Did Jelly Roll Morton Invent Jazz? Find out Why He Thinks So

The following is an excerpt from “DownBeat – The Great Jazz Interviews”, edited and compiled by Frank Alkyer and published by Hal Leonard. Read more classic jazz interviews by using the promo code “SMDDOWN” to purchase the anthology at a discount from Backwing.

“I Created Jazz in 1902, Not W.C. Handy”

by Jelly Roll Morton

Dear Mr. Ripley:

For many years I have a been a constant reader of your Believe It or Not cartoon. I have listened to your broadcast with keen interest. I frankly believe your work is a great contribution to natural science. In your broadcast of March 26, 1938, you introduced W.C. Handy as the originator of jazz, stomps and blues. By this announcement you have done me a great injustice, and you have also misled many of your fans.

It is evidently known, beyond contradiction, that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, and I myself happened to be the creator in the year 1902, many years before the Dixieland Band organized. Jazz music is a style, not compositions; any kind of music may be played in jazz, if one has the knowledge. The first stomp was written in 1906, namely, “King Porter Stomp.” “Georgia Swing” was the first to be named swing, in 1907. You may be informed by leading record companies. “New Orleans Blues” was written in 1905, the same year “Jelly Roll Blues” was mapped out, but not published at that time. New Orleans was the headquarters for the greatest ragtime musicians on earth. There was more work than musicians, everyone had their individual style. My style seemed to be the attraction. I decided to travel and tried Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and many other states during 1903–’04, and was accepted as sensational.

Whoever Heard of a Professor Advocating Ragtime

In the year of 1908, I was brought to Memphis by a small theater owner, Fred Barasso, as a feature attraction and to be with his number one company for his circuit, which consisted of four houses, namely Memphis, Tenn., Greenville, Vicksburg and Jackson, Miss. It was that year I met Handy in Memphis. I learned that he had just arrived from his hometown, Henderson, Ky. He was introduced to me as Prof. Handy. Whoever heard of anyone wearing the name of Professor advocate ragtime, jazz, stomps, blues, etc.? Of course, Handy could not play either of these types, and I can assure you he has never learned them as yet (meaning freak tunes, plenty of finger work in the groove of harmonies, great improvisations, accurate, exciting tempos with a kick). I know Mr. Handy’s ability, and it is the type of folk songs, hymns, anthems, etc. If you believe I am wrong, challenge his ability.

Williams Wrote Original Tune of “St. Louis Blues”

Prof. Handy as his band played several days a week at a colored amusement park in Memphis, namely, Dixie Park. Guy Williams, a guitarist, worked in the band in 1911. He had a blues tune he wrote, called “Jogo Blues.” This tune was published by Pace and Handy under the same title, and later changed to “St. Louis Blues.” Williams had no copyright as yet. In 1912 I happened to be in Texas, and one of my fellow musicians brought me a number to play - “Memphis Blues”. The minute I started playing it, I recognized it. I said to James Miles, the one who presented it to me (trombonist, still in Houston, playing with me at that time), “The first strain is a Black Butts strain all dressed up.”

Butts was strictly blues (or what they called a boogie-woogie player), with no knowledge of music. I said the second strain was mine. I practically assembled the tune. The last strain was Tony Jackson’s strain, “Whoa B- Whoa.” At that time no one knew the meaning of the word “jazz” or “stomps” but me. This also added a new word to the dictionary, which they gave the wrong definition. The word “blues” was known to everyone. For instance, when I was eight or nine years of age, I heard blues tunes entitled “Alice Fields,” “Isn’t It Hard to Love,” “Make Me a Palate on the Floor” - the latter which I played myself on my guitar. Handy also retitled his catalogue “Atlanta Blues.” Mr. Handy cannot prove anything is music that he has created. He has possibly taken advantage of some unprotected.

Public Wants the Truth

Please do not misunderstand me. I do not claim any of the creation of the blues, although I have written many of them even before Mr. Handy had any blues published. I had heard them when I was knee-high to a duck. For instance, when I first started going to school, at different times I would visit some of my relatives per permission in the Garden District. I used to hear a few of the following blues players, who could play nothing else - Buddie Canter, Josky Adams, Game Kid, Frank Richards, Sam Henry, and many more too numerous to mention - they were what we call “ragmen” in New Orleans. They can take a 10-cent Xmas horn, take the wooden mouthpiece off, having only the metal for a mouthpiece, and play more blues with that instrument than any trumpeter I have ever met through the country imitating the New Orleans trumpeters. Of course, Handy played mostly violin when I first arrived in Memphis. Violinists weren’t known to play anything illegitimate even in New Orleans.

