Jelly Roll Morton
photo George Francois Mugnier
New Orleans children, c. 1890 – 1910
Game Kid Blues , by Jelly Roll Morton
It was gay New Orleans, the city of pleasure. For the least significant occasion,
there would be some music. That’s why so many kids in New Orleans took up
music. They heard it all the time. It’s like later kids would idolize Babe
Ruth, and today Willie Mays. Well, in New Orleans, gambling, race horses,
being a pimp, or playing music were the sports. The city didn’t appropriate
any money to give the kids places and equipment to play other sports, so
they turned to what they saw and knew. Or if they were thick in the head,
they’d end up doing stevedore work on the levee in the hot sun.
In New Orleans, all the boys came up the hard way. The musicianship was a
little poor. You see, the average boy tried to learn by himself because there
were either no teachers or they couldn’t afford music lessons.
| BABY DODDS
I tried hard to play that tin flute I bought but I finally had to turn it
over to Johnny. He played it fine and I backed him up with homemade drums
made by punching holes in a tin can and using chair rounds for sticks. Those
were my first drums and Johnny and I had a lot of fun playing together at
home. . .Johnny was already playing a clarinet before I got my first set
of drums. Dad wouldn’t buy them for me because he said there was too much
noise in the house. I finally got a rope bass drum and picked up a snare,
and after a while had a full set – all from pawnshops – and it
only cost me four or five dollars.
When I was only fourteen, I had a swelled head, big ideas
to play with big brother Johnny’s band — he was twelve years my senior,
you know. So on my fourteenth birthday I went out and got a bottle of gin
and swilled the lot, then smoked a whole packet of cigarettes. Then up to
brother Johnny to demand to be put in his band.
I’d played since I was a toddler and thought I was good.
But Johnny’s reply was, “Run along, Sonny, and learn
to play those drums first and don’t bother me until you can.” So, I took
his advice and went to music school – school I called it – four
long years and soon realized that I had been drumming all wrong. I had to
start all over again, disregard the beats that I’d learned in the past, and
get myself a foundation of the rudiments of drumming.
So, at nineteen, I was a pretty competent man, skilled
in all forms of drum technique. I went right back to my brother Johnny for
a job and he got me my first professional engagement – with King Joe
in the famous King Oliver band, in which Johnny was the clarinetist. Perhaps
I should put the fans right on the point about my brother. Johnny had a fine
regard for good music and good musicians and he detested musicians who tried
to make jazz out of bad music. . . .
I learned in the streets, first learning to beat the
big drum correctly so as to know just where to put a particular beat and
make it fit with the music. Later I graduated to side drum. We were a brass
band then and used a couple of piccolos and clarinets. Why, even Johnny played
in that band and they were all good men.
Boy, you had to be good on side drum, ’cause if you weren’t
– and put the other musicians out – they’d push you off the sidewalk.
When I was seven years old, my mother gave me twenty-five cents to go to
the store and buy a toy violin. When I got there, they had sold out all the
violins, so I bought the fife. I learned to play on that; I never had a music
lesson in my life, and still can’t read music. When I was sixteen years old,
I got a real clarinet. I bought it with my own earnings and paid four dollars
photo by John Steiner
Just Gone , by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band
Weary Blues , by George Lewis
Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University
Kid Ory Original Creole Jazz Band, 1921-1922
Baby Dodds, Kid Ory, Mutt Carey, Ed Garland, Wade Whaley
High Society , by Kid Ory and His Creole Jazz Band
My first instrument was a cigar-box banjo that I made myself. When I was
a little better than ten years old, my father bought me a real banjo from
New Orleans. We used to go out on the bridge and practice. When I was thirteen,
I formed a band where I lived then, in Laplace, Louisiana, about twenty-nine
miles from New Orleans. We had a homemade violin, bass viol, guitar, banjo
– played on a chair for drums. We save all the money we made, except
for fifteen cents a piece for carfare, so we could buy good instruments later.
We used to go ’round crowds and hustle.
We saved the money and I decided to give picnics with
beer, salad – fifteen cents to come in and dance. We played the
same numbers we are playing now, like Pallet on the Floor, besides
some waltzes. We used to go down to New Orleans week ends to hear the different
bands that played in the parks. They play a tune once, that’s all I want
to hear so we could play it too. Take two and make one out of it if we couldn’t
get all of it.
Bolden was one I heard and Edward Clem who had four or
five pieces. He played something like Bolden – just passed through sometimes
on an excursion. I used to go down to the railroad station and sometimes
I’d see him on the train passing through.
