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.
Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton
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 Stomp “are 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.
JJM When he left for Chicago in 1923, how did he and Anita separate? Was there still a door open for their relationship?
PP It seems that there was. In the interview she gave to Lomax, she said that he was supposed to send for her when he got enough money together, and she kept waiting for him to get it together, and he never did. Eventually they just petered out. The relationship was a stormy one anyway. They were both very strong willed people. From what I gathered in my research – this is something Lomax only hints at – but from what I can figure out they were an off-again-on-again couple even when they were together on the west coast for those six years. He stayed with his godmother quite a bit during this time, which of course means he wasn’t staying with Anita. There are other indications that they broke up two or three times, at least, during that six year period. The fact that he never called for her or got her to Chicago was probably part of that pattern.
JJM When he got back to Chicago, he did a lot of recording, but during the 30’s I got the impression that he had a real down time. You indicated he went to the west coast in 1936 for a short time .
PPHe was evidentally touring with a vaudeville group. He took a job where he wasn’t even mentioned in the advertisements. I learned this from Floyd Levin, who remembers when he was a young man during that period, his uncle, who was involved in show business, told him that there was this piano player, Jelly Roll Morton, who was playing with this vaudeville group at one of the theaters. His uncle asked if he wanted to go see him, and Floyd at that time was more into Benny Goodman than he was into New Orleans jazz. Because Goodman’s theme song was Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” he knew about Jelly Roll, but had didn’t go. He regrets to this day that he didn’t take the opportunity to go and at least meet him. Morton wasn’t featured in any way, he was just part of the band. Anita talks about that in an interview she gave to Levin, that she remembers going to see the show. She has a fairly vivid recollection of what the show was all about.
JJM What was his major motivation for coming back to Los Angeles in 1940?
PP He was still trying to make his comeback, basically. New York had never been kind to him. He never really had any fond memories of or strong ties to the city, despite the fact that he lived there for quite a long time. I think he sensed that he had his best chances on the west coast, with the help of Anita. That was the major factor. She was well established as a businesswoman, with the restaurant she and her husband were running in Oregon, and from what I saw in the papers having to do with his will, she was willing to support him financially, to whatever extent she could, to help his comeback. One of the great ironies of his life – that is really tantalizing – is that when he died in July of 1941, the New Orleans revival movement was about to take place on the west coast. He would have been in the right place at the right time. The great irony comes in due to the fact that Jelly Roll really would have probably been uncomfortable with the role of being involved in a revival of old time music. That is not the way he thought of himself. He thought he was as relevant and as current as anybody. He could write big band arrangements for swing orchestras, which he did. The recordings he did of these efforts were very convincing. He had it in him to be very up to date.
JJM Are those the performances from 1998?
JJM Reviewers were comparing his work to that of Charles Mingus and Stan Kenton’s
PP Yes, there is one piece called “Gan-Jam” that is a strinkingly modern piece, way ahead of its time. I can just imagine Jelly Roll, had he lived another six or seven years, would have been on call constantly for the New Orleans revival thing and would have probably been unable to turn it down because he needed the money and it could have helped his career. But he could have also been very uncomfortable with the idea that he was some kind of “old fogie” being revived.
JJM That would have been a tough choice for him Is “Gan-Jam” something that will ever be recorded?
PP I have one recording, the one you referred to, by Don Zappy in New Orleans during a jazz festival in 1998, and that is really not of studio recording quality. I also understand the music was performed in Chicago and recorded there. When I spoke to Zappy recently, he expressed the desire to take the arrangements into a studio and really do them properly. Sooner or later the word will get out about how ahead of its time it is.
JJM When this 1940 era is discussed in your book, there is an awful lot of hiding going on by Morton, keeping the real reason for his trip west from his wife, Mabel. She claimed that he left to go LA because his godmother was dying and he wanted to make sure he took possession of the diamonds, or that at least they were handled properly. Is that right?
PP Yes, that would be the story he told Mabel.
JJM What ever happed to those diamonds?
PP He claimed that by the time he got here, they were gone. His godfather was blind, and that was one of the reasons why he was concerned about what would happen to the diamonds. The more I looked into that whole period, the less likely it seemed that that was his main reason for coming back to LA. I believe that was a story he invented for Mabel’s sake so he could come be with Anita. Mabel evidentally didn’t even know about Anita until after Jelly died. He took the most improbably course to get to LA from the east that he could have, going to Oregon first. Obviously, Anita had a lot to do with his being here.
JJM In the course of your work, you came across a collection of his memorabilia. How valuable was his scrapbook for you in helping determine what was on his mind before his last trip to California?
PP Quite valuable. There was a letter from a guy named Earl Caldwell, a postal worker and jazz enthusiast who fancied himself to be a writer and researcher. In the scrap book, there is his letter to Jelly Roll in response to an inquiry on Jelly Roll’s part about coming out to the west coast. By the end of the 30’s, Central Avenue had developed into a real mecca for jazz and blues. There was a lot of action there. Jelly must have heard about it and written Caldwell a letter. Caldwell rather politely told him that, although there was a lot of stuff happening there, Jelly Roll’s music was a bit out of date, in comparison to people like Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. It was easy to establish from that letter and some other indications in the scrap book that Jelly had it in his mind to return to the west coast all through the 30’s, it was something that he flirted with long before he actually took action.
JJM You dontated the scrap book to the New Orleans historical society?
