Jelly Roll Morton famously introduced himself as the inventor of jazz. While that claim has been questioned over time, the New Orleans pianist undoubtedly planted the early seeds of innovation in the genre.
Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe on October 20, 1890, although some sources cite 1885. A Creole, Morton was of Spanish, French and African descent. He picked up the piano at the age of 10, and honed his skills in the New Orleans bordellos in the city’s red light district as a teenager. Morton combined the bouncy styles of ragtime and minstrel music with a touch of the blues, all forming the early framework of what is now modern jazz.
Morton’s early years were also his best ones, as he toured the country as a musician, comic, vaudeville act and even worked as a pimp. After working in Los Angeles, he moved to Chicago in 1922 and began cutting records with the Victor Talking Machine Company. Four years later, Morton fronted the Red Hot Peppers band and toured the country with the outfit.
After marrying showgirl Mabel Bertrand, Morton moved to New York City and continued recording for Victor but his career began to wane as the dawn of the Great Depression zapped the creative energy of the times. Morton continued to work as a pianist at burlesque shows and the like, and even worked as a manager of a popular nightclub in D.C. By the late ’30’s, Morton and his style of music was considered outdated and he fell out of the limelight.
Just ahead of Morton’s death in 1941, renewed interest in his past works from the Library of Congress sparked a series of interviews where Morton claimed to have invented jazz. Although historians don’t agree, most scholars of Morton’s music do believe him to be the first jazz musician to put his arrangements to paper with the 1915 publishing of “Original Jelly Roll Blues.”
Morton died July 10, 1941, just as he was mounting a slight comeback.