Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (October 20, 1890 – July 10, 1941), known professionally as Jelly Roll Morton, was an American ragtime and jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer. Morton was jazz’s first arranger, proving that a genre rooted in improvisation could retain its essential characteristics when notated. His composition “Jelly Roll Blues”, published in 1915, was one of the first published jazz compositions. Morton also wrote “King Porter Stomp”, “Wolverine Blues”, “Black Bottom Stomp”, and “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”, the last a tribute to New Orleans musicians from the turn of the 20th century.

Morton’s claim to have invented jazz in 1902 was criticized. Music critic Scott Yanow wrote, “Jelly Roll Morton did himself a lot of harm posthumously by exaggerating his worth…Morton’s accomplishments as an early innovator are so vast that he did not really need to stretch the truth.” Gunther Schuller says of Morton’s “hyperbolic assertions” that there is “no proof to the contrary” and that Morton’s “considerable accomplishments in themselves provide reasonable substantiation”. In 2013, Katy Martin published an article arguing that Alan Lomax’s book of interviews put Morton in a negative light. Lomax disagreed that Morton was an egotist. “In being called a supreme egotist, Jelly Roll was often a victim of loose and lurid reporting. If we read the words that he himself wrote, we learn that he almost had an inferiority complex and said that he created his own style of jazz piano because ‘All my fellow musicians were much faster in manipulations, I thought than I, and I did not feel as though I was in their class.’ So he used a slower tempo to permit flexibility through the use of more notes, a pinch of Spanish to give a number of right seasoning, the avoidance of playing triple forte continuously, and many other points”. – Quoted in John Szwed, Dr. Jazz.

Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe into the Creole community in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans around 1890. Both parents traced their Creole ancestry four generations to the 18th century. Morton’s birth date and year of birth are uncertain, given that no birth certificate was ever issued for him. The law requiring birth certificates for citizens was not enforced until 1914. His parents were Edward Joseph (Martin) Lamothe, a bricklayer, and Louise Hermance Monette, a domestic worker. His father left his mother when Morton was three (they were never married). When his mother married William Mouton in 1894, Ferdinand adopted his stepfather’s surname, anglicizing it to Morton.

At the age of fourteen, Morton began working as a piano player in a brothel. He often sang smutty lyrics and used the nickname “Jelly Roll”, which was African-American slang for female genitalia. While working there, he was living with his churchgoing great-grandmother. He convinced her that he worked as a night watchman in a barrel factory. After Morton’s grandmother found out he was playing jazz in a brothel, she disowned him for disgracing the Lamothe name. “When my grandmother found out that I was playing jazz in one of the sporting houses in the District, she told me that I had disgraced the family and forbade me to live at the house…She told me that devil music would surely bring about my downfall…. The cornetist Rex Stewart recalled that Morton had chosen “the nom de plume ‘Morton’ to protect his family from disgrace if he was identified as a whorehouse ‘professor’.”

Around 1904, Morton started touring in the American south, working in minstrel shows such as Will Benbow’s Chocolate Drops, gambling, and composing. His songs “Jelly Roll Blues”, “New Orleans Blues”, “Frog-I-More Rag”, “Animule Dance”, and “King Porter Stomp” were composed during this period. Stride pianists James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith saw him perform in Chicago in 1910 and New York City in 1911.

In 1912–14, Morton toured with his girlfriend Rosa Brown as a vaudeville act before living in Chicago for three years. By 1914, he was putting his compositions on paper. In 1915 “Jelly Roll Blues” was one of the first jazz compositions to be published. Two years later he went to California with bandleader William Manuel Johnson and Johnson’s sister Anita Gonzalez. Morton’s tango “The Crave” was popular in Hollywood. He was invited to perform at the Hotel Patricia nightclub in Vancouver, Canada. Author Mark Miller described his arrival as “an extended period of itinerancy as a pianist, vaudeville performer, gambler, hustler, and, as legend would have it, pimp”. Morton returned to Chicago in 1923 to claim authorship of “The Wolverines”, which had become popular as “Wolverine Blues”. He released the first of his commercial recordings, first as piano rolls, then on record, both as a piano soloist and with jazz bands.

In 1926, Morton signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company, giving him the opportunity to bring a well-rehearsed band to play his arrangements in the Victor recording studios in Chicago. These recordings by Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers included Kid Ory, Omer Simeon, George Mitchell, Johnny St. Cyr, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, and Andrew Hilaire.

