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August 19, 2005

Zenga Longmore on Jelly Roll Morton and the Voodoo Curse

Posted by Zenga Longmore

As I write this, the sensual, exquisite strains of Jelly Roll Morton's Winin' Boy Blues flow around my room. The trilling tones of Sidney Bechet's soprano sax, Sidney de Paris's trumpet, Happy Caldwell's tenor sax, Albert Nicholas's clarinet and Zutty Singleton's drums provide a loving, deeply felt complement to Jelly Roll's vocals and piano. As Bechet's notes trill skywards, it seems as if the heavens have cracked open to reveal a glimpse of The Divine Spirit. 14th September 1939, the date this song was recorded, must have been a happy day for Jelly. He was recording four of his own compositions with New Orleans' finest musicians. Yet as his soulful singing rents the air, I feel very sad. Although years of poverty and obscurity had not dampened his brilliance, Morton, a Creole child of New Orleans, was a man haunted by the darker forces of his hometown - voodoo.

In the early nineteenth century, Jelly Roll Morton (born Ferdinand La Menthe) imbibed the music of Storeyville's bordellos and took it to a higher plane, blending a "Spanish tinge" with the black marching tunes of his hometown. During the 1920s he was one of America's most respected bandleaders. As the self-styled inventor of jazz, he wore diamonds in his teeth and owned over two hundred tailor-made suits. His showy style and musical razzmatazz were always a sure-fire crowd puller. His bands attracted some of the best musicians of his day. Many of his compositions such as the King Porter Stomp, Milenburg Joys and The Pearls became big hits. Jelly Roll Morton, bandleader, composer and pianist was undoubtedly a genius of great originality and influence. Then came the depression years - and the mysterious forces which linked Morton to his spiritual home of New Orleans took hold.

Juju, the West African magical practice which the slaves brought to New Orleans, gradually mutated into "voodoo" during the eighteenth century. Jelly's godmother, Eulalie Echo, a French speaking Creole, purportedly sacrificed Jelly's soul to Satan as part of a black-magic ritual.

Throughout the 1930s, Morton was working in his own office, trying to break into the music publishing business. A West Indian office boy suffering from jealousy, surreptitiously stole his music scores and sold them to another firm. Jelly promptly sacked him. Next day strange coloured powder was found sprinkled around the office door. Convinced the West Indian had put a voodoo curse on him, Jelly's luck began to fail. His music scores, money and notorious collection of diamonds were stolen. The work he had been promised was offered to Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Jelly revealed to Alan Lomax, the jazz historian, that:

I decided to quit the music business and start a cosmetics company which lost me the few pennies I had.
In desperation Morton visited a voodoo woman who told him the only way to break the curse was to destroy all his clothing:
I always had a lot of clothes and the stack I made in my backyard was way over the top of my head. I poured on the kerosene and struck a match. It like to broke my heart to watch my suits burn.
Was it voodoo or his refusal to adapt to the modern 'swing' style that devastated Jelly's luck?

Perhaps the voodoo woman's advice worked, because at the end of the 1930s the jazz world developed a fascination with traditional New Orleans music; "authentic jazz", as the young white journalists described it. Jelly Roll Morton, who had been playing for "coffee and cakes" in a Washington nightclub, his music all but forgotten, was suddenly considered to be an attraction. White college students armed with notepads began to filter into his seedy Washington night club to gawp at this living museum piece. Jelly Roll was perplexed. He felt his music was very much alive; he could easily out-swing the modern swingsters such as Chick Webb and Count Basie. When Alan Lomax, the jazz historian, invited Morton to the Library of Congress to record his life-story in 1938, Jelly was down to his last dime. Lomax, in his moving book, Mister Jelly Roll, describes Morton as:

an intellectual and a wit as well as a fine (perhaps our first good) composer.
In 1939, the record company, Victor, in an effort to cash in on the New Orleans Jazz revival, offered Jelly a recording contract. Along with Winin' Boy Blues Morton decided to record, Oh Didn't He Ramble, a New Orleans funeral march, I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say, and High Society; each number a collector's treasure. At long last Morton was coming from seclusion, rightfully taking his place as the most supreme figure in America's greatest musical art-form. Two years later, the old voodoo godmother, Eulalie Echo was dead. Jelly's girlfriend, Anita Gonzales explained to Alan Lomax:
Jelly always knew she'd sold him to Satan and that when she died, he'd die too - she would take him down with her.
Two months after Eulalie's death, in 1941, Jelly Roll Morton, the most creative figure in the history of jazz, passed away. He was forty six years old. One of his favourite compositions, Mr Jelly Lord, was strangely prophetic:
In Foreign Lands across the sea
They knight a man for bravery
Make him a duke or a count you see
Must be a member of the royalty

Mr Jelly struck a jazzy thing
In the temple by the queen and king
All at once he struck upon a harmonic chord
King said, "Make Mr Jelly a lord!"

Fate decreed that Mr Jelly Roll would never travel to the king's temple to receive a knighthood. But he would have been gladdened by Alan Lomax's remark:
his music has warmed up the atmosphere all the way from Basin Street to Buckingham Palace.
Seventy years later his hot, sweet jazz stirs hearts in every corner of the globe. Even in deepest Harlesden, west London, where I write and weep for Jelly Roll Morton, his music uplifts my soul. Eulalie Echo must surely have failed in her dark mission. Such an artist could not possibly abide with Satan. Lord Jelly's harmonic chords are mingling with the harps of the celestial angels.

Zenga Longmore writes for The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Daily Telegraph. She is an actress and blues singer and the author of Tap-taps To Trinidad. To read her previous pieces on jazz for the Social Affairs Unit, see Jazz.


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Another great article in a wonderful series.

I wonder if the author could be persuaded to do a piece on Willie "The Lion" Smith?

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at August 20, 2005 02:23 PM
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Heavens! I can't help wishing that Thomas Mann had been inspired by JRM rather than Schoenberg. Ok, so the parallel with European civilisation going to the devil would have been a little more difficult to contrive, but at least the central character (and the reader) wouldn't have had to suffer from constant migraine .....

Posted by: LMR at August 23, 2005 09:58 PM
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Jelly Roll Morton is the father of jazz. Actually He was 55 years
old.

Posted by: Valentino at November 8, 2012 08:15 PM
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