculation but this is a great read, a must for any Jelly addict.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 25 Jun. 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book provides a different perspective on the life of Jelly Roll Morton and an insight into the music publishing world in the early 20th Century.
Although there is reference to his recordings and later life I have the impression that there is an imbalance, much attention is focused on who he was and where he came from which is excellent and helps to understand the character of the man.
Being very familiar with his music and recordings I was disappointed at the lack of information and insight into the recording sessions, where the first part of the book had given new information and a lot of detail, this section seemed cursory. The list of music publications by Jelly Roll at the end of the book does not seem complete, in particular the music from the trio recordings with Zutty Singleton and Barney Bigard is missing as is reference to the recording session itself.
Also despite great play on the huge amount of information now available about his later life, the section dealing with the end of Morton's life and his struggle with Melrose,ASCAP etc is not covered in sufficient detail nor is there reference as to where the detail can be found.
My feeling is that a revision to the title would be beneficial to potential readers, perhaps "Jelly's Blues: The Life of Jelly Roll Morton" would be more honest.
That said, this is a fascinating view of New Orleans and Jelly Roll Morton's effect on the future of jazz music.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 15 reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Chapters Six through Eight Make This Book 4 Jun. 2005
By madamemusico - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The great trumpeter Rafael Mendez once said that he lived by one golden rule his father taught him: "Never boast. Someone better than you may be lurking around the corner, waiting to take your place." This was a lesson that Jelly Roll Morton (1886-1941) didn't learn until bad luck, lack of opportunity and rivals who DID take his place (particularly Ellington and Art Tatum) humbled him into reassessing his talent and his place in contemporary music. But, as this remarkable book points out, he not only learned his lessons but learned from them, remaking both his image and his music in the face of near-total indifference.

When reading through this bio, I had reached about page 148 and had some reservations as to its worth over Alan Lomax's half-bio, half-autobiography, "Mister Jelly Lord." It seemed to me that the authors had bent over backward to excuse Morton's past as a pimp, gambler and hustler simply because he was the first to codify jazz in written music, and indeed even seemed to claim his superiority as a jazz musician over such luminaries as Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Chapter Five, in particular, had several errors in both fact and judgment, consistently referring to Morton making his early acoustic recordings in front of "microphones" (they used a big metal horn to focus the sound into a steel cutting needle, no microphones were used at all, hence the term "acoustic"), renaming Bing Crosby as Bill (a typo so glaring that even a modern yuppie proofreader should have spotted it), and their astounding demotion of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings to "a rinky-dink ensemble" in their records without Morton. (In plain truth, the NORK was the first band to actually swing on records, even from their very first records in 1922, by virtue of their rolling, "loping" beat, similar in feel to that of Sidney Bechet's New Orleans Feetwarmers of a decade later. Listen and hear for yourself.)

At this point, then, I was going to give this book 3 stars, mostly for factual accuracy but not for value judgments or style. But then something happened. They began chronicling, in full detail, the meeting and eventual partnership of Morton and Roy Carew. They fully documented, as Lomax had not, all of Morton's personal, medical and legal battles with their results in his lifetime and after. They described in full Morton's second and last stay in New York, quoted what he really said to black musicians on the street corners of Harlem, and told just how he re-evaluated the musical value of contemporary musicians and planned to compete with them. And they described in detail his sad last months in California and the creative new music he had written for large orchestra, something far beyond his greatest accomplishments of the 1920s.

Morton, then, is truly given his just due as a man and musician. The loudmouthed "braggart" is revealed as a man who did not proselytize his music above all others in Harlem, but warned younger black musicians not to trust the powers that be in the music business of their time because they would get railroaded as he had. The quixotic dreamer who Lomax described as wanting to create carbon-copy Red Hot Peppers bands across America to push his name above all others is shown as a man who truly cared about finding work in the Depression for good musicians who deserved better. And the "moldy fig" whose stomps and blues were already outdated by 1939 is shown as a vital creator who was still coming up with startling new material. So much is already evident to Morton fans from a few of the 1939-40 General recordings, but this book also describes his innovative large-band scores "Mr. Joe," "Oh Baby" (not to be confused with the pop `20s song of the same name), "Why?" and especially "Ganjam." More satisfyingly for the reader, it chronicles how Morton's "loudmouthed" complaints of the early 1940s eventually led to real reform in the 1950s and `60s of the entire music business and the rules it had to follow.

As a result, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Forget the sometimes stiff and schoolbookish writing style. Forget the occasional errors in fact and judgment. The overall picture it paints of Mr. Jelly Lord, especially in his last years, is a fine and noble one. If you think you know the Morton story, I'm here to tell you you DON'T, at least not until you read this book. I always had the utmost respect for Morton's musical mind, one of those rare organs that was able to remember with photographic precision everything it heard and synthesize it into a unique and personal style. Now I have respect for Morton the person as well, at least the Morton of his last years. Jelly Roll had indeed redeemed himself, and you WILL be startled by some of the things you read here. I guarantee it.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Jelly Roll Rests His Case 10 July 2004
By David F. Reddig - Published on
Format: Hardcover
For much of his life, and in the decades since his death, Jelly Roll Morton has had the reputation of a flashy braggart (he claimed he invented jazz--a claim this book goes a long way in validating), a pontificator, a pimp, a card shark, a pool hustler, a pathological liar, a racist, a cliche', a brute and a bully. I'd never bothered to learn about Morton or his music because he was seldom referenced in anything but a disparaging manner. It was my loss, because Jelly Roll Morton was one of the first true pioneers of jazz.