In November 1928, Morton married Mabel Bertran, a showgirl, in Gary, Indiana. The couple moved to New York City, where Morton continued to record for Victor. Although he had trouble finding musicians who wanted to play his style of jazz, he recorded with Omer Simeon, George Baquet, Albert Nicholas, Barney Bigard, Russell Procope, Lorenzo Tio and Artie Shaw, the trumpeters Ward Pinkett, Bubber Miley, Johnny Dunn and Henry “Red” Allen, Sidney Bechet, Paul Barnes, Bud Freeman, Pops Foster, Paul Barbarin, Cozy Cole, and Zutty Singleton. His New York sessions failed to produce a hit.

RCA Victor did not renew Morton’s recording contract for 1931. He continued playing in New York but struggled financially. He briefly had a radio show in 1934, then toured in a burlesque band. In 1935, his 30-year-old composition “King Porter Stomp”, arranged by Fletcher Henderson, became Benny Goodman’s first hit and a swing standard, but Morton received no royalties from the recordings.

In 1935, Morton moved to Washington, D.C. to become the manager and piano player at bar called, at various times, the Music Box, Blue Moon Inn, and Jungle Inn, in Shaw, an African-American neighborhood. Morton was master of ceremonies, bouncer, and bartender. The club owner allowed her friends free admission and drinks, which prevented Morton from making the business a success. During Morton’s brief residency at the Music Box, the folklorist Alan Lomax heard him play. In May 1938, Lomax invited Morton to record music and interviews for the Library of Congress. The sessions were intended to be a short interview with musical examples for researchers at the Library of Congress, but the sessions expanded to over eight hours, with Morton talking and playing piano. Lomax conducted longer interviews, taking notes but not recording. Lomax was interested in Morton’s days in Storyville, New Orleans, and the ribald songs of the time. Although reluctant to record these, Morton obliged Lomax. Because of the suggestive nature of the songs, some of the Library of Congress recordings were not released until 2005.

In these interviews, Morton claimed to have been born in 1885. He was aware that if he had been born in 1890, he would have been too young to claim to be the inventor of jazz. He said Buddy Bolden played ragtime but not jazz, a view not accepted by Bolden’s contemporaries in New Orleans. The contradictions may stem from different definitions of “ragtime” and “jazz”. The interviews were released years later as boxed set and won two Grammy Awards. During the same year, Morton was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 1938, Morton was stabbed by a friend of the Music Box’s owner and suffered wounds to the head and chest. A nearby whites-only hospital refused to treat him, as the city had racially segregated facilities. He was transported to a black hospital farther away. When he was in the hospital, doctors left ice on his wounds for several hours before attending to the injury. His recovery from his wounds was incomplete, and thereafter he was often ill and became short of breath easily. After this incident, his wife Mabel demanded they leave Washington. Worsening asthma sent him to a hospital in New York for three months. He continued to suffer from respiratory problems when he visited Los Angeles with the intent to restart his career. He died on July 10, 1941, after an eleven-day stay in Los Angeles County General Hospital.

According to the jazz historian David Gelly in 2000, Morton’s arrogance and “bumptious” persona alienated so many musicians that few of them attended his funeral. An article about the funeral appeared in the August 1, 1941 issue of DownBeat and reported that his pallbearers were Kid Ory, Mutt Carey, Fred Washington, and Ed Garland. Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford were absent, though both were appearing in Los Angeles at the time. The article was reproduced in Mister Jelly Roll (University of California Press, 1950), a biography of Morton by Alan Lomax.

Morton’s piano style was formed from early secondary ragtime and “shout”, which also evolved separately into the New York school of stride piano. Morton’s playing was also close to barrelhouse, which produced boogie-woogie.

Morton often played the melody of a tune with his right thumb, while sounding a harmony above these notes with the fingers of the right hand. This could add a rustic or “out-of-tune” sound due to the playing of a diminished 5th above the melody. This technique may still be recognized as belonging to New Orleans. Morton also walked in major and minor sixths in the bass, instead of tenths or octaves. He played basic swing rhythms with both the left and the right hand.

Several of Morton’s compositions were musical tributes to himself, including “Winin’ Boy”, “The Jelly Roll Blues” (subtitled “The Original Jelly-Roll”); and “Mr. Jelly Lord”. In the big-band era, his “King Porter Stomp”, which Morton had written decades earlier, was a big hit for Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman; it became a standard covered by most other swing bands of that time. Morton claimed to have written some tunes that were copyrighted by others, including “Alabama Bound” and “Tiger Rag”. “Sweet Peter”, which Morton recorded in 1926, appears to be the source of the melody of the hit song “All of Me,” which was credited to Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons in 1931

His musical influence continues in the work of Dick Hyman, David Thomas Roberts, and Reginald Robinson.