JELLY ROLL MORTON: Rags and Blues
Volume 3 of selections from the famous LIBRARY OF CONGRESS recordings
Jazz Archives #100(12”)
Game Kid’s Blues (2:27)
Honky Tonk Blues (3:30)
If I Was Whiskey and You Was a Duck (4:10)
Low Down Blues (3:59)
Winin’ Boy #1 (3:53)
Winin’ Boy #2 (4:11)
Alabama Bound (1:32)
Tiger Rag (3:27)
Randall’s Rag (0:50)
Maple Leaf Rag (St. Louis) (1:50)
Maple Leaf Rag (2:36)
Crazy Chords Rag (3:38)
Sammy Davis’ Ragtime Style (0:49)
Mamie’s Blues (3:13)
See See Rider (2:26)
This album, like two preceding LPs in the “Jazz Archives” Series (see listing at the end of these notes), can properly be described as a “new” collection of performances by one of the major figures of classic jazz, the flamboyant FERDINAND “JELLY ROLL” MORTON.
All these selections have of course been in existence for more than two decades, and Morton himself has been dead for just a few years less. These are all a part of the many hours of commentary, jazz history, exaggeration, singing, playing and autobiography recorded by Jelly Roll in 1938 at the Library of Congress (all of which is currently available on Riverside RLPs 9001 through 9012). But in these albums of selections, the documentary aspects of the material have been set to one side for the moment, and purely musical portions have been edited and combined to stand on their own. Morton was at all times during his career a master showman and entertainer – and never more so than on these Library of Congress recordings when he would seem to have felt that all posterity was his audience. Therefore it is not at all surprising that selections such as those include here, when brought out into the open in this way (rather than being semi-concealed within the rather awesome total framework of the Library series), turn out to be quite fascinating jazz performances in their own right.
The present album focuses on some of the most basic types of jazz material – playing and also, in the case of most of the blues, doing a considerable amount of singing as well. Judging from his records, it was quite late in his career before Jelly Roll came to consider himself seriously as a vocalist, but the fact would seem to be that, as in so many other facets of his life (from playing piano to shooting pool), Morton as a singer was every it as good as he wanted to be and almost as good as he felt he was. Particularly when he turns loose on uninhibited renditions of the sort of “low Down” blues he remembered from his days as a sporting house pianist in Storyville, his voice is compellingly full of life and emotion and wit, and is downright charming (if such a word may be used in connection with so unabashedly earthy a collection of verses as can be heard here).
The very first selection here, however, is a purely instrumental blues. This was one of those occasions on which Morton was ostensibly recreating the style of some legendary or long-forgotten early musician. “Game Kid,” whoever he may have been, probably did not sound exactly like this – there are clearly obvious touches of what I always think of as the “Mortonization” of a number. But Martin Williams (in his notes to the full riverside Library of Congress set) has referred t Jelly Roll’s really joyful demonstrations of honky-tonk and barrelhouse blues,” commenting that they “show what a keen ear and respect Morton has for a kind of music that he went beyond,” and it is this rather unlikely – but I think accurately sensed by Williams – combination of emotions (joy and respect) that gives this selection its special and unusual appeal. But it has been given this prominent place on this album because I find it singularly interesting and revealing: it is very good early barrelhouse-blues piano playing, and in its mixture of that blues style with touches of Morton-ish chords and devices, it suddenly evokes a picture of Jelly Roll as part of the world around him, as one piano player among many in New Orleans. Better than most, surely, and undoubtedly a little standoff-ish, but still one of a crowd of musicians and prostitutes and pimps and such –not the isolated, diamond-toothed, almost caricatured individualist that he is invariably considered.
(In this connection, I recall that Wilbur de Paris once pointed out to me that Jelly’s way of dressing – the diamond stickpin approach to sartorial style – was not uniquely his, but was pretty much the universal uniform of “fancy men.” The point is that jazz writers have been so busy with the picture of Morton as colorfully unique and uniquely colorful that they have ignored or distorted anything that might show him as a man among other men – different, certainly, but not completely a breed apart. The same thing tends to happen today in accounts of a modern musician like, for example, Thelonious Monk, also a man who is certainly not commonplace but who is also not a Martian.)
I have gone into so much detail on the basis of the Game Kid selection not only because the number appeals to me and because of the opportunity for general comment it affords, but also because what is true of this blues is true of most of the others on this record. These, too, although with some specific exception, are largely recreations by Morton of a shared past in the honky-tonk world. See See Rider, for example, is one of the best-known instances of a blues that everybody sang. And the repetition of certain phrases (“I could sit right here and think a thousand miles away”) and verses adds to the feeling that he was dipping into a common storehouse and picking out some of his personal favorites among a huge pile of blues material.
Among the exceptions to this, of course, is his by-now-celebrated Mamie’s Blues, basically a personal reminiscence. (Incidentally, our editing of this violates the music-only rule of these compilations, leaving in the spoken description of Mamie Desdume’s mutilated hand for purposes of clarification, since Morton then proceeds to what is apparently an imitation of her necessarily unusual way of playing.) Alabama Bound was also a personal specialty number; and Winin’ Boy at least begins by reference to an early Morton nickname. Both versions (the slower one second) are included here, not only because the considerable difference in tempo and mood from one to the other is interesting, but because the pronounciation varies meaningfully. In the faster version (#1), he is fairly close to saying “winin’ boy,” an apparent drinking reference; in #2 it is pretty clear that he is singing “windin’ ball,” a sexual reference that Jelly felt (according to Alan Lomax, who recorded him for the Library) was too improper to be passed on to posterity as a name for himself, so that he tried to twist things up in conversation with references to "wine" and such.
The “rag” selections are a rather mixed bag. Tiger Rag is not really a rag, of course (although it could well be considered “ragtime music” in the popular rather than the technical-musical sense); this selection is the famous conclusion of the transformation scene that starts out with the old quadrille. Crazy Chords Rag, which is not to be confused with the Morton composition Crazy Chords, has as much barrelhouse in it as anything else (somewhat reminiscent of the way in which Cow Cow Davenport’s Gennett recording, Atlanta Rag, keeps breaking down into boogie-woogie). The two brief fragments, Randall’s Rag and the imitation of Sammy Davis, are respectively a negative (Randall speeded up his tempos, says Jelly) and an affirmative (Davis was one of the greats, he felt) report on old-timers. Finally, the two versions of Maple Leaf shows the too-fast way they played it in St. Louis and then the correct way, which, not surprisingly, sounds a good deal more like Jelly Roll Morton than like the Scott Joplin (or really correct) approach to the number.
The full set from which this LP has been drawn is –
JELLY ROLL MORTON: The Library of Congress Recordings (RLPs 9001 through 9012)
The other albums of solos derived from this set are –
Mr. Jelly Lord: JELLY ROLL MORTON playing his own compositions (RLP 12-132)
JELLY ROLL MORTON Plays and Sings (RLP 12- 133)
Other Riverside LPs featuring Morton include –
JELLY ROLL MORTON: Classic Solos (RLP 12-111)
The Incomparable JELLY ROLL MORTON – his rares’ recordings (RLP 12-128)
Issued by special arrangement with the Estate of Ferdinand Joseph Morton.
Notes by ORRIN KEEPNEWS
Cover illustration by ROBERT ANDREW PARKER; cover designed by KEN DEARDOFF
Remastered, 1960, by JACK MATTHEWS (components Corp.) on a HYDROFEED lathe.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
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