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  • The King of the UnderworldThe Invention of Jelly Roll Morton
  • Kristine Somerville and Speer Morgan

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Jelly Roll Morton in Storyville, New Orleans, c. 1903, ©Corbis

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Until 1910, Jelly Roll Morton had been a roving musician. Emboldened by his financial and critical success in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast and by a string of new piano compositions that he’d penned—“New Orleans Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” “Alabama Bound” and “Jelly Roll Blues”—he ventured to Chicago, a city lacking in top-notch piano players. Nothing as rhythmically free, offbeat and melodically intricate had been heard before in the North, and by 1914 he was heralded as the best “underworld pianist” around. He made the corner of Thirtieth and Calumet the heart of the music scene on the city’s South Side by holding court there. He sat on the curb and pulled up his pant leg so that his entourage of fellow musicians could view the diamonds glistening from his leg garter. A half-carat diamond glinted from his front tooth when he smiled. He had arrived. He was the fast-talking piano showman who looked as good as he sounded.

Many stopped to listen to this flashy curbside professor whose verbal riffs were as keen as his musical ones. Jelly Roll loved nothing more than offering up the history of jazz. He also loved telling his own story of the New Orleans hustler who had made it in the big city. He was the self-proclaimed innovator of this new musical style. His detractors called him a braggart, a hustler, a self-promoter and a pimp.

Morton’s story begins with a precocious youth in a fertile setting—New Orleans at the turn of the century, the cradle of jazz. He was born and raised on the outskirts of Storyville, with its saloons, brothels, music and dance halls and cabarets second in quality and number only to those of Paris. At night the District came alive. As a young man strolling down Basin Street, Jelly Roll would have passed half-dressed prostitutes working their cribs— shanties that held a single bed and a washbasin, where they serviced sailors, dock workers, farmers and businessmen for as little as a dime. Those wanting a more upscale experience could browse the Blue Book, a directory of the plush bordellos in the area.

As a teenager, when he worked Hilma Burt’s ballroom, Morton’s upright piano faced the mirrored wall, and as the tunes unspooled from his keyboard he watched girls dressed in silks and satins sashay around the gilded parlor. From there he moved on to Emma Johnson’s Circus House. A screen was placed between him and the tricks the prostitutes were doing for the guests. Wanting to see the show, he cut a slit in the screen and watched the naked dances and exotic sex acts. Jelly Roll learned to vary the tempo and style of his play to suit the performances. Brothels provided the perfect training [End Page 88]

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Jelly Roll Morton at the Piano, ©Corbis

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Jelly Roll Morton’s home, 1943, The Historic New Orleans Collection

ground for the young musician, allowing him to practice and develop his craft in front of a noncritical audience.

Jelly Roll Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe in a comfortable two-story house on Frenchmen Street in the Seventh Precinct, Seventh Ward. The exact year of Ferd’s birth (he said 1890, scholars place it closer to 1885) and whether his parents, Louise Monette and Ed Lamothe, were married are unknown. Neither a birth certificate nor a marriage certificate exists. Louise kicked Ed out for carousing with other women, and a few years later she married Willie Mouton, a hotel and club porter. She had two more children, Ferd’s half sisters Amede and Frances, who both adored their older brother. He also had a doting godmother, Eulalie, known outside the family as Laura Hunter. Hunter was a voodoo practitioner whose spells, potions and séances were popular in the District...


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