Interviews » Biographers

Phil Pastras, author of Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West

When Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton sat at the piano in the Library of Congress in May of 1938 to begin his monumental series of interviews with Alan Lomax, he spoke of his years on the West Coast with the nostalgia of a man recalling a golden age, a lost Eden. He had arrived in Los Angeles more than twenty years earlier, but he recounted his losses as vividly as though they had occurred just recently. The greatest loss was his separation from Anita Gonzales, by his own account “the only woman I ever loved,” to whom he left almost all of his royalties in his will.

In Dead Man Blues, Phil Pastras sets the record straight on the two periods (1917-1923 and 1940-1941) that Jelly Roll Morton spent on the West Coast. In addition to rechecking sources, correcting mistakes in scholarly accounts, and situating eyewitness narratives within the histories of New Orleans or Los Angeles, Pastras offers a fresh interpretation of the life and work of Morton, one of the most important and influential early practitioners of jazz. Pastras’s discovery of a previously unknown collection of memorabilia–including a 58-page scrapbook compiled by Morton himself–sheds new light on Morton’s personal and artistic development, as well as on the crucial role played by Anita Gonzales.

In an interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Pastras talks about Morton’s life with particular emphasis on his travels west, and on his relationship with the love of his life and strongest influence, Anita Gonsales.

 

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Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton

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JJM How did Jelly Roll Morton touch your own life prior to your writing this book?

PP In a number of ways. Years ago, I read the book Mr. Jelly Roll, by Alan Lomax, which is a striking original creation, although somewhat flawed, as I point out in my book. That led me to the music. At one point in my life, when I was a graduate student, I attended a soiree put on by my college professor, and he put on the Library of Congress recordings, which were the Lomax interviews of Jelly Roll Morton. I remember Jelly Roll singing on them. That really got my attention, and that is where my interest began. When the show Jelly’s Last Jam starring Gregory Hines came out – which had very little to do with Jelly Roll, by the way – the book by Lomax was reissued, and I assigned it as reading for my classes. My students really loved it, and were particularly interested in the west coast years, as I was, since I was transplanted here from the east coast. I started to do very informal research. I had no idea I was going to write a book, it just kind of grew on me, and I eventually wound up discovering I had a book concept in the works, and I may as well go ahead and do it.

JJMHow did Ferdinand become “Jelly Roll”?

PP The nickname is a blues terminology that refers to either the male or female genitals. He said he adopted it when he was clowning around during a vaudeville act. It was partly the mystique he wanted to project of himself as a “stud.”

JJM That seemed to be an ongoing theme for him. He had this constant need to project and discuss his conquests…

PP Yes, he seemed to have this need to prove his machismo.

JJM Why do you suppose that was?

PP I don’t really know. I speculate in the book that there were many troubling facts about his life in relation to women, and sex in general. I assume it has to do with that.

JJM He grew up around bordellos…

PP Yes, at a very early age, he was playing in bordellos, witnessing a whole lot of things that had to have been troubling for him

JJM He was a pretty bodacious guy. He once boasted that he was the “creator of jazz.” While it is recognized that no one person created jazz, would you say he was the first musician to use the term “jazz” to distinguish it from ragtime?

PP Well, that is what I claim in the book. When you look at the Lomax book, Mr. Jelly Roll, and you see his comment concerning “originating jazz,” it really has to do with his claim that he recognized there was a distinct genre emerging and he wanted to give it a name to distinguish it from ragtime and blues and other forms of music. His claim is that he is the one who decided to use the term “jazz.”  Whether that’s right or not, I don’t know, but the first thing that has to be said about Jelly Roll is that he was the first great composer of jazz music. In that sense, he certainly has the right to be considered an original. No one of his generation produced the kind of opus that he did.

JJM What are his five greatest songs?

PP Geez, that’s tough. “The Pearls” would be the top of my list. “Wolverine Blues which is still a favorite of big bands. “Dead Man Blues “Mamanita,” the tribute to Anita, and a thing called “The Crave,” which is a brilliant kind of tango.

