How Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong Composed, Improvised, and Renovated Early Jazz Music
This blog post covers three jazz musicians from New Orleans who were operating at the beginning of jazz history: Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong.
Although there were many similarities between the three, they were each a different kind of jazz musician:
- Morton was a pianist/singer who composed jazz music.
- Bechet was a clarinetist/saxophonist who improvised jazz music.
- Armstrong was a trumpeter/singer who renovated jazz music.
They also differed in their abilities to read and write music: Morton was literate, Armstrong was semi-literate, and Bechet was completely illiterate. (Note: I’m talking about reading and writing, not playing. Armstrong could arguably play music better than both.)
They were alike in at least one way, though: While most New Orleans musician played rags, popular songs, and waltzes, Morton, Bechet, and Armstrong played “hot music” that was unmistakably jazz.
The rest of this blog post inspects some details about each man’s life and summarizes their contribution to jazz.
Jelly Roll Morton
I have been robbed of three million dollars all told. Everyone today is playing my stuff and I don’t even get credit. Kansas City style, Chicago style, New Orleans style hell, they’re all Jelly Roll style.
-Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) is considered the first jazz composer of any consequence. He was one of the first jazz musicians to write down his music, and his compositions were the first to fully exploit the New Orleans sound (Norton/Grove 537).
Morton significantly improved the jazz style by suffusing his music with proper chord progressions, voice leading, and arrangement. Morton’s instrumental parts were superb because they exploited all the existing tricks of the style: gruff timbres, syncopated rhythms, stop time, improvisation, blues, etc.
In the realm of early jazz arrangements, Jelly Roll Morton was peerless.
He began playing piano in the brothels and saloons of Storyville as a teenager. Morton described the area to archivist Alan Lomax in a 1939 interview as follows:
Music was pouring into the streets from every house. Women were standing in the doorway, singing or chanting some kind of blues—some very happy, some very sad, some with the desire to end it all by poison, some planning a big outing, a dance, or some other kind of enjoyment (Collier 97).
His grandmother kicked him out of the house for his new job in Storyville. Her opinion was that “a musician was nothing but a bum and a scalawag” (Collier 99).
Morton moved around extensively and became a con man, an opportunist, and a pimp that, incidentally, also worked as a pianist.
Music eventually won out, and Morton settled in Chicago about 1923. There he gained an audience for his jazz music, began publishing his compositions, and started making records.
Morton’s output was primarily comprised of piano solos, band arrangements, and vocal accompaniments. His recording outfit was known as Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers (Collier 99).
Some of Morton’s songs were published as print music, recorded as piano solos, and recorded as band arrangements. Such was the case for the song “Original Jelly Roll Blues”. He published the song in 1917, recorded a piano version in 1924, and recorded a band arrangement in 1926. (“Jelly Roll Blues” para 1).
Morton had a contract with Victor Records and became rich and successful, but contract disputes, a stylistic shift away from New Orleans jazz, and the Great Depression destroyed his career.
He died two years after sustaining knife wounds to the chest in a 1938 dispute with a club owner’s friend in Washington D.C. He moved to Los Angeles in hopes the weather there would improve his health. But he never recovered from the knife attack, and he died in July of 1941. By then he was poor and largely forgotten (“Jelly Roll Morton” para 17-22).
Morton had an incisive and self-centered quality about him and would often brag about how he had invented this or how he had been the first to do that.
Despite this megalomaniacal attitude, Morton was reported to have been a kind and decent man who made a habit of sending money home to his two sisters all through his working life (Collier 96).
Despite his kindness, Morton selfishly claimed he’d invented “jazz and stomps” and said that cornetist Buddy Bolden had only been playing ragtime.
Morton had not invented jazz, but he did make substantial contributions to the style’s development. He is, therefore, one of the most influential figures in early jazz history (Collier 95; “Jelly Roll Morton” para 20).
There were so many fine musicianers around New Orleans then, so much a man could learn from, but I was getting restless.
Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) was born in New Orleans to a musical family. He learned the Clarinet as a preteen by ear, and he started playing soprano saxophone when he was in his early twenties. Bechet is regarded as the first truly great improviser in jazz history (Giddins and DeVeaux 106-107).
Bechet is unusual in that he spent much of his career touring Europe. He is, therefore, one of the primary reasons why jazz became an international phenomenon in the 1920s.
Bechet steadfastly pursued performance opportunities around town, and by fifteen he was playing with the most audacious “hot music” band around—Willie “Bunk” Johnson’s Eagle Orchestra (Ward and Burns 31-32).
By the time he was twenty, Bechet had procured an opportunity to perform in Europe as part of Clarence Williams’ Blue Five (Collier 81).
A Swedish conductor named Ernest Ansermet commenting on a performance from this tour wrote that “Bechet was the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet” (Walser 7).
Bechet was Creole; thus, he was not connected to the blues the same way African-Americans were. Nevertheless, Bechet understood and communicated the blues perfectly.
When Bechet returned from the tour of Europe, he was immediately hired by a young Duke Ellington. However, Bechet did not last long with Ellington because Bechet thought of himself as an independent agent and not as a member of a band (Giddins DeVeaux 108).