"Jelly's Blues" attempts to set the record straight and salvage Morton's reputation. The 1992 death of New Orleans jazz collector William Russell unearthed a 65,000-item collection of Jelly Roll Morton memorabilia that sheds much-needed new light on the life of Jelly Roll Morton; it is the reason this book was written. The collection contained many never-before-seen compositions Morton penned late in life. It also included his correspondence with friend and business partner Roy Carew, who he met in 1938. In the last three years of Morton's life, Carew worked to restore him to his former place of glory and collect the royalties that were owed him.

There are essentially two parts to this book. The first describes Morton's childhood and adolescence in New Orleans, where he split his time between playing piano in the brothels, pimping, card sharking, and hustling pool. He eventually abandoned his vices to concentrate on music and had some early successes as a burgeoning composer and performer. He traveled the U.S. extensively in his adolescence. He published his first composition during World War 1 before settling in Chicago to perform, compose and record. The early chapters of Jelly's Blues highlight Jelly Roll's amazing piano playing skills, innovative compositions, and ingenuity in devising a way to set improvisational music down on paper--something Morton was the first to do. Also chronicled are his first recording sessions.

The second half of "Jelly's Blues" deals with the last fourteen years of his life, in which Morton suffered one setback after another. His health began to suffer. He struggled to find work, recording or playing, and took jobs that were beneath a man of his talents. He battled with his publishers, the Melrose brothers, who paid him nothing even though they had been releasing his scores and profiting from them for years. He also took on ASCAP, which for years barred blacks from becoming members (even when Morton was finally admitted into ASCAP near the end of his life, the pay scale was an insult; ASCAP gave approximately $16,000 a year to well-known white composers such as Berlin and Rodgers, while placing black composers in its lowest category, paying them $120 per year). Morton was never at a loss for people who were willing to take advantage of him. He suffered one inequity after another at the hands of the music industry. His compositions were widely recorded during the 20's and 30's, yet he never received a dime in royalties.

There are passages in the last chapters of this book that are heartbreaking. Morton tirelessly looked to reclaim his former status and successes and to collect the royalties that were rightfully his. He had little to no success in either regard, and yet what comes through most in the later pages of "Jelly's Blues" is the story of a man who had unbridled faith in himself, enduring confidence in his abilities as a pianist and composer, and a refusal to give up. Right up to the time of his death in 1941 from heart failure, he was composing innovative and complex new scores that pointed toward the avant-garde, still a decade away.

Shortly after Morton's death, Downbeat Magazine published an article entitled "Jelly Roll Rests His Case". "Jelly's Blues" may finally make this claim a reality. I can think of no other figure in jazz who is more deserving of redress.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
A sad tale of genius, robbed by Melrose 29 Aug. 2004
By G. Whiz - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've read a good bit about Morton, how he was a "braggart" and a story-teller. Indeed, he was a story-teller but once you read this book, telling how Jelly was robbed by his music publishers as well as his on again/off again wife, you'll have a greater and deeper appreciation of the artist known as Jelly Roll Morton.

A wonderful read, a sad story and thank goodness all the papers were found in that apartment/home in New Orleans less Morton end up no more or no less respected than his former reputation.

The inventor of jazz? Pretty darned close.

Now, if someone would only release the COMPLETE Lomax LOC recordings - that would be something! Mosaic, where are you when we need you?
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
A disappointment 29 Mar. 2005
By a reader - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The book contains a number of careless errors. For example, it repeatedly states that King Oliver recorded Morton's "Wolverine Blues" (which he didn't--they're confusing it with "Weatherbird Rag," written by Louis Armstrong). Regarding "solo tunes... recorded on July 8, 1929," the authors mention "'Pop' (a revisiting of 'Seattle Hunch')." The correct title, "Pep," bears some similarity to the earlier "Stratford Hunch," not to "Seattle Hunch," which was recorded after "Pep." Other mistakes are evident...

Also, the focus on Morton's health and financial problems comes at the expense of his musical achievements--his monumental Library of Congress sessions receive a single paragraph in the main text. For those interested in Morton, I'd recommend the great "'Oh, Mister Jelly' - A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook" by William Russell and "Mister Jelly Lord" by Laurie Wright (neither are easy to find), as well as "Dead Man Blues" and the landmark "Mister Jelly Roll."
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
The Greatest Jazz Composer, Mr. Jelly Lord 19 Aug. 2008
By Daniel B. Pepper - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is an excellent book which gives us a full picture of the life of Jelly Roll Morton, one of the most important figures in early Jazz. Though Morton is remembered by many critics and fans as a bitter man who claimed he "invented Jazz", a pimp, a card shark, a liar, and an all-around lousy human being, after reading this book, I have come to think of him as an American musical genius and a man with great strength and pride in his work. "Black Bottom Stomp" is one of the most wonderful pieces of music in history; I have never heard such amazing musicianship in such a short song. The tune is literally crammed with ideas. "Deep Creek" is Jelly Roll's masterpiece in my opinion, and "Dead Man Blues" and "Pretty Lil" are not far behind. The author does an excellent job of discussing all of these tunes, and how Jelly Roll was able to read, write, and compose music, as well as tell all of his band members exactly (and we mean exactly!) how to play their instruments. I enjoy his music even more than that of Louis Armstrong, and feel that he is a truly under-appreciated genius in the field of Jazz, and American music in general. Lester Melrose is a real s.o.b. and really robbed Jelly Roll. He cheated him out of countless dollars. The author does a wonderful job of helping Mr. Morton redeem himself. Until the very end of his life, Jelly Roll Morton tried to record music that was light years ahead of what everyone else was writing and playing. This book is excellently written, fun, tragic, and highly recommended!
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