Morton's flamboyant personality received a lot attention during his life. He constantly flaunted his confidence in a manner that seemed comical at times, but was nonetheless very indicative of his talent as a musician: "'Trumpeter Lee Collins,' writes Martin Williams, 'one of the best Jazz session musicians in the country during the 20s, recalled that he was once asked to perform with Jelly in a recording session. When he initially met Jelly Roll Morton, the first thing that Morton said to the astonished Collins was, 'you know you will be working for the world's best Jazz Piano player...not one of the greatest-I am the Greatest''" ("It Must be Jelly"). The selected solo recordings of his work were each recorded in Richmond Indiana, with the exception of "London Blues" which was recorded in Chicago, Illinois. These recordings show his incredible skill as a pianist, and also show the influence of ragtime and New York's Tin Pan Alley.
That the most famous and well executed of Jelly Roll Morton’s recordings are done with the Red Hot Peppers is telling of how much Louisiana and its style of music influenced him. Listening to these recordings done in Chicago, Illinois, it is obvious that the group was large, and reminiscent of the popular New Orleans brass bands that paraded on Sundays. During the Red Hot Peppers recordings, Morton was described "as a leader…Morton rehearsed carefully—he even paid for rehearsals…he shaped the arrangements either in written-out or dictated form…he discussed with his players where breaks and solos would fit best, although he retained a final veto…he rarely if ever interfered with the solo work…[and] he knew what he wanted over-all and often worked until he got it" (Schuller, 155). Jelly Roll Morton’s control of the "over-all" product of his songs is related to his conflation of improvisation and composition, but the choice of a New Orleans band as a framework to work within is indicative of how much his style of music grows from a New Orleans background and influences.
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton could brag almost as well as he could play piano - and, as the world knows, he played piano very well indeed. His most famous boast was provoked by a broadcast of Robert Ripley's "Believe It or Not" radio program, which introduced W.C.
With the center of jazz shifting to New York by 1928, Morton relocated. His bragging ways unfortunately hurt his career and he was not able to always get the sidemen he wanted. His Victor recordings continued through 1930 and, although some of the performances are sloppy or erratic, there were also a few more classics. Among the musicians Morton was able to use on his New York records were trumpeters Ward Pinkett, Red Allen and Bubber Miley, trombonists Geechie Fields, Charles Irvis and J.C. Higginbotham, clarinetists Omer Simeon, Albert Nicholas and Barney Bigard, banjoist Lee Blair, guitarist Bernard Addison, Bill Benford on tuba, bassist Pops Foster and drummers Tommy Benford, Paul Barbarin and Zutty Singleton.
Morton was jazz's first great composer, writing such songs as "King Porter Stomp," "Grandpa's Spells," "Wolverine Blues," "The Pearls," "Mr. Jelly Roll," "Shreveport Stomp," "Milenburg Joys," "Black Bottom Stomp," "The Chant," "Original Jelly Roll Blues," "Doctor Jazz," "Wild Man Blues," "Winin' Boy Blues," "I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say," "Don't You Leave Me Here," and "Sweet Substitute."
In later years he performed solo and with his band, the Red Hot Peppers, and he is particularly remembered for a series of recordings he made in Chicago for RCA Victor in the 1920s. Morton is often credited with mixing individual improvisation within rehearsed group arrangements, a format which became a staple of jazz. His best-known tunes included Jelly Roll Blues, King Porter Stomp, and Black Bottom Stomp.
Around 1904, Morton became an itinerant pianist, working in many cities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. He was also apparently quite active as a gambler, pool player, and procurer, though music remained his first "line of business." Retaining New Orleans as his base, he later extended his travels to Memphis, St. Louis, and Kansas City, frequently working for prolonged periods in minstrel shows. Eventually he traveled as far east as New York (where Jaynes P. Johnson heard Morton play his Jelly Roll Blues in 1911), and as far west as Los Angeles, where he arrived in 1917. During these dozen years of travel, Morton apparently fused a variety of black musical idioms — ragtime, vocal and instrumental blues, items from the minstrel show repertory, field and levee hollers, religious hymns, and spirituals — with Hispanic music from the Caribbean and white popular songs, creating a musical amalgam that bore a very close resemblance to the music then beginning to be called "jazz."
Jelly Roll Morton grew up in New Orleans and started to learn piano at the age of ten. By 1902, he was working in the bordellos of Storyville, playing ragtime, French quadrilles, and other popular dances and songs, as well as a few light (mostly operatic) classics. Nothing is known of his formal musical training, but his major youthful influence appears to have been Tony Jackson.
Creole child of New Orleans in the last days of her glory Jelly Roll grew up to become the first and most influential composer of jazz. He and his Red Peppers put the heat in the hottest jazz on the '20's, but the Depression generation forgot Jelly Roll and his music. He had to pawn his diamond sock-supporters and 1938 found him playing for coffee and cakes in an obscure Washington nightspot. Years of poverty and neglect, however, had neither dimmed his brilliance at the keyboard nor diminished his self-esteem.
Jelly Roll Morton was an American jazz pianist and composer, known as "jazz's first arranger." Although he invited scorn by claiming he "invented jazz in 1902," Morton was certainly a pioneer in ragtime jazz. He performed professionally in New Orleans during the 1920s with his group Morton's Red Hot Peppers. His most remembered works include, "Black Bottom Stomp" and "Shoe Shiner's Drag."