Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (October 20, 1890 – July 10, 1941), known professionally as Jelly Roll Morton, was an American ragtime and early jazz pianist, bandleader and composer who started his career in New Orleans, Louisiana.
His composition “Jelly Roll Blues” was the first published jazz composition, in 1915.
Morton is also notable for naming and popularizing the “Spanish Tinge” (habanera rhythm and tresillo), and for writing such standards as “King Porter Stomp”, “Wolverine Blues”, “Black Bottom Stomp”, and “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”, the latter a tribute to New Orleans musicians from the turn of the 19th century to 20th century.
Sources differ as to his birth date: a baptismal certificate issued in 1894 lists his date of birth as October 20, 1890; Morton and his half-sisters claimed he was born on September 20, 1885.
His World War I draft registration card showed September 13, 1884, but his California death certificate listed his birth as September 20, 1889.
He was born to F. P. Lamothe and Louise Monette (written as Lemott and Monett on his baptismal certificate).
Eulaley Haco (Eulalie Hécaud) was the godparent.
At the age of fourteen, Morton began working as a piano player in a brothel (or, as it was referred to then, a sporting house).
While working there, he was living with his religious, church-going great-grandmother; he had her convinced that he worked as a night watchman in a barrel factory.
In 1912–1914, Morton toured with his girlfriend Rosa Brown as a vaudeville act before settling in Chicago for three years.
By 1914, he had started writing down his compositions.
In 1915 his “Jelly Roll Blues” was arguably the first jazz composition ever published, recording as sheet music the New Orleans traditions that had been jealously guarded by the musicians.
In 1917, he followed bandleader William Manuel Johnson and Johnson’s sister Anita Gonzalez to California, where Morton’s tango, “The Crave”, made a sensation in Hollywood.
Morton’s 1923 and 1924 recordings of piano solos for the Gennett label were very popular and influential.
He formed the band the Red Hot Peppers and made a series of classic records for Victor.
The recordings he made in Chicago featured some of the best New Orleans sidemen like Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, Johnny St. Cyr and Baby Dodds.
Morton relocated to New York in 1928 and continued to record for Victor until 1930.
His New York version of The Red Hot Peppers featured sidemen like Bubber Miley, Pops Foster and Zutty Singleton.
Like so many of the Hot Jazz musicians, the Depression was hard on Jelly Roll.
Hot Jazz was out of style.
The public preferred the smoother sounds of the big bands.
He fell upon hard times after 1930 and even lost the diamond he had in his front tooth, but ended up playing piano in a dive bar in Washington D.C.
In 1938 Alan Lomax recorded him in for series of interviews about early Jazz for the Library of Congress, but it wasn’t until a decade later that these interviews were released to the public.
In 1938, the folklorist Alan Lomax, later Morton’s biographer, recorded him in an extensive series of interviews held at the Library of Congress (issued on disc in 1948 and reissued in 1957).
In this invaluable oral history, Morton recalled in words and performances his early days in New Orleans, recreating the styles of many of his turn-of-the-century contemporaries.
Morton died on July 10, 1941 after an eleven-day stay in Los Angeles County General Hospital.