Great Encounters #19: Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong in Chicago, 1926

July 29th, 2005


Great Encounters

Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons




Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong in Chicago, 1926



Excerpted from

Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton


by Howard Reich and William Gaines


     For a kid who had been kicked out of his family’s house, Morton had reached a zenith in his life and his art. He crushed anyone who doubted his preeminence; he carried a roll of two thousand dollars or more in his pocket; and, most important, his tunes — the work of years plying the brothels of New Orleans and hoboeing about the Gulf Coast — helped form the sonic backdrop for life in big-city U.S.A. “King Porter Stomp” a number he had labored over from 1902 to 1905, now was being recorded from coast to coast. Fletcher Henderson and his orchestra cut a version for Vocalion in New York, as did Johnny Sylvester and his orchestra for Pathe Actuelle, Lanin’s Red Heads for Columbia, and the Tennessee Tooters for Vocalion. Out in St. Louis, trumpeter Charlie Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs put out a “King Porter Stomp” for Okeh.

Meanwhile, Morton’s “Milenberg Joys” was generating almost as much heat, with New York relishing newly minted versions by Ted Lewis and his band on Columbia, the Tennessee Tooters on Vocalion, the Seven Missing Links on Pathe Actuelle/Banner, the Cotton Pickers on Brunswick, Bob Fuller on Banner, Busse’s Buzzards on Victor, the Varsity Eight on Cameo, and so on. In Chicago, Boyd Senter waxed “Milenberg Joys” for Pathe/Actuelle, Joseph Gish and his orchestra for New Flexo, and Jimmy O’Bryant’s Famous Original Washboard Band for Paramount. As far away as Los Angeles, Carlyle Stevenson’s El Patio Orchestra recorded “Milenberg Joys” for Sunset. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Middlesex, England, Jack Hylton’s Kit-Cat Band immortalized the piece for His Master’s Voice.

With his health restored, Morton was ready to send Frances back home to New Orleans. On her last day in town, he drove to the house where she was staying, stepped inside, and waited for her at the spinet piano in the living room. As Frances walked down the stairs, she heard Morton serenading her with an Irving Berlin hit, “Always.” “I’ll be loving you, always,” he sang, as Frances’s eyes became moist. “Not for a year, but always.”

Morton drove Frances to the train station and bid her farewell, not imagining that they never would see each other again. He simply resumed his touring life with vigor, fanning out across the Midwest and into the South, leading a variety of bands, rarely alighting in one place for very long. But one stop — Spring Valley, Illinois — stood out from the blur of the rest, thanks to a piece of information that happened to come Morton’s way. Playing a couple hundred miles outside Chicago, Morton heard for the first time about ASCAP — the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers — a New York-based organization that collected broadcast and performance royalties from radio stations and theaters and distributed the proceeds among its members. Formed in 1909, the organization was becoming increasingly important to composers, who had previously had no way to benefit financially from the broadcast of their music over the airwaves and the performance of their tunes in auditoriums and saloons across the country. ASCAP changed that, negotiating with broadcasters, theater owners, and the like for a percentage of their gross profits, then divvying up the money among the ASCAP members.

There was one catch — you had to be an ASCAP member to get your cut.

“My first knowledge of ASCAP was in the year of 1925, whilst playing a date at Spring Valley, Ill.,” Morton recalled. “A man walked up to me & ask me to join ASCAP. I agreed that I would but would speak to my publisher on it, Walter Melrose, which I did. He enticed me not to bother with it, & spoke ill of ASCAP. I knew Melrose was my publisher and did not want to offend him, so I passed it by.”

Morton did not know, however, that Melrose himself was preparing to join ASCAP and soon would start collecting royalties from the organization. Nor did Morton foresee at this early date that radio would pervade America, providing music for free to the public and handing over millions in advertising revenue to ASCAP, which in turn distributed the largesse among its members.

For the moment, Morton was in the money and didn’t want to offend his publisher, partner, and friend, Walter Melrose, so the composer took what he believed was the tactful course and made no application to ASCAP.  Even if he had, he quite likely would not have been admitted, for jazz and blues men as yet had no place in ASCAP.  Morton quickly put the ASCAP matter out of his mind, savoring instead the cash already rolling in from a relentless schedule of performances in Chicago and on the road.  With Melrose eagerly hawking Morton’s newest tunes, venues across the Midwest looking to book him, and musicians black, white, and Creole standing in awe of his pianism and his hit-making prowess, Morton had ascended to the pinnacle of the music business.