I talked to Bolden once when I was in New Orleans visiting
at my sister’s house. I had just come from the music store where I bought
a trombone and was trying it out. He was on the sidewalk and heard me playing
and knocked at the door. I answered the door and he said, “Hello, young fellow,
was that you blowing the horn?” I said, “I just bought it.” He said, “It’s
good. I’m looking for a trombone. How would you like to come and play with
me?” I said I’d have to ask my sister, so he asked her and she said I was
too young. I had to go back home. I was about fourteen then, the year before
I moved to New Orleans.
Jelly Roll Morton
Sweet Mamas and Sweet Papas , comments by Jelly Roll Morton
Original Jelly Roll Blues , by Jelly Roll Morton
JELLY ROLL MORTON
My first instrument was made up of two chair-rounds and a tin pan. This
combination sounded like a symphony to me, because in those days all I heard
was classical selections. The next instrument tried was the harmonica at
the time I was five years old. After trying to play the harmonica for two
years, I discovered I was the world’s worst and changed to the jew’s-harp,
although this instrument sounded more like a bee humming than like music.
When I mastered the instrument, I set out to whip the world and conquer all
We always had some kinds of musical instruments in the
house, including guitar, drums, piano, trombone, and so forth and so on.
We had lots of them and everybody always played for their pleasure, whatever
one desired to play. We always had ample time that was given us in periods
to rehearse our lessons, anyone that was desirous of accepting lessons. At
the age of six, I gave up the jew’s-harp and took my first lessons on the
guitar with a Spanish gentleman in the neighborhood.
At the age of seven, I was considered among the best
guitarists around, and sometimes I played in the string bands that were common
at the time. These little three-piece combinations, consisting of bass, mandolin,
and guitar, used to play serenades at late hours, from twelve to two, at
the houses of friends. Naturally, the folks would welcome us when they heard
those old tunes like Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, Wearing My Heart
for You, Old Oaken Bucket, Bird in a Gilded Cage, Mr. Johnson, Turn Me
Loose, as well as different little blues and ragtime numbers we knew.
There was plenty of liquor in those old-time New Orleans homes and they were
liberal about entertaining us musicians. Soon the family would be up, all
the friends would be informed, and a festival would be on.
Of course, folks never had the idea they wanted a musician
in the family. They always had it in their minds that a musician was a tramp,
trying to duck work, with the exception of the French opera house players
which they patronized. As a matter of fact, I myself, was inspired to play
piano by going to a recital at the French opera house. There was a gentleman
who rendered a selection at the piano, very marvelous music that made me
want to play the piano very, very much. The only trouble was that this gentleman
had long bushy hair, and, because the piano was known in our circle as an
instrument for a lady, this confirmed me in my idea that if I played piano
I would be misunderstood.
Sid Bechet and I didn’t have any musical education at the time. We’d just
sit on the curbs and experiment with different melodies. Lorenzo Tio, who
had made a name with John Robichaux, the Olympia, Tuxedo, and other bands,
was my idol then. When I was thirteen, I was taking lessons from him; that
man really knew his music and taught me all the rudiments, and he could teach
as well as he could play. I also took lessons from Big Eye Louis, another
favorite of mine.
I was just like the rest of the kids – wanted to
know all about that new music called jazz. I was a “second-line” kid. That
meant I’d follow the big bands down the streets, and, man, what a thrill
when Tio or George Baquet would let me carry their cases while they played!
I’d walk alongside them feeling just as important as could be.
I played my first street parade with Manuel Perez and
his Onward Band, and that was one of my greatest thrills. All my life I’d
wanted to participate in one of those parades.
| BUNK JOHNSON
First thing is where I was born. I was born in dear old New Orleans some
years ago, on December the 27th, 1879. I was born uptown on Laurel Street
between Peters Avenue and Octavia Street. So, now all of you know just where
my home is. When I was seven years old, I started to taking music lessons.
I took music lessons for about one year or a little better. I was doing so
good in that short time, Professor Wallace he then told me to tell my mother
to come over to the school because he would like very much to have a good
talk with her about me. I did just what he told me to do, and my mother went
over to the school and seen him. She had a good talk with him, and then told
her just what he really could do with me. Said I really had a good head for
music and that he could make a real cornetist out of me if she would get
me a cornet just good enough to take lessons on, and when I became good on
the old one, then she could get me a real cheap brass cornet. Now, me and
my old cornet, when my mother got it, night and day I puffed on it, and when
I did get the slite of it, oh boy, I really went. Then my mother saw just
what headway I was making with the old cornet. Then she told me, “Son, Mama
saw a cheap cornet and a new one, and as you doing so good, I got to get
it for you, if you will be a good boy.” Now, I was that and my dear mother
got it for me.