PP Yes. Originally I was going to give it to the Library of Congress, but it took two years to work it out. I finally had some contact with the historic New Orleans collections people as a result of my research, and decided to leave it to them.
JJM He felt that his ill health and career decline came from a voodoo curse. What was the genesis of that?
PP He was surrounded by that through all his life. There was a very strong element of voodoo in Creole culture of New Orleans. His godmother was a practitioner – a priestess of some sort – who practiced voodoo. As I mentioned earlier, she played a very important role in his life. She was a surrogate mother to him. Laura figured very largely in his life, and no doubt that is where his idea about the curse comes from. Towards the end, he reconverted to Catholicism, and it is really not that much of a stretch to go from voodooism to Catholicism, strange as it might sound. The phenomenon of voodoo grew in countries that were colonized by countries heavily into Catholicism, like Portugal and Spain. A blend of West African and Roman Catholic religions that produced things like voodoo. He was involved in that kind of thing off and on all his life. I wouldn’t say he was a devoutly religious man, except toward the end, when he really turned very religious.
JJMHe left virtually everything in his estate to Anita. He even spurned his sisters, insulting one to the point of his leaving only one dollar to her. Not that his estate was particularly immense at the time, but was his will written under sound mind and good conscience?
PP That has been called into question by a variety of people. When he signed the will he was very ill, so it is not clear how sound of mind he was, although I think he was very clear headed until the very end, when he really sank into a very weak state. I believe he wanted Anita to have whatever his estate was, because she was the only person he felt he could trust. I think he lived in the dread that the publishers and the recording industry were going to get rich off of his work, and he wanted the benefit of his work to go to someone that he loved and trusted, and Anita fit that picture better than anyone else. Better than Mabel, certainly
JJM What happened to Mabel?
PP One of the things that still haunts me, as a matter of fact, is whatever happened to Mabel. Obviously, she didn’t get a fair shake at all, and she did an awful lot to help Jelly later in life, especially after Jelly was stabbed in Washington. He would have died then and there had it not been for Mabel being on the scene. So, we owe a lot to her, as Jelly would have never made those final recordings had it not been for her. The last I could find of her was her rather feeble attempt to make a claim on the Morton estate. She evidentally hired a lawyer in New York but never showed up in Los Angeles to appear in court to make the claim. Why that happened, I am not sure. I could guess that she was prevented from doing this basically because of her poverty. A trip across country would have been expensive and time consuming, and I don’t think she could have made it.
JJM Where is Jelly Roll Morton buried?
PP In Los Angeles at the Calvary Cemetary in East LA. Anita’s grave is not far from his, in fact. A short walk.
JJM He didn’t have a headstone for a time
PP That’s right. It’s a very strange story that Floyd Levin uncovered. In about 1950, people like Floyd, who were interested in New Orleans jazz revival, discovered that there was no headstone on his grave. They went to a benefit to raise money for the headstone, and out of nowhere, here comes Anita, saying that no one was going to put a headstone on his grave but her! In fact, she was the one who had the authority to say yes or no, at that late date, ten years after Morton’s death, she was the one who paid for the burial and was listed as his wife. She was supposedly married to Jack Ford but she eventually put the headstone on Morton’s grave. Interestingly enough, Jelly’s headstone, although modest, is still a cut above Anita’s. Her headstone is about the same size but very very plain.
Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West
More about Phil Pastras
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
PP Probably the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and those guys. They were big heroes of mine, and when the Dodgers left to go to LA, they broke my heart.
JJM Since you live in LA now, are you a Dodger fan now?
PP Well, sort of. I am still a big baseball fan, but I think that experience cured me of being overly loyal to any one team. As far as music is concerned, my first heroes were Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
JJM Are you a musician yourself?
PP Yes, I am a pianist and I sing. Some years back, when I reread the Alan Lomax book on Jelly Roll Morton, I was intrigued by the whole interview and the recording. Consequently, I put together a performance piece in which I sit at the piano and act Jelly Roll Morton’s interviews I used Lomax’s version of the interviews as a script and play some of the music and sing some of the song. At one point, I developed it into a performance piece that lasted about an hour. I still know enough of it to do about half an hour of it.
JJM If you could have witnessed any great event in the history of jazz, what would it be?
PP To be quite honest, I could not have grown up at a better time and a better place than I did, as a youngster in New Jersey and New York area in the 50’s and 60’s. I started going into New York to hang around jazz clubs in 1954, when I was 13 years old. New York was just a wonderful collection of jazz styles. All of the jazz styles that ever existed were flourishing at the time. I was able to witness some of the great New Orleans musicians, many of whom had played with Jelly Roll Morton, like Zutty Singleton. I saw swing era people like Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge. I saw the beboppers, who then were approaching middle age, and then the young lions, like Wayne Shorter and folks who were part of the next wave. It was like a banquet spread out before me. I couldn’t have asked for a better time and place for a jazz lover, at my age, at that particular time in my life. You could not find anyplace like that today.
JJM Many of the people I ask this question of wish they could have participated in this scene you describe. The events that come up a lot is Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot, and also Monk and Coltrane at the Five Spot. Were you able to see either of those?
PP I didn’t see the Ornette Coleman group, unfortunately, but I did see Monk and Coltrane and Miles’s quartet at its early stages. I saw a lot Mingus, and was blessed to be able to see him with Eric Dolphy at a place in the Village called the Showcase. I was able to see the whole spectrum from traditional New Orleans to the most avant-garde stuff.
This interview took place on January 7, 2002
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Lester Young biographer Douglas Daniels.