Jelly Roll Morton

The pianist Jelly Roll Morton is generally regarded as the first jazz composer and arranger. He was born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe in New Orleans to a Créole family, and there are differing records of his date of birth. The two most commonly cited dates are September 20th, 1885 and October 20th, 1890. He began his musical career in 1904 as a ragtime piano player in local brothels, and his self-assigned stage name was a play on brothel themes.

In 1908 he left New Orleans and toured along the Gulf of Mexico and within Texas state, picking up a feel for Latin music that he added to some of his music along the way. Later, in 1917, he moved to California. By 1922, Morton had established himself as a musician and composer. That year, he moved to Chicago and began a series of recording sessions with his Red Hot Peppers Orchestra. These recordings (especially those in 1926 and 1927) are considered to be some of the best examples of the New Orleans jazz sound. While living in Chicago, Morton began to sell his compositions as sheet music, which was a profitable enterprise.

After the Great Depression hit, Morton fell upon hard times. Not only were people less likely to buy his sheet music, but the Swing sound was beginning to supplant that of New Orleans. In 1935, Morton moved to Washington D.C. to perform at a piano bar called the Music Box, where he stayed for a couple years as his health deteriorated. Jelly Roll Morton passed away July 10th, 1941 while visiting Los Angeles.

Laura E. Brandt is a home-schooled part-time student at UW-Madison.


Historical Spotlight - Art Tatum

Born in 1909 in Toldeo, Ohio, Arthur Tatum Jr. is known for his incredible technical dexterity and his near blindness. His formal training came from the Toledo School of Music (where he learned to read sheet music in Braille), but he was primarily self taught by ear. By the age of 19, Art Tatum was playing with Jon Hendricks at Toledo jazz clubs and attracting the attention of national greats such as Armstrong, Ellington, and Basie. He began touring in 1932, modeling his jazz trio after Nat “King” Cole’s.

Tatum’s technical prowess is undeniable, but his uniquely ornate style has led to controversy on whether or not he can be called an “official” jazz musician. Nevertheless, Tatum was an extremely influential idol for many bebop players (Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, to name some well-known Tatum followers).

Unfortunately, Tatum (like many other iconic jazz musicians) suffered from drug-induced health complications. In his case, his excessive drinking finally took its toll in the form of euremia, and he died in 1956 at the age of 47.

Laura E. Brandt is a home-schooled part-time student at UW-Madison.