Unlike many works that Alan Lomax had has hand in, this book is great reading, if nothing more. I am not known to be a fan of Alan Lomax and his father as my review of _The Land Where the Blues Began_ attests, but at least Lomax realized what a treasure Jelly Roll Morton was and interviewed him and also had Morton create hours and hours of singing and piano music.
This book offers a digest of hours and hours of interviews with Morton in the late 1930s when Morton was living in Washington. It is supplemented by some very useful interviews Lomax did with New Orleans musicians and their families in the late 1940s. The New Orleans interviews provide very useful direct source material about the social and culture and professional milieu that both Creole and Black musicians in New Orleans Sprang from. A recently written criticial review by a real scholar at the close of the book explains the great limitations of Lomax's selections and writngs here.
Lomax apparently knew little about the real history and processes of New Orleans jazz and life, so that a lot of questions that someone interest in Morton's impact on music are not asked, not just in what Lomax selected to put in this book, but in the larger transcripts of Lomax's interviews and in the monologues Morton dictated to a stenographer as part of this project. Lomax's tendency is to seek out non-musical issue his stereotypical images of Blues and Jazz musicians call forth. This is quite unfortunate because to the end of his life, Morton had a very sophsiticated and articulate understanding of music and was capable of serious discussion of jazz and blues in formal musical terminology. He was a person who seriously thought about music most of the time when he was not playing it.
Recently scholars with new information drawn from new discoveries of Morton's personal archives, correspondence, and musical library as well as the range of interviews with other musicians tend to verify much of what as thought of after these intervews as bragadoccio. Morton probably was the first person to produce written compositions that were Jazz as opposed to rag time. He was certainly playing and writing down blues compositions before Handy. Even the greatest of early Jazz Pianists like James P. Johnson affirmed that both in the days before WWI and in the 1920s Morton outplayed all the great Jazz Pianists.
The examination and performance of the music that Morton wrote in the late 1930s indicates that Morton had not only mastered composition and band arrangement in a style that would have surpassed the most surpassed swing of his day but had written orchestral pieces that prefigured the modal Jazz that Coltrane and others presented in the 1950s. These and other compositions indicate that whatever the fortunes of his public performances, Morton was a serious composer whose skills continued to advance even in his last years when his health collapsed.
Yet flagged by failing health, Morton was never able to organize an orchestra that could have played these pieces. He had been told that he could have lived ten or fifteen more years had he given up performing music, but he wanted to make his music more than he wanted to live.
Finally, Morton WAS cheated out of millions of dollars in royalties by the music industry, especially by the Melrose Brothers and by ASCAP. He was one of the first musicians to challange the way the Mafia-connected music publishers simply robbed musicians of their compositions or did not pay them. Unlike some musicians who suffered quietly or WC Handy who was one of the token Blacks ASCAP paraded around to hide its racism, Morton launched a public campaign in Downbeat and other Jazz magazines that exposed the crimes of ASCAP and music publishers like Melrose.
Until the mid 1940s, ASCAP which collected royalties for compositions from record producers, radio, night clubs, and other places where music was played had a racist setup. Few Black members were admitted although royalties were collected for their music. Morton carried out a public and legal campaign for years to be admitted to ASCAP even though it was collecting millions for the large number of his compositions that had become great hits in the swing era, like the King Porter Stomp that became a standard that any competent string band cut its teeth on.
Once inside ASCAP, he found ASCAP distributed its royalties not based on the money different songs brought royalties but on what a board of ASCAP leaders decided was the cultural worth of different kinds of music. Thus while Broadway and classical writers were getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalty payments, Morton received under 200 dollars each of the two years he was living and a member of ASCAP. Morton protested and exposed this publically in the last years of his life and attempted to gather other victims of this system in a law suit. While he was dying and unable to carry on this struggle, his protests and the information he gathered led to congressional investigations in the 1940s that forced an end to discrimination in ASCAP in regard to membership and forced it to distribute royalties based on the sales of the music, not on its "value."
The issue of braggadocio also comes here from the fact that Lomax supplied Morton with a bottle of whiskey for each Interview. Morton was not an alcholic, but those who have studied the transcripts have noted that Morton grew more inaccurate, abrasive, and unreliable longer into the interviews as the booze took effect.
This fits into Alan Lomax's consistent pattern of trying to make sources, particularly Black sources fit into the stereotypes he had about them. Lomax who took many photographs of his folk sources, for example, would force people who preferred being photographed in the Sunday Best, to appear in old work clothes. While Leadbelly actually favored the finest suits and imposed a dress code on Sonny Terry and Brownie MCGhee when they roomed at his New York Home (suits and ties as musicians are professionals and get a case, not a sack for the instrument) Lomax forced him to perform in prison garb or overalls. Lomax also created the fiction that singing and the intercession of his father John Lomax had some relationship with Leadbelly being released fromthe Louisiana penitentary when Leadbelly was released as part of program that automatically reduced prison sentences due to depression-caused cutbacks.
Lomax wanted precisely to convey a picture of Morton filled with whiskey, smokey rooms, and so forth, when Morton was one of the biggest stars of music between 1917 and 1930, performing in some of the most sophisticated venues and a particular favorite with Hollywood film stars of the period.
Despite these criticisms, I urge anyone interested in finding out not only about Jelly Roll Morton, but about the origins of Jazz in New Orleans and the entertainment industry in the earkly 20th Century to read this book. A good supplement, or perhaps a better place to start would be _Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton_ by Howard Reich. This can be followed by _Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West by Phil Pastras_.