Jelly's Blues recounts the tumultuous life of Jelly Roll Morton (ca., 18851941). A virtuoso pianist with a larger-than-life personality, he composed such influential early jazz pieces as "King Porter Stomp" and "New Orleans Blues." However, by the late 1930s, he was nearly forgotten. In 1992, the death of an eccentric memorabilia collector led to the unearthing of a startling archive, revealing Morton to be a much more complex and passionate man than many realized. An especially immediate and visceral look into the jazz worlds of New Orleans and Chicago, Jelly's Blues is a definitive biography, a long overdue look at one of the twentieth century's most important composers.
There has been a resurgence of interest in Jelly Roll Morton (1890 1941) in recent years, much of it highlighting the unattractive characteristics of the legendary Creole jazz pianist, composer and bandleader, such as his flashy clothes, diamond-studded tooth, boastfulness and denial of his race. In their sympathetic biography, Reich, jazz critic of the Chicago Tribune, and Gaines, an investigative reporter who retired from the Chicago Tribune in 2001, play down these aspects of Morton's personality and concentrate on his musicianship, keyboard virtuosity, innovative compositions and ingenuity in devising a way to set improvisational music down on paper. The authors also highlight the redemptive qualities of Morton's last years, basing their discussion on letters, documents and scores from the voluminous archive of Morton material in the collection of New Orleans jazz historian William Russell that became available after Russell's death in 1992. They show that at the end of his life Morton composed revolutionary new works, though he couldn't get anyone to play or record them. At the same time, he kept up a running battle with his publishers, who had exploited him for years, and launched a crusade against ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), which collected royalties for composers and robbed black songwriters of what was due them by denying them membership. Morton's correspondence with the Justice Department concerning his case against ASCAP and his music publishers is included in the book (though not seen by PW), as is an annotated discography.