Once described as a “Creole of color” because his ancestry was both African and French-American, Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe Morton was born in New Orleans on September 20, 1885. This talented pianist and composer, better known as “Jelly Roll” Morton, grew up surrounded by music. He frequently attended performances at the New Orleans French Opera House and eventually learned to play several musical instruments. By the time he was 15, Morton was a successful pianist who performed at local bordellos in Storyville — New Orleans’ famed red-light district. In 1907, after having developed his own renditions of ragtime and blues, the young man set out on a musical odyssey of America. Visiting New York, Tulsa, Chicago and San Francisco, Morton was introduced to a variety of regional styles of jazz. He made his first recording in 1923, and from 1926 to 1930, with his band, Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, he built his reputation by producing some of the best Dixieland jazz ever recorded. Among his most enduring compositions are King Porter Stomp and Jelly Roll Blues. In 1938, Morton recorded a special musical anthology for the Library of Congress peppered with anecdotes from his lengthy career. Although he died in 1941, Morton will forever be remembered as “the first great formalist in jazz.” His ability to successfully produce pre-arranged and semi-orchestrated effects in a style of music that is historically improvisational is a testament to this artist’s extraordinary talent.
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