Chris Smith Wrote First Tune Titled “Blues”

I hope this letter will familiarize you more with real facts. You may display this in the most conspicuous places, it matters not to me. I played all Berlin’s tunes in jazz, which helped their possibilities greatly. I am enclosing you one of my many write-ups, hoping this may help you in the authenticity of my statements. I am able to hold up any of my statements against any that may contradict. I barnstormed from coast to coast before Art Hickman made his first trip from San Francisco to New York. That was long before Handy’s name was in the picture. The first publication with a title “blues” as far as I can remember was a tune written by Chris Smith, who still resides in New York and may be located through Shapiro-Bernstein, publishers, located one flight above the Capitol Theater Building. Tony Jackson used to play the blues in 1905, entitled “Michigan Water Tastes Like Sherry Wine.” He never sang anything on the stage but blues, such as “Elgin Movements in My Hips, with 20 Years’ Guarantee.” Blues just wasn’t considered music - there were hundreds, maybe thousands, who could play blues and not another single tune.

Music is such a tremendous proposition that it probably needs government supervision. There does not seem to be any proper protection for anything in this line. I think one should have conclusive proof before being able to claim a title. I also advocate much more rigid laws so thieves may get their just deserts. There are many who enjoy glory plus financial gain’s abundance, even in the millions, who should be digging ditches or sweeping the streets. Lack of proper protection causes this.

Thief Got the Cash

I could dig up many tunes that were published, and benefits reaped accredited to one who never wrote the first note, no arranger who got paid for his work, and the cash went to the one who was the actual thief. The original writer is then afraid to open his mouth for fear that he may be made to do a jail term (negligence of the law excuses no one). These are words of many would-be writers. (What is the use in worrying yourself to death, when you can steal a little bit here and a little bit there?) I laid the foundation of jazz and am still the flowing fountain. Now everyone wants to claim it. They take different names for it in order to baffle their public and gain a false reputation, but they all must serve the same foundations to give satisfaction. As with religion, there are many denominations, but only one God.

Speaking of jazz music, anytime it is mentioned musicians usually hate to give credit but they will say, “I heard Jelly Roll play it first.” I also refer you to Clarence Jones. I’m sure he remembers when different musicians would say, “There’s something peculiar,” referring to my playing and arranging, but all who heard me play would immediately become copycats, regardless of what instrument they played. My figurations - well - I guess, were impossible at that time, and arguments would arise, stating that no one could put this idea on a sheet. It really proved to be the fact for years. Even Will Rossiter’s crack arranger, Henri Klickman, was baffled. But I myself figured out the peculiar form of mathematics and harmonics that was strange to all the world but me.

New York’s Just Getting Wise to Jazz

My dear Mr. Ripley, I also ask you for conclusive proof, which I am sure that you will never be able to offer, due to the fact that the one who inveigled you into this announcement cannot give you any. He doesn’t know anything about the foundation. New York itself is just beginning to get wise to jazz, and all the decent dispensers came from parts that I have educated or from tutors of the good New York musicians. Not until 1926 did they get a faint idea of real jazz, when I decided to live in New York. In spite of the fact that there were a few great dispensers - such as Sidney Bechet, clarinet, and William Brand, bass - New York’s idea of jazz was taken from the dictionary’s definition - loud, blaring, noise, discordant tones, etc., which really doesn’t spell jazz music. Music is supposed to be soothing, not unbearable - which was a specialty with most of them.

It is great to have ability from extreme to extreme, but it is terrible to have this kind of ability without the correct knowledge of how to use it. Very often you could hear the New York (supposed-to-be) jazz bands with 12 to 15 men. They would blaze away with all the volume that they had. Sometimes customers would have to hold their ears to protect their eardrums from a forced collision with their brains. Later in the same tune, without notification, you could hear only drums and trumpet. Piano and guitar would be going but not heard. The others would be holding their instruments leisurely, talking, smoking reefers, chatting scandals, etc.

Musicians of all nationalities watched the way I played; then soon I would hear my material everywhere I trod, but in an incorrect way, using figures behind a conglomeration of variations sometimes discordant, instead of hot swing melodies.

My contributions were many: First clown director, with witty sayings and flashily dressed, now called master of ceremonies; first glee club in orchestra; the first washboard was recorded by me; bass fiddle, drums - which was supposed to be impossible to record. I produced the fly swatter (they now call them brushes). Of course many imitators arose after my being fired or quitting. I do not hold you responsible for this. I only give you facts that you may use for ammunition to force your pal to his rightful position in fair life. Lord protect us from more Hitlers and Mussolinis.

Very truly yours,

Jelly Roll Morton
Originator of Jazz and Stomps Victor Artist
World’s Greatest Hot Tune Writer

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