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Great Encounters #43: When Billy Taylor saw Jelly Roll Morton play

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Jelly Roll Morton, Washington, 1937

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A youthful Billy Taylor (date unknown)

 

“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons. This edition tells the story of Billy Taylor’s 1937 visit to Jelly Roll Morton’s Washington, D.C. club, where he witnessed Morton’s “arrogant wisdom”

Excerpted from “The Lost Generation,” by Dr. Billy Taylor (published in The Esquire Book of Jazz)

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Back in 1937, Jelly Roll Morton was part owner of a sleazy night club upstairs from a U Street hamburger stand in Washington, D.C. At the time, I was finishing high school and playing gigs around the city as often as they came my way. I was a good, proud, seventeen years old then, and quite naturally very little remained which I did not know about life and music. I used to hang around with several other young pianists, kids like myself who were starting to study their Hindemith and Bartok and Schonberg and Webern; we also knew our jazz. Of course, our jazz began with Art Tatum and Prez, and obviously there was no place in it for old men like Mr. Morton. We had never even bothered to listen to him.

But when we heard that Jelly had this little club in Washington – I think it was called the Jungle Inn – we decided to take a ride down and have a few laughs. Even though it was a Saturday night we had no trouble getting a booth in the place. Somebody recognized us as part of the new crop of jazz pianists; word started to pass around the house that some young hipsters had stopped in to have some fun with old Jelly Roll.

And then Jelly came on. He looked shockingly sick and feeble – old and a little mad. But he wore his old, southern-gentleman’s suit with dignity, and when he smiled the diamond in his tooth still glittered hard. He played a new piece of his called Sweet Substitute, and then (since the grapevine grows quick in little places like this) he looked straight over at our booth. His eyes had a very personal kind of pride which I had never seen before. His look had the strangely arrogant wisdom of those who know, those who have been there and seen it and at the end realized that nothing very shattering has happened after all. Dying is a slow and shabby business.

Then Jelly spoke only to us: “You punks can’t play this.”

I forget the tune. What I do remember is a big, full, two-handed piano player – a ragtimer modified and relaxed by way of New Orleans, and very swinging. I suppose the tune was corny, now that I look back on it, but it had a charm of its own. There was something extremely personal about it which defied description; and as I listened suddenly I knew. “Golly, he’s right. I can’t play what he’s playing. Just purely technically I can’t play two hands together and separately the way he does.” I looked over at the other confident young men who had come with me: I saw that they knew they couldn’t either. Ours was a very quiet booth for the next three hours.

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Jelly Roll Morton plays “Sweet Substitute”

From 1958, Billy Taylor plays piano with Nat and Cannonball Adderley