Artist picture of Jelly Roll Morton

Jelly Roll Morton

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Known as much for his bumptious personality and flashy ways as for his revolutionary piano style, Jelly Roll Morton was a giant of jazz in the first half of the 20th century. He emerged with the Dixieland movement that grew out of brass bands and blues in New Orleans; that traditional sound came to be derided for years in the bebop era but he later regained his position in the esteem of jazz fans, players and scholars and he ranks with Louis Armstrong as one of greatest jazzmen ever.

Born to a musical family, Morton learned to play from members of the New Orleans orchestral and choral community and as a teenager he joined ragtime performers in bawdy houses in the city's notorious Storyville district. His talent overcame his personality and he joined other musicians including Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and Kid Ory in the development of Dixieland jazz as it gained attention nationwide. In the 1920s, he formed his band the Red Hot Peppers and made recordings that are regarded today as masters of the form. His sidemen included George Mitchell on cornet, Kid Ory on trombone, Darnell Howard on clarinet and Andrew Hilaire on drums.

After spending time in Los Angeles and Chicago, Morton moved to New York and made several more records in the 1930s but when the Depression hit the nation, his career suffered. He spent time in Washington, D.C. working in an assortment of nightclubs where he was stabbed in an altercation in 1938 and moved to New York City to recover, although he had problems afterwards with shortness of breath. He wrote new music and planned to set up a new band but on a trip to Los Angeles he was hospitalised with respiratory problems and he died there at the age of 50. His reputation was re-evaluated in the 1990s and he has been immortalised on stage and screen and in print: Gregory Hines starred in the Broadway musical 'Jelly's Last Jam' in 1992, Clarence Williams III portrayed him in Giuseppe Tornatore's 1998 film 'The Legend of 1900', based on the novel 'Novencento' by Allesandro Baricco, and songs such as 'Jelly Roll Blues', 'King Porter Stomp' and 'Wolverine Blues' remain popular today.

Artist biography compiled by BDS/West 10. All rights reserved