This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for October 20, 2016: Goods

Oct. 20, 2016: birthday: Jelly Roll Morton

It’s the birthday of musician Jelly Roll Morton, born Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe in New Orleans (1890). He grew up listening to French and Italian opera, hymns, ragtime, and minstrel songs. He was a great piano player, and he apprenticed in the seedy bars and brothels of New Orleans. In addition to being a talented performer, he was a pool shark, a gambler, and a pimp. He wore a turquoise coat, a Stetson hat, and tight striped pants. He said: “I was Sweet Papa Jelly Roll with the stovepipes in my hips, and all the women in town was dying to turn my damper down.”

He traveled around the Gulf Coast, and from there moved on to the West Coast and Chicago. In the 1920s, he was one of the biggest names in jazz. He recorded major hits like “King Porter Stomp,” “Black Bottom Stomp,” “New Orleans Blues,” and the “Original Jelly Roll Blues.” He was fierce in his claim that he was the founder of jazz, and he is considered the first true jazz composer because he was the first to go beyond improvisation to write down jazz tunes. He engaged in highly publicized feuds with other musicians who claimed to be the King of Jazz, the founder of jazz or the blues, or any other title he wanted for himself. When the great jazz trumpeter Lee Collins went to record with Jelly Roll, Morton informed him: “You know you will be working for the world’s best jazz piano player … not one of the greatest — I am the Greatest.”