Jelly Roll Morton
© 2007
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Morton’s flamboyant, if frequently exasperating personality and colourful activities outside of music – at different times he was a card sharp, pool shark, black-faced comic in minstrel shows, sharp-shooter in Wild West shows, singer, business entrepreneur, pimp, saloon manager etc – have tended to obscure the fact that he was one of the most important musicians in the development of jazz in its earliest phase.

He grew up in New Orleans at a time when the first generation of jazz musicians was starting to break away from the rigid syncopations of ragtime, and incorporating the blues into their music. Morton absorbed all of this and it was to shape his approach to his music for the rest of his life. His wanderings throughout all of North America from around 1905 until about 1923 meant that it was his playing that introduced jazz to a whole generation of musicians and listeners.

He was also the pre-eminent composer in jazz from around 1905 until Duke Ellington got into his stride in the early 1930s.Morton’s finest compositions were designed to defeat other pianists in piano-contests, but they were not simply “flash” pieces: Their melodic and harmonic richness and coherent structures allowed him great scope to improvise and build excitement.In short, he was able to combine composition, arrangement and improvisation in a natural and convincing blend.