Jelly Roll Morton is finally getting some of the recognition denied him during his lifetime and since his death at 55 in 1941.
This time next year his name may be nearly as well-known as the names of Fats Waller, Eubie Blake and Ma Rainey, for it too will have been in lights on Broadway. "Mr. Jelly Lord," a Shubert Organization production with Gregory Hines in the lead role, will go into rehearsal in January.
However, one need not go as far as New York to find evidence of a Morton revival. In September, the D.C. City Council adopted a "Jelly Roll Morton Recognition Resolution of 1985" and, at an outdoor ceremony, unveiled a brass plaque honoring Morton and declaring the Jungle Inn, a U Street club he operated in the late 1930s, "the first Washington nightclub to serve an integrated clientele."
Hot on the heels of these encouraging developments comes the opening concert of the Smithsonian Resident Associates' 1985-86 Jazz Series at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in Baird Auditorium. It will be an interpretive re-creation of Morton's keyboard, combo and band music by pianist James Dapogny, tuba and string bass player Vince Giordano's Nighthawks and singer Linda Taylor Gatling. The Smithsonian's Martin Williams, whose writings in the 1950s were the first significant critical analyses of Morton's music, will narrate.
"There are many who believe that anything that's New Orleans jazz or Chicago-type or anything lumped together under the name Dixieland is essentially a simple kind of style to play in," says Dapogny, a University of Michigan music professor whose 500-page "Ferdinand 'Jelly Roll' Morton: The Collected Piano Music," published three years ago, was the first complete edition of Morton's work. "In the classical musical world, which I have my other foot in, you take for granted the idea that if you're going to play Mozart, you don't play it in the same way you play Beethoven. In jazz there is, just as in classical music, this question: In what way do we bow to the performance traditions associated with a style when it was originally conceived?
"If you're going to play Morton, you're going to have to play it in such a way that at least approximates the way people of the time played it," he says. "And those principles are not that simple to learn. I mean, it's not just a matter of playing the right notes or notes that happen to fit the chord changes. With Jelly Roll Morton's music, there are structural and surface features that make it impossible to be played in a modern jazz style."
Louis Armstrong was well on his way in the mid-1920s to transforming jazz performance from a collective effort into a soloist's art form when Morton, considered old-fashioned at the time by many, was becoming, in Martin Williams' words, "the first master of form" in jazz. Dapogny points out that "even people like Charlie Mingus have talked about learning things from Morton."
"Morton combined fixed and improvisational elements at different levels," Dapogny says, "so it's a rather different idea of how composition and improvisation interact than what is common in jazz today. In Morton's music there is a fascinating interweaving of fixed and variable elements. It may be the most important thing that we can learn from Morton . . . I think Morton was the first to learn to do that -- or maybe not learn to do it, maybe he just had whatever synapses you need to have in your brain to be able to do it intuitively."