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A King Of Jazz

June 2024
1min read

Jelly Roll Morton The Library of Congress Recordings

Rounder Records CD 1091-1094 (four CDs), $63.92 . CODE: BAT -3

Jelly Roll Morton was one of the brilliant originators of jazz who in the opening decades of the century brought together ragtime, blues, march music, dance music, field hollers, spirituals, and more and fused them into the great American art form. He was the first great jazz pianist and composer and a bandleader through the 1930s, first in New Orleans and later in California and Chicago. In 1938 the musical archivist Alan Lomax recorded a long series of interviews and recording sessions with him at the Library of Congress. In them Morton described and demonstrated what he and other musicians had done: how ragtime had learned to swing, how a nineteenth-century quadrille had evolved into “Tiger Rag,” how a “Spanish tinge” had inflected much of the music. All the music from those sessions is now available complete on CD for the first time, in the clean, clear sound modern remastering makes possible and including numbers previously unissued because of sexually explicit lyrics. It is revelatory. Morton was a sublime musician; he commanded an astounding battery of styles and techniques and an ability to squeeze truly remarkable beauty and emotion out of a piano. He swings Verdi and “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” sings scat in early New Orleans style, bangs out the raunchiest sporting-house songs and then the saddest laments, delivers a novelistic “Murder Ballad” half an hour long, talks over his playing in a spoken voice so lovely and rhythmical it sounds like gentle singing, delivers a catalogue of blues performances, and tosses off the styles of a dozen other musicians. The four hours of music on these discs adds up to both a kaleidoscopic history of early jazz and a rich, stirring anthology of one of the geniuses of American music.

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