In addition to his fierce independence, Bechet also had a tempestuous attitude that would get him into trouble from time to time. Bechet got arrested in Paris when he injured a woman during a shootout. The dispute was with a musician who claimed Bechet played the wrong chords. He went to jail for eleven months for this imbroglio and was deported back to New York City upon his release in 1929 (“Sidney Bechet” para 11).
Because he spent so much time in Europe throughout his career, Bechet is somewhat underrepresented on record. He did, nevertheless, make some outstanding jazz recordings in the early 1920’s. One of his best is a remarkable track cut with Louis Armstrong in 1924 called “Cake Walkin’ Babies” (Giddins Deveaux 109).
Bechet had a lengthy career and was still making records and giving performances in the 1950s. He died of lung cancer on his sixty-second birthday in 1959 (“Sidney Bechet” para 12).
Man, if you gotta ask you’ll never know.
-Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) was the most consequential figure in all jazz history. Although he is the youngest musician to be considered here, he managed to exert a massive influence on Morton and Bechet. Along with countless other veteran musicians, Morton and Bechet had to adjust their playing to match his—just like every other jazz musician. They had to change; it was the only way to maintain relevance. Morton was less successful at changing than Bechet, and, consequently, had a less lucrative career than Bechet. Neither musician had anything like Armstrong’s success.
According to Jazz historians, Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux, Armstrong’s massive influence on jazz can be summarized into five categories: (1) blues, (2) improvisation, (3) singing, (4) repertoire, and (5) rhythm.
- Armstrong codified the sound of the blues by infusing his solos with blues scales, blue notes, and other blues conventions.
- Improvisation became ascendant under Armstrong’s stewardship because he imbued everything he produced with extemporaneous playing and because his command of that form of expression was unprecedented.
- Armstrong influenced generations of singers by being the first to record scat singing, which is a technique that employs nonsense syllables and partial words to carry a tune.
- Jazz repertoire was hugely influenced by the types of songs Armstrong chose to play, which included all styles and genres. His song selection included everything from Tin Pan Alley to traditional folk.
- Armstrong introduced jazz rhythms into American culture through the vehicle of the pop song. One way to put it is he taught the country to swing (Giddins and DeVeaux 146-147).
These five attributes are on display in Armstrong’s audio recordings made between 1925 and 1929 by Okeh Records in Chicago.
There were sixty-five tracks made for Okeh, and they all feature small ensembles centered on Armstrong. These pickup groups, which were composed of studio musicians and friends, were called The Hot Five or The Hot Seven depending on how many musicians were in the studio for the session.
The original Hot Five of late 1925 featured Armstrong on trumpet and vocals, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Kid Ory on Trombone, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, and Armstrong’s wife, Lil Armstrong, on piano (Giddins 94).
The Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings changed jazz history because they forcefully introduced Armstrong’s revisionist attitude towards jazz. Here’s how Gary Giddens puts the power of the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings in his 1998 book Visions of Jazz: the First Century:
In the relative privacy of Chicago’s Okey studio, Armstrong directed a measured yet rapid assault on jazz practices, supplanting group embellishment with solo improvisation, two- and four-bar breaks with entire ad-lib choruses, and the multiple refrains of ragtime with theme and variations patterned on the blues and songs (94).
The first confirmed-by-the-critics masterpiece in the jazz tradition is Armstrong’s 1928 recording of “West End Blues.”
This recording features all the contributions made by Armstrong to jazz music: he scats, he swings, he plays the blues, he’s the focus instead of the song, and he improvises. The melodic figure he improvises at the top of “West End Blues” embarrasses the ordinary human imagination for melody. Here is Giddins commenting on this musical figure: “West End Blues” begins with a clarion call-to-arms–a bewitching, fantastical, rhythmically headlong cadenza…” (98).
Armstrong was supremely successful throughout his career, and he made a full transition from jazz musician to pop star. The music Armstrong played towards the end of his career was less brilliant—and much less consequential to jazz—than the music he played near the beginning. But Armstrong’s early efforts produced the finest music that exists in the entire tradition.
A few things should be clear when thinking about New Orleans jazz and the three men discussed in this blog post:
- New Orleans jazz is sometimes called Dixieland.
- Jelly Roll Morton codified the jazz style by writing it down.
- Sidney Bechet spread jazz to an international audience by performing in Europe.
- Louis Armstrong reconfigured jazz by focusing his music on improvisation and solos instead of ensembles and songs.
- Morton and Bechet were megalomaniacs who were in love with themselves; Armstrong knew he was good but was generally humble.
- The chronology of important New Orleans jazzmen goes like this: (1) Buddy Bolden, (2) Jelly Roll Morton, (3) Joe “King” Oliver, (4) Sidney Bechet, and (5) Louis Armstrong.
Bartlett, John, and Justin Editor. Kaplan. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Toronto: Little, Brown, 1992.
“Jelly Roll Blues” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 July. 2016.
“Jelly Roll Morton” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 July. 2016.
“Jelly Roll Morton Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore, 2001-2016. Web. 15 July 2016.
Collier, J.L. The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978.
Walser, Robert. Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
Giddins, Gary. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
Giddins, Gary, and Scott Knowles. DeVeaux. Jazz. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
“Sidney Bechet” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 16 July. 2016.
Ward, G.C. and Burns, K. Jazz: A History of America’s Music. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.