Not that he had Chicago entirely sewn up, for no single artist really dominated in a city as vast, populous, and hot as Chicago was becoming. In fact, by 1926, a younger man from New Orleans was coming up from behind, threatening to take a measure of the spotlight from the eminence grise of hot piano. Most everyone called the twenty-five-year-old cornetist Satchmo — a shortened version of his New Orleans nickname “Satchelmouth,” for the huge expanse of his smile. He had begun playing as a Chicago sideman in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in March 1922, even then announcing himself as an original in American music. The rounded, golden tone that young Louis Armstrong produced on “Chimes Blues,” his first recorded solo, the talking-horns duets he played with Oliver on “Snake Rag,” and the phenomenal technique he showed on “Tears” in 1923 heralded the arrival of the first great improvising soloist in jazz, as he soon would be known. Here was a New Orleans cornetist whose sound, style, phrasing, and stratospheric high notes were so indelibly fresh as to redirect a still fledgling art form, jazz, into a music for and about the soloist — or at least to begin that process.

The sheer size of Armstrong’s sound and the combustibility of his attacks practically blew out the microphones at the same Gennett studios where Morton had been recording. “When they recorded Louis,” remembered pianist Hodes, one of the young white Chicagoans who studied at the feet of the black and Creole masters, “they had to put the mike five feet away from him so he wouldn’t blow it out of business.”

Though Armstrong had married the college-educated Chicago pianist Lil Hardin in 1924 and then — on her advice — had moved to Manhattan in the fall to join Fletcher Henderson and his orchestra, the New Yorkers proved too rigid in rhythm and sloppy in delivery to hold the interest of the ascending Satchmo. Worse, Henderson berated Armstrong, telling him, “You’d be very good if you’d go take some lessons.” So Armstrong left New York after fourteen months that yielded at least a few important recordings (collaborating with piano player Clarence Williams’s Blue Five) and arrived in Chicago as the star he was born to be. Outside the Dreamland Café, at Thirty-fifth and State, Armstrong’s wife had placed an enormous sign announcing the Second Coming of “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player,” a reference not to the once unrivaled Oliver but now to his unstoppable protégé, Armstrong.

“I first heard Louis just when he came back to Chicago from New York, and I swear I hadn’t heard anything like that music,” recalled trumpeter Doc Cheatham, newly arrived in the city from Tennessee. “Actually, it was his wife, Lillian, who had advised him to come back to Chicago. And when he came back, I never have seen so much publicity in all my life. Trucks and loudspeakers announcing ‘Armstrong this’ and ‘Armstrong that.’ When he went to play at the Vendome Theater,” the vaudeville palace at Thirty-second and State, where Erskine Tate’s Vendome Theater Symphony Orchestra had been ensconced since 1919, “you couldn’t even get standing room in the place when Armstrong was there.”

Armstrong went into the studio in Chicago for Okeh to record the first of his Hot Five sessions in 1925, not considering himself the leader of the band or presuming that he was redefining the sound of American music. But when the first of the recordings reached the streets, early in 1926, Chicago devoured them, never having heard such soloistic brilliance captured on record. The extraordinary ripeness of Armstrong’s tone in “Gut Bucket Blues,” the haunting, minor-key solo flights in “King of the Zulus,” and the exuberant singing on “Heebie Jeebies” — the first record to document the nonsensical syllables and made-up words that eventually were termed “scat” — inexorably changed the course of jazz. It was as if some unprecedented force had been unleashed through the man’s horn, through his instantly identifiable, gravelly voice, and through his ability to shape solos that sounded at once spontaneous and inevitable.

Not surprisingly, Armstrong’s sidemen — New Orleans pros such as trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, and banjo player Johnny St. Cyr — were overshadowed by Satcho in the Hot Five sessions. With these recordings, the fundamental assumptions of the still emerging art of jazz already were beginning to shift. For if the music in its New Orleans beginnings had been built on the premise of several instruments playing at once, a noisy democracy in which everyone had his say, Armstrong radically altered the equation, putting his brilliant horn forever out front. With these recordings, jazz started to become an arena for incendiary solo improvisation, all of it to some degree or another owing to Armstrong’s model. The piercing sound of Armstrong’s horn — bold, brilliant, and spilling over with the spirit of the blues — cried out above the din of music and life on the South Side of Chicago.

Not even the formidable Jelly Roll Morton, who had left New Orleans while Armstrong still was in knickers, could compete with this. Nor did he try. For all Morton’s eminence as a pianist, his bouncing left hand the marvel of piano players across the South Side, no one sitting at a keyboard could make a noise half as thrilling as Armstrong could simply by putting a brass mouthpiece to his lips.

Morton recognized Armstrong’s genius and embraced it. The two men — each in his own way forging the basic musical grammar by which jazz musicians communicated forevermore — immediately hit it off, shooting the breeze at the Melrose music store and encountering one another all along Thirty-fifth Street. Morton, for his part, regularly stopped by the apartment where Satchmo lived with his bride, at 421 East Forty-fourth Street, but Morton wasn’t lured there by the Armstrong’s hospitality alone. He also admired the smart new baby grand the trumpeter had bought his new wife, Lil Hardin, the same woman whom Morton had dazzled two years earlier, in 1924, when he had walked into the Jones Music Store and showed her what hot piano playing was all about. Now, with Hardin and Armstrong married, Morton still had a few more lessons to impart.

