Pianist, Composer, Bandleader. A seminal figure in the early development of jazz. Morton sought to free American popular music from the rigid syncopations of ragtime and was one of the first professional musicians to introduce blues into his work. His compositions include "King Porter Stomp", "Dead Man's Blues", "Mama Nita", "Black Bottom Stomp", "Wolverine Blues", and "The Pearls". Many of these have an exotic flavor that reflected his Creole background. Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph LaMenthe in New Orleans. A prodigy, he learned to read and write music as a child. At 16 he moved to Storyville, New Orleans' red light district, and supported himself by playing piano and occasionally pimping in the area's brothels. (His nickname derived from local sexual slang). He left his hometown for good in 1912 but the New Orleans influence remained key to his style. After traveling through the southwest Morton settled in Chicago and published his first piece, "Jelly Roll Blues", in 1915. During the 1920s he toured the US with his band The Red Hot Peppers, whose members at various times included jazz greats Kid Ory (cornet), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), and Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), and from 1926 to 1930 he made a series of outstanding recordings for RCA Victor. Morton was also notorious for his flamboyant behavior. At his peak of success he dressed like a dandy and sported diamonds everywhere from his sock-supporters to his front tooth. He began claiming he personally invented jazz (his business cards said so) and accused fellow artists Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong of stealing his ideas. Morton's egocentricity damaged his standing in the music scene, and in the 1930s, with the Depression and the rise of a new jazz style called swing, his return to obscurity was swift. By the end of the decade he was playing piano in a Washington dive bar. In 1939 Morton suffered a heart attack after being stabbed in a bar fight, and his health never recovered. He died bitter and impoverished in Los Angeles, blaming his reversal of fortune on a voodoo curse. In his final years Morton never relinquished his claims as one of the founding fathers and jazz. Luckily he found a sympathetic listener in Alan Lomax, the folk archivist for the Library of Congress, who recorded over eight hours of the composer's music and reminiscences. The recordings, first issued in 1948 and now available on CD, laid the groundwork for Morton's posthumous reevaluation. His Complete Works were published in 1982 and he was the subject of a Broadway musical, "Jelly's Last Jam" (1991). Since the mid-1980s critics and musicologists have asserted that Morton's style not only helped pave the way for jazz but for early rock music as well. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards