Jelly Roll Morton

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Jelly Roll Morton
belongs to a coven that makes satanic music
which are lullabies to the Baby Satan

Jelly Roll in some gin joint playin' the same song again and again...

Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton was a jazz piano player born in 1800-something in New Orleans[1]

As a young lad he was able to pull himself up out of his ghetto lifestyle and get work as a professional piano player, but was unable to keep himself up by his bootstraps and died destitute in Los Angeles on July 16, 1941.

The free market triumphs again!

Like New Orleans, this page is UNDER CONSTRUCTION.
And also, like New Orleans, may always be under construction.
Thank you for your patience, and children.



Jelly and His Grit White Cornpones

  • Anita Gonzales (with whom he had an affair) claimed to be his wife (despite being married to a member of the "Ford" auto making family) and got away with an inheritance after writing a fake will
  • his first publishing partner, Walter Melrose, stole from him while he was alive
  • his second publishing partner, Roy Carew, stole from him only after he died

Magical NegronessEdit

Morton was a fast-talking, sharp-dressing hustler whose career as musician was counterbalanced by his years as pimp, card shark and finagler. Generally, jazz histories depict Morton as an unsavory New Orleans character whose sublime music made a grating personality almost bearable. (The Terrell Owens of jazz, if you will.)

Morton was part genius and part sinner, the noble savage with an unfathomable talent and unenviable flaws.[1]

Few Americans considered him a black friend, but liked his money nonetheless.



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How Melrose Screwed HimEdit

The recording IndustryEdit


  • recording industry not like it is today
    • composers released sheet music instead of recordings
      • pianos were common in most American homes
    • lots of (what in modern terms would be called) touring
    • little actual recording/releasing of singles/albums
      • recording that did exist was not national, sometimes not even state-wide (regional at best)
  • introduction of phonographs (and players) changed everything
  • so did radio (and receivers)


  • sheet music
    • publisher
    • composers
    • lyricist
  • live performances
    • musicians
    • manager/club/booking agent, etc
  • recording
    • publisher (record company)
    • distributor
    • performers
    • creators


  • services rendered
  • return on investment
  • never (or, later on deferred with residuals)
  • Though Morton was a walking encyclopedia of jazz tunes, he never sold them as sheet music because — like most of the old-time piano professors — he was terrified of publication.

By the 1910s and '20s, however, sheet music was becoming the hot commodity in America. Upwardly mobile families aspired to have a piano in the living room or parlor, and sheet music was an essential accessory, with popular ditties selling millions of copies.[2]


  • Jelly Roll Morton was the victim of the first great swindle in American recorded music.[3]
  • the very organization that collected performance royalties for Morton's popular music denied him his money[4]
  • As Morton's publisher, Melrose had the responsibility of filing copyrights, and took advantage of it by claiming collaborator on works of music he had no hand in creating. In this way, he could receive both publisher and composer royalties for sales of sheet music and recordings. The practice of attaching lyrics to already completed musical works was not unheard of among 1920s music publishers, who operated in a virtually unregulated business.[5]

Documents in the Library of Congress reveal that after Melrose properly submitted copyright claims on four of Morton's biggest tunes -- correctly listing Morton as composer and Melrose as publisher. However, Melrose also listed himself as lyricist on at least four Morton songs:

  • "Milenberg Joys"
  • "Sidewalk Blues"
  • "Sweetheart O' Mine"
  • and "Dixie Knows"
  • Morton's disapproval of Melrose's additions to his work were explicit in a June 10, 1940 letter addressed to Assistant Atty. Gen. Thurmond W. Arnold of the Justice Department's antitrust division:
"Walter Melrose, never wrote a hit in his life. Melrose is my publisher, he (Melrose) inserted words to some of my hit tunes without my knowledge or permission & is receiving (royalties)."

To this day, Melrose's lyrics to Morton's tunes remain invisible. Yet Melrose's strategy enabled him to collect twice on the same Morton composition, a total of 75 percent of royalties -- whether or not lyrics are used in any recording or performance.[6]


With Morton's sound in great demand, money flowed in from live performances, recording dates (for Gennett and then Victor) and sheet music sales.[7]

On the road across the Midwest in the '20s, Morton and His Red Hot Peppers (a changing lineup of half a dozen musicians) averaged a then-staggering $1,500 a night. The band traveled in high style in the Morton tour bus, the leader in his own roomy Lincoln.

Morton.. .gilded himself with diamonds literally from head to toe. They glimmered on his fingers, tie-pin, watch, belt buckle, sock supporters and even on a front tooth, the unlikely setting for a half-carat rock.[8]

Mabel Bertrand, a stage dancer, he met at the Plantation Cafe, on East 35th Street, on The Stroll.

she grew up in New Orleans, a physician's daughter who as a teenager worked her way across Europe in a song-and-dance duo.

Within a year of their meeting, the two were living together. Their courtship flowered as the music industry was maturing and its corporate presence in New York was expanding. Increasingly, Chicago's big musicians were heading to Manhattan, where Duke Ellington was making a name for himself at the Cotton Club, and where Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Sidney Bechet and others would head before the decade was over.[9]

Fading StarEdit

  • from the instant Morton arrived in New York he saw the value of his name plummet faster than the stock market would a year later. Ellington, Calloway, Fletcher Henderson and other young jazz bandleaders -- whom Morton rightly regarded as beneficiaries of his ideas and innovations -- had the town sewn up. The only job Morton could get in Manhattan was leading the house band at the Rose Danceland, at 125th Street and 7th Avenue, where women dirty-danced with paying customers, 10 cents a turn.

In 1930, RCA bought Victor Records and promptly canceled its contract with Morton. Rejection notices began piling up in his mailbox in the following years.

"Dear Mr. Martan," began one note from an Omaha booking agency, insulting him from the outset by mangling his name. And Gennett, the minuscule label in Richmond, Ind., that was the first to record Morton, in 1923, wasted few words: "We doubt . . . if your plan would be of interest to us."[10]


  • His lack of cash was forcing Morton to think seriously about his chaotic business affairs, something he hadn't done when he was flush, in Chicago in the '20s. He knew that Depression-era America was dancing to his tunes. Someone was getting rich off them, and it wasn't him.

This knowledge ate at Morton, the rediscovered letters show. Increasingly, he became obsessed with the money and acclaim that were owed him. From his fourth floor room on West 45th St., a climb of 67 steps, Morton began pouring his rage into letters demanding his money.

The avalanche of correspondence -- to Walter Melrose, his publisher in Chicago, to government agencies and to anyone else he could think of -- would get the composer nowhere.

Jelly Roll Morton practically invented jazz, and he could lay claim to being jazz's first composer. But he also was well on his way to being jazz's first victim. A historical investigation by the Tribune, which examined Morton's letters, his scrapbook and public records across the country, provides new details of how he was betrayed by the music industry he helped create, by the Chicago publisher who helped spread his music to the world and by many of the people closest to him. It also reveals how low Morton sank in life and how high he ascended in his music.

Morton's letters from the late 1930s show he was beginning to understand that the rules of the game had changed radically when he wasn't paying attention. Music was a big business, with money flowing directly to recording behemoths such as RCA Victor and Columbia, to radio networks such as CBS and NBC and to a rising monolith called ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). That organization was collecting fees for use of music on radio, stage and film, then passing the money along to songwriters who were ASCAP members. Now Morton wanted his cut.[11]

  • Morton wasn't only writing music. He was waging a quixotic letter-writing campaign against the music business in America.

He fired the first shots when he was still in Washington, in 1938, arguing in letters to the U.S. Supreme Court that Walter Melrose was not paying him royalties on the hits Morton published in Chicago in the '20s -- songs that still were part of collections published by Melrose in the '30s.

Throughout the 1930s, Morton hardly could turn on the radio without hearing this music broadcast to millions. But the music was transformed in new arrangements. The old-fashioned wailing of several instruments at once was streamlined into a simpler sound, with all the musicians locked into a single, sleek melody and a chugging dance rhythm.

In 1935, for instance, Benny Goodman was on the top of the pop charts for a month with his recording of Morton's "King Porter Stomp," arranged by Fletcher Henderson (who also had a hit record with the tune in 1933). The biggest pop stars of the '30s, from trombonist-bandleader Tommy Dorsey to vibist Lionel Hampton, released new versions of Morton's classics, while every swing band worthy of the name worked up its own orchestration of "King Porter Stomp."

"Everyone today is playing my stuff, and I don't even get credit," he complained in a Down Beat article published Oct. 1, 1940. "All this jazz I hear today is my own stuff and if I had been paid rightfully for my works I would now have 3 million dollars more than I have now."

The music world howled at such claims. Who was going to believe Morton's broadsides against a famous publisher such as Melrose Brothers Music Co. or an important organization such as ASCAP?[12]

  • Melrose could make money on Morton's tunes in several ways throughout the 1930s.

For starters, when artists such as Goodman and Dorsey recorded "King Porter Stomp" and other Morton classics, their record labels would have paid royalties to Melrose, who held the publishing copyright. The sheet music anthologies of Morton's compositions that Melrose published in the '30s generated additional revenue.

Still, Morton's music was less lucrative for Melrose than a decade before.

The economic collapse of the Depression years and the emergence of radio broadcasting and sound in movies devastated the sheet music business and cut deeply into record sales. A hit song that might have sold millions of copies of sheet music in the 1910s and '20s could be expected to sell around 100,000 by the '30s; a hit record in the mid-1930s might sell in the low hundreds of thousands of copies, at best.

When Melrose finally decided to send Morton money, the amount enraged the composer.

"He had the nerve to send me a check ... for $87 for nearly 10 years," Morton fumed to Carew in a letter of Feb. 7, 1939...

  • "The statement covered 5 years and 3 months, Feb. 1, 1933, to April 30, 1938," wrote Carew, "and amounted to $86.94 on 20 numbers -- an average of less than 83(copyright) per tune per year."

Nevertheless, with that check, Melrose wrote Morton out of his life.


  • Though white artists typically made contracts directly with record companies and were paid by them, Morton was not so fortunate. Morton's recording dates with his Red Hot Peppers starting in 1926 were arranged between Melrose Brothers Music of Chicago and the Victor Talking Machine Company, according to an RCA official who examined the contract. Signed on Dec. 1, 1926, the contract provides for all funds to be paid to Melrose, none to Morton. The contract is signed by Walter Melrose, not Morton.[14]
  • So far as Walter Melrose may have been concerned, then, Morton never had a claim on artist royalties for his recordings. Still, Morton would have been entitled to composer royalties on recordings of his songs.

Once Edwin H. Morris took over the Melrose copyrights, these payments to Morton began to become regular, with $60 arriving as early as February of 1940. But by this date, Morton's music was not generating anything like the profits of old.[15]


(American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers)

  • ASCAP was created in 1914 by a group of mostly white songwriters, including Victor Herbert and John Philip Sousa, to protect their copyrights. They cited rampant use of their music in restaurants, cabarets and other venues that paid no royalties to songwriters. Because a 1909 U.S. copyright law set damages for the unauthorized use of a composer's work, the composers joined forces to demand payment under the law.

The rise of radio broadcasting in the 1930s led ASCAP to seek money from stations that used the music of ASCAP members. By 1935 ASCAP was receiving 5 percent of radio stations' commercial income each year.

This was distributed to members of ASCAP, but a composer couldn't collect if he didn't belong, and ASCAP's exclusionary policies kept out many worthy applicants. By limiting membership, the organization ensured that those already in ASCAP got a bigger cut of radio revenues.[16]

Joining ASCAPEdit

  • "My first knowledge of (ASCAP) was in the year 1925, whilst playing a date at Spring Valley, Ill. A man walked up to me and 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 and spoke ill of (ASCAP)."

By 1934, the composer did apply, according to an ASCAP rejection notice dated Oct. 25, 1934, and contained in the Morton scrapbook: "Please be advised that all applications must be proposed and seconded by members of this Society."

Only the select few with friends in ASCAP were likely to gain admission. According to historical accounts, of the nearly 200 charter members of ASCAP, only two were black: classical baritone Harry T. Burleigh and classical composer James Weldon Johnson. By 1926, ASCAP had accepted only a few additional black members. Louis Armstrong, the biggest jazz soloist of the '20s and '30s, was not admitted until 1939.[17]

  • he sent in a new application in February 1939, he was not admitted until December. Worse, ASCAP did not pay composers based on frequency of use of their music; instead, the organization classified composers according to the "prestige" of their music, among other subjective standards, determining royalty payments on these classifications.

Just before Christmas of '39, Morton learned he was relegated to the category 3, the lowest designation. "So far as me depending on ASCAP! I will have to forget about them from the class that I'm placed," Morton wrote to Carew. "This class give(s) you $120 a year. ... I believe they ought to be ashamed of their selves."

If Morton had been placed in the top classification, he would have received the same amount from ASCAP as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the estate of George Gershwin did: an average of $15,254.90, according to sworn testimony in 1949 from lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II in a federal case relating to ASCAP.

In July 1940 Morton collected a $100 check from ASCAP, and in August he was promoted to category 2, meaning he would receive $185, the highest amount ASCAP paid him in his lifetime.[18]

After His DeathEdit

  • A priest unknown to Morton said a requiem mass, and the sanctuary, which could hold several hundred, looked almost empty. Morton's emaciated body--a gaping hole in the tooth where a half-carat diamond used to gleam--at least was spared the scrutiny of onlookers by a closed casket.

Near the coffin, an enormous floral display in the shape of a lyre served as the sole reminder that a music man had died. It arrived from Local 767, Los Angeles' black musicians union, which Morton joined as soon as he arrived in California, evidently still plotting a comeback. On the day he died, July 10, his dues were paid in full.[19]

  • When Morton left this earth, he wasn't worth much more than when he arrived. In fact, he owed $35 on a rented piano and $295 on his Cadillac. Apart from the car, a black sedan with maroon leather seats, Morton owned $100 worth of clothing and 51 Victor records.

At his death, Morton owed Los Angeles County General Hospital $48.69 for his 11-day struggle there.[20]

  • The tax assessor, called in to evaluate his estate, decided the copyrights on Morton's life's work--the seminal compositions that made jazz into an art form and gave America its first codified music--were worth $7,500, not a penny more.[21]

Today, composers are paid by ASCAP according to the use of their material, and songwriters typically self-publish or co-publish their work so they can benefit financially from it.

By the end of the century, which began with Morton playing such brash new works as "New Orleans Blues" and "King Porter Stomp," his music would make millions. In the last 12 years alone, it has been used copiously in movies ("The Babe," "Wild Man Blues," "A Great Day in Harlem," "The Newton Boys"), on TV ("Saturday Night Live," "The Tonight Show," "Austin City Limits," Ken Burns' "Baseball"), on the theatrical stage (August Wilson's "Seven Guitars") and in concert (at Lincoln Center in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and Symphony Center in Chicago).

Since his death, Morton's music has earned $1.1 million for his estate and more than $2 million for his publishers, the money coming from ASCAP and publishing royalties.[22]

External LinksEdit


  1. The actual year of Mr. Morton's birth has been obscured due to him not knowing who his father was.

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