The American Ferdinand LaMothe ‘Jelly Roll Morton’ (1890-1941) is now widely recognised as a seminal figure in the early development of jazz. His Jelly Roll Blues (1915) was the first published jazz work.
Morton took the nickname ‘Jelly Roll’ (African American slang for female genitalia) as a 14-year-old pianist working in a brothel. He went on to forge a very successful career – up to a point. Notorious for his arrogance and self-promotion he proclaimed himself the inventor of jazz and also accused Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong of stealing his ideas. His egocentricity damaged his standing in the music scene and amidst the 1930s Depression and the public’s preference for the emerging bebop style, Morton soon fell upon hard times. The royalties collected by Ascap were never distributed to him either, as, being black, he was denied membership.
Once more he resorted to playing in sleazy bars to make ends meet. It was whilst working in an insalubrious Washington nightclub in 1939 that Morton was stabbed. He never fully recovered, blaming his declining health and reversal of fortune on a voodoo curse. He died, penniless, two years later.