JJMHe had a need for protecting his work. He really felt he didn’t want to share his work, and I get the sense that really cost him opportunites. Is that true?

PP In his early years, Jelly Roll was very naïve concerning the whole business of copyrighting, preserving and protecting his work. He really didn’t think in very hard, cold terms about that aspect of the music business until it was in some ways too late. A lot of his music was already being exploited by others and he hadn’t protected any of his work. It was during the 30’s, when, like a lot of people during the depression who were on the skids financially, that he began to realize he had to go back and rescue whatever work he could that had not already been copyrighted by other people. His long attempt to join ASCAP finally succeeded by the end of his life, but that took a good ten years. They were very fussy and I think racist.

JJM At certain points of his life, he supported himself by gambling, bootlegging and pimping. What kind of a person was he?

PP Like a lot of young black men at that time, there were very few opportunities to make a decent living doing anything other than working as a servant, or as a laborer. Anyone with more ambition could do more than that, and were often forced into illegal activities. That was not only true about black people, but also about immigrants. My own father was involved in the mafia at one time, with illegal off-track betting in New Jersey. It was simply a fact of life. If you were ambitious at all and came from a certain class, there were very few doors open to you aside from hard labor and servitude or bootlegging and pimping.

JJM What was his relationship like with other musicians?

PP It was very mixed, strangely enough. There were those who really were put off by him and his ragging, and various claims about him being an originator and so forth. Yet, at the same time, I discovered to my surprise that he was very patient with younger musicians. He would often take great pains on how to school them and how to play music. That was partly reinforced on the west coast, where there were not many New Orleans style musicians who played the music the way he wanted them to play it. He found it necessary to school some of these younger musicians. There were cases where he had musicians who could read, but no sense of what it was like to play what was called “hot” music in those days – in other words to improvise and to approach the music with the right attack and tone.

JJM Your book focuses on two eras of his life, when he spent chunks of time on the west coast. Were these periods ever accurately reported on before?

PP I think that is one claim I can make for my book, that it is the first attempt to deal adequately with those years.  Lomax devotes a section of his book to the interviews where he was talking about his west coast years, but rather uncritically, and he didn’t spend a lot of time researching what was going on here on the west coast. It was an important time for Morton, because for one thing he was at the peak of his creative powers. He was in his late 20’s to early 30’s when he came to the west coast –  a six year period. When he left, he was about 32 or 33 years old. So, he was at the peak of his mature years, and he did, according to my estimatation, quite a bit of important writing on the west coast. “The Pearls and “Kansas City Stompare definitely from that period.  There are others that I can’t date definitively to the west coast years as I can those two, but I suspect, as does Lawrence Gushee – a brilliant researcher on this style of music – that Morton probably wrote a good deal of his opus while he was on the west coast.

JJM What made him leave Chicago for LA in 1917?

PP Not exactly clear. There was an offer of a job, that was the immediate impetus. The job was at the Cadillac Café on Central Avenue in LA. He was a rolling stone by nature, anyhow. He would frequently transplant himself from New Orleans to someplace in Oklahoma or Texas, and then explore that region for a while, then go back to New Orleans. His trip from Chicago to LA was part of that general pattern. He also said something in the Lomax interviews about a certain class of people moving into Chicago that he didn’t like. That was a bit of his creole snobbery showing, I believe. He was referring, I think, to the great migration that was happening during those years of black people from the south to northern cities. That meant that there were a lot of black people moving into the cities who other black people, who had been there before, looked down upon. There is a touch of that, but I don’t know how much that really influenced Morton’s move. I think it had to do more with his wandering nature.

JJM The person who seemed to be most critical in his life was Anita Gonsales. How did he meet her?

PP Not certain, although it is clear they met early, by about the turn of the century, when he would have been about 12 years old. His father had deserted the family, and his mother was soon to die. He developed very strong ties to his godmother, Laura Hunter, who had a summer farm in Biloxi, about 50 miles from New Orleans. He spent a lot of time with her in Biloxi, and that is where the family of Anita Gonsales originates – the Johnson family – her original name is Bessie Johnson. It is fairly clear that they knew each other at that time, when he was 12 and she was about 20. One way or another, over the years, they stayed in touch. The climax of their relationship was when they were together on the west coast, but I was surprised to find that really it was a relationship that lasted for a good many years.

