Today in History

Today in History: July 10

Lord Jelly Roll

Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton,
hand-colored photograph,
Nesuhi Ertegun Collection.
American Treasures of the Library of Congress

Legendary jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton died in Los Angeles on July 10, 1941. His musical innovations accelerated the development of jazz.

Born Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe in New Orleans, Louisiana on October 20, 1890, Morton began playing piano as a child. At age twelve he worked nightspots in the city's Storyville district. Between 1904 and 1917, Morton crisscrossed the nation playing minstrel and vaudeville shows. Billing himself as "Jelly Roll" Morton, by 1910 his style embraced a range of influences from ragtime and popular music to blues and spirituals.

French Market
French Market,
New Orleans, Louisiana,
copyright 1906.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

After five successful years in Los Angeles, Morton moved to Chicago in 1923. Leading an ensemble called Red Hot Peppers, his recordings won national popularity. A master of composition, Morton disciplined jazz with careful rehearsal and arrangement while retaining opportunities for improvisation. The orchestral style he pioneered flourished, but by the 1930s, Morton's sound seemed outdated and his popularity declined.

Down on his luck, Jelly Roll Morton moved to Washington, D.C., where he managed a jazz club. There, Alan Lomax, assistant-in-charge of the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center) encountered Morton and persuaded him to participate in a series of oral history interviews documenting the origins of jazz.

With Morton seated at the piano in the Library's Coolidge Auditorium, Lomax recorded over eight hours of Morton's music and reminiscences. Immediately recognized as an invaluable resource for musicologists, folklorists, and jazz lovers, the Library of Congress recordings revived Morton's career. Unfortunately, poor health curtailed his comeback on the music scene.