Jelly's first jam: The life and work or Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton
Ferdinand 'Jelly Roll' Morton's best-known connection to musical theatre today remains the musical inspired by his life and work, Jelly's Last Jam.
This premiered thirty years ago at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and then ran on Broadway for more than 500 performances in 1992–93.
In jazz history, Morton is regarded as a pioneer: a virtuoso pianist who created a distinctive hybrid merger of ragtime and blues. Regarded as a bandleader whose Red Hot Peppers made many recordings in 1926–30, now considered classics, and a composer who introduced to jazz a uniquely structured ebb-and-flow among improvised, pre-planned, and written music. Gunther Schuller called him jazz’s "first great composer," and Morton himself claimed to be the "originator" of jazz.
Morton and vaudeville
As his legacy became canonized in jazz history – a legacy captured in the famous formal photo of the dapper Morton seated at an ornately carved grand piano – one key part of his identity got all but erased: his career as a vaudeville performer, or what we might call Jelly's First Jam.
In a 1985 article, Lawrence Gushee delved deeply into the early 20th-century black press – long before it was digitized – and rediscovered what he called 'the vaudevillian in Morton.' This is a figure that, Gushee wrote, "has seemed barely tolerable to many only because he was otherwise a wonderful jazz musician." Gushee noted how "jazz historians have often been uncomfortable with the many residues of Morton’s vaudevillian experience" – an experience captured most famously a 1914 photo in which he wears blackface makeup in his 1926 recording of 'Dead Man Blues.'
The recording begins with sixteen seconds of vaudevillian dialogue between Morton and a sideman speaking exaggerated black stage dialect. The vaudeville schtick then yields to a mock funeral march and several choruses of fluent, loose-limbed collective improvisation on the blues – which earned it a spot on the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, dialogue expunged.
All the more significant, then, is Gushee’s conclusion about Morton that although "the cradle of his art was New Orleans... its nursery was the world of black vaudeville and cabaret entertainment... between 1907 and 1923." In 'Dead Man Blues', we hear a vivid merger of those worlds.
The Original Blues
Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff expanded on Morton’s vaudeville roots in a recent book, The Original Blues. Their work foregrounds the innovations of a vaudevillian named Butler May, who went by the stage name String Beans. Morton paid tribute to String Beans in an interview, and Abbott and Seroff even suggest that Beans's performance of so-called 'pianologues' became a model for Morton, who likewise enjoyed telling jokes between numbers performed on the piano. Alan Lomax's recordings of Morton speaking, playing, and singing at the Library of Congress in 1938, issued for the first time in 2005, are themselves a kind of extended pianologue.
Abbott and Seroff, echoing Gushee, note that: "Historians have tended to segregate Jelly Roll Morton the vaudevillian from Jelly Roll Morton the pianist, effectively ignoring his 'pianologue'." If we are looking for an early nexus of musical theatre and jazz, one starting place might be the pianologues of Jelly Roll Morton, or perhaps even those of the man considered Morton's vaudeville prototype: String Beans himself.
- Lawrence Gushee, “A Preliminary Chronology of the Early Career of Ferd ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton,” American Music 3, no. 4 (Winter 1985): 391.
- Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019), 106.