JJM Did you find any evidence that they were ever married?

PP No, no one has and probably no one will. I am not even certain he was ever legally married to Mabel. They went through a ritual of some kind, but I think he may have hookwinked her about the whole thing, because he was very secretive about the wedding certificate and wouldn’t give it to her…

JJM Yes, he kept it in his pocket…

PP Yes, so they were probably never legally married. In fact, when I spoke to Anita’s family on both sides, the white and black sides of her family, they were never sure she was ever legally married to Jack Ford either.

JJM Some interesting things were taking place in the recording industry during the time he was in Los Angeles. How did the coming of age of the recording industry affect his work? Did he lose control of his own work? Did the record companies dictate to him what to record?

PP I wouldn’t say that they dictated to him because he was too ego-driven to be dictated to, and the results of his recording proved that he was recording what he wanted to record, for the most part. He recorded a few things written by other people, which was very rare. When you figure that most of his recordings were of something he had written himself, it would seem to indicate to me that when he went into the recording studio, he had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do and went ahead and did it.

JJMKing Oliver visited Los Angeles during this time and they wound up playing together…

PP Yes, he visited LA, he never actually moved there. There were offers for him to stay there because he was a big hit, but I think he was on the west coast for six months or so – maybe in San Francisco also – but Jelly Roll managed to get him down to Los Angeles and play at the Wayside Park dance hall that he was connected to at the time. I think that was a major link, as a matter of fact, that inspired Jelly Roll to go back to Chicago. Oliver went back to Chicago with things like “The Wolverines” and a few other compositions that the Spikes Brothers had published along with Jelly on the west coast. That is how the Melrose Brothers (publishers) got hold of “The Wolverine Blues.” That was the one piece that Jelly mentioned as his reason to go back, to protect his rights to that particular tune.

JJM When he played with King Oliver, he missed the quality of musicianship that was more commonly found in Chicago than in Los Angeles…

PP Yes, I am sure that had a lot to do with his leaving Los Angeles. Kid Ory transplanted himself on the west coast and brought with him some New Orleans musicians, but Jelly Roll, because of his personality, had a hard time keeping New Orleans musicians here with him. He never had a really good track record of keeping a working band together. The latest recordings with The Red Hot Peppers were really a studio band. They never played as a working orchestra. So, that was something that plagued him throughout his life, his inability to do the practical business of keeping a band together.

JJM Did he have much of a relationship with the Hollywood community?

PP Oh yes, quite a bit. For one thing, the movie industry was a growing industry. The Spikes Brothers music store acted as a kind of de facto talent agency for Hollywood, when they needed black people for movies. They also supplied the movies with mood music to go with the silent movies.  When the actors were involved in a romantic scene, they would play romantic ballads, things like that. There was a lot of money and a lot of young blood looking to have a good time, and LA was a rather stuffy town at the time. They had a very early curfew at about midnight, and Watts – which was not part of LA at the time, it was a separate city – had no curfew. So, that is why Jelly Roll was involved with Wayside Park and other places in the Watts area, including that one place where Rudolph Valentino started off as a dancer. His trips to San Diego and south of the border had something to do with the Hollywood crowd as well, especially after prohibition set in.  That is where the crowd would go to drink and party. They had a race track, and gambling and booze was legal, so that is where the crowd went.

JJM He played at one of the night clubs in Tijuana, the Kansas City Bar…

PP Yes, and at other places in LA and San Diego where the Hollywood crowd would go to party because they had the time and the money. He doesn’t actually name the Hollywood crowd that follows him, but from piecing together what I learned from other sources, it looks like Charlie Chaplain, Fatty Arbuckle, Mary Pickford and the Pickford’s in general – some of the major stars of that time were people who would go to places where Jelly would play.