“We all went to Louis’ place and Jelly sat down at that piano and really gave us a serenade,” remembered drummer Zutty Singleton of a gathering in the Armstrong apartment.

But Morton did not merely play the piano — he traced the birth and evolution of jazz, as he had witnessed it, reminding Singleton and Armstrong of age-old tunes and obscure players and salty lyrics that they thought they had long forgotten. Taking nary a breath, Morton rhapsodized on the groundbreaking players, describing in detail the sound and style of Creole greats such as clarinetists Alphonse Picou and “Big Eye” Nelson and trumpeters Freddie Keppard and Manuel Perez, as well as black innovators such as trumpeters Buddy Bolden and Joe Oliver, trombonist Jim Robinson, and guitarist Bud Scott. Blessed with an uncanny memory for musical detail, Morton mimicked the keyboard style of all the self-taught, rough-hewn New Orleans virtuosos he had heard in the District, somehow bringing back to life the high-speed precision of Sammy Davis, the novelty piano of Albert Carroll, and the florid virtuosity of Tony Jackson.

And, of course, Morton talked about his own innovations, the facets of primordial jazz that he felt he had authored first.

“He played and played,” recalled Singleton, “and after each number he’d turn around on that stool and tell us how he wrote each number and where it came from. It was a real lecture, just for the benefit of me and Lil and Louis.”

In this impromptu session, and in countless others, the two most formidable forces in jazz — one a galvanic trumpeter and inspired improviser, the other a virtuoso pianist and innovative composer — met, like two wings of an art form that could not fully take flight without both. Each pointed the way for generations of musicians still unborn, but each was heading toward a different fate.

If Armstrong was the latest sensation in jazz, in effect the public face of a still youthful art form, Morton was its master planner, the man who put to paper the complex arrangements that made urban America dance. The virtuosity that Armstrong poured through his horn Morton drew from his pen, each musician codifying and art form through distinct means but with more long-lasting effects than either may have imagined.

Unable to match Armstrong’s draw in Chicago — to say nothing of the sheer decibel power of his trumpet — Morton could not claim the celebrity of Satchmo, who was emerging as a coast-to-coast icon unprecedented in American music. But Morton, in turn, was spared the popular and commercial strictures that Amrstrong’s success was starting to place upon him. Unencumbered by fans yearning to be thrilled by the popular tunes of the day or by the heaven-bound high notes that were making Armstrong America’s first pop star, Morton could go about composing, orchestrating, and recording an ensemble music more intricate, subtle, and sophisticated than mass tastes might have dictated. It was a sound predicated not on the unrivaled prowess and virtuosity of a single spectacular soloist but on the complex interaction of several members of a jazz band, each dispensing a music more composed than improvised, more strictly controlled by its leader and conceptualizer, Jelly Roll Morton, than anything bandleaders such as the youthful Duke Ellington or the master Sidney Bechet were yet producing.

Now, as the summer of 1926 was coming to a close, Morton finally was about to have his chance to record the intertwining instrumental riffs and meticulously developed horn themes that had been resonating within him for more than two decades. His piano playing, after all, was a kind of distillation of the ensemble music he had heard in New Orleans, though updated with new harmonies and innovative contrapuntal voicings. Now he was preparing to record this music as he had written it for ensemble. For, to Morton, New Orleans music wasn’t about one horn but about many, each entering and exiting the musical texture at his command, forming passing chords of his own making and blue-note dissonances richer than any soloist — even one as protean as Armstrong — could achieve alone. Morton’s concept was not better than Armstrong’s but different, more evocative of Morton’s musical autobiography and of the way jazz had emerged in the city of his birth, New Orleans.

Finally, given the chance to hire the best New Orleans musicians in Chicago, to gather them in the recording studio, and to pay them to render the notes precisely as written, Morton prepared to show the world an expansive vision of jazz. It was a music as fresh as the latest hit tunes but still rooted in the sounds of the societal rituals — the funerals and parades — of his New Orleans childhood.

Morton had been developing this concept for years, testing it with ten fingers on a piano but longing to hear it played by cornets and reeds and drums and piano and bass. This would be New Orleans music in all its polyphonic glory, and if he could pull it off — if he could get the famously headstrong New Orleans musicians all pulling in the same direction at once, a big “if,” to be sure — the world would hear modern jazz as Morton alone understood it.

This was to be an enormous undertaking, and not just artistically. A lone wolf if ever there was one, Morton until this point in life had put his faith almost entirely in himself, relying on his writing, his pianism, and his wits — as well as his occasional forays into card-sharking, pool hustling, and pimping — to stay solvent. But to record the music as he conceived it, he needed to convene the greatest New Orleans men working in Chicago and persuade them to pursue a single vision — his. They had to understand and articulate his tremendously detailed music yet dispatch it fluidly as if freely improvised.

Morton never had attempted anything so far-reaching, nor had anyone else. But Morton was about to take his shot.

Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton


by Howard Reich and William Gaines


     Excerpted from the book, ( All rights reserved.

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