Archive for the ‘The Rolling Jelly Series’ Category

[Here is Part 8 of the Rolling Jelly Series]

Jelly Roll Morton’s discussion of jazz-funeral violence (in his 1938 conversations with Alan Lomax) was not the only context for simultaneous fighting and celebration in the New Orleans of his younger days. The Mardi Gras Indians could be a violent lot as well, he explained to Lomax. As I noted in one of the stories in Letters From New Orleans, the old-timer Indian guys all make references to this stuff, but I was never sure about whether to believe it. Well, Morton’s recollections are obviously of an era that pre-dates even the oldest old-timer among contemporary Indians, but here’s what he had to say.

He explained the Indians to Lomax like so: “These people, they had the idea that they wanted to act exactly like the old Indians did in the years gone by, and they wanted to live true, to, to traditions of their style.” There were only four or five “tribes” in the city, but when they showed up at one of the big Carnival parades, even ones that “cost millions of dollars,” they would steal the show. “If a band of Indians was coming, why the parade wouldn’t have anybody there. Everybody would flock to see the Indians.”

The Indians were a feature of the city, he said, for as far back as he could remember. As a child, he added, he was a spy-boy – which is a sort of lookout, trying to spot rival tribes coming. “They was always kids that did the spyin’. These were real men that did this Indian dance and played the Indians. And their main object was to make the enemy bow, and they would use this word, when the spy-boys would meet another spy-boy, they said, ‘Bow-wow. Bow-wow. Ah, bow-wow.’ I don’t remember all the words they used to use. They’d point their fingers to the ground, ‘Bow-wow.’”

That, of course, is where the violence could start. Many of theses Indians were armed, he continued. “Some even had pistols. And I have known many cases where there have been killings in the city of New Orleans with the Indian bands.”

<– Part 7 /

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[Here is Part 7 of the Rolling Jelly Series.]

There’s a good deal of violence in New Orleans, and it’s not all that unusual for that violence to unfold in what seems like a strange context: during parades. In an incident earlier this year, for example, an 18-year-old guy shot up a funeral parade, wounding one man and killing another, before being shot himself by police.

Jelly Roll Morton and the other musicians Alan Lomax interviewed talked quite a bit about parades, jazz funerals, second lines – and, in fact, the violence that accompanied those events, from time to time.

Let’s begin with what Morton had to say to Lomax (in their 1938 conversations) about jazz funerals around the turn of the 20th century. “Of course, everybody in the city of New Orleans was always organization-minded, which, I guess, the world knows,” he told Lomax. “A dead man always belonged to several organizations.” These “clubs, and, uh, we’ll say, secret orders,” were instrumental in organizing and funding the funeral, and rounding up a band to perform. (The musicians in such bands, Morton pointed out, did not make the same kind of money that a piano player such as himself could make.) The dead man would be buried during the day, never at night, and in a vault, never “in the mud.”

As the mourners left the cemetery, “the band would get ready to strike up,” Morton continued. “They’d have a second line behind ’em, well, maybe a couple of blocks long, with broomsticks, baseball bats, and all forms of ammunition, we’d call it, to combat some of their foes when they come to the — to the dividing line.” Then Morton stopped talking and played “Didn’t He Ramble.”

But Lomax, not surprisingly, wanted to know what happened with the baseball bats.

“Well, on the way home,” Morton said, “everything was sad when they’d be playing the dead march. There would be no fights, no trouble. But on the way back, they had boundary lines. … When they got to a dividing line, which was supposed to be their district, they’d better not cross. If they do, they would be beaten up. And sometimes they were beaten up so bad that they had to go to the hospital. That’s the way it always ended in New Orleans.”

<– Part 6. Part 8 –>

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[Here is Part 6 of the Rolling Jelly Series.]

So since I devoted the last installment of the Rolling Jelly Series to defending New Orleans from accusations that it’s somehow an unusually segregated or racially tense place, it’s only fair to parse some of Alan Lomax’s interviews for evidence of, yes, racial tension.

I’m going to skip Morton’s comments on these matters, as they’ve been picked over by others. I’m also more interested in Lomax’s 1949 interviews with other musicians, because you might think that 40 or 50 years after the period the men are discussing, they could be a little more open. But the interesting thing here is how careful they are. You have to listen between the lines, for the good, for the bad, and for the just plain mysterious nature of racial relations among musicians and the members of their audiences.

