Pimp, pool shark, conman - and the father of jazz. Roy Barthlomew looks at the life of Jelly Roll Morton
Wednesday 06 September 1995
"Fun, sexy and fast" is how Philip Hedley, the Theatre Royal's artistic director, describes this latest example of what - in the wake of Unforgettable and Five Guys Named Moe - seems to be a spate of small-scale productions with West End ambitions.
Worryingly reminiscent of Clarke Peter's Unforgettable, Jelly Roll! will try to tell the story of a Big Life with the aid of just two actors - the virtuoso pianist Morton Gunnar Larsen and the show's African-American creator, Vernel Bagneris. Larsen will replicate Jelly Roll's piano; Bagneris will do all the speaking parts.
Yet, if ever a tribute required a huge cast, it must be the story of jazz's greatest showman. Jelly Roll lived a rock'n'roll lifestyle before the advent of rock'n'roll. With a taste for $100 suits, he was the most flamboyant character among those musical pioneers, including King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, who first took jazz out of New Orleans.
Aside from being early jazz's greatest pianist, Jelly Roll was also a pimp, a pool shark, a small-time conman who dabbled in voodoo, and a monumental egotist. It was probably his high-hattedness which, in the end, cost him the affection and financial security with which America's music establishment rewarded the more politic Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
Born to a lower middle-class Creole (Afro-French) family with pretensions to gentility, the man who claimed to have invented jazz was weaned on classical music, especially French and Italian opera, and before he was 15 had taught himself to play a variety of instruments, including the piano.
Turn of the century New Orleans, at the time of his birth, was a jazzman's paradise, with marching bands, street singers and exuberant funeral processions. Ragtime was the craze and Storyville, the city's redlight district, was the hub, attracting from all over the South musicians who found well-paid work in brothels, bars and gambling dens. Like so many of his coloured and white contemporaries, Jelly Roll, or to give him his real name, Ferdinand De La Mothe, was riveted by the new "Negro horn and piano music" that blared from every segregated quarter of New Orleans. It wasn't long before he was bringing his own considerable talent to that district, and to the notorious sex and music entertainment industry there.
Disowned by his grandmother after she learnt he was playing piano in a whorehouse, the 15-year-old Jelly Roll moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, only to take a similar job in the mansion of a white, high-class madam. But, as he told the Congress librarian Alan Lomax in the biography Mister Jelly Roll, after a rumour spread that he and the lady were having an affair, he fled back to New Orleans, narrowly escaping a lynching.
It is such stories that form the basis of Stratford's new revue, which started out 15 years ago when Bagneris first teamed up with Larsen on a 45-minute touring version cheekily entitled Jelly Roll: Me-Morial.
In the years before he became a bitter old man who showed nothing but contempt for the good fortune of younger players such as Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll - who famously sported a diamond in his front teeth and fronted a number of failed business ventures, including a brothel and a speakeasy - secured a reputation for proving that jazz could be "composed" in the classical sense, ie written down, rather than simply improvised. In fact, he never trusted improvisation, saying that musicians often "get it all wrong".
Throughout his life Jelly Roll won foes and disciples in equal number. Yet when he died, none of the leading lights in jazz paid their respects. His sin, finally, lay not in claiming to be the sole inventor of jazz (although, in fact, some early riffs have laid the foundation for many styles), or in sapping the confidence of many whose skill he genuinely believed could never match his own, but rather in failing to adapt his music to suit the times. By the late Thirties, Jelly Roll's jazz was derided as old-fashioned and out of touch. In July 1941 he died of a heart attack.
n Jelly Roll! opens at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15 on Wednesday (previews from Monday). Tel: 0181-534 0310
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