Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West

By Phil Pastras(University of California Press; 224 pages; $24.95)

Sometimes talking a good game will get you out of trouble. Sometimes it'll get you famous. Sometimes it'll get you dead.

Ferdinand Morton (1891-1941), known to musical history as "Jelly Roll," was, to judge by jazz buff Phil Pastras' intriguing bit of cultural archaeology, one of the world's great talkers. To anyone who would listen, he claimed to have invented entire musical genres; "New Orleans," he wrote to radio host Robert Ripley, of Believe It or Not fame, "is the cradle of jazz, and I, myself, happened to be the creator in the year 1902." Sometimes his listeners believed him. Most of the time, and for good reason, they did not, and Jelly Roll's tales earned him a reputation for untrustworthiness in his hometown. That reputation followed him on the road, for Jelly Roll was one of the first American musicians to tour widely -- in part, Pastras suggests, because he was always on the run from an angry creditor, an abandoned spouse, or, as Morton himself claimed, a voodoo priestess bent on putting a curse on his head.

So, out on the road, a stranger everywhere, Morton was free to invent his past, erasing certain details, revising others, always "sticking to a policy of not telling his current mate about any of his previous loves unless he absolutely had to." The peripatetic Morton reminds Pastras, a literary scholar and translator, of the legendary wanderer Odysseus, a far-fetched comparison made quite reasonable thanks to Joel and Ethan Coen's film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Here Morton would turn up as a respectable tourist, there as a thinly veiled desperado: "Which Jelly Roll would show up -- pimp, pool hustler, card shark, piano player, vaudevillian, minstrel -- depended on the town and the circumstances," writes Pastras, "just as Odysseus modulated himself, from lover to supplicant to warlord to beggar."

In one guise or another, Morton went out west in 1917. Pastras guesses that Morton lit out for California to save his skin from mobsters, sorcerers and other enemies real and imagined. But, more important, Morton left the familiar comforts of New Orleans for love, for in California he reunited with a mysterious woman he'd met back home, Anita Gonzalez. Jazz historians haven't had much to say about Morton's years with her, largely because the normally loquacious Morton kept quiet about Gonzalez, except, late in life, to say that she had been "the only woman I ever loved." Pastras does a good job of revealing some of the events that took place then, drawing on Morton's diaries and scrapbooks (in which, it appears, Morton told more or less the truth), analyzing interviews Morton granted to Alan Lomax and other folk-music collectors, and tracing the origins of such classic tunes as "Someday, Sweetheart," "Kansas City Stomps" and "Mamanita" to Morton's sojourn playing piano in mixed-race clubs.

Morton left California as quickly as he came, again for reasons unknown, and for the next two decades he wandered around America, made records, broke hearts. Odysseus was tossed out on the waves by storms wrought by angry gods; Morton made his way back to California in a battered car in 1940, dodging tornadoes and lightning sent by agents unknown. He died soon afterward in Anita Gonzalez's arms, another casualty of the blues. Pastras' book tells the story well, and any roots-music aficionado will want to have a look.

 
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