Lomax asked Leonard Bechet: “What kind of man was Bolden? Personally?

“Personally,” Bechet offered, “he was a light-brown skinned man, you know?”

In another interview, Lomax asked Albert Glenny: “What kind of a fellow was Bolden?”

“He was about my color,” Glenny replied, before adding: “About as tall as me.”

So, let’s just say race is something these guys were aware of. Anyway, Bechet made this interesting comment when explaining to Lomax what his brother (Sidney, of course) got out of playing in front of various kinds of audiences and with various kinds of musicians, some Creole, some black. “You have to play real hard, when you play for negroes,” he said. “Ya understand? You got to play hard, you got to go some. To avoid any criticism. If you happen to be a little different from them, you got to come up to the mark. You gain that drive … These people, ya understand, they play like they’re killing themselves.”

Interestingly, he also called that playing style “more artificial.” But for whatever reason Lomax didn’t pick up on that comment, and Bechet was never given a chance to explain what that he meant. Too bad.

Anyway, a recurring theme is conflict between “nice” Creole music, and the music of the rougher “other side” — jazz. In time, the Creole musicians joined into the hotter music, of course, and one of Lomax’s interviewees said, rather sweetly, that now jazz would help straighten out “misunderstanding among the races.”

I’m more inclined to endorse a comment Bechet made, talking more strictly about the musical context, of what it meant when those different players got together, and what they created: “Ya understand — like wild.” That sounds right. Like wild.

<– Part 5. Part 7 –>

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[Here is Part 5 of the Rolling Jelly Series.]

New Orleans at the turn of the 20th Century was, as Jelly Roll Morton described it to Alan Lomax, “a free and easy place. Everybody got along just the same.” Perhaps, in the wake of Katrina, that sounds quite different from the modern New Orleans, which many have portrayed as a city of shameful divisions, its good-time façade concealing awful racial tensions and poverty. But as I’ve said elsewhere, I think a lot of that kind of commentary was motivated by the simple urge to project such problems onto one, distant place, rather than the deal with the extent to which the same issues bedevil every city in contemporary America.

“There wasn’t no certain neighborhood for nobody to live in, only with the St. Charles Avenue district, which is considered the millionaire district,” Morton said of his years in New Orleans, and there is something in this observation that holds true, in my opinion, a century later. I remember reading a certain lefty journalist railing about how the Lower Garden District should be converted into a mixed area as New Orleans rebuilds. If you look at the actual data you will learn that it was already a mixed area when Katrina hit. More mixed in terms of race and class groupings, I dare say, than the neighborhoods your typical lefty journalists inhabit. The problem with New Orleans was not that it had hidden away a few terrible pockets of poverty out of sight in a mostly affluent city. New Orleans was a largely poor-to-working-class city, with one or two pockets of affluence – like the “millionaire district” a bit further upriver on St. Charles. That little part of town, the place Morton referred to, is also the place where a handful of paranoid rich people called in private security commandos to defend their valuables after Katrina.

“Everybody just went anyplace they wanted,” Morton told Lomax. “Many times you would see some of those St. Charles Avenue bunch right in one of those honky tonks. They called theirselves slumming, I guess, but they was there, just the same. Nudging elbows with all the big bums.”

Morton was glossing race and class ugliness of course, and I’d be doing the same if I pretended there were no problems. There were problems. But I believe in a world that’s not either/or, but both. New Orleans was both a free and easy place, and a troubled one. It was both a place where everybody just went anyplace they wanted – and a place where there were some pretty significant exceptions to that rule. In other words, the New Orleans Morton talked about sounds familiar, to me.

<– Part 4. Part 6 –>

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[ Here is Part 4 of the Rolling Jelly Series.]

In an earlier post I touched on some of the sartorial matters relating to “St. James Infirmary.” And at various points in his conversations with Alan Lomax, Jelly Roll Morton had a thing or two to say on the subject of style. It’s clear Morton had a sense of style himself: Lomax describes him showing up for their 1938 interview sessions in gold rings, a sharp suit, and a diamond “set in gold in his front incisor.”

In his young New Orleans days, Morton professes, he always wore “a Stetson hat and a pair of Edwin Clapp shoes.” That earlier post was basically about Stetsons. Interestingly, Edwin Clapp shoes are mentioned in some versions of “SJI,” but I’ve learned very little about the company, or brand. (If you know something, speak up!)

