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Reviewed by Harvey Pekar, December 9, 2005, Music

Jelly Roll Morton

The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax (Rounder)

Around 1900, jazz became an independent form of music, growing from earlier styles including ragtime and marches. One of the genre's most important early innovators was pianist, composer, arranger Jelly Roll Morton, whose career began as a teenaged pianist in the brothels of the red light district, Storyville. A Creole with a middle-class background, Morton was interested in everything from gutbucket blues to high-quality classical, musical forms that influenced him in his transition from ragtime player to jazz pioneer. Unfortunately, he didn't record until 1923, so the exact nature of his earliest efforts remains somewhat obscure, though as early as 1910, he was recognized as a serious innovator of the form. Morton's style of music was not in fashion when the discs on this set were cut by famed folklorist Alan Lomax. They consist of seven CDs recorded in 1938 for the Library of Congress on which Morton plays, sings, and speaks, and are issued here for the first time in their entirety. An eighth CD, recorded in 1949, records impressions of him by some of his New Orleans contemporaries as well as demonstrations of music by them. What's made clear here is that Morton's being called one of jazz's most important founders is fully justified. Actually, during his 1923 sessions, he's ahead of his time. Check him out on "Ain't Misbehavin'," where his complex single-note lines are reminiscent of Art Tatum's work. As for Morton's compositions, his "King Porter Stomp," said to have been written as early as 1905, was still popular with swing bands when he cut it here. And his "Pep," with its impressionist influence, is modern in some respects even today. Morton was ridiculed in the latter part of his career because he claimed, "I created jazz," and he was not always charitable about other musicians. Nevertheless, his oral history here is provocative, and his playing bears out some of the hard-to-believe statements that have been made by (and about) him.


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