My prof told me that I had a long way to go and a short
time to make it in. Boy, I got busy and I really made the grade. When I became
the age of fifteen years old, I was good to go and I really have been going
ever since. Now, for faking and playing by head I was hard to beat. Any band
I played with, it was all right with me by music or head.
The first band I played with was Adam Olivier’s and it
played by music; that was in the year of 1894. My friend, Tony Jackson, started
playing with Olivier’s band. I stayed with them about one year until I got
a good chance to get with King Bolden. Bolden heard me play with Olivier’s
band. Then he wanted me to jump Olivier’s band and come with him because
he had the most work and the biggest name in New Orleans. It was the town’s
talk, King Bolden’s band.
Storyville Blues, by Bunk Johnson
photo George Francois Mugnier
St. Charles Street and Hotel
Some of These Days , by Sophie Tucker
Downhearted Blues , by Clarence Williams, with Bessie Smith,
| CLARENCE WILLIAMS
I came to New Orleans in 1906, when I was fourteen years old. It was after
I heard Buddy Bolden, when he came through my home town, Plaquemine, Louisiana,
on an excursion, and his trumpet playin’ excited me so that I said, “I’m
goin’ to New Orleans.” I had never heard anything like that before in my
From the time I was six years old in Plaquemine, I had
been brought up by the people that had the Silver Brothers Hotel, and I learned
to do just about everything around a hotel – cooking and all. I could
mix drinks and would sing to the guests between meals. I was also singin’
with a little band there. We called it serenadin.’ We’d go around the streets
and play, and my part would be singin’ and passin’ the hat. (I could only
play oom-pah music on the piano at that time.)
I shined some shoes when I got to New Orleans and made
good money, enough to get myself a house and some furniture. My first musical
job was singin’ and playin’ the piano at a spaghetti place, but before that
i was goin’ around to all the joints, stayin’ up all night playin’ for nothing,
or for drinks – whatever they’d give me. At that time piano players
would come in from all over the South for the races, and all the local piano
players would listen to ’em to catch ideas. I’d stay up all night and then
go to work the next day. All the while, I kept figurin’ ways to get some
money where I didn’t have to make time. So I went to all the hotels and
restaurants and cabarets where the colored musicians would be workin’ and
told them, “Want to get your suits cleaned? Just give ’em to me and pay me
on payday.” They didn’t want to keep runnin’ to the tailor all the time,
so I made a lot of money that way.
But one day the porter that worked at this spaghetti
place came over to my house and said, “Do you know where I can find a good
piano player?” “You’re talkin’ to him,” I said. “I’ll go down.” And that’s
how I started. You know, I couldn’t play but five or six pieces, and when
somebody would ask me to play a waltz, I’d just play Some of These Days,
or one of the other tunes I knew, in three-quarter time.
Pretty soon I was way ahead of all the other piano players
– introducing all the new songs. When Sophie Tucker came to New Orleans
in about 1910 or 1911, they would have a ballyhoo truck. (There was always
a big to-do about shows and dances, and the bands would get on those trucks
and wagons and ride all over town.) Sophie Tucker and the Avon Four, who
were playin’ at the Orpheum Theatre, were on one of those trucks, and I followed
them around all day. At that time, she was singin’ Some of These Days,
Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and other new songs, and after hearin’ her
sing them, I’d go home and play them over until I got them under control.
Then at night I’d be able to sing and play them and make some real heavy
tips. There’d be money all over the top of the piano.
I was first taken to guitar when four years of age. I had a cousin who had
a guitar, who roomed at our house. When he was through with it at night,
he put it under his bed. My mother went to the store one day, and I was left
alone in the house. I had the idea to go under the bed and get that guitar.
I picked it up, fooled with it a little bit, and started with Home, Sweet
Home, a melody in three chords.
I had forgotten about my mother and everybody else; all
of a sudden she came home and I made a dive to put the guitar under the bed.
She told me this was all right, asked me to play again, and called in one
or two of the neighbors next door. They marveled at it. My father came home
and I played for him. He liked it so well that, without changing his work
clothes, he went to Rampart Street and bought me an old guitar for a dollar
and fifty cents. I was up early the next morning at five A.M. and that was
my start. I still didn’t know anything about music at that time, just what
An Online Story of Jazz in New Orleans
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Nat Hentoff’s Introduction