Morton also goes into an excellent breakdown of tough-guy — gangsta? — style. “All those boys in New Orleans dressed very well,” he observes, although he seems not to be particularly impressed by certain trends. He says, for example, the red flannel undershirt was a real status marker in this crowd, and certain ladies were impressed by it — but Morton seems to find it silly, and to find the women who were impressed by it to be not worth bothering with. Also:

They all had the real tight trousers, those days. When they’d get into their trousers, they’d fit ’em like a sausage. … I’m telling you, it was very, very seldom that you could really button the top of a person’s trousers. .. And they had suspenders and — of course, they didn’t really need any suspenders because they was so tight fitting. And it was one of the fads that they would take on suspender down, as they would walk along with a walk that they had adopted from the river, which they called “shooting the agate.”

Lomax tries to get a little more detail on what that means. Morton does his best: “It was a kind of a very mosey walk, with holding two fingers down, one finger on each hand … the index finger … With the arms stiffed out, you know, especially when they would be standing.”

While Morton went for the Edwin Clapp shoes, some of these “tough babies” preferred “what they call St. Louis flats and the Chicago flats.”

These shoes were made with the cork soles on ’em and no heels and would turn up in the front. A lot of times they would have different designs in the toes of the shoes, such as gamblers’ designs, such maybe a club, or a diamond, a heart, or a spade. I have heard later on that even some of ’em had made arrangements to have some kind of electric light bulbs in the shoes with a battery in their pocket, and when they would get around some Jane or something that was kind of simple, and they could make her — as they call making ’em — why they’d press a button in their pocket and light up the little bitty bulb in the toe of their shoes.

Lomax seems to have a little trouble believing this. In fact, he revisited the subject in 1949, with some of the musicians he interviewed later, who were contemporaries of Morton’s. In a conversation with Albert Glenny and Leonard Bechet, he brought up “sporting life” style. Neither man really seemed interested in the subject, but it’s clear even from there dismissive comments — about silk shirts or the “funny shoes” that “turned up” that some of the tastelessly flashy men wore — that Morton wasn’t all wrong.

Later, when Lomax asked whether Buddy Bolden ever wore his shirt open with a red undershirt showing, Glenny denied it. “Oh no,” he said. “Well, I ain’t gonna say that, because I knew him better. … I used to drink with him and play with him, and have a good time with him, myself.” Then he laughed.

<–Part 3 / Part 5 –>

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[Here is Part 3 of the Rolling Jelly Series]

In the first — and admittedly way too long — installment of the Rolling Jelly series, I recounted some of what Jelly Roll Morton had to say about authorship and intellectual property issues. There is one footnote on that from Alan Lomax’s 1949 interviews with other New Orleans musicians who knew Morton and his mileu.

Lomax asked Johnny St. Cyr about Morton’s songwriting. St. Cyr says that, yes, Morton wrote “Wolverine” and was playing it way back in 1906, well before it was published, as well as “Whining Boy.” Lomax also asked about “Tiger Rag:” “Jelly Roll seaid that he developed that tune.”

St. Cyr replied a little evasively that the Dixieland Jazz Band and was the first outfit he heard playing it, supposed to be there number. Lomax pursued this and St. Cyr said:

Well, I’ll tell ya. Those boys, they learned their instruments down here, and they picked up pretty much, their numbers from parts from differetn numbers down here, made up thee tunes. That Tiger Rag was nobody’s particular melody. It was a combination of several different melodies they picked up and just put ‘em together.

Kind of remind me off Blind Willie McTell explaining that for “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” which he suggested he’d written over a few-year period, “I had to steal music from every which a-way to get it, get it to fit.”

<–Part 2 / Part 4–>

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[Here is Part 2 of the Rolling Jelly Series]

One of the things that was interesting to me about listening to the Jelly Roll Morton stuff was his occasional mentions of specific spots in New Orleans. It was because of this, in fact, that I launched yet another Letters From New Orleans new-technology extravaganza: The LfNO Platial map.

Now, originally, I just thought it would be interesting to point to some of the locales that Morton mentions. Then I thought: Hey, I could also point to the locales that I mention, in LfNO!

And so that’s what I did: Both. Plus I layered in notations related to the spinoff “MLK BLVD” project, and this spinoff, the “SJI” obsession Web site you are reading right now.

One last thing: Morton tells an impressive story about witnessing a killing at Jackson Hall, during a Buddy Bolden gig. He says Jackson Hall is in the Garden District, and puts it at the cover of Jackson and Franklin. Well, these days, Jackson and Franklin are in different parts of town and don’t cross. If you have any ideas whatsoever as to where this spot may have been, let me know…

<– Part 1 // Part 3 –>

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Some months ago I bought Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings. This is an eight-CD set, with two books, in a box that’s supposed to look like a piano. Pretty fancy. The material itself has been released in various forms before, many times, for many years. But it was new to me.

I rationalized this expense as a quasi-research item: Hearing Morton talk to Alan Lomax in 1938, about New Orleans in the first fifteen or twenty years of the 20th century, could provide (cough) valuable context for my “St. James Infirmary” project. Of course, Morton never mentions “St. James Infirmary,” which was no surprise — surely somebody would have mentioned it to me by now if he had.

Most of what I’d read about Morton’s conversations with Lomax focuses on his racial attitudes, or on some of his wilder claims about his own role in jazz history, or on his identification of “the Spanish tinge” as a vital element in New Orleans jazz. That’s all fine, but it wasn’t the stuff that caught my attention.

Today I begin a series of posts discussing the things that did catch my attention. I’m thinking I’ll try to do this every Monday, in an open-ended, “rolling” fashion, until I’m done.

The first topic is copyright. Obviously, there’s a “St. James Infirmary” sub-plot on this, since the evidence is pretty strong that this was basically a traditional song when Joe Primrose (Irving Mills) claimed it in the late 1920s.

Morton’s first mention of copyright issues comes relatively early on in his discussions with Lomax. Specifically, he mentions several songs that he wrote around 1905, including “You Can Have It, I Don’t Want it,” and adds: “Of course, I never got any credit for it,” because somebody else claimed it.

Why, Lomax asks, didn’t Morton copyright his tunes back then? Morton replies:

Well, I’ll tell you why we didn’t copyright ’em … not only me, but a many other. Why the publishers thought they could buy anything they wanted for fifteen, twenty dollars. Well, the fact was that, at that particular time, the sporting houses were all over the country, and you could go in any town. If you was a good piano player, just as soon as you hit town, you had ten jobs waiting for you. So we all made a lot of money, and ten or fifteen or a hundred dollars didn’t mean very much to us during those days….

So the publishers, we didn’t give ’em anything. So they decided, ‘We know a way to get ’em.’ So, they — a lot of publishers — would come out with tunes, our melodies, and they would steal ’em.

But we kept ’em for our private material. That is to battle each other in battles of music. Battles of music is old, ages old. And of course, if we had the best material, we was considered one of the best men. And of course, the best players always had the best jobs. And the best jobs always meant plenty money.

The subject of publishing comes up a number of times: various songs that were known among musicians to have been written by so-and-so — but somebody else published it. It’s pretty clear that it was a bit of a chaotic time in terms of working out who would get credit for what.

And after all, as much attention as gets focused these days on the transitions of the music business, it’s easy to forget the transitions that it has gone through before. In the first decades of the 20th century, who really knew how important publishing rights to various jazz and blues numbers would be? From about 1904 onward Morton was a peripatetic guy, and tells stories of piano battles and other adventures everywhere from Alabama and Mississippi and Texas to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles. It was, no doubt, an economically sound decision to avoid the publishers to keep songs secret to protect the business interests of the traveling piano player in the early 20th century — economically sound, that is, in the short term.

And there’s one other element of Morton’s discussions of this issue that’s worth note, I think: He never really talks about anything as being “traditional,” per se. That is, for any given tune, he pretty much always produces a name of somebody who actually wrote it, whether it’s him, or Buddy Bolden, or whoever. In some cases, it seems that Morton is guilty of overly aggressive credit-claiming, too. For instance, he says he composed “Tiger Rag” — not (as Lomax noted) a very credible authorship claim.

Point is, it seems that it’s not that Morton didn’t believe in the idea of authorship. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to take seriously the link between authorship and whoever’s name was attached to the published version of the song.

And certainly by the time he sat down to talk to Lomax, Morton seen the way that economics and musical authorship intersect change quite a bit from the days of battling rival piano players in “sporting houses.” As Lomax later wrote in Mister Jelly Roll, by the 1920s, Morton was figuring out that “it was more profitable to publish and own music than it was to compose or play it.”


Part Two –>

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